Murder, Mayhem, & Earl Grey

Today I’ve been hunting down murderers (in between supervising language tests). Historical murderers, that is. Those who killed gamekeepers in the mid-1840s (the tensions in rural communities over the strict enforcement of the Game Laws and the ensuing murders of several gamekeepers form the background to “Falling for a Scoundrel”). As I was scanning several old newspapers, I was struck by the peculiar selection of news they were reporting.

There were short snippets on dreadful accidents, horrid murders, and grisly suicides — and I couldn’t help thinking that even respectable looking newspapers rather relished the gruesome details, as this bit from the Bristol Mercury (30 December 1844) shows:

DETERMINED SUICIDE AT CHISWICK — On Christmas day, the following determined act of suicide was committed at Chiswick. About a quarter past one o’clock, a man, named Hugh Griffith, a grocer, carrying on busieness in the Devonshire-road, Chiswick, cut his throat with a razor, and nearly severed his head from his body. Medical assistance was immediately sent for, and several surgeons were promptly in attendance, but life was quite extinct before they could arrive.

The sheer number of suicides I found mentioned across several newspapers in the months between September 1843 and January 1844 is quite chilling, especially since I was not looking for that particular kind of news. Together with the many reports on poaching (poaching was met with drastic punishments) and on the murders of several gamekeepers, the snippets on suicides tell of the desperation of the poor in rural areas and paint a chilling picture of their situation.

The juxtaposition of these kind of news items with other local news is rather curious, to say the least. In columns on “Local Intelligence” you can find news about murders and suicides right next to things like this:

A Rev. Tractarian at Oxford has married — to the consternation of his co-celibiates.

(Bristol Mercury, 30 Dec. 1844)

or like this:

The Earl of Yarborough has returned from Town to Brocklesby Hall for the season. The noble lord’s fox hounds had a splendid run on Tuesday morning: it lasted an hour and forty-five minutes, and was pronounced the finest of the season.

(Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 29 Dec. 1843)

or like this:

FIRST FRUIT FROM SEVILLE. — The swift sailing vessel Waterwitch, Grant, arrived at this port yesterday in seventeen days, from Seville, with a cargo of fine Seville China Oranges, imported by Mr. Sprait, and which, as appears by advertisement, will be sold by Mr. Stamp, on Tuesday next.

(Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 29 Dec. 1843)

And whole column ends with:

HEALTH OF EARL GREY. — We are glad to learn (December 25) from our Alnwick correspondent that Earl Grey continues no worse, his lordship had passed a good night, and upon the whole continues rather better.

(Hull Packet and East Riding Times, 29 Dec. 1843)