The Invention of Murder, By Judith Flanders

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The Independent Culture

Reading this epic dissection of 19th-century murder and the fascination it held for the Victorian public, you are reminded of the odd ways in which the names of perpetrators and victims continue to resonate. The expression "Sweet Fanny Adams" stems from a grisly case of 1867 when the dismembered body of nine-year-old Fanny Adams was found near Alton, Hampshire. Myles-na-Gopaleen, the pen-name used by Flann O'Brien, was a character in Dion Boucicault's drama The Colleen Bawn - derived from the real-life murder of 15-year-old Ellen Hanley, drowned in 1819. Thomas Hood's poem "Eugene Aram", repeatedly used for comic effect by PG Wodehouse – in Bertie Wooster's mangled recollection, it goes, "Tum-tum tum-tumpty mist (I think it's mist),/ And Eugene Aram walked between,/ With gyves upon his wrist" – concerned a Knaresborough man hanged for the murder of a shoemaker in 1749.

Flanders restricts her canvas to the era of the broadside and penny dreadful (and she notes that Fanny Adams was first applied to "cheap, tinned meat"). There is a sound reason for this tight frame. Though murders were a comparative rarity in the 19th century, our forebears couldn't get enough of them. Flanders has ample material without straying beyond 1900.

Slayings inspired countless plays and puppet shows. From Pollack's Toy Theatre, you could buy The Maid and the Magpye, based on Ella Fenning, whose hanging for attempted murder attracted 45,000 spectators in 1815. The slaughter of Maria Marten at the Red Barn near Polstead, Suffolk, in 1827, which still rings a distant bell in the public memory, prompted fairground peepshows, numerous plays, a host of penny dreadfuls (one publisher's standing instruction was: "More blood – much more blood!") and even Staffordshire pottery figurines.

Other star cases in Flanders's sanguinary panorama include Palmer the Rugeley poisoner, who infected Dickens's fertile imagination ("I see the late Mr Palmer at the theatre... down the street... on the race course"), Mary Eleanor Pearcey, hanged for the murder of a mother and baby in Hampstead in 1890 (an exhibition at Tussaud's associated with the case attracted 75,000 in three days) and, inevitably, the Whitechapel murders of 1888, which led to 400,000 words in the Daily Telegraph alone. A century on, the plays have become TV series but little has changed. The most infamous instance of phone hacking by the News of the World was prompted by our continuing obsession with murder.