The Victorian era is known for a lot of things — prudishness, weird death photography, tight corsets, and a mournful monarch (Queen Victoria took the average mourning customs a bit far). 19th century England was also known for something a bit more unsavory: serial killers, and a public, morbid fascination with them. But how did detectives solve murders in a time before modern forensics? Victorian murder investigations may not have been modern, but they weren't terrible, under the circumstances. Trials were a different story. Murder trials involved a lot of conjecture, class biases, and often ended in death for the convicted.
Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most famous of England's Victorian-era murderers. He murdered five prostitutes in a matter of weeks in 1888, and his identity was never discovered. He became a morbidly fascinating public figure, in part due to the mystery of his identity, since he was not the first serial killer. But he was not the only killer that sparked public interest. Coinciding with the time Victoria began her reign fifty years before, police began to really crack down on crime, and murders became more in the public spectrum. This allowed people like Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, a man who shot a policeman after coming to believe he was Jesus, to become mild celebrities.
Victorians were somewhat skeptical of applying science to finding criminals. Yannick Bisson, an actor starring in a television show called The Murdoch Mysteries about Victorian-era crime solving, said of his character: "My character Murdoch takes a lot of flak for his thought process and applying science to investigative work, which was usually done bare knuckled and with intimidation."
In the 19th century, science and forensics was not an integral part of criminal investigation. It wasn't until 1895 that Austrian Magistrate Hans Gustav Adolf Gross published a book on scientific methods to solving crime, and was one of the first people to truly appreciate its merits.
To this day Scotland Yard is still the headquarters for the London Police Department, and in the 19th century it was the city's premiere detective force. Founded in 1829, it wasn't incredibly popular with civilians, who saw the plain-clothed policemen as "spies." However, its Criminal Investigation Department, created in 1878, won over the public.
It was this department that was tasked with solving murders and high profile criminal cases. Since many murder cases ended with the death penalty, only the highest trained and most well-seasoned detectives were right for the job.
Unfortunately, 19th century courtrooms were insanely biased, in line with the class issues England faced during the Victorian era. Many lower-class people were seen as inherently criminal, and the term "criminal class" was even used to describe those people. It was clear that the courts treated richer and poorer suspects with completely different attitudes.
In 1815, Eliza Fenning was accused and convicted of attempted murder by poison, and hanged for her alleged crimes. However, there was no evidence against her, and no victims — but she was a servant accused by a middle class family, which was all the proof necessary. However, in the 1850s, a woman named Madeleine Smith was also accused of poisoning someone (her husband) with arsenic. Yet Smith was wealthy, educated, and the darling of the press. The jury never came to a conclusive verdict, leaving it "not proven."