Victorian Britain could be a dangerous place. Though violent crime only accounted for around 10% of all crime in Victorian London, these statistics don’t take into account the swathes of working-class deaths that often slipped under the radar.
Only the most gruesome, high-profile and salacious murders made the news, triggering widespread panic and sprawling police investigations. Today, novels and television series like Sherlock Holmes and Ripper Street demonstrate our continued fascination with the macabre, tragic and often unsolved crimes of the age.
From a high-profile artist who murdered his own father to a woman reported to be the most prolific murderer in British history, here are 5 notorious Victorian murders.
1. The Bermondsey Horror
The murder committed by husband and wife Marie and Frederick Manning was one of Victorian Britain’s most sensational and salacious and went on to inspire characters in novels such as Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
Known for her striking beauty, Marie Manning was a maid who had worked in aristocratic homes. Before she was married, she was the lover of Patrick O’Connor, a gauger in the London Docks who had become wealthy by charging high interest. After marrying Frederick Manning, the couple conspired to kill Patrick for financial gain.
In August 1849, they lured him round for dinner, shot him in the back of the head, buried him under their kitchen floor and fled with his money. His body was eventually discovered, and Marie and Frederick were apprehended in Edinburgh and Jersey respectively.
They were tried and sentenced to death. It was the first time a husband and wife had been executed together in England since 1700. Charles Dickens wrote of the horror of the jeering mob at their execution, writing that it was “a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man.” He also later based the character of Hortense in Bleak House on Marie Manning.
2. Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer is credited as being one of the most prolific murderers in British history, having killed more than 400 infants. Trained as a nurse but widowed in 1869, Dyer turned to baby farming – where baby farmers would adopt unwanted children for a fee – as a way of supporting herself and her young family. The popularity of baby farming was on the rise at the time, in part due to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which stated that fathers of illegitimate children were not obliged to support their children financially.
Left without options, many women gave their unwanted babies to Dyer, thinking that they would be cared for and put up for adoption. Instead, Dyer began starving the babies she took in, or drugging them with an opiate known as ‘Mother’s Friend’.
After some time she began to make her killings more efficient, strangling the babies with white cord and throwing their remains in the River Thames.
Her horrific deeds were eventually discovered when the remains of a baby were recovered from the water. Many more were then discovered, and Dyer was put on trial. It took the jury only four and a half minutes to find her guilty, and she was hanged in June 1896.
3. The Richmond Murderess, Kate Webster
The case of the Richmond Murderess was one of the most sensational in Victorian Britain. Kate Webster, an Irish woman who moved to England, was no stranger to crime, having spent much of her young life in and out of prison for larceny. In 1879, she got a job as a domestic servant to twice-widowed Julia Martha Thomas in Richmond. Mrs. Thomas soon became critical of her employee’s work and gave her notice to leave.
The pair argued, and Mrs. Thomas went to church. Upon her return, Webster threw her down a flight of stairs then choked her, though other reports state that she attacked her employer with an axe. Webster then dismembered Thomas’ body, then boiled it in the laundry copper to hide the identity. She packed the body pieces – except for the head and one foot – in a box and a bag, before throwing them into the Thames. The foot was discovered on a rubbish tip in Twickenham.
Webster was eventually apprehended, became instantly famous, and was tried and executed. Madame Tussauds created a wax figure of the ‘Richmond Murderess’, and stories began to spread that she gave Mrs. Thomas’ fat as supposed pigs’ lard to her neighbours. Her head was lost until 2010, when workmen dug it up in a garden owned by none other than famous naturalist and presenter Sir David Attenborough.
4. Jack the Ripper
The brutality of Jack the Ripper’s crimes combined with the questions which still linger make the Ripper’s unsolved murders some of the most infamous in history. Operating in London’s slimy East End in 1888, Jack the Ripper killed at least 5 women before mutilating their bodies.
Four of the women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – were killed outside, possibly while soliciting customers for sex work or while sleeping rough. The Ripper’s final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was killed inside. Many of the victims were mutilated and disemboweled, removing organs such as kidneys and uteruses.
The precision with which this was done led the police to think that the murders were committed by someone with medical knowledge.
Though the deaths of sex workers normally went unreported, the sadistic butchery which characterised the murders made for sensational news in Victorian Britain. The Ripper taunted the police, sending them letters which mocked officers assigned to the case and speculated on murders to come. The murders were never solved, and they continue to fascinate the public to this day.
5. Thames Torso Murders
The grisly Thames Torso Murders, also called the Thames Mysteries or Embankment Murders, were a series of unsolved killings which took place in London. The first evidence of murder was in October 1884, when, over the course of a few weeks, dismembered parts of a woman’s body were found in and around Tottenham Court Road and Bedford Square.
The next victim was discovered in May 1887, when workers pulled a bundle from the Thames containing the torso of a woman. Throughout May and June, various parts from the same body appeared in different parts of London.
In the autumn of 1888, more dismembered female remains were discovered, and in June 1889, a woman’s heavily pregnant torso was discovered in the Thames. It was identified as that of Elizabeth Jackson, a homeless sex worker at the time of her death. She was the only victim able to be identified.
The final dismembered victim was discovered in 1889 in Whitechapel. Many were of the opinion that the murderer possessed extensive medical knowledge. The case remains unsolved.