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Suspicious deaths in London, 1933–53

Murder Capital is a historical study of suspicious deaths, unexpected deaths whose circumstances required official investigation, in mid-twentieth-century London. Suspicious deaths – murders in the family and by strangers, infanticides and deaths from illegal abortions – reveal moments of personal and communal crisis in the social fabric of the city. The intimate details of these crimes revealed in police investigation files, newspaper reports and crime scene photographs hint at the fears and desires of people in London before, during and after the profound changes brought by the dislocations of the Second World War. By setting the institutional ordering of the city against the hidden intimate spaces where crimes occurred and were discovered, the book presents a new popular history of the city, in which urban space circumscribed the investigation, classification and public perceptions of crime.

Chapter Two examines how the Second World War exacerbated existing family tensions, in these cases with deadly results. The notion of ‘home’ as defended by wartime propagandists hid a reality in which civilians were vulnerable to attack by enemy bombs from the outside and violent assault by family members on the inside. Domestic killings in wartime London were characterized by familial conflicts exacerbated by the tensions of war, neuroses amplified by separations and air raids, and opportunistic attempts to dispose of inconvenient wives in the wartime rubble. The largest increase in familial deaths were instances of ‘mercy’ killings of sick or aged family members, and deaths resulting from abortions, with murders committed by parents decreasing and spousal murders remaining fairly constant until reunions brought a spike in 1945-6. The geography of wartime domestic crimes encompassed the entire city, taking place in shared private spaces ranging from rented rooms to flats to suburban villas.

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Chapter Three explores how the Second World War affected crimes between relative strangers in pubs, in shelters and on the streets of London. During the war, London became a much more anonymous, varied and cosmopolitan city. Londoners left their familiar neighbourhoods as the result of evacuation, conscription, directed labour, and internment, while refugees, soldiers, war workers, and deserters poured into the city. Casual encounters influenced by alcohol, sex, racial tensions and the obscurity of the blacked-out streets could end in deadly violence. The number of suspicious deaths between people whose relationship was casual or unclear rose exponentially during the war, and bombed-out houses, alleyways, shelters and pubs were the scenes of casual and brutal deaths, many of which remained unsolved. These deaths show the fault lines in the city and highlight the difficulties of policing when there was no prior relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, and when neither was known to the local police.

in Murder Capital
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in Murder Capital

Chapter One presents a broad survey of the criminal geography of 1930s London, using police files, newspaper accounts and memoirs to examine the spatial distribution and the institutional investigation of suspicious deaths. The resulting maps show how areas formerly associated with crime, such as the East End and Southwark, were eclipsed in the 1930s by the suspicious death rate of neighbourhoods to the west and north, with their shifting populations and high levels of unemployment and poverty. The maps of notable crimes also reveal London spaces on the edge of anachronism: the traditional working class neighbourhoods about to be swept away by the Blitz and Victorian workhouses in the midst of the West End. Although murders in London’s cosmopolitan Soho captured newspaper headlines in the 1930s, this chapter reveals a much more homegrown picture of violence in which victims and perpetrators knew each other, and in which women and children in the family were the main victims.

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Chapter Four argues that the Metropolitan Police investigations of deaths as a result of abortions reveal a network of secrets operating in the capital, characterized by covert referrals, hidden letters, clandestine visits and private rooms in which the operations took place. Coroners’ reports, police files, newspaper articles and criminal depositions reveal glimpses of the lives of women seeking abortions, of the motivations of abortionists and how the two found each other through complex networks of referrals that spread across the United Kingdom. Police files provide a compelling geography of criminal abortion focused on the districts of London north of the river, and taking place in borrowed flats, rented rooms, hotels and in doctor’s surgeries. Suspicious deaths as a result of illegal abortions rose significantly during the Second World War, reflecting men’s wartime absences, women’s need to work, an increase in extramarital affairs and the difficulties of raising children under wartime privations.

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Chapter Five investigates cases of infanticide and infant murder. The 1922 Infanticide Act had abolished the death penalty for a woman who killed her infant while the balance of her mind was disturbed, making infanticide a crime of manslaughter. In London between 1933 and 1953, twenty-three mothers killed themselves and their infants and fifty-nine cases of infanticide were prosecuted, with most bodies discovered in servants’ rooms or bedrooms, hidden in closets, suitcases or under beds. The sixty-three infant bodies discovered in more public places, such as parks, the river, train stations, and alleyways proved more difficult to trace. Unlike suspicious deaths committed by strangers or as a result of illegal abortions, which increased during the Second World War London, the numbers of infanticides in London declined during the war, perhaps as a result of wartime family separation. The details of those accused of infanticide in the Register of Deaths by Violence shifts our understanding of infanticide as a crime primarily committed by desperate single women acting alone, to one also perpetrated by women in relationships often acting with help from others.

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Suspicious death investigations in the postwar era reveal the profound transformations of the city and of English society in the wake of the Second World War. From 1945 the return of civilians and soldiers, the presence of deserters, the increase in the availability of firearms and the difficulties dealing with postwar austerity and settling back into peacetime family life led to a surge of violence. After the war the numbers of infanticides and deaths from abortion dropped under new social provisions for mothers and families and murders using firearms increased. Diminished police manpower and a mobile population led to an increasing reliance on forensics in suspicious death investigations. The early 1950s saw a reworking of the familiar criminal anxieties about London and a profound uneasiness about the war’s lasting effects on the young. Suspicious deaths and criminal trials of the early 1950s illustrated the intense ambivalence Londoners felt as they sought put the effects of the war behind them even as they continued to struggle with its legacy.

in Murder Capital
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in Murder Capital