Lately, for the prose of it, we've been reading Thomas De Quincey's essay on the Fine Art of Murder. That is one of the scarier real murder accounts -- up there, we think, with In Cold Blood. In Cold Blood was scary in part because, in that farmhouse in Kansas, we know that the head of the household made a crucial initial mistake that he couldn't get out of, and witnessed the murders of all he loved before he was killed, too -- which is about the worst thing that can happen to a person.
George Orwell wrote a famous essay on the English Murder. In fact, murder is a rather unexplored theme in Orwell's work -- he wrote several essays about crime novels, a famous essay on execution, and in an examination of Auden's poetry on the Spanish Civil War -- examination in the sense that the floroscope lamp was turned on the patient and he was pronounced terminally ill -- there is this wonderful passage on these verses in Auden's "Spain":
"To-morrow for the young, the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting."
Here's Orwell, casually jumping all over this cake:
"All very edifying. But notice the phrase
'necessary murder'. It could only be written by a person to whom murder
is at most a WORD. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It
so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men--I
don't mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some
conception of what murder means--the terror, the hatred, the howling
relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is
something to be avoided. So it is to any ordinary person. The Hitlers and
Stalins find murder necessary, but they don't advertise their
callousness, and they don't speak of it as murder; it is 'liquidation',
'elimination', or some other soothing phrase. Mr Auden's brand of
amoralism is only possible, if you are the kind of person who is always
somewhere else when the trigger is pulled."
Now, that is admirably rigorous, but the fact is, Orwell does write that lightly about murder, just not as a state enterprise. Here's the beginning of his essay on the Decline of English Murder:
"It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already
asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice
long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on
your nose, and open the NEWS OF THE WORLD. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or
roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home,
as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the
right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft
underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In
these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Naturally, about a murder."
While newspapers might reveal fraud, opine about politics, announce weddings and funerals, they are of course built centrally around murder. The murder story fascinates us -- it is a unique combination of fright and the intellect -- fright for the integrity of our own integument, intellect in the judging of guilty or not. Orwell contended that the great murders were behind us -- they were late Victorian things, much like the stories of Kipling. And it is true, late Victorian murders have a texture. We surfed around looking for odd Victorian murders, and immediately came up with a handful. For instance, the mystery of Pimlico, described with admirable relish and coolness by Michael Farrell in this article in Past and Present. The first two grafs of Farrell's article grab you the way few contemporary murders do:
"In 1886 Adelaide Bartlett stood trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her husband, Thomas Edwin Bartlett. The court witnessed sensational evidence and the case left questions which remain unanswered.
Adelaide's origins are mysterious. Born illegitimately in Orleans in 1855, she was christened Adelaide Blanche de la Tremouille. Her father was probably Adolphe Collot de la Tremouille, Comte de Thouars d'Escury. Her mother may have been an obscure English girl, Clara Chamberlain. After a childhood in France Adelaide was dispatched to England to stay with her maternal aunt and uncle in Kingston-uponThames. Here in 1875 she was introduced to Edwin Bartlett, who became infatuated with the poised Anglo-French beauty and resolved to marry her. Aged 30, 11 years Adelaide's senior, Edwin was a comfortably off proprietor of grocery stores. Adelaide's parents in Orleans approved the match and her father provided a modest dowry."
From there, a complex story unwinds: of Thomas Edwin's bad breath; of his peculiar sexuality,which took in the encouragement of kissing between his young wife and a young Weslyan minister, George Dyson; of Adelaide's purchase of chloroform thru said Dyson; of the mysterious contraceptives found in Thomas Edward's pockets; and of the enigmatic application of chloroform as a poison that convinced the jury that Thomas Edward's death could have been a suicide. You simply can't match that today -- we sex up murders by magnifying those that Hollywood has beens commit, but really, without the names, who would ever have found the O.J. case even slightly interesting?
Another interesting Victorian murder was that committed by a French manservant, Courvoisier, on his boss, a certain Lord Russell. Maybe we will get to this one in another post.