A is for Arsenic

A peek into the devilishly deadly world of Victorians and arsenic

When you think of Victorians and arsenic you probably think of black widows bumping off their latest husband, embittered servants taking revenge on brutish masters and in general, murder most foul. It’s gorgeously Gothic and macabre… but sadly it’s only like 10% of the truth.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Victorians loved them some arsenic and it did tend to be the murderer about towns choice of poison BUT it wasn’t deliberate poisoning that made up the vast amount of arsenic deaths. It was accidental poisoning.

And most of these accidents were thanks to a little something called Scheele’s Green.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele
Carl Wilhelm Scheele – this guy…

In 1775 Carl Wilhelm Scheele made history, when he created a brand new shade of green. Vibrant and bold, it verged between emerald and the kind of effervescent green that you only see in the freshest flowers. Quite simply it was stunning and it soon became an international obsession.

And we know what happens when a colour suddenly pops off, its EVERYWHERE. Much like Millennial Pink in 2016, in the mid Victorian era you couldn’t move for Scheele’s Green. It was on clothing, accessories, furniture and even in sweets! But the makeup of Scheele’s Green made it very different (in an exceptionally deadly way) from your average fad colour.

Grab your goggles because here comes the sciencey bit.

You see, Scheele’s Green wasn’t made by water soluble agents like most other dyes. Instead it was a chemical compound made by combining sodium carbonate, arsenic and copper. It was this unique mix of arsenic and copper that really made Scheele’s green pop and gave it its unparalleled bright hue. However there was a downside to this formula – it made Scheele’s Green lethal.

But with little to no regulations on arsenic in products, Scheele’s Green was flying off the shelves. And it wasn’t long until the bodies started racking up.

Whipping up a batch of good old fashioned death!
Whipping up a batch of good old fashioned death!

Living with death

In 1862 children in London’s Limehouse area started to die. At first the deaths were put down to diphtheria, but pretty soon the doctors were arguing over whether this disease truly was the culprit.

You see each of the children had sore throats and breathing issues prior to their deaths, but bar that had shown none of the other major signs of the disease. There had been no thick coating of the throat, no mass swelling or ulcers, basically none of the things that normally accompany diphtheria. Not to mention that this disease was known to wipe out areas on mass for a reason and yet, after four children died there were no more fatalities.

Public health officer and chemist, Henry Letheny was bought in to play the role of Sherlock Holmes. He quickly discovered the cause – the wallpaper.

The children’s room had recently been redecorated with (you guessed it!) brand new Scheele’s Green wallpaper which after examination was shown to hold a whopping 3 grams of arsenic per square foot.

In case you’re wondering, it can take just 0.148 grams of arsenic to kill an adult. Oh but, don’t worry it gets worse…

The lethal Limehouse wallpaper actually held a relatively tiny amount of arsenic compared to others on the market. With some wallpapers later reported to have held on average 20 grams of arsenic per square foot and 70 grams in extreme cases.

And this wallpaper was everywhere. By 1858 it was estimated a million miles of deadly arsenic wallpaper had been produced and were now hanging in homes all around England.

William Morris
‘Darling this wallpaper is so stunning my heart appears to be bursting in sheer excitement!’ – example of William Morris Scheele’s Green wallpaper

It was a true epidemic, but (perhaps unsurprisingly, depending on how optimistic you are) the people churning out this death printed paper didn’t care.

The most notorious of these is perhaps celebrated designer:

William Morris.

William designed some of the most popular interiors, prints and textiles of the age. He was also a notorious socialist idealist, pushing for his industry to not only respect the environment but to ensure workers were looked after. And he did a sterling job looking after the environment, his workers and consumers by popping arsenic into his products.

Coincidentally William’s Dad owned mining company, Devon Great Consols, which was the worlds largest arsenic producer. Funny that…

In fact, it was with the money from the family arsenic mining business that William set up his design company. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that in 1885 William when asked about the (now proven) dangerous health ramifications of arsenic, he said:

‘As to the arsenic scare, a greater folly is hardly possible to imagine: the doctors were being bitten by witch fever.’

Sadly it wasn’t witch fever, but arsenic poising. The workers at Devon Great Consols frequently died from it. And yet William happily exposed his own workers to the stuff.

And they were far from alone. All over the country workers making arsenic laced furnishings were being exposed to highly dangerous levels of the poison. Every. Single. Day.

And then there were the poor souls whose health was being torn apart everyday all in the name of couture.

The Arsenic Waltz, Punch 1863
OK fine…maybe it;s deadly but it’s so fabulous! – The Arsenic Waltz, Punch 1863

Fashionably dead

Of course, the highly fashionable hue was all over the most fabulously dressed. At the time it was estimated that one ball gown made using Scheele’s Green would carry an estimated 900 grams of arsenic.

Naturally, those modelling a Scheele’s Green look saw some pretty horrid side effects! After a night out you might peel off your gown to find a rash or maybe an oozing sore. Not great, and yet it still wasn’t enough to make people stop buying Scheele’s Green.

You see these women had the dress lining not to mention layers of petticoats and crinolines separating their skin from the real damage arsenic can rage. So although there were physical side effects, these were very much the equivalent of a modern day bra welt or blisters from breaking in new heels – just the price of looking good, right?

But what about the women who were making these looks?

One of the things that made making Scheele’s Green clothes and accessories so dangerous was the techniques often used.

Say you were making something small, like a flower crown (yes Victorian ladies loved this look too, sorry Coachella!) then you’d literally press the pigment into the fabric. That’s a ton of arsenic getting right up into all those crevices in your hands (which you’ll then use for everything from eating, peeing and picking at your face) that’s not to mention all those arsenic particles you’re unknowingly breathing in.

Imagine churning out countless crowns just like this.

In 1861, a 19 year old flower maker called Matilda Scheurer started convulsing and vomiting green liquid. The whites of her eyes turned green and so did her fingernails. She had arsenic poisoning.

Matilda went on to die a slow and very painful death. She wasn’t the only one. French physician, Ange-Gabriel-Maxime Vernois, wrote that after visiting a fake flower factory in Paris (similar to the one Matilda worked in) that the daily contact with arsenic wrought havoc on the bodies of the workers, with the arsenic literally eating away at their flesh.

1859 examples of damage caused by green arsenic, from Wellcome Collection
I mean it’s a strong look – 1859 examples of damage caused by green arsenic, from Wellcome Collection

So with all this deadly buffoonery going on, why wasn’t arsenic just straight up outlawed?

Well there were two key  reasons:

1. Not everyone was dying – remember arsenic products were everywhere! And yet, the entire country weren’t just dropping like flies. So it was easy for those selling the arsenic laced goods to put the cases where people did die to already existing ill health.

2. The science wasn’t concrete – although it was understood how ingesting arsenic was deadly (why murderers used it!) It wasn’t crystal clear how arsenic being used in manufacturing was lethal. Yes, there were the physical symptoms exhibited by workers and extremely strong indicators of deaths caused by arsenic products, but there was no clear scientific explanation as to why! In fact it wasn’t until 1933 scientists came up with a theory for the deaths (gosio gas created by the arsenic in damp conditions) and even this theory is pretty patchy!

So In 1870 people were working to ban products they reckoned might have fatal consequences. And let’s be real, whilst these products were bringing in that sweet cash, ‘reckoning’ was pretty useless (just look at America’s vaping crisis for an example)

But there would be an end to arsenic’s hay day! Not from the government, but through the people.

With word spreading that these products were dangerous, many newspapers started taking a stand against them. Then in 1879, Queen Victoria made headlines when she stripped Buckingham Palace of arsenic products after a visiting dignitary complained of feeling sick when near them.

If it wasn’t good enough for old Vic, it wasn’t good enough for anyone!

The people had spoken with their wallets and arsenic manufacturing soon fell out of favour.

We won’t ever know the true body count caused by Scheele’s Green (though myth says Napoleon was among the number!) but it’s doubtless countless people fell victim. Either paying with their health or lives.

Remember, it’s not easy bring green. Because it will literally kill you.

Review: The Five, by Hallie Rubenhold – Jack The Rippers victims are finally given a voice

Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five is easily one of the most important history books of the last decade.

For the first time a book that contains the words ‘Jack the Ripper’ isn’t about the over mythicised serial killer. It’s about the women whose lives were not only brutally ended, but their memory twisted. Over a century they’ve become a carnival sideshow, pantomine prostitutes at tourist attractions like The London Dungeons, pictures of their brutalised bodies on display in a mocked up ‘morgue’ at The Jack The Ripper Museum, they’re the butt of a pop culture joke.

Which is why this book is so important. Restoring the dignity of Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane.

Hallie Rubenhold places the women into history, revealing that each women was indelibly linked to a key moment in Victorian history, be that the Trafalger Sqaure encampment or The Princess Alice disaster. Turning the book not only into a story of individuals but one of those forgotten by history, Englands underclass.

Each women’s story is told over the course of multiple chapters and in such a way that even though as a reader you ultimatley know each womens fate, you’re still attached to them. Rubenhold examines their lives with an understanding that for the first time makes these women real people; flawed, good, bad and utterly relatable.

Annie Chapman, leaves behind a traumatic childhood to start climbing the ladder to becoming middle class, only to fall into alcholisim. Losing her husband, children and spiralling further down until she hit the streets of Whitechapel.

Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish farmers daughter whose encounters with sexual abuse led her to London, where she managed to snatch a chance to become an entrepreneur. But in era where one finicial blow could end it all, her buisness failure leads to her downfall. By the end Elizabeth is supporting herself by posing as a disaster victim.

Annie Chapman with her husband

One of my favourite things about the book is that it doesn’t feature any images of the womens bodies. That might sound ridiculous, but when the first google result for these women is their bloodied faces, thats a huge achievement.

Rubenhold also challenges usual perceptions of the women, mainly that each victim was a sexworker (showing evidence that most weren’t) but also calmly tearing down the moral demonisation over the women who were.

In addition Rubenhold argues that it is incredibly likely that the Rippers victims were asleep. The killer targeting down and out women as they bundled up asleep in darkened allies or door ways.

Its a theory that makes a great deal of sense and also one that highlights how history has wanted so badly for the victims to be sexworkers ‘who got what they derseved’, that its been willing to overlook the truth. 130 years on, it’s time we fixed that.

The Five, The Untold Lives of Jack The Ripper’s Victims, by Hallie Rubenhold, is out now.

Vinegar Valentines: hate those you love

In the mid nineteenth Valentines Day started to undergo a disturbing transformation. Sure, the syrupy sonnets proclaiming love were still there, along with the de rigueur over priced gifts and cards, but just under that rose tinted surface something terrible was rising up: a wave of hate disguised as love.

Dubbed Vinegar Valentines, these cards took the guise of traditional valentines, but replaced sentiment with twisted vitriol and cutesy pictures with cruel caricatures.

The only man who smiles on you, via Museum of London
The only man who smiles on you, via Museum of London

So, I hear you ask, what started this mean spirited valentines revolution?

Changes to the postal service.

Sexy, I know….

In the early Victorian era postage was really expensive, but letter writing was the only way to talk to anyone not in walking distance. Lovers, business contacts, family, friends – all needed to be corresponded to through letters, which cost a bomb.

Many tried to save money by doing things like cross writing. Where you first wrote vertically and then when you ran out of room, turned the page horizontally (at a right angle) and wrote over the letters first part. It may have saved on paper but to our eyes it looks way more like a cipher than any discernible letter (it was a rough time to be dyslexic)

As the era progressed and the number of people able to read and write rose, the fact that much of Britain was priced out of communication became a huge issue. A massive national campaign for affordable post was sparked and by 1840 the battle was won – the penny post was born.

Once postage prices plummeted, Britain went card crazy. The country went from sending 200,000 cards in 1820 to a staggering 1,500,000 by the 1870s.

Valentines cards saw a spike, especially since the amends to the post also meant you could now send cards anonymously. Thus there was a boom in embossed, frilly cards. With some men purportedly saving a months salary so they could send OTT embellished card making confections to their paramours.

Embossed Valentines, 1860s-1880s, via Museum of London
Embossed Valentines, 1860s-1880s, via Museum of London – the workmanship that went into this, you just can’t bin come 16th Feb

But not everyone wanted to spend a months rent on a fancy card, nor did they necessarily want to spread the love.

Printed on cheap paper, crudely coloured and sold for a penny, Vinegar Valentines, were the answer.

Many of these cards were bought as a joke gift to send to a mate, poking fun at something they were self conscious about (e.g their weight, lack of hair or low paying job) which still seems like kind of a dick move, but let’s be generous and file this one away under ‘banter’.

Still, for as many people that used the cards for a fun joke amongst friends, there were others who were excitedly using the fact they could send the cards anonymously to target someone they loathed.

Just have to tell an ex they’re going to die alone? There’s a vinegar Valentine for that. Co-worker you want to knock down a peg? Yep, vinegar valentine for that too. Woman turned you down and now you need to point out all her flaws? Of course, there was a vinegar Valentine for that!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Though there are archives containing Vinegar Valentines, not a great deal survive. Not that surprising, after all whose going to hang onto something designed for personal insult? Much like we hit the delete key today, Victorians threw these vitriolic messages in the bin.

But there’s still so much that we can learn from the surviving cards! And kind of horrifyingly, we can see that not a lot as changed in well over 100 years!

Lesson 1: The majority of the cards were targeted at women.

Drawing from the archives, we can see that there was a mix of genders, but there is a roughly 60:40 split, with women being the focus of the majority. Interesting when you consider that…

Lesson 2: The cards insults drew from people stepping outside of societal norms

Be it physical or lifestyle based, the cards took a shot at it. From being slightly bigger, single at 40 or in a job deemed outside of gender norms.

Lesson 3: Those deemed ‘lower class’ were blamed for the cards.                         Vinegar Valentines were condemned as morally reprehensible, ripping the fabric of mannered society. So of course, it was those in ‘lower social standing’ who were pointed at as the perpetrators, suggesting that this huge group of people may have fought for the right to communicate but had then used that power to create a harder, harsher world to live in.

And just like with trolling today, Vinegar Valentines had fatalities. In London in 1885 it was reported that a husband shot and killed his wife, after receiving a card that he believed could only have been from her. There were also suicides, with deaths happening shortly after the recipient got the card in the post.

So what happened? Why don’t we still have Vinegar Valentines? 

Well… Vinegar Valentines died out. 

By the end of the Victorian era they just were not as popular. That’s not to say they disappeared completely, sticking around right up to the early and mid 20th century:

show off, later Vinegar Valentine
‘You claim you’re good at anything! so come on show some proof. And let me see how good you are at jumping off the roof!!’

There are a couple of reasons for these cards dying out. The social demonization of the cards didn’t help, especially as many people at the time aspired to one day escape the working classes. Later when the First World War hit, people understandably didn’t really love the idea of using their precious letters to loved ones to send hate.

And of course there is the really schmaltzy reason – given the choice, most people would rather send out love than hate.

  • Oh, that and people evolved into finding new and better ways of telling people they hated them.
Yeah sorry to end that on such a downer. Ok. Bye

This was interesting! Where can I find out more? Brighton Unviersity has a great paper on Vinegar Valentines, by Annabella Pollen, which you can download for free here

More great stuff likes this:

6 crimes that scandalised Victorian England Part 3

In the final part of our series on Victorian crime and murder we have Britain’s most prolific serial killer and an actual case of death by chocolate, so without further ado let’s get to it:

via giphy

The Angel Maker

If you asked a child to draw a picture of a serial killer, they would draw Amelia Dyer…and then have nightmares for literally ever because ohmygod have you seen this woman?!?

Never sleeping again

Amelia Dyer grew up reasonably well off. She trained as a corset maker but gave up the trade in 1861 to marry George Thomas (at 59 over twice as old as 24 year old Amelia). Once married Amelia started training to be a nurse and it was nursing that would introduce her to baby farming and turn Amelia Dyer into Britain’s most prolific murderer.

Shits about to get real – via giphy


Baby farming was a black market career choice but a not uncommon one. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment saw unwed mothers lose most rights to support; these women were now only able to receive clothes, food or shelter if both mother and child went to the workhouse – not a good option to put it mildly. Single mothers were limited to a few desperate options: prostitution, taking their chances on the streets or making their own children ‘angels’. Less Sophie’s choice, more super fucked no matter what you do.

This is where baby farms came in. For a fee women would take in these children, adopt or foster them, care for the child as their own and then rehouse the child with suitable parents. Of course the reality was very different, most destitute mothers couldn’t afford a rolling fee for their child’s care, many paying a one off fee of around £5 (around (£225 today). Anyone who has seen the price of nappies knows that sum isn’t going to care for a child for long, so it’s unsurprising that some baby farmers had no intention of caring for the child as their own. Instead they fed their charges the bare minimum, used opium to keep the children quiet and left them in squalid conditions. It was not uncommon for baby farm children to die as a result of neglect.

It was this world Amelia Dyer chose to enter.


By 1869 Amelia had left nursing and soon after this her husband died. she needed a source of income fast and baby farming seemed like the best choice to make a quick buck. Amelia threw herself into this new profession but she soon got greedy and started allowing some of the children to die, purposefully neglecting them to free up space for more babies.

She tried to make these deaths seems as legitimate as possible (well as legit as tons of dead babies can be). after several years a local doctor finally started to think there might be something dodgy about all the dead children at Amelia Dyers house and reported her to police on suspicion of neglect, she was found guilty and in 1879 was sentenced to just 6 months of hard labour.

Via giphy


Once out of prison, Amelia left baby farming, she tried to get back into nursing, but was deemed mentally unstable and was sent to a mental asylum. When she left the aslym Amelia had no place to go, so she turned to what she knew: baby farming.

It was perhaps her mental break that led Amelia to stop trying to get death certificates for the infants that died in her care. Instead she decided to cut the middle man out entirely, killing the children almost immediately after their arrival. This meant she could take on more children then ever before. At one point neighbours saw up to 6 children a day being handed over to Dyer. Business was booming.

One unwed mother soon to cross paths with Amelia Dyer was Evelina Marion, a young barmaid who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter, Doris. Short on options Evelina came across an advert in The Bristol Times and Mirror:

It seemed to good to be true – it was


On 31st March 1896 Evelina met with the woman who posted the advertisement, Mrs Harding, and handed over Doris. Mrs Harding was of course Amelia Dyer using a pseudonym. Now on a roll, just a day later Dyer took guardianship over another baby Harry Simmons.

But Amelia’s luck was running out. The day before she was given Doris Marmom, a bargeman fished a brown paper package the Thames at Reading. Upon inspection the wrapping came loose and a child’s foot fell out. When fully unwrapped, the package revealed the tiny body of Helena Fry, a child who had been left in Amelia Dyers care.

After the discovery the river was immediately searched. A carpet bag was dredged up and inside were the bodies of Doris Marmom and Harry Simmons. Both had been strangled with white tape.

However the brown paper packaging that Helena Fry had been Found in provided police with a vital clue. The paper was addressed to a Mrs Thomas, yet anouther pseudonym used by Amelia Dyer.

Whilst the police hunted for Dyer, four more children’s bodies were dredged from the river. Each had been strangled and like Doris Marmom and Harry Simmons, white tape was wrapped around their necks.

It didn’t take long for the police to catch up with Dyer and on 4th April 1896, just days after she had taken custody of Doris Marmom, she was charged with the child’s murder. Amelia Dyer confessed, telling police to look for children with white tape around their necks, that way they ‘Could tell it was one of mine’


Daily Mail article following Amelia Dyers arrest


Amelia Dyer stood trial on 22nd May 1896 at The Old Bailey. She confessed to only one murder, Doris Marmom. The evidence was stacked against her, along with her written confession, several people reported seeing Dyer acting strangely and it transpired she had almost been caught on multiple occasions.

Despite Amelia Dyers pleas of insanity and her long history of stays in mental asylums, it took a jury under 5 minutes to find her guilty. She was sentenced to death.

Amelia Dyer described herself as ‘the angel maker’. Prior to her execution she wrote a confession which filled over five exercise books. It’s thought she killed over 200 children, though the number may be as high as 400 or even 700.


Death By Chocolate

Christiana Edmunds was a fashionable lady about town and also one of Victorian England’s most interesting mental health case studies. Her increasingly elaborate killing spree sent her to Broadmoor and thanks to newly released archives we are just starting to discover what led her to killchristiana edmunds .jpgEdmunds came from a background streaked with mental illness, her Dad died in an asylum in London from what was considered ‘madness’ (now considered the side effects of syphilis) Christiana’s brother was also sent to an asylum this one ‘for idiots’ (don’t you just love those Victorians) where he died from an epileptic fit. Christiana’s sister attempted suicide several times, finally collapsing and dying outside her home following the death of her brother. Soon after all of this Christiana was diagnosed with that Victorian classic, hysteria – or what we would now diagnosis as (at least) severe depression, most likely stemming from ALL THE FUCKERY.

Like things couldn’t get any worse, right? via giphy

In the 1860’s Christiana, her mother and sister moved to Brighton and an by 1867 a Dr Beard starting treating Christiana for her hysteria. Beard was attractive, intelligent, kind and married. The married part was less than ideal for Christiana, especially as the two grew closer and she started to fall in love with Beard, but life had knocked Christiana so many times she wouldn’t allow a little blip like a wife to get in the way of her future happiness. So in September 1870 Christiana visited the Beard residence armed with a box of chocolates.

Dr Beard was out but his wife Emily invited Christiana in  and the two women sat in the kitchen with the chocolates between them and chatted. Emily reached for a chocolate cream but quickly spat it out, something was wrong, the cream inside was bitter and spoiled. That night Emily was incredibly ill, vomiting and in increasing pain- she had been poisoned with Strychnine.

I’ve chosen to illustrate this with Turkish Delights, which might as well be poison

Emily lived, much to Christiana’s frustration. To make matters worse Dr Beard appeared at Christiana’s home the next day. He confronted her and revealed that he had recognised the symptoms of strychnine and he knew that Christiana had tried to murder his wife; if she knew what was good for her then she would stay away from him and his family.

To Christiana this was just another blip on the road to happiness. She now knew she must do two things:

1) Successfully kill Emily Beard

2) Ensure Dr Beard no longer suspected her as the poisoner (because murder is kind of a turn off)

Christiana decided to stick with chocolates as her murder weapon, injecting chocolate creams from a local sweet shop with strychnine and then planting them back on the shelves. Planning to kill Emily Beard under the guise of a serial killer and throw Dr Beard off the scent. It seemed to work and over the coming months numerous people fell deathly ill after eating the chocolates. But nobody actually died.

via giphy

But then in June 1871 4 year old Sidney Barker was on holiday in Brighton with his family. His Uncle bought the boy some chocolates as a treat. After eating just a few chocolates Sidney was dead.

Sidney Barkers death was initially ruled an accident but it didn’t take long for police to join the dots between his death and the other curious illnesses that had spread across Brighton. At the inquest into Sidney’s death, Christiana Edmunds actually appeared, giving evidence that she herself had become ill after eating chocolates bought from the same shop.

But Christiana didn’t stop there, she started writing Sidney’s father letters, urging him to take legal action against the shop that had sold the chocolates. The police quickly noticed Christiana’s continued involvement in the case. Rather than helping to to create an imaginary serial poisoner, it was just leading police right to her.

And then shit got real. The Beards announced they were moving to Scotland. Christiana went into full defcon mode and started work on one last ditch attempt to kill Beard’s wife and make him fall in love with her and stay in Brighton.

Christiana created a batch of poisoned plum cakes and distributed them around Brighton, sending them to random people as well as the Beards and herself.

I am now highly suspicious of this bitch – via giphy

The cakes didn’t work and Dr Beard finally alerted the police to his suspicions.

In January 1872 Christiana Edmunds stood trial at The Old Bailey in London. Her lawyer, John Humffreys Parry openly admitted to being confused at Christiana’s motives, however upon meeting with her he decided that the only route to go down was to plead insanity. This was not an easy task in Victorian England, the only way the plea would be granted was if a jury could all agree that Christiana could not be blamed for her actions.

A, in no way terrifying drawing of Parry

Parry leaned on her family history and also had several notable doctors come to examine Christiana, all agreeing that she could not tell right from wrong. Still the plea didn’t work and Christiana Edmunds was sentenced to death. Though she did attempt to avoid the hangman’s noose by faking a pregnancy – the rouse was quickly discovered.

But then Christiana underwent a full psychiatric evaluation and her sentence was remitted, she was then moved to the newly opened Broadmoor. This move resulted in a public outcry, with many seeing it as a clear sign of class privilege and massive miscarriage of justice. None the less Christina spent the rest of her life in Broadmoor dying there in 1907, aged 78.

That was interesting, where can I find out more: I’m glad you asked! If you haven’t already caught up with the rest of this series you totally should! And you can! Right here:

6 crimes that scandalized Victorian England. Part 2

The Thames Torso Killer

Whilst Jack the Ripper was making the streets of Whitechapel an all around unpleasant place to be in 1888, another serial was also roaming the streets of London and its time he got his share of the praise well it’s not, because he did horrifically murder several people but you get my drift…)


In May 1887 workers along the Thames river valley pulled a bundle from the river bank. Upon opening the bundle they discovered a woman’s torso. Throughout May and into June more body parts washed up onto the banks of the Thames, once put together doctors confirmed that the limbs were from the same woman. Doctors were eventually able to piece together the body, with only the head and upper chest missing. However the bodies dismemberment had been so cleanly carried out and the corpse so water beaten that no cause of death or clue of the woman’s identity could be uncovered.

Almost a year later in September 1888 Scotland Yard were desperately trying to solve the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, the second prostitute in as many days who had been found murdered and mutilated in Whitechapel. Then a woman’s arm washed up in Pimlico, followed by its partner on Lambeth Road.

What came next can only be described as a ballsy move by the killer – on 2nd October the same woman’s torso was discovered by builders in the construction site of New Scotland Yard. The murder had been bought straight to the Police and they now had a torso, two arms, two serial killers on the loose and no clue – it was then that a journalist’s terrier dug up the woman’s leg from the grounds of New Scotland Yard (after police dogs had failed to find any further remains).


Doctors concluded that the limbs found under New Scotland Yard had been buried there for weeks and had perhaps been buried by someone with easy access such as a workman or builder. However, the cuts that had been made to dismember the victim were once again clean cut and surgical, and yet again no cause of death could be found and no clue to the woman’s identity made. The murder was filed as ‘found dead’.


In June 1889 a woman’s body parts started to wash up on the shores of The Thames. A leg and thigh in Battersea, liver in Nine Elms and a foot and leg in Wandsworth. A body part was even thrown into the estate of Percy Shelley, whose mother, Mary Shelley had written Frankenstien; a book about a monster pieced together out of human body parts.

Though once again the victims head was missing, the police managed to identify this victim thanks to a fragment of clothing found of the body. Elizabeth Jackson had been missing from her Chelsea home since just before the first body parts were found. Jackson had been 7 months pregnant at the time of her death. A verdict of ‘Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown’ was passed; though no cause of death was ever discovered.


By the 10th September 1889 the police were no closer to finding who the killer was when a cryptic telegram was sent to all police stations in London:

‘Whitechapel again’

Police scrambled suspecting another Ripper murder. However they were to be foiled, yet again. When walking his beat on Pinchin Street Police Constable William Pennett discovered a woman’s torso.

Once more doctors were stumped and unable to work out the victim’s identity or cause of death. As in the case of Elizabeth Jackson a verdict of ‘wilful murder against some person or persons unknown’ was passed. In an effort to preserve the torso (should any other clues be discovered) the unknown women was buried in a cast coffin filled with spirits.

Possible links were discovered to a murder in Paris in 1886 (where a woman’s torso and several limbs were found on the steps of a church) and two other murders in London in 1901 and 1902, but none truly fit the Thames Torso Killers method.

The victims heads would never be discovered, nor would the victims breasts or uteruses, which the killer also took. The case went cold, with no clear motive, no evidence and not even a cause of death, there were next to no clues leading police to the killer.

The Thames Torso Murders remains a mystery.

Well they can’t do worse than the Metropolitan Police did…

The tragic case of Eliza Fenning and the devilish dumplings  

Ok so full disclosure this crime does just miss the Victorian era, taking place in 1815, BUT I couldn’t not include it. That’s how good this one is, your gonna love it!

And it’s only slightly incredibly bleak- yay!

Fun fact: I actually used to work on London’s Chancery Lane, where the crime took place, and took great pleasure in telling this crime to friends when meeting for after work drinks- truly I am a joy.

Aaaaaand onto the crime:

Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Fenning entered the employment of Robert Turner and his wife Charlotte in early 1815. The house in Chanchery Lane looked to be a step up for 20 year old Eliza, she had been hired as a cook, a promotion after working 6 years as a lower level domestic servant in other households.


Eliza’s first two months in her new post went well and she started to fall into the pattern of day to day with the Turners’. On the night of the 21st March 1815 Roberts Turner’s Father was due to come round for dinner. Eliza prepared a dinner of beef and dumplings for the family. Just before she finished cooking Robert Turner came into the kitchen and ordered Eliza not to leave the room until the meal was finished- strange, but she complied. The dinner was served and the family tucked in, along with two of Roberts apprentices and a housemaid. Shortly afterwards everyone at the table collapsed onto the floor.

The police arrived to find Eliza curled up on the stairs in crippling pain, the rest of the household were in a much worse state and close to death. An investigation was started. Foul play was suspected for the sudden sickness that had torn through the house and the line of suspicion led straight to Eliza.


Forensics expert John Marshall was bought in. The art of forensics was very much in its infancy but Marshall had a theory; he thought that the nights dinner must have been subject to arsenic poisoning. He searched the kitchen for traces of the stuff and came up with a small half teaspoon of ‘white powder’ which had been found in water used to wash up Eliza’s mixing bowl. Marshall carried out tests to see if this powder was indeed arsenic, this included heating the powder over a flame to see if it emitted a garlicy smell (this was obviously not 100% foolproof test…) when Marshall put the powder on a halfpenny over a candle the room was quickly filled with a pungent garlic aroma (surprisingly food sometimes smells of garlic-gasp!)

Things were not looking good for Eliza. To make matters worse witnesses came forward claiming that Eliza hated her employers who had recently threatened to fire her after she was seen coming out of the bedroom of an apprentice at night.

Within several days everyone who had eaten the potentially poisoned dumplings started to get better. Still, Eliza was arrested and was quickly put on trial for attempted murder.


The evidence against Eliza was strong, the forensic expert had evidence of arsenic and witness testimony gave a motive for the attempted murders. However, it was pointed out that it would not have been possible for the arsenic to have been mixed into the dumplings- the amount the forensic expert claimed to have found would have been enough to kill 120 people per serving, the Turners couldn’t have survived! For the dumplings to have been poisoned they would have to have been sprinkled with the poison after being cooked. A deed which could have happened in the kitchen or in the dining room- a room Eliza had been banned from.

To add more fuel, witnesses came forward alledging that Robert Turner had a history of violent and ‘mad’ outbursts. Further more a chemist clamied that Robert Turner had tried to buy arsenic from him just months earlier. The forensic evidence was also shown to be lacking as there was no evidence that this mixing bowl had indeed been used to make the poisoned dumplings and Marshall had failed to test any other substance found in any other of the cookware or ingrediants that had been used to make the dumplings.

Cover of Eliza Fennings case file

Sadly this was all no was no use to Eliza and she was found guilty. The public rallied to her side and campaigned against the courts decision. Petitions were made and the press even came to her defense. On the day of her execution the home office held a meeting to look over the case.

It all proved fruitless. Eliza was hung alongside William Oldfield who was convicted of rape and Abraham Adams a homeless man who was sentenced to death for ‘unnatural crimes’ (translated to sodomy) on the 26th July 1815. Eliza’s last words with of her innocence.

Broadsheet of Eliza Fenning’s execution

Following her death The Turners became public hate figures and John Marshall a laughing stock. The misuse of forensics in Eliza’s trial was held up as a prime example of legal misconduct and several medical societies put in place measures that anybody studying for a license with them take a three month course in legal medicine (or medical jurisprudence) to ensure what happen to Eliza Fenning would never happen again.

6 true crimes that scandalised Victorian England. Part 1

Everyone loves a murder. It’s one of those indelible facts of life; everyone is born, everyone must die and everyone bloody loves a murder.


Our murder obsession feels at its peak with podcasts like Serial now everywhere and documentaries on murderers and their victims littering our Netflix suggestions. But this is far from the first time that untimely and gruesome deaths fascinated people. We can date our love of murder back to…well literally always. It’s something that has just always fascinated people.


Nobody was no more obsessed than the Victorians. They truly loved the macabre, it’s in this era that we see the boom in séances and horror fiction, not to mention the very Victorian after dinner activity of busting opening a sarcophagus to see what was inside (japes) but there was nothing they loved more than a good murder.

True crime Penny Dreadful’s like Famous Crimes luridly detailed present and past crimes and even Punch got in on the action, eagerly sinking its teeth into grisly foul play and ensuring that the crime, trial and often inevitable execution became national gossip.


Without further ado here are some of the most sensational murders that gripped Victorian Britain 

1 . The Bermondsey Horror

In 1847 Swiss ladies maid Maria de Roux met Frederick George Manning. Now Manning was not exactly a catch, he had recently been fired from his job as a train guard following suspicion of theft and wasn’t the brightest BUT Manning told Maria he was due to inherit a small fortune from his mother and so the two were wed.

Maria Manning

Frederick George Manning tried his hand as a pub landlord and failed almost immediately. After selling the pub the couple moved to much smaller lodgings in Bermondsey. This is when Maria found out Fredrick George had lied and there was no fortune. Sadly couples therapy wasn’t an option at the time, nor were quickie divorces – so the Mannings hatched a deadly plot to both save their marriage and ease their money troubles.

Patrick O’Connor had once proposed to Maria and though he was well off she had opted to marry Frederick George Manning knowing he would one day inherit a fortune. Obviously this had turned out to be a lie and Maria now realised she had made the wrong choice…yet she thought that Patrick O’Connor could still be the solution to her financial woes. On the 8th August 1849 Maria invited O’Connor to dinner. Before his arrival she bought a large shovel.


When O’Connor arrived at the Mannings house, Maria sent him into the kitchen to wash his hands before eating. With his back turned to her, she shot him in the head. Frederick George Manning then came into the kitchen to find O’Connor half dead on the floor and he finished the job: “I never liked him, so I battered his head with a ripping chisel.”

Husband and Wife buried O’Connor and Maria went to the dead man’s house to start collecting his valuables.

Police soon began investigating O’Connor’s disappearance and their suspesions pointed to the Mannings. Realising they were cornered the couple planned to flee. Maria sent her husband to sell their furniture to raise funds for their life on the run. As soon as he had left the house she took everything of value and fled.

Frederick George returned to find his wife had double crossed him, but managed to escape just before the police reached the Manning residence where they quickly found O’Connors body covered in lime and buried under the kitchen floorboards.


Maria and Frederick George fled to Edinburgh and Jersey respectively. They were both caught within days of each other; Maria after attempting to sell O’Connors belongings and Frederick George after his rampant drinking drew attention.

for fucks sake

The couples trial was held at The Old Bailey in London on 25th Oct 1849 and it was a sensation. Maria was the subject of most of the attention, throughout the trial she was immaculately dressed, elegant and composed. However, this composure slipped once the jury read their verdict; guilty. Maria stood and screamed at the court: ‘You have treated me like a wild beast of the forest.’

Husband and Wife were both sentenced to be hung. This most rare of executions (a woman and the first married couple to be hung together in over a hundred years!) created further fever. A cottage industry was soon set up, with lodgings and horse and cart owners selling standing room tickets to the hanging and at least 2.6 million broadsides (Victorian one sheet newspapers) dedicated to the execution being sold.


On the day of the Mannings execution a crowd of between 30,000 and 50,000 gathered to watch the pair be hung- the biggest crowd ever assembled at an execution in Britain. There was much gossip prior to the hanging as to whether the couple would reconcile on the scaffold and more importantly just what Maria Manning would wear to her execution (times really have not changed…). Fashion lovers were not disappointed and Maria ascended the scaffold “beautifully dressed, every part of her noble figure finely and fully expressed by close fitting black satin”. Maria and Frederick were then hung side by side.

Frederick George Manning and Marie Manning

Yet they lived on. Those who had not been able to witness their execution were still able to see the Mannings in waxwork form, with Madame Tussaud’s promising a recreation of the Mannings kitchen (complete with O’Connor under the floorboards!) and a waxwork’s in Manchester advertising its Manning’s-a-likes as able to amuse, delight and highly instruct’.

Maria Manning went on to inspire in the world of literature, most notably Charles Dickins, who having been at her execution became fascinated by the scandalous black satin clad woman and created a character in her likeness, Mademoiselle Hortense (both a lady’s maid and murderer) in his next book, Bleak House.


2. Sweet FA

In at number 2 its child murder! (Don’t say I don’t do anything for you- also in advance, sorry this one is pretty bleak)

On the 24th August 1867 Fanny Adams , her younger sister Minnie and a friend left their house to go for a walk. The group were approached by a smartly dressed man in a black coat who offered Minnie and their friend money to leave and go get sweets, which they did. The man then offered Fanny a half-penny if she would accompany him to ‘The Hollow’, she refused and he picked her up and took her anyway.

Fanny Adams

Several hours later Minnie returned home without Fanny and told their mother about the meeting with the man in the black coat. Worried Mrs Adams, went to look for Fanny with the help of a neighbor, Mrs Gardiner.

Whilst searching they saw a man in a black coat walking back to the village from the direction of The Hollow. Mrs Gardiner accosted him and demanded to know what he had done with Fanny, the man shrugged off her claims “Nothing, I gave the girls money, but only to buy sweets which I often do to children.” The two women remained unconvinced, but then the man told them that he was the clerk to a local solicitor, William Clement, deciding him to be respectable the women let him walk away.

A search party was formed, and they quickly came across Fanny’s remains. Her head was found stuck up on two poles, the eyes missing. It would take several days to find the rest of the body which was dismembered and scattered nearby, her eyes were later found in a nearby river (I said this was bleak…).

Please Victorian newspapers, don’t feel like you should hold back…

That same night an investigation into the murder was launched and the obvious prime suspect Frederick Baker, Clerk to William Clement, was immediately arrested. Baker claimed his innocence, despite his clothes being bloodstained and being found carrying two bloody knives.

Evidence mounted. The entry in Baker’s dairy for the 24th August read: killed a young girl. It was fine and hot’. Bakers colleagues said that he was missing between 1pm-3pm (the time of Fanny’s disappearance) and left the offices again at 5pm (when he met Mrs Adams and Mrs Gardiner) returning at 6pm when he then mentioned the meeting with the two women and commented that if Fanny’s body were to be found it would be ‘awkward for him’ (truly a master criminal)


The police feared that the local community would attempt to lynch Baker and his initial hearing and trial were carried out at top speed, with his trial starting at Alton Town Hall on Thursday 29th August, just days after the murder.

The judge urged the jury to take into account Baker’s poor mental health and consider Baker irresponsible for his action through reason of insanity- but the jury took just 15 minutes to convict him, Guilty. The judge had no choice but to carry out a sentence of death.


Prior to his execution on Christmas Eve 1867, Baker wrote to the parents of Fanny Adams and asked for their forgiveness of his crimes that he had committed at: “an unguarded hour and not with malice or a forethought”

The murder of Fanny Adams resonated throughout the country, with the grotesque illustration and write ups of the murder featured across newspaper and broadsides. The murder would also become the subject of many a folk songs and ballad.

Then in 1869 the British Navy introduced a new ration, mutton in a tin. The food stuff was hardly appetizing and sailors started a running joke that the mutton was actually the remains of ‘sweet Fanny Adams’ (truly the height of humor…). These joke continued and soon the contents of the tin became to be known as ‘sweet FA’ this trickled into popular parlance and still today people say ‘sweet FA’ as another term for ‘nothing’. Nice.

I’m sorry, but I did say this one was bleak!


Part 2 coming very soon, hopefully less child murder…

Contagious Diseases Act – The most vital chapter in women’s history you’ve never heard of


The Contagious Diseases Act (here by shortened to the CD Acts because as important as it is…it’s one hell of a mouthful) came about in part due to the rapid rise of prostitution in Victorian England. Prostitution was the fourth largest occupation for working women* and it grew along with the boom of the British Empire.


This bombastic empire expansion led to thriving new trading routes and soon British sailors were bringing home ships chock full of tea, textiles and Venereal Disease. Yup you have to take the bad with the good and one of the prices for this exciting new empire? An exciting new STI! Sailors picked up VD from their travels and then spread it back in Britain when they arrived home after a long time at sea and in need of some company…

The disease spread quickly and became an epidemic. Parliament needed to do something to control the situation and fast! So in 1864 they covertly passed The Contagious Disease Bill.

The bill allowed for any person suspected of being a ‘common prostitute’ to be forced into submitting to an internal genital exam by a male doctor.

The law only pertained to women.

The examination was humiliating and painful. It would later be described as ‘surgical rape’. Countless female sex workers found themselves subject to this ordeal.



The situation was further worsened as there didn’t need to be any evidence for a woman to be accused and therefore internally examined. This resulted in many women who were not sex workers having to undergo the examination- with both the accusation and their examination now public knowledge these women found their reputations destroyed – they became ‘ruined women’ and their chances for a hopeful future were vastly diminished.


Parliament renewed the CD Acts in 1866 and again in 1869. Increasing the penalty for not submitting to a genital exam to 3-6 months in prison with the possibility of hard labour. This was later raised to 6-9 months to help the women ‘become clean’.

Throughout the acts frequent revisions hardly any of the public knew about it – though it effected 50% of the population, it remained a secret. That was all about to change.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme

In 1869 a meeting about the bill was held Bristol’s Royal Hotel. At this meeting was Woman’s Suffrage Campaigner, Elizabeth Wolstenholme. She was shocked to hear about the CD acts, which had now been in effect for almost 5 years.

Elizabeth saw the CD acts as a violation of woman’s rights and made it her mission to raise public awareness. After leaving the meeting Elizabeth contacted her friend Josephine Butler and asked for her help. Butler was a social reformer and women’s rights campaigner who had previous experience working with and campaigning for the rights of women working as prostitutes.

Josephine Butler

Butler and Wolstenholme toured the country giving speeches about the act- to say this is shocking would be a huge understatement, a woman talking openly in public about sex in the Victorian era was shocking and seen as deeply concerning. Yet the speeches worked. The women sparked something and people started talking and when people started talking they became outraged.

Soon Butler and Wolstenholme formed the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA for short) and in doing so arguably became two of the first publically known feminists. Though women before them had previously fought against slavery and war, this was the first time in British history that women were fighting for all women’s rights and women’s sexual rights at that.


In 1869 the fledgling LNA published a petition with 124 signatures calling for a repeal of the CD acts. Two years later in 1871 they produced another petition calling for the repeal – when it was handed in to The House of Commons it had to be laid on the floor as there was not a table that was large enough to hold it. Groundbreaking doesn’t even cover it.

The LNA worked tirelessly over many years to end the CD acts, but that wasn’t all Butler and Wolstenholme did – in fact from the start of The Contagious Diseases Act to its end both women did an extraordinary amount:

  • 1865 – Elizabeth Wolstenholme along with 11 other women formed the Kensington Society, a discussion group which would lead to the birth of the suffrage movement in Britain.
  • 1867 – Josephine Butler becomes chair of The North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women. A council both women work on.
  • 1868 – Both Butler and Wolstenholme join the Married Women’s Property Committee which sought to allow wives the right to buy, own and sell property.
  • 1875 – Butler tours Europe, giving speeches about sexual rights for women. This creates the International Abolitionist Movement, a group whose aim was to prevent international trafficking and stop state regulation of the sex trade.
  • 1882 – Married Women’s Property Act allows married women to retain property following campaigning by both Butler and Wolstenholme.
  • 1885 – Josephine Butler succeeded in campaigning for the age of consent to be raised from 13-16, helping to lower the rate of child prostitution.
  • 1886 – Wolstenholme’s campaign to improve women’s right to custody following divorce succeeds with the Guardianship of Infants Act

In 1886 The Contagious Diseases Act is finally repealed.


*Though a reliable estimate of the actual amount of women working in this field does not exist, we can see that throughout the 1840’s and 50’s the number of women working in prostitution was rapidly growing.

%d bloggers like this: