Monday, 8 March 2010

Victorian Crime

There is a huge literature on this fascinating subject, from an analysis of statistical trends to the examination of individual cases, too much to detail here. What I will say is that crime, as we understand it today, might even be said to be the creation of the Victorian age. Literacy had created the demand for a popular press; and the press fed on the public's taste for crime, particularly in its more lurid forms.

Let's take one case where Victorian perceptions shaped, and continue to shape, how one particular case has been projected and understood: namely the Whitechapel Murders of 1888. Here we are in the realm of Jack the Ripper. He was a 'gentleman', was he not, one who may even have come all the way down to the slums from the palaces of royalty? Well, in fact, we know virtually nothing about the Ripper, because he was never caught. But the journalists of the day were quite happy to fulfil the popular prejudice, no doubt stimulated by the publication two years previously of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that the Ripper was a 'toff', who got his 'pleasures' slumming in London's seedy east end.

'Mugging' was also the creation of the Victorian age, or at least the popular anxiety associated with the crime is. It began with the 'garrotting panic' of 1862. Assailants would attack a victim from the back, half-throttle and then rob him. The technique itself had been learned from the practice in convict ships, where it was used in restraining prisoners. The panic began when an MP was attacked in this fashion after leaving a late sitting in the Commons. Soon the press was full of adverts for 'anti-garrotte collars' for gentlemen!

The next big concern was over the nature of criminality itself. Most law-breakers, of course, were from the urban poor, the seedbed of the new 'criminal classes'. An explanation was required, beyond mere poverty of course, and was readily supplied by the likes of Edwin Chadwick, the Poor Law reformer, who believed criminality was the response of the idle and the feckless, tempted by easy returns as an alternative to honest labour. Temperance reformers placed the blame on alcohol, just as reformers in education blamed ignorance and lack of opportunity. For the evangelists, it was all due to the abandonment of the standards set by religion. With the growth of popular forms of Social Darwinism heredity became a factor; and by the end of the century the notion of the habitual criminal, tainted by birth and background, was gaining ascendency over the notions of morality and idleness. From this management and control became the dominant elements of law-enforcement; and so it remains today

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