Accounts of criminals, their victims, and their pursuers have become entrenched within the sphere of popular culture; most obviously in the genres of true crime and crime fiction. The centrality of the pursuer in the form of the detective, within these stories, dates back to the nineteenth century. This, often highly-stylised and regularly humanised protagonist, is now a firm feature of both factual and fictional accounts of crime narratives that, today, regularly focus on the energies of the detective in solving a variety of cases.
So familiar is the figure of the detective, it seems that these men and women—amateurs and professionals—have always had an important role to play in the pursuit and punishment of the wrongdoer. Yet, the first detectives were forced to overcome significant resistance from a suspicious public. Some early efforts to reimagine punishment and to laud the detective include articles written by Charles Dickens; pieces on public hangings and policing that reflect the great Victorian novelist’s commitment to shed light on, through written commentaries, a range of important social issues. This article explores some of Dickens’s lesser-known pieces, that—appearing in daily newspapers and in one of his own publications Household Words—helped to change some common perceptions of punishment and policing.
Image 1: Harper's Magazine 7 December 1867 (Charles Dickens Reading, by Charles A. Barry). Image credit: United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
A Reliance on the Scaffold: Early Law Enforcement in England
Crime control in 1720s England was dependent upon an inconsistent, and by extension ineffective, network of constables and night watchmen. It would be almost another three decades before Henry Fielding established the Bow Street Foot Patrol, or Bow Street Runners, in 1749, “six men in blue coats, patrolling the area within six miles of Charing Cross” (Worsley 35). A large-scale, formalised police force was attempted by Pitt the Younger in 1785 with his “Bill for the Further prevention of Crime and for the more Speedy Detection and Punishment of Offenders against the Peace” (Lyman 144). The proposed legislation was withdrawn due to fierce opposition that was underpinned by fears, held by officials, of a divestment of power to a new body of law enforcers (Lyman 144).
The type of force offered in 1785 would not be realised until the next century, when the work of Robert Peel saw the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act 1829. The Police Act, which “constituted a revolution in traditional methods of law enforcement” (Lyman 141), was focused on the prevention of crime, “to reassure the lawful and discourage the wrongdoer” (Hitchens 51). Until these changes were implemented violent punishment, through the Waltham Black Act 1723, remained firmly in place (Cruickshanks and Erskine-Hill 359) as part of the state’s arsenal against crime (Pepper 473).
The Black Act, legislation often referred to as the ‘Bloody Code’ as it took the number of capital felonies to over 350 (Pepper 473), served in lieu of consistency and cooperation, across the country, in relation to the safekeeping of the citizenry. This situation inevitably led to anxieties about crime and crime control. In 1797 Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate, published A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis in which he estimated that, out of a city population of just under 1 million, 115,000 men and women supported themselves “in and near the Metropolis by pursuits either criminal-illegal-or immoral” (Lyman 144). Andrew Pepper highlights tensions between “crime, governance and economics” as well as “rampant petty criminality [… and] widespread political corruption” (474). He also notes a range of critical responses to crime and how, “a particular kind of writing about crime in the 1720s demonstrated, perhaps for the first time, an awareness of, or self-consciousness about, this tension between competing visions of the state and state power” (Pepper 474), a tension that remains visible today in modern works of true crime and crime fiction.
In Dickens’s day, crime and its consequences were serious legal, moral, and social issues (as, indeed, they are today). An increase in the crime rate, an aggressive state, the lack of formal policing, the growth of the printing industry, and writers offering diverse opinions—from the sympathetic to the retributive—on crime changed crime writing. The public wanted to know about the criminal who had disturbed society and wanted to engage with opinions on how the criminal should be stopped and punished. The public also wanted to be updated on changes to the judicial system such as the passing of the Judgement of Death Act 1823 which drastically reduced the number of capital crimes (Worsley 122) and how the Gaols Act, also of 1823, “moved tentatively towards national prison reform” (Gattrell 579). Crimes continued to be committed and alongside the wrongdoers were readers that wanted to be diverted from everyday events by, but also had a genuine need to be informed about, crime. A demand for true crime tales demonstrating a broader social need for crimes, even the most minor infractions, to be publicly punished: first on the scaffold and then in print. Some cases were presented as sensationalised true crime tales; others would be fictionalised in short stories and novels.
Standing Witness: Dickens at the Scaffold
It is interesting to note that Dickens witnessed at least four executions in his lifetime (Simpson 126). The first was the hanging of a counterfeiter, more specifically a coiner, which in the 1800s was still a form of high treason. The last person executed for coining in England was in early 1829; as Dickens arrived in London at the end of 1822, aged just 10-years-old (Simpson 126-27) he would have been a boy when he joined the crowds around the scaffold.
Many journalists and writers who have documented executions have been “criticised for using this spectacle as a source for generating sensational copy” (Simpson 127). Dickens also wrote about public hangings. His most significant commentaries on the issue being two sets of letters: one set published in The Daily News (1846) and a second set published in The Times (1849) (Brandwood 3). Yet, he was immune from the criticism directed at so many other writers, in large part, due to his reputation as a liberal, “social reformer moved by compassion, but also by an antipathy toward waste, bureaucratic incompetence, and above all toward exploitation and injustice” (Simpson 127).
As Anthony Simpson points out, Dickens did not sympathise with the condemned: “He wrote as a realist and not a moralist and his lack of sympathy for the criminal was clear, explicit and stated often” (128). Simpson also notes that Dickens’s letters on execution written in 1846 were “strongly supportive of total abolition” while later letters, written in 1849, presented arguments against public executions rather than the practice of execution. In 1859 Dickens argued against pardoning a poisoner. While in 1864 he supported the execution of the railway carriage murderer Franz Müller, explaining he would be glad to abolish both public executions and capital punishment, “if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilisation. As I do not, I would rid Society of them, when they shed blood, in a very solemn manner” (in Simpson 138-39) that is, executions should proceed but should take place in private.
Importantly, Dickens was consistently concerned about society’s fascination with the scaffold. In his second letter to The Daily News, Dickens asks:
round what other punishment does the like interest gather? We read of the trials of persons who have rendered themselves liable to transportation for life, and we read of their sentences, and, in some few notorious instances, of their departure from this country, and arrival beyond the sea; but they are never followed into their cells, and tracked from day to day, and night to night; they are never reproduced in their false letters, flippant conversations, theological disquisitions with visitors, lay and clerical […]. They are tried, found guilty, punished; and there an end. (“To the Editors of The Daily News” 6)
In this passage, Dickens describes an overt curiosity with those criminals destined for the most awful of punishments. A curiosity that was put on vile display when a mob gathered on the concourse to watch a hanging; a sight which Dickens readily admitted “made [his] blood run cold” (“Letter to the Editor” 4).
Dickens’s novels are grand stories, many of which feature criminals and criminal sub-plots. There are, for example, numerous criminals, including the infamous Fagin in Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1838); several rioters are condemned to hang in Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty (1841); there is murder in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844); and murder, too, in Bleak House (1853). Yet, Dickens never wavered in his revulsion for the public display of the execution as revealed in his “refusal to portray the scene at the scaffold [which] was principled and heartfelt. He came, reluctantly to support capital punishment, but he would never use its application for dramatic effect” (Simpson 141).
The Police Detective: A Public Relations Exercise
By the mid-1700s the crime story was one of “sin to crime and then the gallows” (Rawlings online): “Crimes of every defcription (sic) have their origin in the vicious and immoral habits of the people” (Colquhoun 32). As Philip Rawlings notes, “once sin had been embarked upon, capture and punishment followed” (online).
The origins of this can be found in the formula relied upon by Samuel Smith in the seventeenth century. Smith was the Ordinary of Newgate, or prison chaplain (1676–1698), who published Accounts of criminals and their gruesome ends. The outputs swelled the ranks of the already burgeoning market of broadsides, handbills and pamphlets. Accounts included: 1) the sermon delivered as the prisoner awaited execution; 2) a brief overview of the crimes for which the prisoner was being punished; and 3) a reporting of the events that surrounded the execution (Gladfelder 52–53), including the prisoner’s behaviour upon the scaffold and any last words spoken. For modern readers, the detective and the investigation is conspicuously absent. These popular Accounts (1676–1772)—over 400 editions offering over 2,500 criminal biographies—were only a few pence a copy. With print runs in the thousands, the Ordinary earnt up to £200 per year for his efforts (Emsley, Hitchcock, and Shoemaker online). For:
penitence and profit made comfortable bedfellows, ensuring true crime writing became a firm feature of the business of publishing. That victims and villains suffered was regrettable but no horror was so terrible anyone forgot there was money to be made. (Franks, “Stealing Stories” 7)
As the changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution were having their full impact, many were looking for answers, and certainty, in a period of radical social transformation. Sin as a central motif in crime stories was insufficient: the detective was becoming essential (Franks, “True Crime” 239). “In the nineteenth century, the role of the newly-fashioned detective as an agent of consolation or security is both commercially and ideologically central to the subsequent project of popular crime writing” (Bell 8). This was supported by an “increasing professionalism and proficiency of policemen, detectives, and prosecutors, new understandings about psychology, and advances in forensic science and detection techniques” (Murley 10). Elements now included in most crime narratives.
Dickens insisted that the detective was a crucial component of the justice system—a figure to be celebrated, one to take centre stage in the crime story—reflecting his staunch support “of the London Metropolitan Police” (Simpson 140). Indeed, while Dickens is known principally for exposing wretched poverty, he was also interested in a range of legal issues as can be evinced from his writings for Household Words.
Image 2: Household Words 27 July 1850 (Front Page). Image credit: Dickens Journals Online.
W.H. Wills argued for the acceptance of the superiority of the detective when, in 1850, he outlined the “difference between a regular and a detective policeman” (368). The detective must, he wrote: “counteract every sort of rascal whose only means of existence it avowed rascality, but to clear up mysteries, the investigation of which demands the utmost delicacy and tact” (368). The detective is also extraordinarily efficient; cases are solved quickly, in one example a matter is settled in just “ten minutes” (369).
Dickens’s pro-police pieces, included a blatantly promotional, two-part work “A Detective Police Party” (1850). The narrative begins with open criticism of the Bow Street Runners contrasting these “men of very indifferent character” to the Detective Force which is “so well chosen and trained, proceeds so systematically and quietly, does its business in such a workman-like manner, and is always so calmly and steadily engaged in the service of the public” (“Police Party, Part I” 409).
The “party” is just that: a gathering of detectives and editorial staff. Men in a “magnificent chamber”, seated at “a round table […] with some glasses and cigars arranged upon it; and the editorial sofa elegantly hemmed in between that stately piece of furniture and the wall” (“Police Party, Part I” 409). Two inspectors and five sergeants are present. Each man prepared to share some of their experiences in the service of Londoners:
they are, [Dickens tells us] one and all, respectable-looking men; of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence; with nothing lounging or slinking in their manners; with an air of keen observation, and quick perception when addressed; and generally presenting in their faces, traces more or less marked of habitually leading lives of strong mental excitement. (“Police Party, Part I” 410)
Dickens goes to great lengths to reinforce the superiority of the police detective. These men, “in a glance, immediately takes an inventory of the furniture and an accurate sketch of the editorial presence” and speak “very concisely, and in well-chosen language” and who present as an “amicable brotherhood” (“Police Party, Part I” 410). They are also adaptable and constantly working to refine their craft, through a
peculiar ability, always sharpening and being improved by practice, and always adapting itself to every variety of circumstances, and opposing itself to every new device that perverted ingenuity can invent, for which this important social branch of the public service is remarkable! (“Police Party, Part II” 459)
These detectives are also, in some ways, familiar. Dickens’s offerings include: a “shrewd, hard-headed Scotchman – in appearance not at all unlike a very acute, thoroughly-trained schoolmaster”; a man “with a ruddy face and a high sun-burnt forehead, [who] has the air of one who has been a Sergeant in the army” (“Police Party, Part I” 409-10); and another man who slips easily into the role of the “greasy, sleepy, shy, good-natured, chuckle-headed, un-suspicious, and confiding young butcher” (“Police Party, Part II” 457). These descriptions are more than just attempts to flesh out a story; words on a page reminding us that the author is not just another journalist but one of the great voices of the Victorian era. These profiles are, it is argued here, a deliberate strategy to reassure readers.
In summary, police detectives are only to be feared by those residing on the wrong side of the law. For those without criminal intent; detectives are, in some ways, like us. They are people we already know and trust. The stern but well-meaning, intelligent school teacher; the brave and loyal soldier defending the Empire; and the local merchant, a person we see every day. Dickens provides, too, concrete examples for how everyone can contribute to a safer society by assisting these detectives. This, is perfect public relations. Thus, almost singlehandedly, he builds a professional profile for a new type of police officer. The problem (crime) and its solution (the detective) neatly packaged, with step-by-step instructions for citizens to openly support this new-style of constabulary and so achieve a better, less crime-ridden community. This is a theme pursued in “Three Detective Anecdotes” (1850) where Dickens continued to successfully merge “solid lower-middle-class respectability with an intimate knowledge of the criminal world” (Priestman 177); so, proffering the ideal police detective. A threat to the criminal but not to the hard-working and honest men, women, and children of the city.
The Detective: As Fact and as Fiction
These writings are also a precursor to one of the greatest fictional detectives of the English-speaking world. Dickens observes that, for these new-style police detectives: “Nothing is so common or deceptive as such appearances at first” (“Police Party, Part I” 410). In 1891, Arthur Conan Doyle would write that: “There is nothing so deceptive as an obvious fact” (78). Dickens had prepared readers for the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes: who was smarter, more observant and who had more determination to take on criminals than the average person. The readers of Dickens were, in many respects, positioned as prototypes of Dr John Watson: a hardworking, loyal Englishman. Smart. But not as smart as those who would seek to do harm. Watson needed Holmes to make the world a better place; the subscriber to Household Words needed the police detective.
Another article, “On Duty with Inspector Field” (1851), profiled the “well-known hand” responsible for bringing numerous offenders to justice and sending them, “inexorably, to New South Wales” (Dickens 266). Critically this true crime narrative would be converted into a crime fiction story as Inspector Field is transformed (it is widely believed) into the imagined Inspector Bucket.
The 1860s have been identified as “a period of awakening for the detective novel” (Ashley x), a predictor of which is the significant sub-plot of murder in Dickens’s Bleak House. In this novel, a murder is committed with the case taken on, and competently solved by, Bucket who is a man of “skill and integrity” a man presented as an “ideal servant” though one working for a “flawed legal system” (Walton 458). Mr Snagsby, of Bleak House, observes Bucket as a man who
seems in some indefinable manner to lurk and lounge; also, that whenever he is going to turn to the right or left, he pretends to have a fixed purpose in his mind of going straight ahead, and wheels off, sharply at the very last moment [… He] notices things in general, with a face as unchanging as the great mourning ring on his little finger, or the brooch, composed of not much diamond and a good deal of setting, which he wears in his shirt. (278)
This passage, it is argued here, places Bucket alongside the men at the detective police party in Household Words. He is simultaneously superhuman in mind and manner, though rather ordinary in dress. Like the real-life detectives of Dickens’s articles; he is a man committed to keeping the city safe while posing no threat to law-abiding citizens.
This article has explored, briefly, the contributions of the highly-regarded Victorian author, Charles Dickens, to factual and fictional crime writing. The story of Dickens as a social commentator is one that is familiar to many; what is less well-known is the connection of Dickens to important conversations around capital punishment and the rise of the detective in crime-focused narratives; particularly how he assisted in building the professional profile of the police detective. In this way, through fact and fiction, Dickens performed great (if under-acknowledged) public services around punishment and law enforcement: he contributed to debates on the death penalty and he helped to build trust in the radical social project that established modern-day policing.
The author offers her sincere thanks to the New South Wales Dickens Society, Simon Dwyer, and Peter Kirkpatrick. The author is also grateful to the reviewers of this article for their thoughtful comments and valuable suggestions.
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