Murder as entertainment
'Blood' from Punch
‘Blood’, an article from Punch satirising the Victorian public’s appetite for murder, 1842.View images from this item (1)
'The Trial-for-Murder Mania' from Punch's Almanack
Cartoon from Punch's Almanack, ‘The Trial-for-Murder Mania’, satirising the public’s appetite for crime and execution as a form of entertainment, 1850.View images from this item (1)
Maria MartenIn 1828, the country was electrified by the discovery of a body in a shallow grave in a barn in Polstead, Suffolk. It was that of Maria Marten, the local mole-catcher’s daughter. She had left Polstead to marry a farmer named William Corder, and was never seen again. By the time her body was found, Corder had married a woman he met through a newspaper advertisement, and was running a girls’ school. The details only got better: Maria had dressed as a man for her elopement, and her stepmother said she had had a miraculous dream which led the villagers to the grave.
The story was made for entertainment: there were plays written and performed even before the trial, and street peddlers sold broadsides and ballads on cheap printed sheets providing the public with all the gory details. For the more prosperous, Staffordshire pottery figures of Corder and Miss Marten, and even of the barn, were produced. A peepshow, a small box with viewing-holes, had the various locations painted and ‘pulled up and down by strings’. Marionettes were regular fairground entertainment, and the story of Maria Marten became a touring staple . There was even a novel, The Red Barn , ‘founded on fact’ which was in reality standard melodrama hokum.
Murder broadsidesBroadsides were printed sheets that provided members of the public with the topical information of the day, from shipwrecks and royal gossip to riots and murders. Murder broadsides typically included an account of the crime committed, a lurid woodcut illustration of the murder or execution, and often a simple song (sometimes moral, but often lewd, comical or admiring of the criminal) that purchasers could sing with friends or family at home or over a drink in a tavern.
Rowlandson's Characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders
A broadside seller 'crying' a last dying speech, left, from Rowlandson's characteristic Sketches of the Lower Orders, 1820.View images from this item (43)
The Mannings murdersWhile two separate murders in close succession may be bad for business, two murderers acting together is a different story. In 1849 Maria and Frederick Manning became one of the greatest crime sensations of the century. Maria Manning was a Swiss lady’s maid married to an unemployed railway-worker. She was also ‘friendly’ with Patrick O’Connor, a customs official who was said to have sideline as a loanshark, until one night he vanished after dinner at their house.
He was soon found – dead, and under the kitchen floor. At their trial, Mrs Manning made an un-English spectacle of herself, much enjoyed by the broadsides, shouting, ‘Shameful!’ and ‘Base England!’
Executions were rare (out of 14,686 guilty verdicts in one district over 25 years, only four people were executed); executions of women were even rarer; and double executions of husband and wife were unimaginably rare. This created a commercial bonanza, with up to 2.5 million broadsides sold. Pamphlets also made fortunes: one journalist
had been a man all tattered and torn, but so soon as the remains of poor Patrick O’Connor had been identified…the lucky reporter blossomed into a brand-new coat...New plaid pantaloons followed, a glossy silk hat shone upon his head, Wellington boots adorned his lower extremities, and the bows of a satin necktie floated on his chest. The only thing he lacked was a waistcoat; but alas! The Mannings were hanged ere [he] had secured that much-coveted vest ...
A broadside-seller advertised his sheets with an illustration of Mrs Manning looking glamorous and firing a pistol at O’Connor, who was washing his hands before the meal: ‘The people said...“O, look at him a-washing hisself; he’s a doing it so nattral, and ain’t a-thinking he’s a-going to be murdered”’.But the broadsides themselves used generic images: one picture of O’Connor was really William IV; another had a standard anonymous execution scene, with a single body hanging from a gallows, with, next to it, obviously scratched onto the block later, a black blob indicating the second body .
Broadside on the execution of the Mannings
A broadside depicting the execution of the Mannings. These cheaply produced prints were clearly repurposed: here a single body hangs from a gallows and, next to it, obviously scratched on to the block later, a black blob indicating the second body.View images from this item (1)
'Mr Charles Dickens and the execution of the Mannings', reprinted from The Times
Letter from Charles Dickens to The Times expressing shock and disgust at the enthusiasm of the crowd that gathered to witness the execution of the Mannings, 1849.View images from this item (1)
For the hundreds of thousands who would not have dreamt of going to an execution, there was still plenty of Manning entertainment. In Manchester, adverts appeared for waxwork figures of the couple to ‘amuse, delight and highly instruct’, while Madame Tussaud’s promised reproductions of the Mannings ‘taken from life at their trials, a cast in plaster of Mr. O’Connor, with a plan of the kitchen where he was murdered …’ (Mrs Manning’s figure remained on display for a record 122 years). As with Maria Marten, Staffordshire figures of the couple appeared, and a racing greyhound was named Maria Manning too .
And finally, Dickens’ Bleak House immortalized Mrs Manning as Hortense, a lady’s maid and murderer with all of Mrs Manning’s characteristics: perhaps the ultimate fame.
 ‘Blood’, Punch, January-June 1842, p.190.
 Helen R. Smith, New Light on Sweeney Todd, Thomas Peckett Prest, James Malcolm Rymer and Elizabeth Caroline Grey (Bloomsbury: Jamdyce, 2002), pp. 12-13.
 Henry Mayhew, London labour and the London poor (London: Charles Griffin and Company, 1864), pp. 232, 234, 301-2.
 The Observer, 6 January 1850, p.1.