Sinclair McKay re-examines a crime right at the heart of the Victorian era in 1860. A murder that was committed against an elderly woman in her own home in the East End of London.
Mrs Emsley was no cuddly granny-type lady though, she was a miser worthy of a part in one of Charles Dickens (more of him later) novels. Born in the East End of London under the bells of St Anne’s in Stepney she came from humble beginnings but by the time she met her end she’d been married twice and amassed an enormous amount of wealth in the form of housing stock. Although she employed some men to collect her substantial rents she also visited the hovels packed with families who lived close by to her own home, not known for her compassion she would frequently evict her struggling tenants if they were even a week behind with their payments. She was therefore fairly universally disliked. All in all the best kind of murder victim for a good mystery; anyone and everyone can be a suspect.
Mrs Emsley had bought some wallpaper which she was attempting to sell and so it came to be that her badly bludgeoned body was found in her house with the rolls of precious wallpaper close by. For a woman known to be suspicious of visitors the lack of forced entry suggests that she admitted her killer herself. The only clue was a a bloody footprint on the landing when the body was discovered by one of her rent collectors by which time it had attracted some maggots for good measure!
The police were called and soon fixed on a suspect and indeed this man was hung for the crimes committed. Unsurprisingly, and those of you who have read my previous reviews of Victorian true crimes will also detect a theme developing here, dear old Charles Dickens was apparently one of the 20,000 people who attended the public hanging while of course decrying the ghoulishness of those citizens eager for a bit of excitement.
In a twist to the tale in 1901 Arthur Conan Doyle took a look at the case as he wasn’t sure that the man who hung deserved his fate, his thoughts were published as a serialised book The Debatable Case Of Mrs. Emsley. In 2017 Sinclair McKay took up the baton and went back to the evidence and builds a case for another perpetrator entirely.
This is an incredibly readable book of the type I enjoy most in this sub-genre; Sinclair McKay keeps a running commentary of the social history alongside the background to the victim, the suspect and the resultant trial and hanging. There is also a substantial information on how relatives came out of the woodwork to claim her fortune and to keep it out of the hands of Queen Victoria since our miserly widow had not made a will.
I found it a fascinating read and whilst I have to admit that the author has perhaps hit upon a more worthy suspect than that of the police, I wasn’t altogether convinced that he had a watertight case either, but coming up with a credible alternative at the distance of more than 150 years is no mean feat.
I’d like to thank the publishers Aurum Press for allowing me to read a copy of The Mile End Murder and for Sinclair McKay who transported me back to a darker, dingier and poverty ridden East End of London.