Murder mystery: why do some killings dominate the headlines?

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Force - London's police force - Sir Ian Blair (who is notorious for being rabidly politically correct) said this week: "Why did the Soham murders dominate the news so much? Was it because it was two white girls who were murdered?"

In this article, Colin Wilson tries to answer the question: Why do some killings in Britain dominate the headlines but not others? Is it some quirkiness of the British character? Are we so fascinated by sex scandals and sex muders that they cause mild amusement amongst our Continental neighbours?

The Times January 28, 2006

A murder mystery: why do some killings dominate the headlines?
Colin Wilson

To understand our fixation with Soham we have to delve into our imagination

IF SIR IAN BLAIR is really baffled about why certain murders, such as the Soham killings, receive more publicity than others, he has merely to glance at a list of British murders during any particular month. When PC Sharon Beshenivsky was shot dead last November by three robbers fleeing from a travel agency in Bradford, there had already been five other murders that month.

One was the stabbing of a taxi driver during a robbery, two the result of loversí quarrels, one the murder of a builder by a paranoid neighbour, and one the murder of a Polish migrant worker found in the boot of an abandoned car. All victims were white, so racial prejudice cannot be suggested as the reason that they were less widely reported. But anybody can see at a glance why those cases received less coverage than the Beshenivsky case, and that it had nothing to do with racial prejudice.

All the same, I can understand the Metropolitan Police Commissionerís bewilderment. Any criminologist finds himself wondering why certain crimes seem to touch some nerve of morbid fascination in the public, while others leave it indifferent. In the Soham case, our identification with the relatives provides the answer. In others it can be explained only in terms of some quirkiness in the British character.

For no discernible reason, 99 years ago the commonplace murder of a prostitute in Camden Town occupied the headlines for more than three months. The 23-year-old victim, Phyllis Dimmock, was found with her throat cut, and the room had been ransacked. A postcard making an appointment with her was found, and the handwriting led to the arrest of a commercial artist named Robert Wood, employed by a glassworks. He insisted on his innocence, but when it was discovered that he had tried to set up a false alibi, he was charged with the murder.

We shall never understand why the case dominated the headlines that autumn, or why his acquittal was cheered by a crowd outside the Old Bailey which was so large that it blocked the traffic as far as the Strand. The painter Walter Sickert (who nowadays is a Jack the Ripper suspect) was so fascinated by the case that he painted a series called The Camden Town Murder. In retrospect, the one thing that seems obvious is that Wood was guilty, and was acquitted because the jury felt he looked ďa decent young manĒ.

The appearance of murderer or victim certainly plays a central part in public interest. If the victim was female, newspapers never failed to depict her as beautiful. In 1902, a servant girl named Rose Harsent was found at the foot of the stairs of a house in Peasenhall, Suffolk, with her throat cut. A medical examination showed that she was pregnant. Again, England talked of nothing else for months. William Gardiner, the local choirmaster, was accused, largely on the ground that he had been observed with Rose in a compromising position on the floor of a chapel, but he was acquitted for lack of evidence. All the newspaper sketches of Rose showed her as pretty and demure in her maidservantís uniform, and the general view was that Gardiner had seduced an innocent virgin. But recent research unearthed a photograph of Rose that showed she had a homely face and receding hair, and revealed that, like Dylan Thomasís Polly Garter, she had had innumerable lovers.

The same is true of the 19th centuryís most popular tragic heroine, Maria Marten, who vanished in 1827 after leaving home secretly to marry her lover, William Corder. He had left the area when Mariaís mother dreamt she was buried in the Red Barn, and the body was unearthed. The murder, and Corderís trial and execution, became the subject of a popular play of the 19th century. We now know that Maria had borne two bastards before she allowed Corder to seduce her.

As both cases demonstrate, the British public is fascinated by sex scandals and sex murders, to an extent that causes mild amusement among our continental neighbours. But any kind of spectacular violence seems to touch the same streak of morbidity, as demonstrated by the popular rhyme:

They cut his throat from ear to ear His head they battered in.
His name was Mr William Weare.
He lives in Lyons Inn.

Mr Weare was a gambler and a cheat, which is why two members of the sporting fraternity, John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt, decided to get rid of him one weekend in 1823. They invited him down to a cottage near Elstree, shot him in the face, then cut his throat, and jammed the pistol against his head so violently that it went into his skull and filled with brains. This seems to have been the detail that mesmerised the public, and a play based on the murder entertained crowded houses. Thurtell was hanged before a vast crowd, but Huntís sentence was commuted to transportation to Botany Bay.

From all this I would infer that scrutinising the British press for sinister motives in its coverage of crime may be a waste of subtlety. There is less in our interest in murder than meets the eye. For the British, fact begins and ends with imagination.
When Patricia Cormwell did her re examination of the Jack the Ripper cases, she concluded that Sickert was the elusive murderer. Portrait Of A Killer[Jack The Ripper Case Closed] Patricia Cornwell Putnam 2002

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