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The Making of the Book: Murder Maps

Posted on 23 Sep 2020

Gruesome tales, ‘murder nerds’ and killer cartography. Head behind the scenes with the creative team for ‘Murder Maps’ and discover what it took to make this captivating and disquieting book (and why it involved lying on the floor).

A harrowing study of homicide: Author Drew Gray on ‘murder news’ and criminal detection

“Fortunately few of us will experience murder directly in our lives; instead we engage at a distance, through the news, or, more often, via a television drama or a holiday crime novel. When we do it is invariably shocking murder that captures our attention. Indeed if we took popular cultural representation of crime at face value we could be forgiven for believing that murder was an everyday occurrence, when, in reality, it is extremely rare.

Murder Maps gave me the opportunity to look beyond the UK and study homicide, crime and policing across the globe. In that respect murder is a great leveler; it horrifies and fascinates in equal measure and this applies worldwide.”

Sensationalized murder and the rise of the detective

“Public fascination with ‘murder news’ has deep roots – we have been reading about criminals, their crimes, and their execution, for almost as long as we have had access to printed material. This fascination grew in the 1800s, as more and more people were able to read and afford to buy newspapers. The idea of the criminal and the murderer – as someone separate, someone ‘other’ – was becoming entrenched. This was helped by the growth of large urban centres – London, Paris, New York, Chicago – where crime and immorality seemed endemic and unstoppable. Commentators saw places such as the East End of London as cesspools of human immorality and degradation and were quick to see serial killers such as ‘Jack the Ripper’ as products of urban degeneration.”

Crime scene photographs by Alphonse Bertillon of murder victims in Paris

“As the idea of a ‘criminal class’ gained acceptance so the need for a professional police force to combat it gained ground. So across the 1800s we see the development of policing and, more pertinently for this study, detection. In this, and in the science of forensics, France led the way: from Vidocq, to Bertillon, to Dr Lacassange the French pioneered techniques of detection used to catch murderers. The 100 years covered in Murder Maps saw the increasing use of photography, the analysis of the crime scene, the measurement of criminal bodies, and the use of fingerprint identification.”

The rise of forensics

Cataloguing crimes: Editorial Assistant Izzy Jessop on the Criminology Matrix

“Once Murder Maps had been given the green light, the task fell to me to begin researching a list of the murders we were going to include. The period we had chosen – 1811 to 1911 – was late enough and broad enough that there was plenty of information available online, and the murders could be committed by anyone, from anywhere, around the world. Surely finding a hundred murders from this notoriously bloody century wouldn’t be that hard?

Finding any hundred killers, probably not, but in fact we had a set of very specific criteria that made finding our murderers quite a bit more difficult. First, there needed to be some visual material available, whether crime scene photography or newspaper illustration, second we needed to know some information about the location of the crime so that the mapping element could work, and thirdly it needed to be an interesting story, ideally featuring some innovative policework for author Drew Gray to write about. There were a frustrating number of cases that fit one or two of these criteria beautifully, but were missing a crucial element, whether it was a fantastic and bloodthirsty story featured extensively in the press but that no-one ever bothered illustrate, or a wonderfully evocative and historically important crime scene photo whose location had been lost in the mists of time.”

Criminology Matrix

“Nevertheless, a list of cases that fit the bill began to come together, and as I discovered them I logged them into an Excel spreadsheet, noting the victim, killer, date, location and typology, to keep a track of what I had so far. This would eventually become the Criminology Matrix we included at the back of the book, giving the key data for all of the cases we feature. During the research process I became incredibly grateful to the many fans of 19th-century crime who are continuously researching the period and posting their findings online: wonderfully detailed blogs on murder in Glasgow, Liverpool, Lyon and London were lifesavers, and I am forever indebted to the murder nerds who have forensically unpicked homicides from around the world on Jack the Ripper forums.

Many museums and institutions were also fantastic, and I have to give particular acknowledgement to the British Newspaper Archive, without whose digitized database of over a million newspaper pages I am not sure this project would have been feasible. In the end the ‘criminology matrix’ and the 123 killers it features is an excellent testament to the scale of our endeavour, even if it can’t tell you how many hours were spent translating Hungarian newspapers or deciphering French ballads!”

Criminology Matrix

Choosing themes and plotting murders: Izzy Jessop on crime cartography

“As well as featuring individual murders, we also wanted to include maps of whole cities or regions, with multiple homicides plotted. We quickly established that the best way to present this would be thematically, as we didn’t want to give the impression that we were showing every single murder in a city, and that when choosing the themes we would have to be led by the material available.

Baby farmers featured prominently in the Australian press during this period, for instance, and so this seemed a natural choice for Sydney and Melbourne. However, for some cities we had more information available, and so could be choosier about our theme. The fantastic Old Bailey Online database allows you to search all cases tried in the Old Bailey, London, and to narrow your search by offence, the gender of both victim and defendant, the verdict, the sentence and more. For London we therefore decided to do a feature map of murders in which victim and defendant were both women.”

Female murders by women, London, 1827-1911

“The next stage was finding a map to use as our base, for which David Rumsey’s vast, searchable collection of historic maps was our go-to. Finally, we needed to plot our little numbers onto the map to show where the murders were committed.

This task was only slightly less daunting as the previous book I had worked on, Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps, had also involved intricately plotting points onto historic maps so I knew I had a system that worked. This involved cross referencing my archival map with Google maps, combined with research into how the names and layouts of streets had changed since the 19th century. Having grown up in London this one was slightly easier, as I already had a sense of the city’s geography – Budapest and rural Italy were slightly more challenging!”

Crimes perpetrated by bandits, Emilia Romagna, 1805-63

Conference room cadavers

“Throughout the book, we wanted to add red silhouettes to the custom-drawn floorplans to show where, and in what position, cadavers were found. We were able to get this information from crime scene photographs, for example those of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Massachusetts.”

The murders of Andrew and Abby Borden

“However when none of the illustrations of silhouetted bodies we could find online were working, we had to come up with a creative solution to providing our illustrator with outlines to work from. The red figures you see in the book are therefore not just anyone – they’re members of our Thames & Hudson team, as we lay on the conference room floor and photographed each other in the correct positions for the illustrator to recreate.”

Author Drew Gray on an endlessly intriguing book

“I have been writing and teaching the history of crime for over a decade and continue to find it fascinating. Whether it is the stories of everyday life in Victorian London that I uncover for my blog or the mystery of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings that I discuss with students, I am always discovering new ways to look at crime and its representation in popular culture.”

Related books

Murder Maps

Crime Scenes Revisited; Phrenology to Fingerprint 1811–1911 Dr Drew Gray

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps

Mary S. Morgan, Iain Sinclair