There is no secret that humans are drawn to the macabre. Shows revolving around murder, such as CSI and Criminal Minds, carry on for years and spur a number of spin-offs which are often met with success. In the meantime, podcasts like UP and Vanished and My Favorite Murder continue to top the iTunes podcast charts.
This fascination is by no means new. In The Invention of Murder Judith Flander’s examines how the Victorians represented murder trials in popular media and entertainment. During this era, public executions attracted massive crowds and real life murders were quickly adapted into popular theatrical plays. Particularly interesting were the wax shows. One room of Madame Tussaud’s famous London museum was dedicated specifically to wax figures of famous murderers. Horrified and fascinated crowds ebraced the opportunity to see realistic displays of these events. This business model was not by any means unique. During the infamous Jack the Ripper Killings “a waxworks in the Whitechapel Road displayed effigies of the murdered women, as well as the unknown murderer. An illustration outside advertised the exhibition, but given the public’s heightened fears, it was considered ‘too strong’, and removed, although no one seems to have stopped the show itself.” (452).
The commodification of violent crime also serves as a major them in Paul Collin’s 2011 book, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Collins examines how reporters for New York’s two biggest newspapers, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, fought to solve a grisly murder that had captured national attention. Motivated primarily by the urge to outsell the opposing newspaper, reporters worked tirelessly to solve the murder, often outpacing police detectives in the process. Their work was rewarded with readers rushing to news stands each time a new clue surfaced.
Earlier in the Guided Age, Indiana was captivated by its own murder mystery. As detailed by historian Wendy Gamber in her book The Notorious Mrs. Clem, the 1868 recovery of a murdered couple quickly captured statewide attention when it was revealed, through a shoe print in the mud, that the murderer was likely female. When a suspect was brought to trial, gender quickly became a central focus of the resulting press coverage and legal arguments.
Whether they focus on one particular case or a collection of them, each book offers a snapshot of the past that can transport a reader into a particular time period. Though the authors are interested in the individual cases they cover, the books are often about underlying currents present in society. They address broad aspects of society and history, from yellow journalism to colonialism. These works take the human fascination with the macabre and use it to connect us with the past, showing the similarities and differences between the world our ancestors inhabited.
If you are interested in this subject, you can check out any of the aforementioned books, expect for Paul Collin’s*, in our library. You may also enjoy some of the following works from our collection:
- The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town – Helmut Walser Smith
- The Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis – Shawn Francis Peters
- London 1849: A Victorian Murder Story – Michael Alpert
- The man-leopard murders: History and Society in Colonial Nigeria – David Pratten
- The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York – Patricia Cline Cohen
- Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City– Kate Winkler Dawson
- The Velizh Affair: Blood Libel in a Russian Town – Eugene M. Avrutin
- Murder Most Russian: True Crime and Punishment in Late Imperial Russia – Lousie McReynolds
- Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South – Michael Wayne
*Paul Collin’s: The Murder of the Century is available for order on IShare. The Urbana Free Library and Champaign Public Library also have available copies.