‘What he liked to talk about was … especially the latest murder.’ So wrote the journalist, George Augustus Sala about Dickens. April 1852 seems to have been a bonanza month for murder in the Household Narrative of Current Events, the sister publication of Dickens’s Household Words. No doubt he read all the cases.
The Household Narrative of Current Events gave me the Lambeth murder, announced in The Sun newspaper in bold capitals: ‘A WOMAN’S HEAD CUT OFF BY HER SON’.
Madness and murder are the sensational elements of this case which occurred in April, 1852. The mother, Elizabeth Wheeler, was found by her neighbour, Mrs Toms, lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Her head had been placed on a table nearby. As Mrs Toms had been going to Mrs Wheeler’s, having heard a dreadful scream, she saw the son, Thomas Wheeler, rushing out with a knife in his hand.
It was a tragic case. Thomas Wheeler had been in India where he contracted ‘brain fever’ and had suffered sun-stroke. On his return to London, he had been confined to a lunatic asylum in 1851, but he had been released by 1852. The trial proved his madness; he told the doctor visiting him in Bethlehem Hospital that he hoped the windows of the room in which his mother had died were open so that ‘the body of my mother may have the benefit of the air.’ After the trial, he was detained at ‘her Majesty’s pleasure’.
Apart from poor Catherine Wheeler, there was poor Mrs Chitty who, in a lunatic frenzy, murdered her two children in April. On April 5th, Thomas Crosby, a solicitor at Bristol and his mistress, Elizabeth Lewis poisoned their child with arsenic. On the 6th, William Sparrow, William Maggs and Robert Hurd were tried for the murder of Sarah Watts and on April 9th, three corpses were found in a pond at Putney; a double murder and a suicide, apparently. On the 10th, a gardener named Dawes murdered his wife and daughter.
‘A shocking case of murder’ took place on April 11th in Staffordshire where a young farmer, Stephen Walker, ‘of unsteady habits’ had been denied access to his girlfriend, Fanny. He took a gun to her house and threatened Fanny and her mother, shooting Fanny as she tried to escape. Stephen Walker ran away into the fields and shot himself. On April 21st, a respectable young man named Mablethorpe was found dead in a ditch, his money and his gold watch having been stolen.
And that’s quite enough April murders for me, if not for The Household Narrative. However, Dickens would have relished a very odd case of a shooting at, of all places, The Temperance Society in Westminster. Felix McGee shot Michael Collins. Fortunately, Collins survived the fifty shots in his abdomen. According to The Household Narrative, ‘the intemperate teetotaller was sentenced to be transported for ten years’.
Driven to drink on the voyage to Australia, I should think, if not before.