Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

Both true crime enthusiasts and Victorian literature lovers alike will want to read Claire Harman’s Murder by the Book: The Crime that Shocked Dickens’s London (Knopf, 2019), which provides equal helpings of salacious criminals and well-known literary figures.

Centered around the murder of aged statesman Lord William Russell in May 1840, Harman traces the criminal investigation, trial, and execution which followed. She also provides an analysis of how the season’s most popular novel, William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard contributed to a rampant crime spree across the city, possibly even inspiring the murder of Lord William Russell.

On 6 May 1840 Londoners awoke to the news of a grisly murder perpetrated at a respectable Mayfair townhouse during the night. The victim, 72-year-old Lord William Russell, had been murdered in his sleep, his throat cut by unknown assailants who also burgled valuables from the home. Although considered to be a satellite member of a prominent aristocratic family over the course of his life, the murder of Lord William Russell sent shockwaves through all levels of British society. Even Queen Victoria ordered that she be kept up to date on the latest developments in the case and often recorded the most up to date news in her journal.

The discovery of the murdered Sir William Russell from a contemporary periodical

Alongside the story of Lord William Russell’s murder and the aftermath featuring a scintillating trial and subsequent execution which drew a crowd of 40,000 people, including the literary personages of Dickens, Thackeray, and others, Harman chronicles the emergence of a new form of popular literature: the crime novel, better known as the ‘Newgate Novel.’ In 1839 Charles Dickens began the serial publication of his well-known Oliver Twist, but it was William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, published serially over the same period that sparked a moral crusade against books that sensationalized crime. Ainsworth had found considerable success with an earlier work, Rookwood (1834) which featured the notorious English criminal Dick Turpin as a character, inspiring a new-found interest in historical thieves and ruffians in the minds of readers. However, with the publication of Jack Sheppard, which told the story of another eighteenth-century thief and prison escapee, Ainsworth’s book, or more likely the plethora of stage productions and chapbooks that immerged in the fall of 1839, inspired a wave of petty crime across London. Already heavily criticized in the press for the way Jack Sheppard sensationalized and almost celebrated a life of crime, attacks on Ainsworth and his work reached a fever pitch when it was revealed by Lord William Russell’s murderer that he had been inspired by the work to commit the awful deed. To have been dispatched while he slept by his own servant, the murder of Sir William Russell inspired panic and worry among the country’s elites who began to be concerned about their own servants and what violet crime Jack Sheppard would inspire next, perhaps in their own stately homes.

London’s infamous Newgate Prison – the silhouette of St. Paul’s Cathedral looms in the background. Photo from Flickr

An enriching aspect of Murder by the Book is Harman’s excellent use of the historical record, especially when it came to the personal views of many of the illustrious personages connected to, or who had an interest in, the crime. In one sense it was incredibly fascinating to hear the private thoughts of individuals, knowing that these words from journals and private correspondence would not been made public at the time, but by delving so thoroughly into the historical record, Harman demonstrates the myriad connections between members of literary, artistic, and aristocratic circles alike. Indeed, as Harman deftly weaves into her work, another crime which was possibly inspired by Jack Sheppard was the June 1840 assassination attempt of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by the young Edward Oxford, who was incarcerated at the same prison as Lord William Russell’s murderer and even attended the condemned man’s final church service in the prison chapel.

William Harrison Ainsworth – the author of Jack Sheppard. Portrait by Daniel Maclise

In a little over 200 pages Claire Harman has not only packed in an intriguing Victorian era murder case but incorporated and successfully contextualized the literary scene of the age and the subsequent moral debate which temporarily engulfed the careers of the some of the century’s greatest authors, including Ainsworth, Dickens, and Thackeray. People from all walks of life became obsessed with Jack Sheppard and his life of crime and became utterly hooked when the very real crime of Lord William Russell’s murder was committed. By combining the literary scandal of the ‘Newgate novel’ and the cold-blooded murder of a peer of the realm, Harman not only interlocks the two, but reveals the era’s morbid fascination with bloody crime, the judicial process, and the public execution, an event which guaranteed a crowd of thousands.

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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