The thing I love most about studying the Victorian era and, well, just about any period in history, is not the big great "truths" we learn, but rather the tiny little asides that accompany a bigger story. To me, that is where I can really see the humanity in it. So when I read Judith Flanders's The Invention of Murder and she told the story about William Corder who murdered his baby-mama, Maria Marten, and buried her in a grave in a barn, I wasn't as interested in blogging about the events of the investigation and trial, no matter how sensational.
The part that made me stop and say, "No, you've got to blog this" was after Corder was hanged for the murder and preachers began using him as a topic for their sermons. "On 17 August , the Revd Charles Hyatt of the Ebenezer Chapel, Shadwell, travelled to the Red Barn [where the murder had taken place] to deliver a sermon" to about 2,000 people. There the preacher regurgitated the same type of ridiculous rumors that circulated in the papers.
He claimed that Corder was a bad one from the very beginning and had gotten on the fast track to murder when he was young by forming "an acquaintance with a girl of very loose character", who he had paid for sex. "The wages of her iniquity" were "peas and other articles from his father's farm" (52).
It then got ten times funnier to me for two reasons: 1.) The penny dreadfuls turned the story into fiction, complete with ridiculous illustrations like this one (it is also the cover of Flanders's book, so I'd giggle at it every time I'd pick it up):
Wow, mastermind criminal there. Dragging dead weight by its HAIR instead of under the corpse's arms. I know it makes for a more violent image, but come on, people. Give the man a little credit.
2.) People had this sick fascination with murder to the point where there was a market for manufactured souvenirs about a crime. So you get these lovely ceramics that show the stages of murder. If you didn't know what they were about, you'd just think they were charming decorations for your house. Can't say I'd want them on my mantlepiece:
On the left is Corder and Marten when they were happy (apparently doing a dance?). In the middle is the lovely, bucolic murder barn where Corder reaches out to Marten, luring her to her doom inside. On the right is Corder looking very dapper at his trial. The only indication on the ceramics themselves that something bad happened (if you didn't know the story, of course), is the little placard on the Corder figure that says "Corder before the judge".
Y'all, that is some sick memorabilia. But it's such a human response to a big event–the commodification of a tragedy, the morbid fascination with a crime–that I can't help but see this as a true study of the 19th century, whereas the crime and the trial and the newspapers feel far less real to me.