Londoners reading their local newspaper, the Standard, on Monday, 18 February, 1856, would have been brought up short by this headline, tucked away at the bottom of page three under the ship news:
Some would have been shocked, perhaps afraid or angry. But others would’ve read on with the avidity that only a true-crime thrill could bring to the mid-Victorian mind.
Horrible and mysterious! A foreigner! Obscurity! Those of us who think our tabloids scrape the bottom of the barrel with their scandal stories today might be surprised to know that similar barrels have been scratched at for centuries.
You might have heard about the Penny Dreadfuls, popular cheap sheets telling supposedly true crime stories from the 1860s onwards. Their predecessors, the Penny Bloods, were perhaps based more on real violent crimes, and were guzzled by the thrill-seeking public. And nothing was as delicious as a murder, whether Maria Marten’s or the ones committed by Sweeney Todd.
And the so-called Islington murder was committed at the height of this bloodthirsty era.
The story in this (second) edition of the Standard is slightly different from later ones, so I’ll give you a quick summary, since this was all that was known (or at least all the journalists were able to get out of the police).
The servant girl said that, about 11 o’clock at night on Saturday, she was in bed and heard ‘considerable scuffling and noise in the house, followed by the sound of screaming, which she thought was caused by her mistress quarrelling with the supposed niece and locking her up in the cellar.’
She pretended to be asleep when her mistress came up to her bed and ‘press[ed] a hand over her face’.
Next morning ‘her suspicions were… redoubled’ when the ‘niece’ didn’t appear. That evening, she slipped out of the house and ‘bursting into tears related to her companion the above incidents’. This person – and who knows why she was conveniently on the street – advised her to go to the police, who investigated and found the murdered girl.
The report ends with the fact that the body was left in the cellar ‘awaiting a coroner’s inquest’ and that ‘the house [had] been taken possession of by the police’.
Later that day large crowds gathered at Clerkenwell Police Court to get a look at the two accused, and the story was fleshed (ouch) out a lot more, as you’ll read in the next #Victorianmurder post.
Which you won’t have to wait long for this time. I promise.
* Image credits:
Newspaper extracts: The British Library Board, via Findmypast
Penny blood illustration: The Mysteries of London, via bl.uk