Crime and detection in the Victorian era

Tour of Bristol's Poor Slum Districts c1800

One of the uses of photography in Victorian times was to raise money. John Barnardo, famous founder of charities for street children used photos of ragged children to get people involved with his work. Some of the images he used look questionable to this writer, and may well have been “retouched.” With the onset of the Ripper murders in 1888. photography was used to try to solve the crimes. In the British Journal of Photography of the same year, it was stated that a person’s eyes would retain an image of the last thing she saw. Numerous pictures were taken of the Ripper victims in the hope of some revelation, alas, nothing was captured.

Richard Boursnell - Spirit Photographer c.1900

A major Victorian use of photography was to capture  images of spirits who appeared at seances. Richard Boursnell was a photographer who specialized in such images. W.T. Stead, muck raking editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, believed in the veracity of his images. Frequently “spirit photographers” were paid high sums for producing images of departed relatives. So we can see that the science of photography was little understood by most people. In fact,  science itself was in its infancy.

But the team of Dr. Joseph Bell and Arthur Conan Doyle would soon change that. Bell, one of the world’s first forensic pathologists and Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes would popularize what Dr. Bell called, “the method,”  drawing inferences from details that could be established in the laboratory. Bell succeeded in solving crimes that would have remained mysteries if not for him. Even Detective Murdoch of Murdoch Mysteries could have learned a thing or two from Dr. Bell, even though Detective Murdoch did meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in one of the episodes.

Poisoning cases were particularly obscure. When Holmes takes the stage in 1887 in “A Study in Scarlet” there was still no way to know if bloodstains were human or animal. Hence Holmes’ delight when he boasts of having found a reagent for  human blood. Poisoning as a type of killing had an indirect bearing on the murders committed by Jack the Ripper,  even though his victims were obviously killed using other means. But one of  the chief suspects, and the man whom Detective Abberline, chief investigator of the Ripper murders, believed to be “Jack” was eventually hung on the kind of forensic investigation which Dr. Joseph Bell might have conducted. Possibly, Bell may have identified this man as the Ripper. Unfortunately, we will never know since his report on the Ripper case remains lost. We do know that, Stanislaw Kosloski, a.k.a. John Chapman, was a suspect in the Ripper case and we know he poisoned three wives using a drug very difficult to detect with the crude tests of the day. When the nature of the drug was determined, it sent Chapman to his death at Wandsworth prison. When he was hung, Abberline told Ike Godley, the arresting officer, “You finally got Jack the Ripper.”


About hudsonhousemysteries

I am a graphic artist. My work is based on photography and I am also a writer of historical novels, specializing in the Victorian era with a strong emphasis on the historical connections between that time and this.I began writing by working with my late father, Alvin Schwartz, who wrote Superman and Batman comics for more than twenty years. Starting very early, about age six, I plotted comic book stories then moved on to writing film, advertising and fiction ranging from young person’s novels to my current historical novels In addition to telling a good yarn, I like to use an historical perspective to comment on modern issues. I learned about art from my mother who was one of Hans Hofmann's students and had one of the last show at Peggy Guggenheim's in NYC. I have had one man shows in Montreal and Toronto. My art website is Alan
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