Miranda Seymour

What the Valet Did

Murder by the Book: A Sensational Chapter in Victorian Crime


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On Monday 6 July 1840, a crowd of around forty thousand spectators gathered at Newgate to enjoy the increasingly rare spectacle of a public hanging at the jail (in that particular year, just one took place). Charles Dickens, having recently reproached his brother Fred for planning ‘to gloat over such a loathsome exhibition’, secured a privileged position at a window in a house that faced ‘the drop’. The ghoulish antics of the crowd provided Dickens with invaluable material for a double hanging, which he swiftly worked into Barnaby Rudge, a historical novel that shrewdly played upon fears of a workers’ rebellion in its account of the Gordon Riots in London.

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