Did the Victorians live in a “rape culture”? London between 1870 and 1890 was certainly a place in which sexual violence was publicly condemned as an overall concept (W. T. Stead’s “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, for example). Yet, in contrast to the moral denunciation, the historical archive demonstrates excuses constantly condoned sexual violence (as evidenced in parliamentary debates, criminal transcripts, newspaper crime coverage, and social campaigns like those of Josephine Butler). Forensic medical doctors, police, coroners, journalists, illustrators, and editors all contributed and reinforced a system that sustained and condoned rape as evidenced by the newspaper crime reports; but, to blame them for their actions, as if each action was performed with malicious intent, would hide the greater system of oppression that operated both blatantly and in the shadows. When one demographic holds significant power over another – as men did over women in Victorian England – those power relations become embedded into its culture in ways that are never clearly transparent and continue to haunt the future until exposed and rectified. To this end, my dissertation investigates newspaper crime narratives to reveal the heterocryptic ghosts and make their multiple legacies visible.
Murder of women by men are significantly linked via cultural perceptions. Anna Clark discovered this with Mary Ashford’s rape and murder in 1817. Though Ashford died from drowning, the narratives rewrote her death as if it was the rape that had killed her. Based on this correlation, this study focuses on six cases of unsolved female murder and dismemberment. The decision to use unsolved cases stems from the hypothesis that more gendered assumptions would manifest in the crime narratives as the journalists (and police, coroners, and forensic doctors) tried to discern the particulars of the crime within contexts that made sense to them. Analytical coding of the data demonstrates the prevalence of rape myths operating within the narratives in conjunction with misogynistic and classist beliefs. From initial discovery to forensic inspections to inquest verdicts and beyond a number of myriad historical materializations are exposed that continue to haunt the present.