You guys want to hear about a murder today? Well, good, because I am currently reading Judith Flanders's The Invention of Murder. All info and quotations come from there.
Now, keep in mind two bits of context:
1.) There was no police force (in the sense that we know it) in the early 19th-century, until one was eventually introduced by Sir Robert Peel. The police, night watchmen and magistrates were not really there to deter crime, but rather to catch and punish criminals who had committed a crime. Therefore, the idea of police detection was very haphazard. There were a lot of instances where they ignored evidence and grabbed whomever was most convenient so they could have someone to punish. An awful lot of innocent people had gone to the gallows for a variety of crimes.
2.) With the rise of the newspaper and broadside trade, more and more people were up-to-date on news from far away, and the media circus was born. Anything sensational, like a high-profile murder, was gobbled up by the public and many cases were basically tried in the public forum. Journalists were allowed on crime scenes, they presented incorrect information sometimes, and most definitely took a bias. So you could have some poor sap who was totally unaffiliated with a crime, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and before he knew what was going on, half the country was baying for his blood, convinced that he committed it. There was no such thing as an uncontaminated jury pool.
On December 7th, 1811, "a twenty-four-year-old hosier named Timothy Marr, his wife, their baby and a fourteen-year-old apprentice were all found brutally murdered in their shop" in London (1). Marr, a respectable but higher-working-class man, had sent his servant out to get dinner for the family. When she came back, she discovered Marr and the apprentice battered to death, the wife dead of causes unspecified in this book, and the baby in its cradle with a cut throat. Money had been thrown around the room, but great deals of it were untouched–implying, at least to a modern reader–that the killer wanted to make it look like a robbery gone bad. Shipbuilder's tools, a maul and an iron-ripping chisel, which were covered in the victims' blood and hair, had been left on the scene. Two sets of bloody footprints went out the back door, and several people said they saw two individuals running from that direction not long before.
Pretty gruesome stuff.
So they did what they normally do–a magistrate offered a reward for information, and then opened the house to the public: "What might be termed murder-sightseeing was a popular pastime, and many went 'from curiosity to examine the premises', where they entered 'and saw the dead bodies' . . . The bodies were left in situ for the jury to view. Until they had been, visitors traipsed through the gore-spattered rooms" (3-4), no doubt hugely contaminating the scene of the crime. But hey, a buck was to be made.
The rumors started floating around, often officially released by the police: the murderer was one of Mrs. Marr's discharged servants who came back for revenge. No, wait, it was a foreign sailor, since this was a port town an you had all sorts of foreign types with access to shipbuilder's tools.
They were just covering up for the fact that they had no idea what was going on or who could have committed the crime.
Twelve days later, it happened again. On December 19th, "a watchman found John Turner, half-dressed and gibbering with fear, scrambling down New Gravel Lane . . . He had gone to bed early at his lodgings about a public house. After closing time he heard screaming an he went part-way down the stairs, where he saw a stranger bending over a body on the floor . . . Turner tied his bedsheets together and slid out of the window into the yard"(6-7). It was an almost identical scene. The publican, John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth and their servant Bridget were found with their heads beaten in and their throats cut. only their granddaughter, sleeping upstairs and undetected by the murderer, escaped. "Once more, money was scattered about, but little of value had been taken; once more, the escape was via the back door and over the yard fence" (7).
The police issued more handbills and arrested tons of people rather arbitrarily (usually criminals already known to them), trying to connect people with the murder somehow. Everyone got released, since they couldn't find even a tenuous connection. The reward increased from £50, to £100, to an enormous £700, which would have kept most middle class families very handsomely for a year.
One man, in his attempt to get the reward, decided to "turn King's evidence" (basically, if the crime was committed by more than one person, the first criminal to tattle-tale on the others got off scot-free, so there was often a race to see who could rat the others out first). He claimed he was part of a gang of eight men who had committed these crimes, and here are their names, and could he have his reward money please? Even back then, the police were like, "You kind of need to have a motive," and he said, "We just like to slaughter things." This actually resonated with the type of crime scenes they found, so the police arrested the other seven men. Again, they couldn't find anything to connect them to the murders, so they figured (probably correctly) that the guy was just after the limelight and the reward.
It wasn't until the day of the second murder that they police noticed a clue at the first murder scene. That's right: it took them TWELVE DAYS to notice that the murder weapon, the maul, had the initials "J. P." scratched on it. Guys, seriously. That's embarrassing. So they released this information to the public, and a landlady at a nearby tavern told police "a Danish sailor named John Petersen, had left his tools in her care on his last shore leave. Petersen was at sea at the time of the murders, but his fellow lodger, John Williams, was said to have . . . been seen washing his own stockings at the pump in the yard; and he knew Petersen. This was enough for an arrest" (8).
So basically, this guy was arrested because 1.) He lived in the vicinity, 2.) He knew someone who had the same tools as the murder weapon and the same initials that were carved on it, and 3.) He washed his own socks instead of letting the landlady or washerwoman do it (indicating that maybe he had blood on his socks).
I can't even begin to tell you how circumstantial and tenuous this evidence is. The landlady's husband was in jail for debt, and the reward would likely have paid off his debt and gotten him released. She might have been looking for a scapegoat from whom she could benefit. And even IF the weapons had been tools belonging to John Petersen, the landlady and her husband had used them to chop wood, do other chores around the house, and even been played with out in the yard by their children. In short, "anyone could have taken them" (9). More importantly, there were TWO sets of footprints leading from the crime scene. They didn't seem to care about finding an accomplice.
The problem is, when they arrested him, Williams committed suicide in his cell. The police and public took this as a confession of guilt. "Meanwhile, the authorities had to decide how to respond to Williams' death. Most immediately, they needed to show the local residents that he would not escape justice by his suicide . . . So on the last day of 1811, an inclined wooden platform was placed atop a high cart. Williams' body was laid out on this . . . His right leg was manacled, as it would have been when he was in gaol. The maul was placed on one side of his head, the ripping chisel on the other" (10).
Then they had a macabre parade with his body through town. They drove him to the two crime scenes so his dead body could be faced with the horror of what he had done. After that, "a stake was driven through Williams' hear (some reports say hammered home by the fatal maul)" (11) LIKE HE WAS A FREAKING VAMPIRE, and he was tossed in a shallow grave, "the intention was to show deliberate disrespect" (11).
In 1886, workmen were laying "a gas pipe in what was not the heart of the City dug up a skeleton with a stake through its heart" (11), bringing the crime back up 75 years later. Many people still believed in the validity of his "confession" through suicide, and it provided the papers with a way to squeeze further money out of decades-old crime.
I've been watching a lot of Poirot lately and I find myself OUTRAGED on his behalf. They didn't even use one little grey cell in this investigation.