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Murder & the Modern British Historian

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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Over a century ago, the pioneer English historian of law F. W. Maitland observed that “If some fairy gave me the power of seeing a scene of one and the same kind in every age of history of every race, the kind of scene that I would choose would be a trial for murder, because I think that it would give me so many hints as to a multitude of matters of the first importance.” For many decades Maitland's remark was ignored, as historical scholarship passed over murder trials as far too “atypical” and “sensationalistic” to merit serious study, leaving them to amateur devotees of courtroom drama and detection mysteries. One notable exception was Brian Simpson, the distinguished legal historian, whose Cannibalism and the Common Law, published in 1984, for the first time placed in its social context the leading case of R. v. Dudley & Stephens, which in 1884 produced the still-authoritative rule governing the “necessity” justification for homicide. In Simpson's hands the case, a “sensational” one indeed, involving the eating of a cabin boy by shipwrecked sailors, opened up the little-known world of late Victorian maritime life. However, Simpson's lead was not followed up, and his book remained a fascinating “one-off,” regarded as an “amusement piece” by an otherwise “serious” scholar of arcane legal reasoning.

Only more recently, with developments such as the rise of the genre of “micro-history” and the legitimation of interest in the “sensational,” have historians come to accept homicide and its legal treatment as a worthy subject.

Presidential Address of the North American Conference on British Studies 2003
Albion , Volume 36 , Issue 1 , Spring 2004 , pp. 1 - 11
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2004

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1 Maitland, F. W., Selected Essays, ed. Hazeltine, H. D., Lapsley, G., Winfield, P. H. (Cambridge, 1936), p. 253 (from “The Body Politic,” 1899)Google Scholar.

2 Halttunen, Karen, “‘Domestic Differences’: Competing Narratives of Womanhood in the Murder Trial of Lucretia Chapman,” in The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender and Sentimentality in Nineteenth Century America, ed. Samuels, Shirley (New York, 1992)Google Scholar, Robertson, Cara W., “Representing ‘Miss Lizzie’: Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 8 (1996): 351416Google Scholar, and Hartog, Hendrik, “Lawyering, Husbands' Rights, and the Unwritten Law in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History 84 (June 1997): 6796CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Quotations on this case are from The Times, 7 Feb. 1856, p. 9; Lloyds' Weekly, 10 February 1856; Public Record Office, HO12/102/20497. See also “Life, Trial, Confession and execution of Thomas Corrigan” (British Library, 1888. c. 3) [a broadside produced before his last-minute reprieve].

4 Remarks on Mr. Fitzroy's Bill for the More Effectual Prevention of Assaults on Women and Children (London, 1853) [published anonymously]Google Scholar.

5 Lloyd's Weekly, 10 Feb. 1856.

6 For the evolving treatment of wife killing in its cultural and social context, see Wiener, Martin J., “Men of Blood”: Violence, Manliness and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge and New York, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 Ibid., pp. 63–72.

8 The Times, 30 June 1887, p. 11; see also, PRO, HO144/199/A47104B.

9 Although it made some difference, particularly with the public and probably the jury: Malays' inherent tendency to unpredictable violence—running “amok”—was a major part of the defense case, and newspaper reports of similar incidents were entered into evidence. These claims were not directly denied by the prosecution.

10 All quotations on this case are from P.R.O., HO 144/216/A59165.

11 Quoted in Highland, Gary, “Aborigines, Europeans and the Criminal Law,” Aboriginal History 14, 2 (1990): 182Google Scholar. Information on these cases is taken from this article. The judge's claim was not strictly true: Highland has found a rape conviction in 1883 with a sentence of life imprisonment.

12 All quotations on this case are from P.R.O., CO 533/298.

13 P.R.O., CO 533/298 and Morris, H. F. & Read, J. S., Indirect Rule and the Search for Justice: Essays in East African Legal History (Oxford, 1972), pp. 120–21Google Scholar.