I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Victorian Murderesses by Debbie Blake
Published by Pen and Sword History on 11 November 2022
Genres: True Crime, Murder, General, History, Modern, 18th Century
Format: ARC, eBook
Source: NetGalley, Publisher
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The Victorian belief that women were the ‘weaker sex’ who were expected to devote themselves entirely to family life, made it almost inconceivable that they could ever be capable of committing murder. What drove a woman to murder her husband, lover or even her own child? Were they tragic, mad or just plain evil? Using various sources including court records, newspaper accounts and letters, this book explores some of the most notorious murder cases committed by seven women in nineteenth century Britain and America. It delves into each of the women’s lives, the circumstances that led to their crimes, their committal and trial and the various reasons why they resorted to murder: the fear of destitution led Mary Ann Brough to murder her own children; desperation to keep her job drove Sarah Drake to her crime. Money was the motive in the case of Mary Ann Cotton, who is believed to have poisoned as many as twenty-one people. Kate Bender lured her unsuspecting victims to their death in ‘The Slaughter Pen’ before stripping them of their valuables; Kate Webster’s temper got the better of her when she brutally murdered and decapitated her employer; nurse Jane Toppan admitted she derived sexual pleasure from watching her victims die slowly and Lizzie Borden was suspected of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe, so that she could live on the affluent area known as ‘the hill’ in Fall River, Massachusetts.
I don’t know why I don’t read more non-fiction. This collection of crimes committed by Victorian Murderesses held my attention and got my imagination running wild. The Victorian era has always fascinated me. It’s an age that we can’t quite grasp our heads around. The medicine, the way of life, the clothing, and the evil deeds that women committed had me in a trance. The belief at that time was that women couldn’t commit violent acts, they were motherly, and caring and if driven to act then it was through the means of poisoning – that was a woman’s method. How wrong they were!
Each of these dastardly evil women is given their own chapter and I liked the mix of UK and US geography. The writing was brilliant, and the research dedicated to each woman shone through like the light at the end of the tunnel.
There is nothing demure about these women. They know what they want, and they go out and take it. By poison and physical means. I didn’t feel any remorse for any of these women, their plight felt far stretched and a mere excuse to get off with the crime that they’d been accused of. Killing children, patients and husbands didn’t seem like a very sensible thing to do in the circumstances but many of them got away with it for so long because detection skills especially regarding women weren’t what they are in the 21st century.
The story of Jane Toppan struck a chord. She was born to Irish immigrants in 1857 and experienced a troubled childhood which concluded with her mother dying of Tuberculosis. Some of her actions could be attributed to her start in life, but many children have hard childhoods and don’t go on to murder all of their patients whilst supposedly nursing them back to health. She was always difficult, always creating friction between her fellow students and her teachers. She’d do anything to make herself look good and them bad. It was a testament to her character early on. Training as a nurse is when her sadism really took root. She discovered through medicine that she could make people extremely ill. She experimented with Morphine and Atropine to get the desired effects. She’d get them knocking on the door and death and bring them back with atropine time and time again. She relished in the effects it caused the body until she decided it was time for them to die. Jane Toppan was an evil woman.
I did however feel that some of the stories dragged on and could have benefited from being a bit more concise. I felt there was a fair bit of filler contained within the stories and unfortunately I felt myself skim-reading through some of the stories. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the vast majority of the book.