18th century

The Fine Art of Murder | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo

This website usually deals with the ‘fun’ side of crime history by discussing mobsters, outlaws, and highwaymen.

Yet not all portrayals of crime and criminals were wild and brave characters as Walter Scott depicted them, and the criminal underworld was not always a fun like Pierce Egan depicted it to be. Highwaymen could be loved by readers and theatregoers because they were stylish and debonair, but what could authors do with savage murderers? Should accounts of murder even have a place in ‘high’ literature or should it be consigned forever to the gutter broadside press? Should the periodical press not focus instead upon intellectual matters?


Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859)

These were some of the questions which occupied the thoughts of Thomas de Quincey, who in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1827 published the first part of an essay titled ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’.[1] The essay was so well-received that de Quincey wrote ‘A Second Paper on Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’ in 1839 along with a ‘Postscript’ in 1854. The essay was spoken of admiringly as brilliant satire even into the twentieth century by authors such as G. K. Chesterton, Wyndham Lewis and George Orwell.


Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1827)

The idea that murder could be a fine art is at first glance bizarre, for murders are savage acts which the overwhelming majority of people condemn. So to understand why de Quincey would call murder a fine art we must look at the context.


First page of de Quincey’s essay in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine

The eighteenth century was an which traditional institutions such as the church, their authority, and the doctrines they promoted, were subjected to serious critique in the public sphere. This is not to say that everyone in Britain became an atheist—such a statement would be wholly untrue—but rather the fact is that Christianity’s dominance over high culture was side-lined in the face of increasing secularisation.[2] According to Tim Blanning, by 1800

[People] looked to art in all its various forms to fill the transcendental gap that was opening up. It was however a special kind of art: art that was serious, profound (at least in intention), and above all self-contained. It was around this time that ‘art’ acquired its modern meaning.[3]

For the likes of Dr Samuel Johnson in the 1750s, Blanning further records, ‘art’ meant ‘skill’. But by 1800,

art had advanced to become the supreme form of human activity’[4]

Along with the elevation of art for art’s sake in public life—which included the construction of the first purpose built art galleries, the establishment of specialist art auction houses, and the opening up of aristocratic houses for art tourism—in the press, ever more columns seemed to be devoted to commentary on art, or art criticism.[5] The ‘elevation’ of this ‘supreme form of activity’ in the press went hand-in-hand with commentary on crime. Crime of course created a lot of public interest. The world in which de Quincey lived, after all, was still one where criminals were publicly hanged at several locations in London, while broadside sellers sold the felons’ ‘last dying speech’ for a penny to the immense crowds gathered outside. Newspapers had also begun encroaching on the broadside sellers’ trade by covering—albeit in a more sober way—accounts of criminals’ trials and their executions. It struck de Quincey that what was emerging was almost like a body of criticism on the ‘art’ of murder and crime more generally. So de Quincey decided to poke fun at this new trend.


The Boydell Shakespeare Gallery

In his essay de Quincey purported to be a representative of the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder, an organisation composed of the ‘curious in homicide, amateurs and dilettante in the various modes of carnage’.[6] These men, so de Quincey argues, would regularly visit notorious crime scenes after a murder and admire the artist’s handiwork and they regularly met together to discuss and debate the latest examples of the ‘fine art’ of murder, and the language he uses apes that which was used by art critics:

“Something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry and sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”[7]

Just as there were and continue to be various ‘schools’ of art—neoclassical, Romantic, istoria, impressionism, and realism, to name but a few—so de Quincey assigned categories to the various types of murders. John Milton’s depiction of Abel’s murder by Cain, for example, had the air of ‘the Savage School’.[8]

unknown broadside B20071 75

A broadside with a suitably macabre illustration detailing a murder in the 19th century

There was one ‘artist’ in de Quincey who had excelled in the art of murder: John Williams. He had done for murder what Milton had done for poetry—he had raised the art to ‘sublime’ heights.[9] Scarcely known today outside of true crime aficionado circles, Williams was the alleged perpetrator of the notorious Ratcliff Highway murders. About twenty minutes past midnight on 7 December 1811 a servant named Margaret Jewell was returning home to 29 Ratcliff Highway, having been sent out by her master Timothy Marr, a linen draper, to buy some oysters. As she approached the entrance she heard the Marr’s baby cry out but the door was locked. Thinking that her employers had forgotten they had sent her out, she began banging on the door with much more force. This attracted the attention of the neighbours who, thinking this rather strange that no one should come at all, forced his way into the house. A scene of carnage greeted their eyes: the lifeless body of the Marrs’ apprentice, Joseph Gowan, was laid out on the floor, his head having been smashed; Celia Marr and Timothy Marr had likewise been bludgeoned to death; while the Marrs’ baby’s throat had been cut so deeply that the child was nearly decapitated, while half of the infant’s head had, like the other victims, been bludgeoned.


John Turner escaping from the Kings Arms pub

But the horror was not over yet—just twelve days later, on the evening of 19 December, a lodger at the King’s Arms public house in the vicinity of Ratcliff Highway was seen escaping from an upper storey window crying ‘Murder! Murder!’ The killer had struck again: the throat of John Williamson, the landlord, had been slit and his head had been bludgeoned; Elizabeth Williamson, his wife, and her maid had been subjected to the same treatment. An assemblage of Bow Street Runners, watchmen, and constables was assigned to hunt down the killer, and soon suspicion rested upon John Williams, a lodger at the Pear Tree public house. Williams was a regular visitor at the King’s Arms. Williams’s laundress also stated that one of his shirts had been covered in blood, although at the time she assumed him to have simply been in a brawl. It was noticed that Williams’s fellow lodger—who was away on business at the time of the murders—was in possession of a maul, which was found to be missing when the Pear Tree was searched.

Thus, Williams knew his victims at the King’s Arms, he had access to a deadly weapon, and he had been involved in something bloody. His connection to the Marrs, however, remains unexplained. Nevertheless, he was arrested and conveyed to Newgate but before he could stand trial he committed suicide, although magistrates simply convicted him at a hearing despite being dead.

De Quincey’s fictional society had clear rules on whose murders should be counted as art. The murder of kings and queens did not count as art because getting killed was just a hazard of the job for monarch. The murder of philosophers was not art because most of them deserved it, and some of those who were not murdered should have been—de Quincey argued that it was a ‘capital oversight’ for the artists of the seventeenth century not have murdered Thomas Hobbs, who ‘deserved a cudgelling for writing Leviathan’.[10] If a famous person is murdered, it is not ‘murder’ as such but assassination and their deaths are unworthy to be considered as art.[11]


The weapons used by John Williams on his victims.

The promotion of murder as a fine art in public life was much better served instead, thought de Quincey, when the victims were commoners like the Marrs and the Williamsons. Ideally the victims should be in good health because it was ‘absolutely barbarous’ to murder a person on his sick bed. The victim should preferably be a man who is survived by a wife and child. These things were truly pleasing to the eyes of the murder connoisseur, for the ‘art’ of murder in these instances led the discerning viewer, to reflect upon the nature of the art and learn from it:

The final purpose of murder considered as a fine art, is precisely the same as that of tragedy … the cleanse the heart by means of terror and pity.[12]

As for the mob, they were undiscerning; the regular newspaper reader could never be connoisseur for all that they cared about was copious amounts of blood. But blood there should be, and poisonings were not ‘art’ because there was rarely any bloodletting.

De Quincey had intended his essays to be satirical. He deplored the decline of public taste, which to him seemed to eschew anything intellectual in favour of sensationalism.[13] Yet his essay inadvertently became highly influential in subsequent portrayals of murder in the popular press, in novels, and in the twentieth century, films and television shows. The reason it was influential was because he laid down the ‘rules’ for how murder should be depicted, who should be murdered, what the lighting must be like. Just three years later, a new genre would emerge in which, whether it was intentional on the authors’ part or not, depicted murder in much the same way that de Quincey said it should be. This genre was the Newgate novel.

[1] Susan Oliver, ‘De Quincey’s “On Murder”: The Generic Conflict’, Wordsworth Circle, 44: 1 (2012), 44–51 (p. 44).

[2] Tim Blanning, The Romantic Revolution, 2nd edn (London: Hachette, 2010), p. 36.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 37.

[5] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd edn (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013), p. 371.

[6] Thomas de Quincey, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, in The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, ed. by A.W. Pollard (London: MacMillan, 1901), pp. 259–311 (p. 261).

[7] De Quincey, p. 263.

[8] De Quincey, p. 267.

[9] De Quincey, p. 265.

[10] De Quincey, p. 278.

[11] De Quincey, p. 294.

[12] De Quincey, p. 294.

[13] Oliver, ‘De Quincey’s “On Murder” ’, p. 45.

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