Stories That Shocked Victorians
The Illustrated Police News (IPN) was a Victorian newspaper that traded in the macabre, the titillating, the lurid, and anything that gushed with blood. The paper didn’t bother much with elegant text but specialized in vivid hand-drawn images of crime scenes. The people of the working class snapped up copies as soon as they hit the streets. It’s also possible to imagine the straight-laced lord of the manor sneaking down to the servant’s quarters on their day off to catch a peak at the latest issue.
The IPN began its sensationalist career in 1864, and the flavour of its coverage can be gleaned from a few headlines:
- “Man Crucifies Himself”
- “Monkeys Fight Duel to the Death”
- “Horrible Discovery: The Skeleton of a Nun”
- “Man Eaten by Cats”
- “Encounter With a Sea Devil”
The genius, if that’s the right word, behind the IPN was George Purkiss. The top hats might have sniffed in derision from behind their copies of The Times but Purkiss knew what he was doing. He was producing a newspaper for people who previously did not read one.
He employed a small army of illustrators who rushed to the scene wherever a body was found to sketch the gruesome scene.
The Jack the Ripper outrage of 1888 was meat and drink for Purkiss. It was a squalid and grim tale of massive proportions that required no exaggerations, but the IPN reporters were up to the challenge of turning the grisly into something even more abominable.
An illustration appeared of the IPN's chief Ripper suspect; it was of a muscular black man plunging his knife into a defenceless damsel. It had everything: the vulnerable female attacked by the feared outsider. It was journalism at its very worst (until Fox News appeared that is) and the readers lapped it up.
But Purkiss was unapologetic: “I acknowledge it to be a sensational newspaper [but] barring the sensational illustrations, there is nothing in the paper to which objection can reasonably be taken.”
Sleepwalkers in Danger
A favourite subject for the editors of The Illustrated Police News was sleepwalkers, known to the Victorians as somnambulists.
The subjects were almost always female, young, and voluptuously shaped. This was so that the illustrators could depict the sleepwalkers in their flimsy nightclothes. There were probably numerous male sleepwalkers but they were of no interest to the IPN or its readers.
Here we have 17-year-old Clara Dalrymple, a beauteous young lady of course, but in the habit of strolling about at night in her sleeping attire.
One night in 1867 (although there is no agreement as to date of the event) she ventured out of her bedroom window four storeys up. She stepped onto a plank left there by builders to connect two houses they were working on. Happens all the time. Horror-struck witnesses watched as she crossed the gulf below while apparently fast asleep.
But then, gasp, the plank broke and … but let’s let the IPN scribe tell the story “… the unfortunate girl was precipitated into the court yard beneath - falling from a height of seventy feet. In her descent her dress caught the arm of a lamp-post in the passage, thus breaking her fall, and was the means of saving her life.”
It seems it was not the policy of the IPN to kill off young lasses if it could be helped.
As with supermarket tabloid today, The Illustrated Police News loved yarns about ghosts, ghouls, and the fearful mysteries of the supernatural.
We’ve travelled into the 20th century now and to the South Wales village of Tondu. It’s 1904 and there’s talk of a disused coal mine being haunted. Some workmen had spotted a spectre moving towards them and emitting a long and eerie “Booh,” as properly trained ghosts do.
The phantom appeared a few days later. BBC History describes what the single witness saw: “The head resembled a skull covered with wrinkled parchment; the eyes were hollow sockets, with a cavernous glow. Suddenly, the ghost ran up to the terrified Welshman, its long arms outstretched.” The apparition locked the poor fellow in a vise-like grip (all such ghostly grips seem to be vise-like) before it “glided off with a hollow laugh.” IPN depicted the ghoulish creature throttling the life out of this poor sap.
Something had to be done, so gangs of men armed with cudgels set out to deal with what came to be called the “Fighting Ghost.” That put an end to the sightings.
Possibly, the haunting figure putting the wind up villagers had read about the fate of the Hammersmith Ghost. People reported seeing a shrouded form in the streets of the London suburb. Patrols were organized and an excise officer named Francis Smith spotted the beast and shot and killed it. Only it was bricklayer Thomas Millwood wearing white clothes.
Possibly, the prankster terrifying the people of Tondu decided to put away his white sheets to save himself from being bludgeoned to death by angry Welsh miners.
The Pall Mall Gazette was a much more sedate journal of the Victorian era. In 1886, it published an article saying that its readers had voted The Illustrated Police News the “worst newspaper in England.”
At the time when The Illustrated Police News began publishing, literacy rates in Britain were about 75 percent; it was the quarter of the population that couldn’t read that was the newspaper’s prime target market.
The IPN was a classic example of yellow journalism; a style that stressed sensationalism over truth. The phrase did not appear until the mid-1890s when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal used some yellow ink in their publications. The two newspapers were locked in a circulation war and were quite happy to exaggerate and even fabricate stories. Fake news? Hmmm.
The Illustrated Police News ceased publication in 1938.
- “An Enormous Circulation.” The Pall Mall Budget, November 25, 1886.
- “Fearful Situation of a Female Somnambulist in Somersetshire.” Illustrated Police News, June 1, 1867.
- “6 Strange Newspaper Stories That Shocked Victorian Britain.” BBC History Magazine, January 13, 2017.
- “The Illustrated Police News: ‘The worst newspaper in England.’ ” The British Newspaper Archive, April 19, 2016.