MURDER, mystery, blood, guts, gore, adultery and revenge. Often with a famous actor or a member of the royal family thrown in for good measure.
The Victorians did scandal better than anyone.
But while Jack the Ripper hogged the newspaper headlines of the day, there were countless gruesome and grisly stories that didn’t achieve the same level of notoriety.
Now, author Michelle Morgan has collected dozens of these macabre tales for her new book, the brilliantly bloodthirstily titled The Battered Body Beneath The Flagstones & Other Victorian Scandals.
“Everyone loves a gory Victorian tale, maybe because all this happened more than 100 years ago, so it’s become just a story,” says Michelle.
“If somebody came up to you and said: ‘Oh, so-and-so had his head chopped off yesterday,’ we’d be like: ‘My God! That’s horrendous!’ But as soon as we discover it happened in Victorian times, we’re like: ‘Oooh, tell me more!’.”
But does the Victorian era get a bad reputation? Surely it can’t all have been murderous madmen stalking defenceless women through the foggy streets of London’s East End?
“I think it does get a bad rep,” agrees Michelle. “When you talk about the Victorian era, some people think of the Queen and her whole ‘I am not amused’ thing, all bustles and nobody setting a foot out of line.
“But then you get the other side of things, which I’ve explored. Probably, for most people, it was somewhere in between those two extremes.
“At the end of the day, most of them were just people like you or me. But there was this element who were just psychopaths.”
If you ask me, TV and films are largely to blame. Never mind more retellings of the exploits of our old friend Jack, you’ve got blood-spattered TV series like Ripper Street and Penny Dreadful, as well as macabre movies such as From Hell and even Carry On Screaming!.
“I think that’s right,” Michelle adds. “Looking through the Victorian press, there’s a good amount of just general chit-chat stories like we get now, but then there’s Jack the Ripper, and you think, how did this actually happen, how did he get away with it for so long?
“I really wanted to write about him but I concentrated on this one little story that I didn’t know about at all — the girl who managed to escape his clutches.”
This would be Emily Edith Smith who, in November 1892, a year after the Ripper’s last known killing, claimed to have been attacked by a knife-wielding man.
Michelle takes up the tale: “She gave the police a very detailed description that tallied with what they had on record.
“It sounds like it was probably him, and the papers made a big fuss about ‘The Return of Jack’. But nothing ever came of it.”
It’s a great tale indeed but, cynical old journo that I am, I’m not convinced. Smith’s description was just a little too detailed and too close to what had been in the press.
“When I was researching it, all the articles were saying it certainly seemed as though it was him, but that was a little while later,” says Michelle.
“Her account was very descriptive — she said something about his eyes being different colours — but she could have been one of those people who make up a story to get attention.
“I like to think it was Jack, that he had come back, but because she escaped, he disappeared again. It’s quite a mystery.”
When it comes to how we think of Victorian times, Charles Dickens is hardly blameless to the extent that “Victorian” and “Dickensian” have become almost synonymous.
“Absolutely,” agrees Michelle. “So often when you think about Victorian times, you think about his portrayal of the era.
“Dickens does shoulder a lot of the blame for the way we think about then, but he lived through it, so I think that he took various elements of what he saw for himself and put them into fiction.
“Obviously, he embellished some things but some of his characters he based on real people — he had witnessed that kind of behaviour and, in some ways, he was a scandalous Victorian himself, having affairs and so on.”
One of those who appeared immortalised in Dickens’ fiction was the Swiss maid and murderess Maria Manning, one of the husband-and-wife killers from the book’s title tale, who ended up being the inspiration for the murderous French maid Hortense in Bleak House.
“Dickens had gone to the Mannings’ execution,” reveals Michelle. “He said he went just to see the terrible people that were watching. But he was one of them so he was a bit of a hypocrite.
“I loved writing that particular story because it was so absurd, with one twist after another.
“A woman and her husband are joined by her wealthy lover, then the married couple decide to murder the lover, but the wife then stabs her husband in the back by running off with the money!
“To this day, we don’t know what really happened because both said the other one was actually the murderer.”
We often think of the Victorian era as a geographical location as well as a time frame but Michelle didn’t confine her scandalous stories to London, or indeed even Britain.
“When I started researching the American stories, it was really different,” she explains. “All of a sudden, it was all cowboys and showgirls and scandalised versions of Little House On The Prairie-type people.
“When I was writing the British ones, it was all Victorian fog and cobbled streets, but the American ones were all shoot-’em-ups and Wild West saloons.”
It seems that even then there was a difference when it came to crime on each side of the Atlantic.
Michelle’s British murders are all good old-fashioned poisonings and stabbings, while across the pond, they’ve got a gunfight in a church.
“Also, over here there was a lot more investigation into what had happened, inquests and the Old Bailey and appropriate punishment,” adds Michelle. “Over there, the local sheriff would come and speak to them and that was the end of it.”
Some of the stories, it has to be said, are simply tragic.
“Some, I couldn’t stop thinking about for days,” admits Michelle. “Some I just couldn’t write about at all as they were just so horrible.
“There was one about a woman in London. People would bring their babies to her when they couldn’t look after them, and she would just leave them in a room to die, then dispose of their bodies around the city.”
My favourite tale has to be the utterly bizarre affair of Richard Archer Prince, who killed the famous actor William Terriss.
It reads like a penny dreadful.
“Prince was a psychopath and a complete paranoiac,” Michelle explains. “He blamed Terriss for everything and just couldn’t see that it was his own craziness that was stopping people from employing him as an actor.
“What I liked was when Prince finally murdered Terriss, he swooped in wearing this huge cape from under which he drew the knife to stab him — he was like the cheesiest actor even in real life.
“People at the time were fascinated by this case for weeks. Terriss was famous as a matinee idol type who all the women liked and the men wanted to be like.
“He was also a real-life hero, who had saved some boys from drowning in the sea off Deal. He was this wonder-man. To have somebody murder him was the biggest scandal of the day.
“Mind you, so many scandals revolved around the theatre. The actors in the Victorian age were just as scandalous as those in the 21st Century. It was as if morals didn’t apply to them, that they were above it all.”
The Battered Body Beneath The Flagstones & Other Victorian Scandals by Michelle Morgan is out now.