I was thinking the other day, in the context of a film review, that “serial killer” is a very lazy thing in a lot of stories — that is, it essentially boils down to “a character whose goals and motivations the author doesn’t need to explain.” Goals? He’s ker-ay-zeeee!
But that made me think about the serial killer as a media phenomenon, and that, of course, made me think of Jack the Ripper. Now, although Jack the Ripper probably wasn’t “the first serial killer,” which is something you often see, I think there’s a case to be made for Jack as the first media celebrity serial killer — which is to say the first serial killer in the modern sense.
And that made me think of the Illustrated Police News, the blood-soaked true-crime rag once voted “the worst newspaper in England,” which only leads me to think that there must have been some shitty newspapers in Scotland, right enough.
I kid, I kid. I love the IPN, honestly. It all started for me with this book. You remember I mentioned the idea of the Ambridge book being sold in the gift shop of a museum with three rooms? Well, the museum in Nottingham Castle (not really a castle; what a rip) has more than three rooms but it still has a gift-shop jam-packed with both interesting local stuff and the kind of generic tat you get in museum gift shops the world over. And that was where I picked up this bad boy. It is a collection of hundreds of stories from the IPN, ranging from the horrific to the ridiculous. Well, and quite a lot of both.
Sometimes you get this:
And sometimes you get this:
It’s genius. Titles like “Death Through Tight Lacing” and “Horrible Murder at Woolwich” go side by side with “The Great Walking Race” and “A Facetious Jew.” Oh, yeah, it’s the popular press in the 19th century, so there’s all manner of racism and whatnot.
Or for instance:
Bears of every denomination should be made to understand that they will be welcome to this country in a managerial capacity. We shall be delighted to see them at the Zoological Gardens, or they are at liberty to travel about in a state of confinement; but when it comes to emulating Terpischore in the public streets Bruin must be taught that, among a people of whom it is said that they take their pleasure sadly, few things are more difficult to obtain than a dancing licence.
A large and intelligent bear, accompanied by a couple of peasants from the Bas-Pyrenees, appeared in the dock at Worship-street Police-court the other day, charged with capering at Clapton. As the peasants were more innocent of English even than of soap and water, it was explained to the bear that, though he had waltzed through France and danced all the way from Dover, his was a form of exercise which was not publicly recognised in the metropolis.
The bear, a harmless and well-conducted person, who stood on his hind legs and bowed to the magistrate’s decision, left the court satisfied that it is to the advantage of his species that we should confine our encouragement of dangerous performances to men, women, and children.
Can’t you just visualise some starveling, ink-stained creature with just one good collar to his name smirking at the fact that he got paid to write that.
Sadly, the production values of the book aren’t great — photo reproduction could be better and the typesetting is blah — but if you’re interested in the excesses of the Victorian press it’s definitely worth a read. I also discover that the British Library has digitised loads of Victorian newspapers, including the ILN, so if you have access to the BL you can get them here.
Don’t forget, there’s only four days remaining in the great banner design contest, and I have had, er, no entries. Is it the prizes? Do you want to see some prizey goodness? I’ll try to get you some photos on Wednesday.