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On Murder (Oxford World's Classics)

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On Murder (Oxford World's Classics)

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  First published as an Oxford World’s Classics paperback 2006

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  ISBN 0–19–280566–5 978–0–19–280566–9



  For over 100 years Oxford World’s Classics have brought readers closer to the world’s great literature. Now with over 700 titles—from the 4,000-year-old myths of Mesopotamia to the twentieth century’s greatest novels—the series makes available lesser-known as well as celebrated writing.

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  Refer to the Table of Contents to navigate through the material in this Oxford World’s Classics ebook. Use the asterisks (*) throughout the text to access the hyperlinked Explanatory Notes.



  On Murder

  Edited with an Introduction and Notes by




  THOMAS DE QUINCEY (1785–1859) was born in Manchester to a prosperous linen merchant. As a young boy he read widely and acquired a reputation as a brilliant classicist. At 17 he ran away from Manchester Grammar School and spent five harrowing months penniless and hungry on the streets of London. Reconciled with his family, he entered Oxford University in 1803, but left five years later without taking his degree and moved to the English Lake District to be near his two literary idols, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1813 he became dependent on opium, a drug he began experimenting with during his days at Oxford, and over the next few years he slid deeper into debt and addiction. His most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, appeared in the London Magazine in 1821, and launched his career as a contributor to the leading magazines of the day, where he wrote on a wide variety of subjects, including politics, literature, history, philosophy, and economics. In 1823 he published his most famous piece of literary criticism, ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, in which he explored the representation and psychology of violence. Four years later in Blackwood’s Magazine he published his brilliant exercise in black humour, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, which he followed with a ‘Second Paper On Murder’ in 1839 and a ‘Postscript’ in 1854. De Quincey also wrote terror fiction, and in 1838 produced ‘The Avenger’, his most disturbing treatment of retribution and racial violence. De Quincey spent much of his life battling poverty, debt, and addiction, but his work was widely admired, and British and American editions of his writings began to appear in the 1850s. He died in Edinburgh on 8 December 1859.

  ROBERT MORRISON is Professor of English literature at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He has edited writings by Leigh Hunt, Richard Woodhouse, and Jane Austen. With Chris Baldick, he produced editions of The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre and Tales of Terror from Blackwood’s Magazine for Oxford World’s Classics.




  Note on the Text

  Select Bibliography

  A Chronology of Thomas De Quincey


  On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth

  On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

  The Avenger

  Second Paper on Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts

  Postscript [to On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts]

  Appendixes. Manuscript Writings

  A. Peter Anthony Fonk

  B. To the Editor of Blackwood’s Magazine

  C. A New Paper on Murder as a Fine Art

  Explanatory Notes


  LIKE all critics of De Quincey, I am deeply indebted to Grevel Lindop, who developed the idea for this volume, and who has repeatedly challenged and broadened my understanding of De Quincey. I would also like to thank Judith Luna for her enthusiasm and support. For expertise and advice of all kinds, I am grateful to Chris Baldick, Bonnie Brooks, Iain Brown, Jeff Cowton, Michael Cummings, Jeff Eckert, Robert Freeman, Louis Godbout, Clifford Jackman, Heather Jackson, Robin Jackson, Adam Johnstone, Mark Jones, Frank Jordan, Bernard Kavanagh, Larry Krupp, Justin Jaron Lewis, Charles Mahoney, Julian North, Seamus Perry, William Reeve, Christopher Ricks, David Smith, Paul Stanwood, Barry Symonds, Beert Verstraete, Paul Wiens, and Romira Worvill. Special thanks to Brandon Alakas for his hard work, insightful questions, and meticulous scholarship. I am indebted to the staffs of several libraries: the National Library of Scotland; the Dove Cottage Library, Grasmere; and the Countway Library of Medicine, Houghton Library, and Widener Library, Harvard University. I would especially like to thank the staffs of the Joseph S. Stauffer Library and the W. D. Jordan Special Collections, Douglas Library, Queen’s University. My research on this edition was greatly facilitated by generous grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Advisory Research Committee of Queen’s University.

  My greatest debt, comme toujours, is to Carole, Zachary, and Alastair.


  ‘MAY I quote Thomas De Quincey?’ asks the murderer politely in Peter Ackroyd’s Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. ‘In the pages of his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” I first learned of the Ratcliffe Highway deaths, and
ever since that time his work has been a source of perpetual delight and astonishment to me.’1 De Quincey burst onto the literary scene in 1821 with his best-known publication, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and in the decades that followed he produced works of fiction, biography, and various modes of autobiography, as well as essays on a remarkably diverse range of topics, from literary theory, science, and political economics to philology, geography, philosophy, and history. Perhaps De Quincey’s most thoroughgoing preoccupation, however, was violence. He wrote often of murderers, exploiting sources from Roman biographies to contemporary newspapers, but at the centre of his fascination stands John Williams, the presumed killer in 1811 of seven people in two different incidents separated by only twelve days and a few city streets in London’s East End. De Quincey’s response to Williams’s attacks were written over the course of more than thirty years, and ranged from penetrating literary and aesthetic criticism to disturbing fictive transpositions, brilliantly funny satiric high jinks, and gruesomely vivid reportage. The works collected in this volume brought De Quincey great contemporary notoriety, and inspired a long line of writers on crime, detection, aesthetics, and violence. They also hold a peculiar appeal to the modern reader, for they presage academic and popular assaults on conventional morality, the highly diverse commodification of violence, and the world-weariness that regards the spectacle of murder with both cynicism and fascination.

  De Quincey’s keen interest in violence and crime is part of a broad and longstanding tradition in Britain and well beyond. ‘If all novels and dramas turning upon startling crimes were to be expunged from our literature, we should have to make a surprisingly clean sweep,’ remarked Leslie Stephen in ‘The Decay of Murder’ (1869). ‘Hamlet and Othello and King Lear would have to go at once.’2 In the seventeenth century highly popular broadsheets, pamphlets, and squibs describing gruesome murders and execution scenes were typically framed by a piously insistent morality which made clear that bad guys finish last. Providential fictions such as John Reynolds’s Triumph of God’s Revenge (1621–35) featured a wrathful God who smote sinners, and combined ‘impassioned Moralizing’ with a ‘heart & soul … swallowed up in the notion of “Murder”’, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge observed.3 By the eighteenth century notorious thieves such as John Sheppard and Dick Turpin had become favourite figures in ballads, plays, romances, and burlesques, while the first Newgate Calendar (1773), running to five volumes and dealing with the violent excesses of dozens of major criminals, fed a voracious public appetite and spawned many imitations. John Villette’s Annals of Newgate (1776) extended the pattern of blending violence and morality ‘to expose … the infamy and punishments naturally attending those who deviate from the paths of virtue’.4 At the same time, the novel was evolving in close connection with criminality and transgression. Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724) is a tale of thievery which ends in murder and remorse, while Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743) is a fictionalized version of the life of the infamous criminal executed in 1725. The maudlin extremes of the novel of sentiment culminated in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), where the eponymous hero, ravaged by hopeless passion and half in love with death, put a bullet through his head and touched off a suicide epidemic across Europe. The gothicism of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian (1797), and Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya (1805) employed the paraphernalia of dungeons, castles, subterranean passageways, virtuous maidens, and tormented villains, but had at their heart a preoccupation with emotional extremity, brutal usurpation, and murderous vengeance. The noble criminal at war with society dominated works from Friedrich Schiller’s Robbers (1781) to Victor Hugo’s Hernani (1830), while English writers such as William Blake, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, and Percy Shelley produced re-evaluations of mythic rebels like Prometheus and Cain. In the early 1830s Newgate novels by Edward Bulwer Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth featured compassionate or glamorized portraits of actual eighteenth-century thieves and murderers, and provoked responses such as Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837–8) and William Thackeray’s Catherine (1839–40), both of which presented a harshly realistic view of criminal life.

  De Quincey’s interest in violence, and especially murder, played a key role in the evolution of crime literature, and was persistent, various, and wide-ranging. He surveyed the distant past for striking examples of murder, and highlighted in particular the Roman Emperors Caligula and Nero, the Judaean King Herod the Great, and the Thugs of India, a confederacy of professional assassins that ‘gave rise to endless speculation’ in De Quincey, as his publisher James Hogg put it. ‘The far-reaching power of this mysterious brotherhood, the swiftness and certainty of its operations, the strange gradations of official rank, and the curious disguises adopted—all these exercised an influence on his mind which seemed never to wane.’5 De Quincey had an extensive knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century gallows writing, including cases such as ‘the old Parisian jeweller Cardillac, in Louis XIV.’s time, who was stung with a perpetual lust for murdering the possessors of fine diamonds’.6 As a young man, De Quincey was an enthusiastic reader of the Newgate Calendar, and a great admirer of the gothic fantasies of Schiller, Lewis, and especially Radcliffe, whom he described as ‘the great enchantress’ of a generation.7 As a writer, he frequently examined literary texts through the lens of crime, as when he observed that ‘the archangel Satan’ in Milton’s Paradise Lost must contend with an ‘angelic … constable or an inspector of police’8 stationed at the gates of Paradise. During his editorship of the Westmorland Gazette (1818–19) De Quincey filled the columns of the newspaper with assize reports and lurid murder stories, and over the next forty years paid close attention to the trials and circumstances of several notorious murderers, including William Burke and William Hare, William Palmer, Madeleine Smith, and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who dined with De Quincey in London in 1821 and later revealed himself as ‘a murderer of a freezing class; cool, calculating, wholesale in his operations, and moving all along under the advantages of unsuspecting domestic confidence and domestic opportunities’.9

  No killer, however, captured De Quincey’s imagination like John Williams, the man thought responsible for two horrendous acts of carnage in late 1811. Near midnight on Saturday, 7 December, Williams entered Timothy Marr’s lace and pelisse warehouse at 29 Ratcliffe Highway. Once inside he locked the door, and within a matter of minutes ruthlessly dispatched all four inhabitants. The servant girl, Margaret Jewell (called ‘Mary’ by De Quincey), had been sent out to fetch dinner, and when she returned to find the door locked she raised the alarm. A neighbour gained entry at the back of the house and the front door was quickly opened. Eyewitnesses saw Marr’s wife Celia sprawled lifelessly headlong. Marr himself was dead behind the store counter. The apprentice James Gowen was stretched out in the back near a door that led to a staircase. Most sinisterly, downstairs in the kitchen, three-month-old Timothy Marr, junior, was found dead. ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires,’ wrote William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.10 Williams took Blake at his word. He crushed the skulls and cut the throats of all four victims. Twelve days later—again around midnight, again in the same East London area—Williams struck again, this time at the household of a publican named John Williamson. ‘A man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson,’ observed G. K. Chesterton; ‘it sounds like a sort of infanticide.’11 Williams’s attack on this second occasion was not as successful, but his savagery was equally chilling. Williamson himself was found dead in the cellar. He had apparently been thrown down the stairs. His throat was cut. His wife Elizabeth and the maid Anna Bridget Harrington were discovered on the main floor, their skulls battered and their throats slit. A lodger named John Turner, however, managed to escape by climbing out of a third-floor window and calling for help. An angry crowd gathered, but by the time they entered the house Willi
ams had fled. Kitty Stillwell, the 14-year-old granddaughter of the Williamsons, had been asleep upstairs the entire time. She was unharmed. Several suspects were arrested in connection with the atrocities, including Williams, who was detained on 22 December and who was founded hanged in his prison cell four days later, an apparent suicide. The court chose to hear the evidence against him, but the circumstances of his death were widely interpreted as a confession of guilt. On New Year’s Eve Williams’s body was publicly exhibited in a procession through the Ratcliffe Highway and then driven to the nearest crossroads, where it was forced into a narrow hole and a stake driven through the heart. In response to these horrors, Leigh Hunt wrote of ‘Watchmen’ and the dangers of ‘such ferocious fellows as Williams’, while Robert Southey told a friend that ‘no circumstances which did not concern myself ever disturbed me so much. I … never had so mingled a feeling of horror, and indignation, and astonishment, with a sense of insecurity too’.12 Not everyone, however, adopted this solemn tone. When Charles Lamb asked his friend George Dyer ‘what he thought of the terrible Williams, the Ratcliffe Highway murderer’, there was a ‘pause for consideration’ and then ‘the answer came: “I should think, Mr Lamb, he must have been rather an eccentric character”’.13

  De Quincey’s reaction to Williams and the Ratcliffe murders ranged from impassioned solemnity to black humour, and the essays and fictions of the present volume are all haunted by his presence, sometimes directly, sometimes only in outline. De Quincey published ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’ in the London Magazine in 1823, just two years after he had launched himself to notoriety in the same magazine with the publication of his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. ‘On the Knocking’ is his most celebrated piece of literary criticism, and brings the murderer and the writer into the same orbit, for both are interested in pleasure and power, and both seek freedom by outstripping or subverting the social institutions they feel thwart or confine them. Shakespeare and Williams are both creators of bloody dramas, great artists who perform upon the stage of London, and awe their audiences with supreme moments of self-assertion and violence. ‘Murder is negative creation’, writes W. H. Auden, ‘and every murderer is therefore the rebel who claims the right to be omnipotent.’14 In ‘On the Knocking’, De Quincey characteristically approaches Williams from at least two different angles. On the one hand, he introduces the satiric aesthetic that enables him to see Williams’s performance ‘on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway’ as ‘making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with any thing that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the deep crimson of his’ (p. 4). The essays ‘On Murder’ that follow spring from the seedbed of this aesthetic. Yet on the other hand, the circumstances surrounding Williams’s extreme brutality reveal to De Quincey the emotional impact of a particular moment in Macbeth, and lead also to reflections on the psychology of murder and the representation of violence. ‘Murder in ordinary cases … is an incident of coarse and vulgar horror,’ he asserts; ‘and for this reason—that it flings the interest exclusively upon the natural but ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.’ Such an attitude is ill-suited to ‘the purposes of the poet’, and so Shakespeare throws ‘the interest on the murderer’, where ‘there must be raging some great storm of passion,—jealousy, ambition, vengeance, hatred,—which will create a hell within him; and into this hell we are to look’ (pp. 4–5). In an 1818 essay, William Hazlitt remarked that ‘at present we are less exposed to the vicissitudes of good or evil…. The police spoils all; and we now hardly so much as dream of a midnight murder. Macbeth is only tolerated in this country for the sake of the music.’15 De Quincey, however, dreamt often of midnight murder, and in his response to Hazlitt he reveals Macbeth as a play where the world of violence is ‘cut off by an immeasurable gulph from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs’ (p. 6), and where the mind of murder is acutely and unnervingly revealed.

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