The Novel That Was the Missing Clue in the Murder That Shocked Victorian London

In Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’s London, Claire Harman effectively uses a novelist’s approach to recreate a now obscure 1840 English murder case that was a sensation at the time, and details how William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard was at the center of it all.

Jack Sheppard—have you been to see Jack Sheppard?” This was the cry all over London in the winter of 1839, as people gathered to discuss the season’s most sensational novel and play. Eight major theaters and dozens of “penny-gaffs” were showing versions of the story, based on William Harrison Ainsworth’s bestselling novel of that year, Jack Sheppard, a romantic re-telling of the true-life crimes of Jack the Lad. There was serious money to be made in these pre-copyright days when a craze as strong as this took hold, and Ainsworth’s ingenious, sexy thriller certainly hit a chord both with conventional literary audiences and a growing mass market hungry for thrills.

Ainsworth had been well aware of what he was doing, telling a friend that “to write for the mob, we must not write too well.” He thought that his young protégée, Charles Dickens, would be wise to follow this formula, and that the new boy’s second novel, Oliver Twist, was looking promisingly violent and sensational. The scene where Bill Sikes murdered Nancy was almost as gruesome as the scene in Jack Sheppard where Blueskin slits the throat of Mrs. Wood during a nocturnal burglary.

Dickens and his fellow writer William Makepeace Thackeray (both still in their early 20s) certainly envied Ainsworth’s huge readership, though Thackeray had strong moral qualms about books that glamorized vice and was unwilling to follow the trend. Much to his disgust, he had seen vendors of “Sheppard-bags” outside the theaters, selling pick-locks and crowbars as a kind of merchandising joke, and there were already dozens of reported copy-cat “Jack Sheppard” crimes, in which young offenders either claimed inspiration from the cheeky thief’s career, or had the link made for them by magistrates and journalists.

It was a period of political unrest and fears about Chartist violence, so the sudden popularity of an underclass hero was bound to concern authorities, and as Sheppard-mania took hold, so did a form of moral panic. The “gross and violent excitements” of the story might overstimulate a volatile populace, or lead astray disaffected individuals, it was thought; in terms of moral threat, Jack Sheppard (according to Elizabeth Barrett’s friend Mary Mitford), was a perfect “nightmare of a book.”

Ainsworth kept aloof from all this criticism, comforting himself with his remarkably good sales. But then the nightmare seemed to come true. On the morning of May 6, 1840, the servants of Lord William Russell, a 72-year-old widower living alone in Norfolk Street, Mayfair, discovered their master’s body dead in bed, the throat cut with such force that his head was almost severed. The house was in disarray from what looked like a bungled burglary; various valuables were found by the front door and the cupboards downstairs had been ransacked. But it was the gory murder itself which shocked the whole community, the butchering of a harmless old aristocrat in one of the most privileged, and supposedly safe, square miles in the country. As the young Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that day, “This is really too horrid!”

The new Metropolitan Police came under pressure to solve the murder quickly, but there were several puzzles, not least that the crime scene was strangely clean, with the mattress soaked in blood but no stains anywhere else. Once it became clear that the burglary had been staged, suspicion fell heavily on members of Lord William’s household, his housemaid Sarah Mancer, cook Mary Hannell and valet, Francois-Benjamin Courvoisier. Courvoisier, though a foreigner, was at first thought unlikely to have had any part in the atrocity. The 23-year-old Swiss servant was not very clever and his English was poor, but what he lacked in charisma he made up for in deference. “Kind-hearted and inoffensive” is what a previous employer called him.

Unknown to the police, though, was that under the valet’s agreeable exterior there were signs of restlessness; below stairs, he was always talking about cash, and the tiresomeness of working for a doddery old fuss-pot. “If I had old Billy’s money, I would not be long in this country,” he had been heard to say the day before the murder; this and the discovery of stolen items under floorboards and in pipes around the house led to his arrest and eventual trial. At the trial (followed with fascination by Charles Dickens), Courvoisier insisted on his own innocence, and might have been acquitted but for dramatic last-minute evidence that he had pre-planned a robbery of the house: after that he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Awaiting execution in the condemned cell of Newgate prison, Courvoisier began to issue a series of confessions that shocked and scandalized the nation. He had planned to rob his master and set off on a life of casual crime, he said, but was discovered by Lord William mid-action, and angrily dismissed, so later that night took a carving knife from the dining room and murdered the old man in his sleep. He hadn’t planned to kill anyone, but didn’t seem very repentant either. The idea was first suggested to him, he now claimed, “by reading and seeing the performance of Jack Sheppard,” which fired an ambition “to embark upon a career similar to that of the hero of whom he had read,” traveling from place to place, living off theft and fraud.

This landed like a bombshell, for though the public had got used to seeing Ainsworth’s book blamed for a spike in petty crime, having a murder placed at its door took matters to a new level. “If there ever was a publication that deserved to be burnt by the hands of the common hangman, it is Jack Sheppard,” one paper declared, for it was a book “calculated to familiarize the mind with cruelties.” Ainsworth was devastated, and objected strongly to the murderer’s claims, but Courvoisier didn’t retract them and went to his death, like Jack Sheppard himself, defiantly. In the vast crowd at the hanging—some 40,000 Londoners crammed into the streets around the prison—both Thackeray and Dickens were present; Thackeray intending to write an essay about the crime and its punishment, and Dickens, watching from one of the rented rooms opposite the drop, gathering details for his new book, Barnaby Rudge. Not surprisingly, Ainsworth stayed well away.

The two younger writers went on to have glittering careers, but Ainsworth was never the same again. He was ostracized, he was vilified, and to the end of his life felt the shadow of the Jack Sheppard controversy and the association of his book with the Russell murder. At this distance in time, it’s hard to unpick how genuinely surprised he was by the reaction against his book. He insisted to the last that he had never intended to make vice attractive, but if so, misjudged drastically the ways in which an alluring story can be read and interpreted. While no author can be held ultimately responsible for the ideas that enter a reader’s head, most of them long to make the most powerful impression possible.

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