When it comes to Victorian murderers (and murderers in general) there’s one who reigns supreme: Jack the Ripper. The mystery of the Whitechapel murderer has gripped the British public and true crime fanatics everywhere for over a century, but he was by no means the only – or the most prolific – Victorian murderer.
There were many others who, unlike Jack, were tried and convicted of their grisly crimes, and who you should definitely be aware of if Victorian crime is an interest of yours.
Entire family murders are rare, but John Owen brutally murdered the Marshall family in Middlesex in 1870. Owen had been employed by the head of the family, Emmanuel Marshall, who was the village blacksmith. After deeming Owen’s work to be insufficient and of poor quality, Emmanuel refused to pay Owen. This sparked a severe grudge, which Owen clung to. On the night of May 22nd 1870, Owen snuck into the Marshall family home which was inhabited by Emmanuel, his wife and their four children. One by one, he beat each member to death with a sledgehammer. He then changed into one of Emmanuel’s best suits, looted the family’s property and left. The following day, he pawned the stolen items and continued to wear Emmanuel’s best suit whilst spending money rather nonchalantly.
Two days after the murders, the Marshall family seamstress knocked on the door to the cottage but received no answer. She peered through one of the windows to see if anyone was home and was greeted with the sight of blood and several bodies. Horrified, she called the police who initially thought Emmanuel was responsible, but they later found his body and realised there was an unknown mass murderer on the loose.
At the time of the murders, Owen lived in a lodging house alongside a man only known as Coombes. Following the news that six bodies had been found at the Marshall family cottage, Coombes informed the police about Owen. He told them that Owen was usually very poor and barely able to scrape enough money to buy a pint. In the days following the murders, he had been flashing the cash and wearing a very fine suit which matched the description a neighbour had given to the police of a man she saw leaving the property (whom she had initially believed to have been Emmanuel).
Owen had told Coombes that he was going to get the 6:45pm train to Reading, which Coombes relayed to the police. The police and Coombes followed Owen to Reading and into a pub where Coombes positively pointed him out. As the police approached Owen to arrest him, he pulled out a pistol that he had stolen from the Marshall family home. The officers managed to wrestle the gun out of Owen’s hands and take him into custody.
It transpired that Owen was already a convicted criminal and was released from prison just two days before the mass murder, during which time he was cited as saying that if Marshall didn’t give him his owed money, he would kill him.
Owen was convicted and hanged on August 8th 1870.
Of all the Victorian murders, Amelia Dyer is one of the most prolific, yet she isn’t widely spoken about. Dyer resided in Reading and, after being widowed, resorted to ‘baby farming’ to sustain an income. Baby farming was a practice many people undertook and it involved taking in unwanted and illegitimate babies for a fee. The babies were often handed over by mothers who couldn’t support them or who, under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, were not entitled to any financial support from the fathers. Baby farmers took advantage of this situation by promising to give the unwanted children a loving and comfortable home, but this was often not the case. Most baby farmers would neglect the children to the point they died, at which point they would restart the process and receive a fee for a new child. Initially, as awful as it was, this is what Amelia Dyer did, but in a bid to maximise her profits, Dyer resorted to faster killings in the form of strangulation.
After some time, a physician became weary of the number of children that were dying under Amelia’s care and involved the authorities. Rather than murder, she was convicted of neglect and was sentenced to six months of hard labour.
When she left prison, she returned to baby farming but became more advanced. She moved from area to area and assumed various identities so that the authorities wouldn’t be able to track her. She also stopped seeing physicians and resorted to disposing of the bodies herself, typically by putting them in the Thames.
A body washed up on the shores of the Thames of a child with white edging tape wrapped around the neck. The police were able to trace the child back to Dyer and raided her house. They noted a stench of human remains, but they couldn’t find any bodies. Over time, several more bodies with white tape around the necks were found in the Thames.
Following an interview, Dyer admitted that the white tape was a tell-tale sign they were children she murdered. At her trial at the Old Bailey in March 1896, Dyer claimed insanity, but she was convicted of murder – albeit just one count. Given the 30-year period that Dyer was a baby farmer, it’s estimated she killed between 300-400 babies. She was hanged on June 10th 1896.
Mary Ann Cotton
Mary Ann Cotton was one of the most prolific serial killers that you’ve probably never heard of. She was born in Sunderland on Halloween 1832. When she was 20, she married William Mowbray and moved to the south-west of England. It is thought that they had up to nine children together, all but one of whom died in infancy.
The couple moved back up north and William – formerly a labourer – undertook work as a fireman. He died in 1865 of an intestinal disorder. He was insured and following his death, Mary was awarded £35. After William’s death, Mary moved to Durham and, after sending her only living child to live with her mother, began working at the Sunderland Infirmary. Here, she met George Ward who was a patient at the time. The pair married in August 1865, but George died in 1866 of intestinal problems put down to cholera and typhoid. Mary collected a sum of money following her late husband’s death.
In 1866, James Robinson hired Mary as a housekeeper after his wife died, and when his baby died too, he turned to Mary for comfort. Mary became pregnant but soon found out her mother, who was looking after her child Isabella from her first marriage, was ill with hepatitis. Mary returned home to look after her mother who began to make a recovery but soon became ill with intestinal problems and died in 1867. Isabella went to live with Mary and James but died of intestinal problems in close succession to two of James’ children from his previous marriage. Mary collected a payout for the death of Isabella. In November 1867, Mary gave birth to her first child with James, but the child died in February 1868. They had another child called George in 1869, but the marriage broke down soon after when he realised Mary had incurred great debts and was pawning household valuables. He kicked her out and assumed custody of George.
Mary was left homeless but was soon introduced to Frederick Cotton who was a recent widow and had two children. Mary very quickly became pregnant for the 12th time and married Frederick in 1870, giving birth to their son in 1871. Mar soon learned that a former lover of hers, Joseph Nattrass, was only 30 miles away and single, so she persuaded Frederick to move closer to Nattrass. Following the move, Frederick died of gastric fever, baby Robert soon followed and Nattrass moved in with Mary as a lodger. Mary then undertook work as an excise officer for John Quick-Manning and she quickly became pregnant with his baby – her 13th child. Following the pregnancy, Nattrass died of gastric fever.
Mary wasn’t suspected of murder until she was approached by parish official Thomas Riley and asked to take care of a woman with smallpox. She said she couldn’t nurse the woman because Charles, Frederick Cotton’s only living son, was a hindrance and asked if he could be sent to a workhouse. She was told that she would have to accompany him to the workhouse, but it is reported that in response to this, she said: “I won’t be troubled long. He’ll go like all the rest of the Cotton’s.”
Five days after, Mary reported Charles as dead. Thomas Riley asked for an investigation to be opened into the death after discovering she had taken out a life insurance policy for Charles, but the jury returned a verdict of natural causes.
Following the investigation, local media looked into Mary and discovered she had left 11 children, three husbands, two lovers and her mother to gastric diseases. This report gave way to a scientific investigation where it was discovered samples taken from Charles’ body contained arsenic. Mary was arrested and sent to trial after she gave birth to her 13th and final child, Margaret, in 1873. Mary was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hanging. She was hung on March 24 1873. Only two of her children survived; George from her marriage to James Robinson, and Margaret from her relationship with John Quick-Manning.
These are just three of the many serial killers active in the Victorian-era alongside the famed Jack the Ripper. If you’d like more information on Jack the Ripper, book a tour!