There’s been a murder!
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
In early modern England, crime was often brutal and so were the punishments. The public were fascinated and enthralled by the secrets and scandals behind the crimes and turned up in their thousands to watch the resulting executions. Their appetite for true crime was fed by the cheap news pamphlets that sensationalised the stories and whipped up public anger against individuals or sections of society. In this book, Adams uses examples culled from court and coroner records, news sheets and from letters and journals to examine how crimes were dealt with investigatively and through the criminal justice system, and how victims and criminals were perceived by the public. She argues that this period, 1500-1700, saw the beginnings of a secular, scientific approach to investigation, with increasing reliance on physical evidence, influenced by the cultural changes that accompanied the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. And she shows that, while we may no longer gather to watch gruesome public executions, the public fascination with crime and punishment hasn’t altered much in the intervening centuries.
As with all the best true crime, the crimes are merely a starting point. Adams uses each of the nine cases to highlight one or more aspects of the justice system and of the society of day. She has clearly researched the period thoroughly and writes very well, moving me more than once to anger or even tears, and using the scant records available to her to build convincing pictures of the people involved. If I have a criticism, it’s that sometimes I felt she perhaps embellished the bare bones a little to improve the storytelling aspects – I wondered more than once how she could have known what someone’s motivation was or how she could be so sure what had happened when she didn’t cite a specific source. But these moments were rare and I never felt she extrapolated unreasonably – I always felt her assumptions, if that’s what they were, were more likely to be true than not. And certainly her storytelling skills made this a fascinating read, humanising the history in a way that makes it more effective than a dry recounting of facts and statistics ever could.
There’s so much packed into each of the nine cases that I’m not even going to try to cover it all here. Instead I’ve picked a few examples to try to give a flavour of how Adams tells each story and uses it to take us deep into the culture of the period. Given that the stories cover 200 years, there’s plenty of scope for her to show us some of the changes that were happening, especially with regards to the change from religious to secular approaches to crime.
The first story is of John, a young apprentice murdered by his friend Nathaniel so that Nathaniel could rob the shop of John’s master. Adams tells us about Cheapside and the traders who worked there, specialising in luxury goods like gold and silk. She shows how the street names in the surrounding area originated from the various markets held there – Milk Street, Bread Street, etc. The murder is gruesomely told as it was in the pamphlets of the time, and the investigation seems efficient and surprisingly similar to modern investigations, relying on physical clues, witnesses, background checks on suspects, etc. She takes us beyond Nathaniel’s conviction to his time in Newgate, describing the appalling conditions in which prisoners were kept. She explains the need for him to be “converted” to satisfy the prevailing religious agenda, and how this was achieved. As she takes us through his eventual confession, guilt and remorse, and his execution by public hanging, Adams shows how the public, again very similar to today, soon lost interest in John, the victim, and became fixated on Nathaniel, the murderer, even feeling sympathy for him as his remorse was reported in the news sheets.
Elizabeth was a young girl sent as a maid to a man who repeatedly raped her then threw her out when she became pregnant. Elizabeth was one of the lucky ones – her mother and sister hid her so she was saved from life on the streets. The baby died at birth and she was tried for infanticide, but found innocent. This story is used as a basis to discuss women’s vulnerability to their masters, the horrific misogynistic laws around bastardy and infanticide, and early forensic ways of differentiating between stillbirth and infanticide. Adams shows the importance of midwives as expert witnesses at this time in deciding on how the death of a newborn occurred. I found this story particularly heartbreaking despite the fact that Elizabeth was found innocent. The lack of records means we don’t know what happened to her in her future life.
A couple of the stories involve suicide, and Adams shows the inhumanity of the laws surrounding this subject. Suicide was considered a crime and those found guilty would have their property forfeited, leaving their families destitute. This led desperate families to try to make suicides look like accident or murder in order to avoid forfeiture, and of course this had to be done immediately while the family was still dealing with shock and grief. Forfeiture was not enough for a harsh religiously-influenced state – the body of the suicide would then be desecrated before being buried in an unconsecrated pit, which of course at that time meant no hope of eternal salvation. Adams shows that suicide then, as today, often arose out of depression and mental illness, but she also gives an example of what was thought of as “honourable suicide”, a hangover from the days of chivalry, when a man who had failed in some way, especially in public life, would take his own life. Adams shows that while in general the public strongly disapproved of suicide, honourable suicide often met with a more sympathetic reaction.
Baby farms, political crimes, religious mania – these and many more aspects of crime and justice are also covered in this fascinating book. I found every story interesting and felt Adams got a really great balance between facts and the human traumas behind them. One I heartily recommend both to true crime fans, and to people more generally interested in the social and cultural aspects of the early modern period.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, 4th Estate, via NetGalley.