I write on a variety of themes. One of these is nineteenth century crime. Over the past couple of years I have learned quite a lot about the subject and about types of crime and types of criminals. It is the criminals that I intend to blog about today.
The contemporary 19th century view was that there was a specific class of criminals called, strangely, a ‘criminal class’ that lived in the same world as the ‘respectable’ people but who lived by theft and violence. To an extent that was true. There were a number of professional criminals who spent their lives thieving, sometimes by choice, sometimes because they had no other means of living. But most crime seems to have been casual: young people or youths who saw an unattended shop, or a desperate woman stealing to raise money to buy food for her family. Most criminals were unfortunate victims of society rather than evil desperadoes planning Rule by Anarchy.
However, there was a definite element of evil; men and women who existed only to cause harm, and these were the real targets of the police force and the courts of law. These people were behind the hard-core crime of the period, the bank or jewel robberies, the stage coach or train robberies and the targetted killings that could rock society. The nineteenth century saw some of the worst, but the gloss of history has romanticised them.
Burke and Hare, Jack the Ripper or Jesse James: these people were akin to the mafia or drug lords of today. Their stories grace books and the screen, but in their day they were scary men. That is something to remember; and in a hundred years time will people be as fascinated by the criminals that disturb our sleep today? That is something to ponder.