Murder by the Book

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In Murder by the Book, Claire Harman explores a horrific Victorian England crime that captivated the country. In 1840, Lord William Russell, a well-to-do senior citizen, was found nearly decapitated in his bed at his London residence. The hunt for the murderer focused heavily on Russell’s servants and finally yielded a confession from his valet, a Swiss national named Francois Benjamin Courvoisier. Courvoisier admitted guilt, but his testimony was often conflicting and although he was ultimately sent to the gallows for the crime, there has been doubt as to whether or not he was the actual murderer, or if so, did he have an accomplice?

Harman’s book doesn’t only focus on the murder, but also puts the crime in context of other events during the era. Much as there is a current trend for blaming video games, music, and movies for violence in our society, there was a similar situation occurring in Victorian England. In the mid 1800’s, people were captivated by crime novels. There was a popular book genre called the “Newgate Novel.” Named for the infamous Newgate prison ( where Courvoisier was held and hung), the novels romanticized criminals.

In particular, there was one Newgate Novel that rose to controversy with the murder of Russell: Jack Sheppard. Written by William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, is the true crime tale that Courvoisier claims gave him the idea to murder Russell. Jack Sheppard was a huge part of pop-culture, which beyond the book, also was told through multiple stage plays, may of which were an inexpensive form of entertainment that all segments of society could enjoy and did so, by seeing the productions multiple times. The idea of a servant turning on their employees, especially in such a brutal fashion, was a panic at the time and led to even more criticism of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Novel genre.

Other famous authors, like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, closely followed the Courvoisier trial. Dickens in particular became a strong opponent of public hangings, his thought being that the damage done by the public witnessing an execution, is greater than its act as a deterrent against criminal behavior. He witnessed Courvoisier’s execution and used his writings to speak out against the act. The last public hanging in the United Kingdom would occur just a few decades later. The way Harman describes the festival atmosphere around the execution is chilling.

A very interesting fact that Harman mentions is that a doctor wrote to Scotland Yard with an idea that finger prints might be used to identify the true murderer. This was before finger printing was used and the idea was dismissed, not be used until fifty years later. Harman mentions that had finger printing had been around, other Victorian era crimes, such as Jack the Ripper, might have been solved.

Murder by the Book took me about 1/3 to really feel invested in the story, but as soon as I reached that point, I couldn’t put it down. The crime is shocking, but the real fascinating element is how the crime informed public debate over art and social policy, such as executions. Violence has always been part of culture and art has always included violence, making this shocking case from 1840, just as relevant in today’s conversation. Does glorifying violence lead to violence? I don’t advocate censorship or banning art, but somewhere in all of this there does seem to be a problem that has been occurring for generations. I think mental health is likely the missing puzzle piece and by his own admittance, Courvoisier claimed to have been in a rage. At the time Phrenology, the pseudoscience of studying skull shapes to analyze mental traits, was all the rage. Of course now, Phrenology is not only disproven, but also associated with racism and the goal of proving superiority with certain races. However, it is interesting to note that even if the Victorians were on the wrong track with Phrenology, the idea of exploring mental imbalance and its association with violent behavior was of importance.

Harman’s book leaves the reader with much to consider and would be a great pick for book clubs or classrooms. It’s great for true crime enthusiasts and history buffs, as well for lovers of Victorian England authors. Murder by the Book is a compelling read for people who can handle the gory details!