Published: 10 January, 2013
by ANDREW JOHNSON
WE all love a good murder. Whether it’s the benign bloodless corpses in Columbo, the savage group revenge on the Orient Express, Midsomer’s alarming homicide rate, or the gruesome realism of The Killing, we take enormous pleasure in the method and motivation of the killer, and their eventual unmasking and capture.
Real murders are just as compelling, although for different reasons. Because of their mystery and drama, crimes as distant as Jack the Ripper still fascinate more than 120 years after he cut up five women in the East End of London.
But, according to crime reporter and author Peter Stubley, contemporary slayings make us feel more uneasy. Unless there’s a celebrity involved they rarely carry the same sense of sensation as they did 100 years ago.
Those that do, such as the Soham murders or Damilola Taylor do so not out of misplaced curiosity but because of what they have to say about society and the natural empathy we have with the parents and the child victims.
“People still read about cases with interest,” Stubley says. “But unless there’s a celebrity murder you can’t imagine people poring over cases in the newspapers with the same kind of interest they used to. Dr Crippen was major news. The exceptions are not out of fascination, but because of what they say about us.”
Stubley, 35, who lives in Angel, has spent the past 12 years working at the Old Bailey for a news agency covering all sorts of murders. It compelled him to start the Murder Maps website, a project to document all the murders in London.
He has also recently published two books – 1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper, and Murder and Crime in Islington. The first records all the other murders in 1888 that have been overshadowed by the Ripper’s crimes; the second catalogues Islington’s most infamous crimes. “I do every modern one,” Stubley says of Murder Maps. “I’m trying to go back in time, but there’s a lot. I’m only on 2007. Five years ago there used to be 150 homicides a year. This year [as of December 2012] it might be below 100. The fall is a recent trend – 2003 was a high with more than 200. Now we’re on 80-something so far.”
He might seem callous, but that is far from the truth.
“It might sound like you lack empathy as a journalist but you still get affected if you see relatives crying in court,” he says. “There’s mixed feelings about murder – it’s a very touchy subject if you’re doing modern cases. People are much happier talking about old cases. It becomes more of a thriller, it’s more divorced from reality.
“I think now, and in the past, murders tell you about society at the time. So in 1888 a lot of new born babies were left to die; they were dumped or cut up and flushed down the drain. One was put in a fire.
“It was difficult to tell in those days if they were born dead or alive. Most of the mothers were never prosecuted. Some were charged with murder but ended up in court for the lesser offence of concealing a corpse.
“Today there’s more male-on-male teenage, early 20s, violence – whether that’s in the street, stabbing, or gang violence. There was a teenage gang murder in 1888 in Regent’s Park. So there were teenage gangs then. But only one case. Whereas now, there’s a dozen or so a year.”
He also notes that murder cases record details of the period that might otherwise be lost, because of the detail needed to solve a case.
His book on Islington’s notorious slayings charts the history of the borough by its murders.
“You start off with Islington when it was surrounded by fields and was a pleasure resort for the rich, so there were highwaymen. Then in the 19th century it becomes built up. There’s one case where there was a murder of an old man in a cottage off Liverpool Road, which in those days was a field of cottages. He was battered to death.
“The suspect had heard that the guy had been flashing a £50 note. But it turned out it was one of those fake notes, like a barber’s note: ‘I promise to pay £50 if I don’t do a good job of your haircut’.”
There are other details, such as the lengths people go to hide bodies. One man put his victim in a storage unit and visited him once a week.
Nowadays, Stubley says, we perhaps take our cathartic enjoyment from television drama and films, meaning the sensation of real life has less affect on us.
“You can see how some happen,” he says. “Most murder is people who kill their partners.
“It’s hard to have sympathy with anyone who kills, but sometimes you can see why they did it. The nearest we get to an excuse these days is mercy killings, society can almost accept that – not quite because they still get prosecuted.
“Part of what fascinates me about murders is the psychology of what drives people to it. It’s like, how can anyone do something that gruesome and still be human?”
• 1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper. By Peter Stubley. The History Press, £9.99.
• Murder and Crime in Islington. By Peter Stubley. The History Press £9.99.
• Peter Stubley’s Murder Map website www.murdermap.co.uk/