Sweet Fanny Adams

I’ve been travelling more than usual recently and have been taking the opportunity to catch up with a stack of books I bought but haven’t had time to read. The latest is a hefty tome by Judith Flanders, entitled The Invention of Murder, a detailed, scholarly, meticulously researched but highly readable discussion of “how the Victorians revelled in death and detection”.

This isn’t just one of those “true crime” shockers – although there is plenty of shocking material in it, as will become obvious – it’s about the insight that crime gives into how society works. Murder casts a particularly garish and disturbing light on Victorian culture, as it was in that period that violent crime became a form of entertainment, which it remains today with shows like CSI.

High profile murders spawned a host of bizarre cultural phenomena in the Victorian age, including stage melodramas and puppet shows in which crimes were re-enacted for the public, cheap publications called penny-dreadfuls, and the infamous “broadsides” -cheap unregulated newspapers which were the ultimate in gutter-press, reporting the gory details in grotesquely lurid details. The detective story had its birth in this era too, fuelling public fascination with crime and detection. And then of course there were the public hangings, regularly attended by tens of thousands of people. These grisly spectacles carried on until 1868, after which time they were held inside prisons out of the public gaze. Crowds still gathered even then, to watch the black flag being hoisted to indicate the end of a life.

Rather than going through the whole book systematically, I thought I’d just pass on a few things that particularly struck me as I read it. You can read a review of the whole volume here.

One was the fact that many Victorian trials were farcical. There was little understanding of what to do with physical evidence, so more often than not the prosecution relied on allegations about the character of the defendant to get a conviction. If you were poor you had no access to legal counsel and, since you belonged to a demonized underclass, pretty much doomed if committed to trial. The same went if you were “foreign”, especially if that meant “Irish” and especially if you were also catholic. Judges routinely summed up the evidence in an outrageously biased way; the defence were allowed no summing up at all, regardless of whether the defendant could afford a lawyer. There were few restrictions on press reporting of trials, with the result that newspapers openly presented views of guilt or innocence before trial in a manner that was grossly prejudicial; among the worst offenders were the Times and the Observer, papers which we now consider to be “quality”. Juries typically took 10 minutes or less to reach a verdict and the time between sentencing to death and execution was usually 48 hours, so there was no time for an appeal.

The public executioner for much of the Victorian period was a man called William Calcraft. I don’t know if he was incompetent or just plain cruel, but he favoured the so-called “short drop” which meant death by strangulation rather than by a broken neck. Often the victim – and I use the word advisedly because for me such an execution is also murder – took several minutes to die in agony. One description in the book tells of a woman – convicted on the scantiest of evidence – so terrified by the gallows that she was unable to stand and had to be put on a chair to be hanged. The hangman miscalculated the drop and she took four minutes to die. How any human being could bear to watch such an event is beyond me, but thousands did.

Over and over again there are stark examples of the grinding poverty that reigned during the Victorian era. The underclass lived in filthy overcrowded and dangerous slums, in conditions too miserable to be imagined. Poor single women often had little choice but to turn to prostitution. Annie Chapman, for example, was murdered by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in September 1888. On her last night she had no money to pay for a bed in a lodging house, so had gone onto the street to earn some cash. After her death her belongings were itemized: apart from the clothes she had been wearing, her worldly goods consisted of two combs and a used envelope.

And then there were the children. Infant mortality was high and working class children in the Victorian era died so often of neglect that society had largely become hardened to the idea of killing a child. One example is the particularly appalling murder of a young girl called Fanny Adams in 1867:

Fanny’s head was perched on two hop poles, while on the ground was one of her legs, still with its stocking and boot on. Her right arm, then a hand, then her torso were found nearby. Her other foot, and left arm, were in the next field. Her intestines had been removed, and were not found until the next day, together with her heart.

Almost immediately the phrase “Fanny Adams” became popular slang for a cheap type of chopped meat you could buy in tins, thence it passed into navy slang as “Sweet Fanny Adams”, meaning “nothing at all” and remains in use to this day, sometimes abbreviated to “Sweet FA”. Nothing at all, it seems, was the value of an innocent child’s life.

Today it sounds unbelievably cruel that people could make a joke about such a terrible crime, but I guess that just tells you how brutal life was. I’d always thought “Fanny Adams” was a euphemism for “Fuck All” but its origin is clearly far darker. I’ll never been able to use that expression again without thinking of its origin and, perhaps, after reading this, neither will you…

10 Responses to “Sweet Fanny Adams”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes indeed. Such darkness is why I dispute that Britain used to be “a Christian country”. No such thing (it’s a matter of individual choice).

    Your book sounds like a huge expansion of George Orwell’s short 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder”. As good as anything he wrote – and for me he was at his best in his essays.


  2. telescoper Says:

    One other thing that struck me is that how much the Victorians loved their melodramas. These were filled with stock characters and whenever one was based on a real crime the real victims and perpretrators were mapped onto these standard roles. Good always triumphed over evil, although it was often providence rather than detection that led to the arrest of the guilty party. People apparently liked to believe that some force was acting to bring justice, but it wasn’t often the police.

    Most murders were (and still are) committed by someone closely associated with the victim, with a simple motive of jealously or greed. In those cases justice, such as it was, was delivered pretty swiftly but not always accurately or fairly. Closure was clearly needed to reassure people that the settled order of things wasn’t disturbed for long.

    Looked at like this you can understand the huge impact of the Whitechapel murders. Not only were these crimes disturbingly violent, they were also without an apparent motive and therefore terrifyingly incomprehensible. They were also unsolved, which is how they remain. Catching a serial killer, with no connection to his victim other than as the cause of death, proved an impossible task for the police then. Whenever one surfaces nowadays the press hysteria isn’t all that different.

  3. My parents had a book called “Horrible Murder”, with articles from penny dreadfuls and the like. The illustrations were enough (and for some reason the crazy gorilla with the cutthroat sticks in my mind), but there was plenty of pretty horrible crime in Victorian Britain. There never has been a golden age.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Agreed, absolutely. But there is a golden age of detection – the present. DNA is even clearing up cases that the poilce had given up on.

      My father’s cousin was Home Office pathologist for the North-West of England and made forensic inference from many bodies in high-profile murder cases in that region for several decades postwar. He retired just as DNA was coming in. I last met him five years ago, five years after he published his memoirs and two years before he died, and he hinted, tongue-in-cheek, that he regarded DNA as cheating.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Neither courts nor public placed much faith in forensic evidence during the Victorian era, but this gradually changed with the rise of the “medical expert”. It’s clear however that many doctors testified in court with absolute certainty about things they knew nothing at all about, e.g. the effect of poisons. People were convicted of murder on the grounds of “bloodstained clothes” when there was no proof at all of it even being blood, let alone human blood, never mind the blood of the victim!

    As for the penny dreadfuls, they really were dreadful, not just in their bloodthirsty description of the crimes they covered, but also in their deliberate whipping of hysteria against anyone who they thought might be guilty: jews, foreigners, catholics, the poor. It was a society largely founded on prejudice, and it’s astonishing to think these things went on just 150 years ago.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I don’t agree that it was founded on prejudice. It simply had a lot of prejudice in it. I would be interested in whether other branches of 19th century Western Civ had less or more prejudice.

    • “People were convicted of murder on the grounds of “bloodstained clothes” when there was no proof at all of it even being blood, let alone human blood, never mind the blood of the victim!”

      Reminds me of the drummer from Spinal Tap who died by choking on vomit—but it’s not clear if it was his own! 😐

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Peter: What you describe sounds in many ways more like the 18th century than the 19th. Were blood cells, or their correlates, not identified by microscopy in the Victorian era? (Not rhetorical – I don’t know the answer, but I’d be surprised if not.)

      • telescoper Says:

        I think blood cells were first viewed with microscopes much earlier, in the 17th century. I may be wrong, but I think it was difficult to examine dried blood this way and in any case the police only started to bother calling in medical people to look at evidence in the late 19th century.

        The standard modern technique for the presence of human blood is the Kastle-Meyer test. I’m relying on my memory but I believe that was first used around 1900, and I think blood groups were identified at a similar time.

    • “it’s astonishing to think these things went on just 150 years ago”

      Yes, some things have improved. This casts some interesting light on a similar topic:


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