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Book Review: Liverpool Murders - Kirkdale Hangings 1870–1891 by Steven Horton


Drew Payne

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The premise of this book appears simple; it chronicles the 29 hangings that took place within Kirkdale Prison, Liverpool, until it was closed. But inside that premise lies a fascinating social history.

In 1868, an act of parliament stopped all public executions; after that, all capital punishments took place within a prison’s walls, away from the excited crowds of onlookers, and Steven Horton uses this as the starting point of his book, ending when Kirkdale Prison was closed in 1892. He researched the 29 people who were hanged for murder during this time. In each section, in chronological order, Horton outlines the murders, the trials and the executions.

At first glance, this book appears to be just another True Crime book, listing the injustices committed by one person against another, but Horton’s research lifts it out of that category. This book provides a fascinating and uncomfortable history of the Victorian working class, looking at so many of the harsh realities of their lives.

This isn’t the warm chocolate box portrayal of Victorian society we have been presented with in films, television dramas and badly written novels. Horton highlights the hardships faced by the Victorian working class. Through his descriptions of these murders and trials come some uncomfortable themes, the results of heavy drinking and domestic violence being the two that jumped out. But also the effects of poverty, prostitution and racism are highlighted here. None of these murders are “exciting” or “complicated”, the type that populate True Crime books; they are grubby and sordid, the murderers often being quickly caught. But that is such an important factor here, so often these crimes come from poverty and disappear.

Horton illustrates broader Victorian social themes as well. The place of religion in Victorian society. The speed of Victorian justice, sometimes indecently fast. The nature of Victorian street violence and the gangs who attacked casual passers-by. The often self-righteous and moral panic-making nature of the press, especially when they weren’t allowed to witness a hanging inside the prison, which uncomfortably echoed our present-day media. And then there was the incompetent executioner who tied the hangman’s rope too short so that the prisoner didn’t die instantaneously from a broken neck but choked to death, and then in the next execution he tied the rope so long that the prisoner was decapitated.

I cannot say this was an enjoyable read, the stories here of human desperation and failings were too sad for that, but this a fascinating read. It gave me so many insights into Victorian society, things I was never taught in my history lessons. This was also another book that ended too soon, Horton’s style of writing and storytelling is easy to read and yet made me want to read more and more from this book. Fortunately, Steven Horton has written five other books, all of which I intend to read.

 

Find Liverpool Murders here on Amazon

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