Author delves into the dark past of city’s infamous murderer
- Credit: Archant
He was one of the most infamous killers in the country and a wax effigy of John Thurtell was displayed in Madame Tussaud's 'Chamber of Horrors' well into the 20th century...such was the horrific nature of his crime.
The gruesome and fascinating story of this Norwich man from a 'posh' background seems to have been lost in the mist of time but it is told in all its gory detail in a fascinating new book by a former UEA lecturer turned author Stephen Carver in The 19th Century Underworld.
Stephen has certainly done his homework and has produced a brilliant offering which lifts the lid on a dark part of our history which is all too often forgotten about...we enter a world where children were worth more dead than alive and the Thames held more bodies than the Ganges.
This is a raw, compelling, and at times, extremely upsetting look at the way we were a couple of hundred years ago - and Stephen has pulled no punches.
Vicious criminals, sickening poverty, drugs, pornography and prostitution. Urchins with haunted eyes, ruthless and vicious men, and the broken remnants of once fine girls. Welcome to the 19th century underworld. Not forgetting the slang of the day
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So why write this book?
'I used to teach this subject at university and I always wanted to write a book about it,' said Stephen, of New Costessey.
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'My interest in the subject goes back to childhood, most notably the discovery of a family collected of The Illustrated Police News that probably came from my maternal grandmother and which were compelling and utterly terrifying.
'My grandparents were all born in the late 19th century as well, and at family gatherings in the early-70s older relatives loved to relate lurid tales of terror, a muddle of true crime, gothic stories and old movies. When you're a little kid, this stuff sticks with you,' added Stephen.
He was approached by Jonathan Wright at publishers Pen & Sword, who had read his literature and history blog – and wanted him to write a book.
'The idea was for me to stop being so academic and to write something that was scholarly but accessible. I'm a literary historian, so I'm very interested in writers who depicted the urban underworld, from journalists, novelists and social explorers to the forgotten purveyors of penny dreadful,' he said.
Opening the pages of this book Stephen takes on a journey from the Regency to the late-Victorian eras, framed by two seismic crimes, the Radcliffe Highway murders of 1811 and the Whitechapel killings of 1888, starting with the formation of the modern police force.
Stephen takes us on a rough and tumble rollercoaster ride through the whole of the 19th century ending up with an exploration of 'Jack the Ripper' as a gothic icon and a continuing media event which takes a fresh take on the much-covered subject.
For anyone interested in a walk on the wild side...this is a book which must be read by a such a talented author.
The 19th Century Underworld: Crime, Controversy & Corruption by Stephen Carver is published by Pen &Sword (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk) and is in the shops now at £19.99.
The murderer everyone was talking about
Just who was John Thurtell and what led to his public hanging which caught the imagination of the whole country?
He was the son of Thomas Thurtell, a prosperous merchant and leading local politician and Sheriff in 1815, who lived at Harford Hall. He was described as a 'tough nut' and so was his son.
An ex-Marine and a hard man, who lived life in the fast lane, he headed off to London and was a typical member of the Fancy (the prize ring) and involved in fights and various dodgy deals.
'A dandy with a rough edge, making a living from ducking and diving – a bit of training, fight promotion and gambling,' writes Stephen.
'He was a 'blackleg' in vulgar tongue, a gamer and a sharper who made his living off the turf, the cockpit and the prize ring, so called because of their preference for high boots, and for game cocks, whose legs were always black.
But Thurtell was in trouble. Gambling debts were mounting, and when the family bombazine warehouse burnt down under suspicious circumstances the insurers were not disposed to meet the claim.
He moved from illegal boxing matches to robbery and murder.
'Thurtell set his sights on one William Weare, a solicitor at Lyon's Inn, a dodgy Inn of Chancery, inhabited by lawyers fallen very low or struck off the rolls altogether.
Enlisting the help of two bankrupts well known in the Fancy – Joseph Hunt and William Probert, Thurtell lured Weare out of London to spend a weekend playing cards at Gill's Hill in Radlett.
It was assumed Weare would be carrying a large stake and the plan was to waylay his carriage.
In the event Thurtell ended up shooting Weare in the face with a cheap pair of 'muff pistols' but the wound was not fatal and Weare made a run for it.
'Thurtell chased him down and used a pistol for a club, cutting his throat with a penknife for good measure. The accomplices met at Probert's cottage and divided up Weare's money and possessions (£15, a gold watch and a few coins), dumping the body in a pond on the property,' writes Stephen.
Five days later the trio were arrested. Probert turned King's evidence and got off, although he was later hanged for horse theft, Hunt was transported as an accessory while Thurtell went to the gallows.
The case attracted enormous publicity with celebrated journalist Pierce Egan interviewing Thurtell in Hertford Gaol.
The trial was covered in depth by the press, much of the interest generated, not just by the sheer brutality of the crime, but by the murky sporting underworld from which the main players came from.
Large crowds gathered to watch the man from Norwich hang outside Hertford Gaol in January of 1824 and his body was later dissected.
Children sang an eerie little rhyme on the subject that went:
His throat they cut from ear to ear
His brains they punched in
His name was Mr William Weare
Wot lived in Lyon's Inn.