Just as "Boogeyman" Albert Fish began terrorizing late 1800s Brooklyn, there was a surge in sensational crime across the pond. Jack the Ripper was already well into his bloody scourge of London—and he wasn't the only one wreaking havoc on Victorian streets. Despite the strict moral standards of the time, the era's repressive atmosphere didn't come without its share of shadowy, unsavory figures. Among the legendary axe murderer were a number of other ruthless killers, arsenic poisoners, and master thieves who often went undetected and unpunished.
To learn more about the era's surprisingly macabre history, take a dive into our selection of Victorian true crime books. From horrifying accounts of killer spouses to a train murder that belongs in a Christie novel, each one exposes the evils that hid beneath top hats and high-neck collars.
The Napoleon of Crime
Adam Worth was one of the most notorious, yet beloved, criminals of Victorian England. He adhered to a strict code of honor, stealing only from members of the upper class. The media closely followed his case, though he wasn’t convicted of any serious charges until he was nearly 50 years old. Worth’s escapades even caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who used him as inspiration for Sherlock’s brilliant nemesis, Professor Moriarity. Napoleon of Crime reads like a detective novel, as Ben McIntyre explores how an obsession with criminal masterminds lurked just beneath the era's righteous surface.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
The brutal murder of three-year-old Saville Kent proved to be a familial tragedy and the ruin of a once-reputable detective. At the time, forensic science was new discovery, and detectives were rarely tasked with solving homicides. However, Inspector Whicher dared to step outside the norm when, in 1860, Saville’s body was found in an outdoor latrine with his throat slit. After launching his own investigation, Whicher reached a conclusion: Someone within the Kent family was responsible. Yet with neither concrete evidence nor a confession, Whicher was forced to abandon the case and return to London as a defeated—and discredited—detective. Kate Summerscale combines in-depth historical research with riveting storytelling to create a portrait of this fascinating hero and his search for the truth.
Did She Kill Him?
Another Victorian crime revisited by Kate Colquhoun, this story steps into the American South, where a young belle faces charges for poisoning her older, cotton merchant husband. Colquhoun vividly reimagines the war within the court, as Florence Maybrick's actions were questions again again. Readers are left with the same questions posed to the jury: Does prior infidelity count as evidence for murderous intent? Could Mr. Maybrick’s habit of self-medicating have caused his death? And, most important of all: Did she kill him?
The Murder of Helen Jewett
Taking place an ocean away from Sherlock’s London, this nonfiction novel explores the 1836 murder of a sex worker with a past. Mainer Helen Jewett employed a series of intricate aliases to become a highly paid courtesan in New York City. There, she lived a life of luxury until she met Richard Robinson, an arrogant young clerk from an affluent Connecticut family. The couple had a brief affair, and 10 months later, Robinson was arrested for Jewett’s murder. But alas, it pays to have friends in high places, for at the end of his five-day trial, the Robinson was acquitted—and all but disappeared. In this true crime account, Cohen traces Robinson’s deadly affair with Jewett, and unpacks a case overstuffed with sex-and-death sensationalism.
Mr. Briggs' Hat
Colquhoun chronicles the story of Thomas Briggs who, after an evening with relatives, enters carriage 69 of a Hackney-bound train from Fenchurch Station. Shortly thereafter, two bank clerks step into the same compartment. One of them notices blood pooled on the seat cushion—then smeared on the floor, the window, and a handprint on the door. Women in the adjoining compartment even complain of a red substance splattering inside the windows of the moving train. Yet there is no trace of Briggs—save for a walking stick, his leather bag, and a mysterious hat. Colquhoun masterfully writes this real-life, locked room mystery in true Victorian style, shedding light on one of the most compelling murder cases of the era.
In the heart of Victorian England, Frederick and Maria Manning murdered Maria’s well-to-do ex-lover, then buried his body beneath the flagstones of their house. Soon thereafter, the murderous couple boarded up their home and fled in opposite directions—Maria, going to Scotland, and Frederick, to the Channel Islands. In this thrilling read, Michael Alpert not only follows the story of the Mannings, but paints a rich portrait of the crime, noise, and grime of mid-19th century London.
Featured Image: From the cover of The Murder of Helen Jewett, by Patricia Cline Cohen