During my lifetime there have been numerous crime stories that have gripped the nation, from the Manson Family mayhem to the Guyana massacre masterminded by the Reverend Jim Jones. Media coverage of even these heinous stories paled in comparison to the murder of child beauty pageant contestant Jon Benet Ramsey. The girl was found in her home on a snowy morning, and the lack of outside suspects and the graphic nature of the crime gripped the nation and saturated news coverage for months on end. As easy as it is to believe the current public obsession with crime investigation was fueled by this lurid case, it actually had its genesis 130 years ago in Victorian England.
The murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in 1860 was unusually brutal—he was nearly decapitated and dumped in a privy—but even more scandalous was the revelation that the perpetrator was a member of the household. The story became symbolic of phenomenon specific to the era, the darkness in the bosom of the Victorian family and the thrills and dangers of a new art: detection. The first detectives were appointed to the London Metropolitan Police in 1841; they were soon regarded with awe. Viewed as a sort of superman, the detectives divined the truth using clues, facts and science, organizing chaos from a supremely neutral position.
In Victorian England, the public viewed newspapers and detectives in the same light: they were seen alternately as crusaders for truth or as sleazy voyeurs. One of the cornerstones of the era was the concept of privacy at home, and the advent of the detective was at once thrilling and threatening to the secretive sensibilities of the middle class. Indeed, the word “detect” stemmed from the Latin ‘de-tegere’ or ‘unroof’ and the detective was perceived as the lame devil Asmodeus, ‘the prince of demons’, who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside. Simultaneously, English journalism was in a renaissance: newspapers grew 57 percent, from 700 to 1,100 titles between 1855 and 1860, fueled by the public’s increasing literacy and thirst for news.
When the story broke, the Kent family was considered to be perfectly respectable. The townspeople had numerous reasons to loath the patriarch of the family, Samuel Kent, but no one alleged anything out of the ordinary, even the servants who lived at the estate. By the time the case was resolved, the family had splintered, never to regroup. One of England’s finest detectives was dispatched to a crime scene saturated with fouled evidence and conflicting timelines. Based on his investigation, Mr. Jonathan Whicher made public his suspicion of one of the child’s half-sisters, Constance Kent and arrested her.
The outcry to name a suspect had been deafening, but now the tide turned against Whicher as the public’s fear of detection rose to the forefront. Kent was to be an innocent in the court of public opinion, and the press descended like jackals. Whicher was attacked and demonized, losing confidence but never backing down from his conclusion. His career damaged, he retreated back to London, but not before declaring that the case would not be solved until Kent confessed. Eventually, years later, she did exactly that, and drew a life sentence. While literary giants like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins used Whicher as a model for fiction and as the subject of magazine stories, his career never recovered.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is exhaustively researched and beautifully detailed by author Kate Summerscale, leading some to compare the book to Erik Larson’s hit novel of a few years ago, The Devil in the White City. The central difference between the two is that Suspicions was built from facts; it is mind-boggling to imagine the sheer work taming thousands of details must have entailed. Summerscale spends substantial time tracing the early lineage of murder mysteries and concludes that the Kent murder had unmistakable impact on the genre, inspiring best sellers and classic board games like Clue. The section describing the era’s criminality is a lot of fun: word lovers will appreciate the illumination on terms like “screever”, “work the kinchin lay”, “gammoned” and “magsmen”.
Summerscale draws together the threads of social convention, crime scene minutia and newspaper reportage to bring us the perfect storm of hysteria as it built, in what feels like real time. Vivid and rigorous, it is a masterful account of a place and time and the lasting ramifications on what is now popular culture.