Victorian Crime News: Evidence Which Cannot Err or Deceive?

By Cassie Watson; posted 28 March 2021.

Our ability to research the history of crime is expanding at a remarkable rate, as more and more legal documents and historic newspapers are digitised. Despite paywalls and the shortcomings associated with optical character recognition and keyword searching,[1] news reports and images can be both valuable sources of primary evidence and important tools to think with. As searches reveal unexpected information, new possibilities for research projects both large and small emerge.

Dangerous, Different or Dumb?

Inspired by an American homicide detective’s comment that people who do dumb, different and dangerous things tend to arouse police interest,[2] I conducted a search of The Illustrated Police News with two purposes in mind. Firstly, I wanted to know whether I could use it to research police surgeons, a significant but under-studied group in the history of crime investigation.[3] The answer is yes, to an extent: a simple search yielded several hundred hits between 1867 (the newspaper was founded in February 1864) and 1938.[4] Most of these note evidence given at inquests or trials, but in one case the police surgeon was himself on trial — for manslaughter and procuring abortion.[5] There’s a bigger story there, obviously. Secondly, I wondered whether Victorian crime reports would reveal much about police investigative methods — but was immediately side-tracked by a series of interesting stories that could one day merit inclusion in a serious academic study.

In March 1893 a man named James Shannon lost all or part of his nose to a dog in a Blackburn pub. There are two conflicting reports of this incident: either the dog was a savage, possibly rabid stray; or it was a fox terrier that came in with its owner.[6] Accounts agree that the victim put his face close to the dog’s mouth and was then attacked and bitten severely. Shannon was taken to the Infirmary, the dog to the police station (its fate unreported), and the scene depicted with what appears to have been considerable artistic license.[7]

“A Mad Dog Bites a Man’s Nose Off,” The Illustrated Police News, 18 March 1893.

An even more shocking three-image tableau published in September the same year portrays two suicides (one apparently by self-immolation) and an accidental death which occurred when strong wind blew a young woman over a cliff at Colwyn Bay. All of the drawings are unsettling, to say the least, but one more than the others: it shows a man hanging from a tree surrounded by four huge crows in flight (one of which is pecking out an eye); in the background, a startled police constable comes upon the scene.[8] This depiction of a “ghastly discovery at Wembley” is a reminder both of the integral role of the police in Victorian death investigations and the importance of “retrieving in depth the personal experiences of suicide of completely ordinary people.”[9] The drawing may be sensational but the story is not: similar reports could usefully augment details contained in coroners’ records, even though we know that newspaper reports of inquests were “selective and biased.”[10]

Police Investigations and Unsolved Murders in 1898

The account of the death of Thomas Webb at Finchley in January 1898 raises interesting questions about homicide investigations. The killing, which has been the subject of at least one short popular account,[11] remains unsolved and may have been a case of accident or mistaken identity. The victim, a 32-year-old married cow-keeper in the employ of the Express Dairy Company, was shot in the neck near his cottage at College Farm at about 8pm on 29 January; two surgeons told an inquest that it could not have been a suicide,[12] and two other witnesses confirmed hearing two shots.[13] The inquest jury did not return a verdict of murder by person(s) unknown, since there was no evidence of the intent with which the bullets were fired.[14] This is because they were so large and slow (the bullet that killed Webb did not pass through his neck) that the gun could not have been a revolver;[15] it was more likely used for shooting game. For historians interested in the weapons used to commit crimes, this information may well be useful.

“Strange Tragedy at Finchley,” The Illustrated Police News, 5 February 1898.

The report in The Illustrated Police News provides an inaccurate picture of the scene — the victim died on his own doorstep, though he was shot near an outbuilding — and of the arrival of the police and doctors (the police surgeon must have arrived later). Details about the police officers and evidence at the scene may also be inaccurate, but provides a suggestion of how the case was investigated. Five detectives were assigned to it, four of whom are named but none of whom were later reported as inquest witnesses, where the lead detective was stated to be Chief Inspector Henry Moore (1848–1918), who had led the hunt for Jack the Ripper between 1889 and 1896.[16] A pool of blood in the road was covered with a mat and guarded; distances were measured to locate where the gun was fired from; and detectives concluded that the perpetrator had not arrived by bicycle.[17]  

More interesting, from a crime historian’s perspective, is an article found by searching for further details of the Webb case.

In August 1898 Mrs Arabella Tyler was murdered at Blackheath in mysterious circumstances, prompting the Daily Mail to publish a critique of the London police that, though apparently not widely reprinted, is important for the points it makes about investigative methods in relation to a series of unsolved crimes.[18] The Daily Mail was one of a new breed of tabloids in which rhetoric and sensationalism were not necessarily balanced by careful legal detail, and in castigating the police for their failure to use science effectively, this article shows early signs of the “journalistic subjectivity” for which the tabloids are known.[19] But the points made are nonetheless important; and should one wish to do such a project, the article offers a starting point for a small comparative research study of the unsolved murders of a single decade.[20]

Suburban Disquiet

“Within quite a few months we have had the following undiscovered crimes: The murder of Thomas Webb. The murder of Miss Marshall. The murder of a nameless man found in the Thames. The murder of William Barrett. The murder of Emma Johnson. The murder of Mrs Francis. The murder of Miss Camp. The Cafe Royal murder. To say nothing of numerous burglaries and minor crimes which have passed without the authors being discovered. Nor was it the case, as in the famous “Jack-the- Ripper” murders, which terrorised London some ten years ago, and which are a mystery to this day, that in all the above instances clues were wanting.”[21]

What were these clues? A pestle (Camp) and some fingerprints (Francis; her husband had disappeared and the failure to catch him, “as his appearance is well known, does not increase the confidence in our detectives.”) But the body in the Thames, stark naked and bound with rope, and the Webb case were “perhaps instances where the police cannot be severely censured.”[22] Both finger- and footprints had been found in the Tyler case. And so the article offered very specific advice to the police: “Had our authorities done what they ought to have done, and adopted the Bertillon method when it was first given to the scientific world, the detection of the criminal would be almost certain. … Unfortunately, it is only within the last few years that the Bertillon system has been followed in England, and so, unless the criminal has been very recently in custody, his finger-prints will be wanting. This at least shows the danger of neglecting science. Finger-prints are evidence which cannot err or deceive.”[23]

Claiming that the “detective system generally lacks elasticity and is too conservative,” the article concluded with an exhortation to the police to employ bloodhounds as “a powerful deterrent to the criminal”, and to show “energy and skill” so as to “prove to the public that they are not so helpless as they seem.” Otherwise, it warned, “the uneasiness, especially in the suburbs, will be great.”[24] Sadly, however, the murder of Mrs Tyler also remains unsolved.[25]


Main image: “Strange Tragedy at Finchley,” The Illustrated Police News, 5 February 1898, p. 9. Retrieved from the British Newspaper Archive and reproduced by permission. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.

“A Mad Dog Bites a Man’s Nose Off,” The Illustrated Police News, 18 March 1893, p. 3. Retrieved from the British Newspaper Archive and reproduced by permission. Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.


[1] Tim Hitchcock, “Confronting the digital: Or how academic history writing lost the plot,” Cultural and Social History 10 (2013): 9-23; Hieke Huistraa and Bram Mellink, “Phrasing history: Selecting sources in digital repositories,” Historical Methods 49 (2016): 220-229.

[2] Swipe Right for Murder (2017-18), Season 1, Episode 7 (Ashley Pegram).

[3] Katherine D. Watson, Medicine and Justice: Medico-legal Practice in England and Wales, 1700-1914 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020), 100-103.

[4] Linda Stratmann, The Illustrated Police News: The Shocks, Scandals and Sensations of the Week, 1864-1938 (London: British Library Publishing, 2019).

[5] Illustrated Police News, 28 November 1935, 4. Dr Robert Erskine-Gray was acquitted at the Kent Assizes.

[6] Northern Daily Telegraph, 7 March 1893, 3; Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 7 March 1893, 4; Preston Herald, 8 March 1893, 2.

[7] Illustrated Police News, 18 March 1893, 3.

[8] Illustrated Police News, 23 September 1893, 4.

[9] Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 3.

[10] Victor Bailey, “This Rash Act”: Suicide Across the Life Cycle in the Victorian City (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 49-50.

[11] Danny Adams, The College Farm Mystery: The True Story of the Finchley Murder of 1898 (B07HCQJ9XY ebook, 2018).

[12] London Evening Standard, 4 February 1898, 6.

[13] London Evening Standard, 18 February 1898, 7.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Tenbury Wells Advertiser, 15 February 1898, 2.

[16] Adams, The College Farm Mystery.

[17] Illustrated Police News, 5 February 1898, 9. Most of this article is a verbatim reprint from the Daily Mail, 1 February 1895, 5.

[18] “The Outlook: Will Murder Out?,” Daily Mail, 17 August 1898, 4; New Ross Standard, 20 August 1898, 8. A short version appeared in The English Lakes Visitor, 20 August 1898, 8.

[19] Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson and Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain: Press Reporting and Responsibility, 18202010 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013), 84-87.

[20] “Murderers At Large,” Daily Mail, 7 March 1899, 3.

[21] “The Outlook: Will Murder Out?,” Daily Mail, 17 August 1898, 4.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] (accessed 28 March 2021).

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