Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English

Volume 17 – The Pragmatics and Stylistics of Identity Construction and Characterisation

Article Contents

1. Introduction

2. Constructing and evaluating social identities

2.1 Social identity

2.2 Linguistic evaluation of groups and individuals

3. Murder and mayhem in late nineteenth-century Britain

3.1 Victims and criminals in newspapers

3.2 Late nineteenth-century murders in focus

4. Material and method in the current study

5. Reference in the news reportage

5.1 The murderers

5.2 The victims

6. Representation and solidarity in the linguistic evaluation of murder




Solidarity in evaluation: The portrayal of murderers and their victims in late nineteenth-century newspapers

Minna Nevala
University of Helsinki


This article studies the terms used to refer to murderers and their victims in late nineteenth-century British newspapers, comprising of 200 articles from both London and provincial papers. The material consists of news features about such notorious murder cases as those of the Mannings (1849), William Palmer (1856), Charles Peace (1876/9), and Jack the Ripper (1888). The aim is to study the terms from a socio-pragmatic perspective, on the basis of the notions of intensity, solidarity, and objectivity. The purpose is thus to describe what public descriptions existed of the chosen murderers and their victims in late nineteenth-century newspapers, and how the readers’ evaluation of the crimes seems to have been influenced and even manipulated by the use of person reference.

The results of the study suggest that the social identities of the murderers and their victims have been constructed by the help of two main perspectives for linguistic evaluation. Firstly, the influential factor, which relates to the manner in which the press referred to the mu rder events themselves, thu s affecting the public’s opinion. In language use this was shown by a decrease within the evaluative parameter of objectivity, which is related to an increase within the parameter of intensity. Secondly, by the personal perspective, which means the way in which the press described the criminals and victims in order to show personal involvement in the matter. In general, there seems to have been low solidarity for the murderers and medium or high solidarity for the victims. Thus it is more common to find negative labelling used of the murderers than positive evaluation denoting in-group membership. As for the victims, they are mostly labelled positively, regardless of their social standing.

1. Introduction

The actual content of group behaviour (what people actually think and do as members of a group) is shaped by more macro-level dimensions of social identity processes (Hogg 2005). In other words, groups often define their social identity by their common opposition to some enemy or ‘out-group’. This opposition breeds positive and negative evaluations and social stereotypes, i.e. generalizations or assumptions about the characteristics of all members of a group (Hogg and Abrams 1988). Such social stereotypes are typically used for building up the public identities of, for example, criminals and other members of the social margins.

In the nineteenth century the popular press was directed towards the heterogenic working class, and therefore the information contents were often mixed with entertaining characteristics (Conboy 2010). Newspapers feasted on such topics as the corruption of the upper classes, but even more so that of the social margins. Social stereotypes were typically created on the basis of the public identities of criminals and other members of the social margins by way of negative labelling. In comparison, the crime victims were described in more compassionate terms.

It is the purpose of this article to study the terms used to refer not only to murderers but also to their victims, as featured in late nineteenth-century British newspapers. My data come from the 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database, the British Newspaper Archive and The Times Archive, comprising of 200 articles from both London and provincial papers. The material consists of news features about such notorious murder cases as those of the Mannings (1849), William Palmer (1856), Charles Peace (1876/9), and Jack the Ripper (1888). All these cases were widely covered in the news at the time, providing ample material on the positive and negative evaluation of both the wrong-doers and their victims. My aim is to study the terms from a socio-pragmatic perspective, drawing from Bednarek’s (2006; Bednarek and Caple 2012) evaluation model as well as Martin and White’s (2005) appraisal theory, on the basis of which I will categorise the data according to the notions of intensity, solidarity, and objectivity. My purpose is thus to describe what public descriptions existed of the chosen murderers and their victims in late nineteenth-century newspapers, and how the readers’ evaluation of the crimes seems to have been influenced and even manipulated by the use of person reference.

In the following sections, I will first discuss some issues central to this study in both social and linguistic theory, i.e. social identity construction and evaluative language. I will then proceed to give a short overview of news writing about crime in late nineteenth-century Britain, as well as of the crimes under study. Finally, I will present my analysis of the news features on the murders, focusing on person and event reference from both an influential and a personal perspective.

2. Constructing and evaluating social identities

2.1 Social identity

A person’s social identity can be seen as something constructed by both their self-concept and their membership in a social group or groups. In other words, it involves both how we act as individuals and as parts of a collective (Tajfel 1982). The actual content of group behaviour (what people actually think and do as members of a group) is shaped by more macro-level dimensions of social identity processes (Hogg 2005: 208–209; also Hogg & Abrams 1988). Groups often define their identity by their common opposition to some enemy or ‘out-group’. While this process can be very effective in strengthening the in-group, it does so by significantly intensifying the intergroup conflict. Intragroup consensus can be reached by conforming to group norms. We can use here criminals and non-criminals as an example of the intragroup consensus and intergroup conflict. The members of the ‘respectable’ majority are keeping up the consensus by having their own social and societal norms and constraints to which they conformed. Anyone who does not abide with the laws and rules of this prevalent society is thus placed into the out-group. The conflict between the in-group and out-group members is further intensified if, for example, the out-group minority is somehow recognised as a danger to the in-group majority, as in the case of criminals to non-criminals. Criminals can thus be solely characterised as negative, whereas non-criminals are often assigned positive properties.

Social identities and intergroup relations are usually manifested in the so-called in-group and out-group discourse, respectively. Often the majority culture comes to be seen, and talked about, as the norm, ‘us’, and that of the minority group as the ‘other’. Impoliteness, and negative labelling in particular, means creating and maintaining negative impressions, which can be aided or achieved through the use of ‘labels of primary potency’ (Allport 1986). This means that certain characteristics, like male/female or criminal/law-abiding, carry more perceptual potency than others, and signal difference from what is considered mainstream (e.g. moral distinctiveness). In other words, we evaluate other individuals and groups by labelling them one way or the other.

2.2 Linguistic evaluation of groups and individuals

So, it is a very human trait to categorise the self and the other based on differing characteristics. These characteristics materialise in language use as, for example, adjectives and nouns, which can then be used as descriptive attributes and terms of reference. These descriptions, or linguistic evaluations, are often used first of an out-group among a particular in-group, and later on spread into common usage. Linguistic evaluation carries an element of judgement, since when expressing, for example, our reluctance to be associated with a particular out-group, we simultaneously assess the characteristics of that group and all its members as negative. In Martin and White’s (2005) appraisal theory, emotions both for and against are categorised under “attitude”. “Attitude” is in turn divided into three semantic dimensions, “affect” (positive/negative feelings), “judgment” (positive/negative attitude to behaviour), and “appreciation” (positive/negative evaluation of semiotic and natural phenomena). It is the notion of “judgment” that is the most central to the present study, since when describing, for example, a serial killer, we first and foremost evaluate him through his actions. “Judgment” also concerns moral evaluation, what is right and what is wrong, and as a dimension of social sanction, it covers praise (descriptions like good, law-abiding, respectful) and condemn (e.g. evil, corrupt, cruel) (Martin and White 2005: 53). It could be said that evaluation is not only linked with power (status) but also with solidarity, since it entails negotiation of group membership (Martin and White 2005: 34–35). Similarly to Martin and White, Bednarek (2006; see also Bednarek and Caple 2012) sees evaluation as an umbrella term for what she calls core and peripheral parameters. In her evaluation theory, the judgment of whether something or someone is good or bad falls under the core parameter of “emotivity”. “Emotivity” is concerned with the expression of a person’s approval or disapproval, and it contains an element of force from low intensity (a crime) and medium intensity (an assassination) to high intensity (a slaughter). She thus associates emotivity with objectivity, or the lack of it, and admits that emotive meaning is difficult to recognize and categorise in general (Bednarek 2006: 45–47).

The division between positive and negative evaluation clearly reflects a more prevalent, societal attitude either in favour or against particular group memberships, as e.g. in the case of criminals and victims. By creating and using negative terms and attributes, “respectable” people place criminals in a “detestable” out-group (for more on imagery and terminology of disease and crime, see e.g. Nevala and Hintikka 2009; Nevala Forthcoming 2017). Studies have shown that there are, for example, specific naming strategies for criminals (Mayr and Machin 2012: 57). Clark (1992: 224) calls this process of extreme negative labelling “fiend naming”: when criminals are referred to as monsters, they are depicted so evil and alien that they cannot fit into humankind and society. Negative labelling then becomes a strategy based on the notion that no “normal” person would be capable of such a “monstrous” crime. In comparison, victims are often labelled positively with what could be called “angel naming”, respectively. Tabbert (2015: 152) has found that in the press victims are often described in terms of their social network and environment, as well as their character. For example, a victim whose identity is constructed as being loved and cared by others evokes more empathy and concern, because readers think s/he must be a “good person” (2015: 104). The more people are affected, the more the impact of the crime gets enhanced.

3. Murder and mayhem in late nineteenth-century Britain

3.1 Victims and criminals in newspapers

News stories in general require evaluation to establish the significance of what is being told, to focus the event, and to justify claiming the audience’s attention (Bell 1991: 151). Crime stories in particular have always been a prominent part of all media, because they serve important social, cultural, political, economic and moral purposes (Mayr and Machin 2012: 2). Recent studies (e.g. Levenson 2001) have shown what a deep impact news coverage has on people’s perception of crime and deviance. In many cases, this impact is emphasised by crime being represented as entertainment. The news value of a crime is itself often based on the negativity and the superlativeness of the actor or the event (for news value factors, see Bell 1991: 156–158).

Already in the nineteenth century the popular press was directed towards the heterogenic working class, and therefore the information contents were often mixed with entertaining characteristics (Conboy 2010: 86). The Victorian press generally used melodramatic fiction in presenting the darker sides of social life, including rudimentary psychological analyses and a fascination with shocking detail (Conboy 2010: 87; Linnane 2003: 280; O’Reilly 2014: 222). The newspapers’ way of using a variety of forms already familiar from popular culture was also aimed at attracting new audiences (Conboy 2002: 86). The excerpt below is from one of the newspaper articles on the most famous murder cases in late nineteenth-century Britain, the Mannings. In his Letter to the Editor, Charles Dickens writes about the execution of the murderous couple, particularly his disgust with the way people flocked in to see the hanging.

The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. […] When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts. (The Times, November 13, 1849)

Dickens’s style resembles greatly that of the news reportage on the Mannings’ case in general. Its way of describing the murderers and the audience, as well as their behaviour and the surroundings, is typical of the Victorian popular press. The next section will give some background on the Manning murder and the three other cases used in this study in order to shed light on why they proved to be so interesting for the reading public.

3.2 Late nineteenth-century murders in focus

On August 17th 1849, two policemen found a dead body under the floor of Maria and Frederick Manning’s kitchen in Bermondsey. The story leading to its deadly end starts when Maria de Roux came to London to serve as a lady’s maid for Lady Blantyre. In 1846 she went across the Channel to Boulogne with her employer and met Patrick O’Connor, a 50-year-old Irishman, who worked as a customs officer in the London’s docks. Maria was much taken with Mr O’Connor but she was also involved with Frederick Manning, who worked as a guard on the Great Western Railway. Both men proposed to Maria and she had to decide which of the two would lead her to a more prosperous marriage. Eventually, Frederick won and the couple married in 1847. Maria felt she had married the wrong man and was determined to have O’Connor’s money by killing him. She invited O’Connor to dinner and when he arrived, she shot him in the head with a pistol. The bullet wound did not kill him, however, and Frederick finished O’Connor off by battering his head in with a ripping chisel. The two of them then buried the body below the kitchen flagstones, covering it with quicklime.

The following day Maria went to O’Connor’s lodgings and managed to con her way into his rooms where she took everything of value, including his share certificates. It was this kind of impunity that excited the popular press after the Mannings had been caught: Maria in Edinburgh and Frederick in Jersey (Diamond 2003: 160). Both of them were brought back to London, charged with murder and also remanded to Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Their executions were set for the morning of the 13th of November 1849. The press were obsessed with Mrs Manning and her proud demeanour, particularly since she was a perfect example of a Victorian murderess, the likes of whom often surfaced in fiction or drama at the time. No wonder: it has been estimated that the Mannings case sold 2.5 million copies of various broadsides (Diamond 2003: 165).

Another famous case, the so-called Rugeley murder, was committed by Dr William Palmer in 1856, and it has been called the most notorious poisoning case in the Victorian period (Diamond 2003: 166). Palmer was known for his extravagant lifestyle; his medical training was constantly interrupted by allegations of stealing money, and he also had a reputation as a ladies’ man. He enjoyed gambling and horses, but his lack of success led him into serious debt. The first of several suspicious deaths connected to Palmer was that of his mother-in-law in 1849, followed by four other deaths, including his wife Ann. Palmer had taken out a £13,000 insurance policy on her life, as well as on his brother Walter’s, who also died in 1855. The insurance company refused to pay this time, and Palmer found himself in great debt. In November 1855, Palmer attended the Shrewsbury Handicap Stakes. He was accompanied by a friend, John Parsons Cook, who won a large amount of money by betting on “Polestar”; Palmer lost heavily by betting instead on “the Chicken”.

Already on November 14th, Cook was complaining of feeling ill, but he was only thought to have drunk too much brandy. The next day, the two gamblers returned to Rugeley, and Cook booked a room at the Talbot Arms. Three days later Cook fell suddenly ill, a few days later, he was dead. An inquest on Cook opened, the verdict being “wilful murder”. Some 30,000 were at Stafford prison on June 14th 1856 to see Palmer’s public execution by hanging. The newspapers, universally hostile to Palmer, feasted on the murder trial. For example, The Times raised the price of an issue twelve times over, as well as increased its circulation, at the time of the Palmer case (Diamond 2003: 166).

Yet another famous murder committed by Charles Peace was not, however, sensational in itself, it was only after he had eluded the Police for nearly two years that the public started to get interested in his story. The most striking feature in Peace was his extraordinary way of life: by day he lived as a respectable citizen, popular with the neighbours and a regular church-goer, and by night an active cat burglar (Diamond 2003: 183). The newspapers played on this versatility, and inflated the sensation for its own benefit. The story started in 1875, when Peace had moved from Sheffield itself to the suburb of Darnall, where he made the acquaintance of a Mr Dyson, a civil engineer. He allegedly became intimate with Mrs Dyson, a claim she continuously denied. She called him a demon, who persecuted her with his attentions, and, when he found them rejected, started stalking the couple.

On July 1st 1876, Peace approached Mrs Dyson and threatened to shoot her and her husband. The Dysons took out a summons against Peace and moved to a different suburb, Banner Cross. On October 26th, their first day in the new house, Peace appeared to threaten Mrs Dyson again. That evening, Peace observed Mrs Dyson coming out from her back door. He confronted her with a revolver, Mrs Dyson retreated, and her husband came out to investigate. Then Peace fired twice, shooting Dyson through the temple. Two hours later Dyson was dead and Peace nowhere to be found. It was not until February 1879 that Peace was caught and put on trial for the Dyson murder. On February 4th, Peace’s trial began at Leeds Assizes. The jury convicted him after deliberating for only 12 minutes, and he was sentenced to death and to be executed on February 25th.

The last of the four cases, the Ripper killings, took place in the autumn of 1888 in London. Five murders in particular have been recognised as those committed by Jack the Ripper, and they are commonly referred to as ‘the canonical five’: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. All five women were prostitutes working mostly in the Whitechapel area. The press quickly inflated the sensation of the murders, mostly because of their exceptional brutality (Diamond 2003: 184). The murders were indeed extremely violent, and towards the last of the canonical five, downright beastly. The victims’ throats were typically cut, abdominal and genital areas were mutilated and internal organs removed. The mutilations became increasingly severe as the series of murders progressed – apart from that of Stride, whose attacker may have been interrupted, hence Eddowes’ murder shortly after. The murder of the last of the canonical five, Kelly, was exceptionally vile: her body was eviscerated and her face hacked beyond recognition.

The mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper’s identity has been the topic of many investigations, criminal and other, over the past 127 years. At the time of the murders, guesses ran wild about, for example, whether the Ripper was someone who was skilled in medicine, like Michael Ostrog, a mad Russian doctor and a convict, or even more likely, a Jew, like hairdresser Aaron Kosminski, who was singled out by a witness, but no charges were brought against him due to the witness’s reluctance to testify against “a fellow Jew” (Casebook: Jack the Ripper). In 2014, Kosminski was identified as the Ripper by DNA tests performed on the shawl found on the Eddowes murder site. [1]

4. Material and method in the current study

The material for the current study consists of 200 news features on the four murder cases (50 articles per murder) from the 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database and The Times Archive. A more detailed description of the data can be seen in Table 1. All the news coverage from the first murder (Mannings) until the last (Ripper) was searched for nominal references to both the murderers and their victims. The main division in the data was made between the murders, and the references were checked against those of the victims’ names.

Murder case Number of references
to murderer(s)
Number of references
to victim(s)
Mannings 1,752 353 2,105
Palmer 1,081 740 1,821
Peace 1,044 506 1,550
Ripper 473 1,338 1,811
Total 4,350 2,937 7,287

Table 1. The total number of references to the murderers and the victims in the data.

Because of the vast number of news reports about the murders at the time, it was impossible to include all available data in this case study. For this reason, the choice of those included was mainly conducted on the basis of text type. The articles themselves often were a mixture of different kinds of texts, i.e. the reporters gathered information from various sources like the Police, the Coroner or people living in the areas where the murders happened. In order to avoid choosing articles representing only one type of news reporting, e.g. that which mostly repeats the wording of police reports, a selection of news as varied as possible was gathered.

As for the qualitative analysis, the news articles were read closely in order to confirm the objects of reference. The main referents and all person reference relating to them was studied along with its linguistic context. In deciding on the degree of evaluation (whether, for example, each term represents different degrees of positivity or negativity on the evaluative scale), the context is a crucial factor. As there is not yet a scientifically valid method for the exact analysis of evaluative expressions, scaling is always difficult when based on the semantic properties of the terms alone (Bednarek 2006: 47; White 2001: 13). For example, in the present data, expressions like unfortunate, miserable,and wretch(ed)proved not only to be highly dependent on the textual context in which they occurred, and of whom they were used, but also on the socio-historical background of the time when they were used.

The data were then analysed according to the evaluative parameters of intensity, objectivity and solidarity, drawing from Martin and White (2005) and Bednarek (2006). In particular, intensity or force has proven to be a helpful notion in classifying evaluators in other studies (see e.g. Thompson and Hunston 2000: 17). Here, the main category of intensity means the force of expression (the degree to which the writer describes the matter at hand), whereas the other parameters concern the influential aspects of evaluation (i.e. objectivity; the degree to which the writer appears to be able to influence the reader’s opinion) and the personal (i.e. solidarity; the degree to which the writer appears to be personally, often empathetically, involved in the matter). According to Martin and White (2005: 31), solidarity is linked to interpersonality, and it increases with a rise in personal involvement. Solidarity is thus a term commonly used to express positive attitude or evaluation: the better you know someone, the more you are likely to feel solidarity towards that person. The current data – written texts intended for a reading public – are of course as such totally different from private interaction, and, therefore, the notion of solidarity has to be revised. Low solidarity here means that the writer appears to be neutral to the person or events s/he describes, i.e. avoids using either positively or negatively connotative words, because s/he is not, or does not wish to appear, involved in the matter. An increase in solidarity often shows in more involved vocabulary, by which the writer intends to show proximity to the referent, whether positively or negatively. Unlike in spoken interaction, solidarity does not here necessarily equal (increasing) reciprocity, but is mostly unidirectional.

In other words, the focus is not only on the degree of the semantic quality of the actual terms used (positive/negative), but also on the degree of attitudinal description (low/medium/high). Finally, any other linguistic evidence, such as descriptions of the locale of the murders or of the general opinion of the people living in the area, found in the close reading of the articles, has been gathered as background material to corroborate the analysis of the tone used in the references themselves (the degree of intensity).

The main research questions in the current study thus concern 1) the way in which the murderers and the victims are referred to in the news reports and how this reflects the social identity thinking prevalent of the time and 2) a possible increase in the intensity level of reference (low to high) resulting in a decrease in either the level of objectivity and/or solidarity of reference in the case of the murderers (high to low) and in an increase of solidarity in the case of the victims (low to high). Furthermore, the purpose is to focus on the parameter or solidarity and discuss 3) variation in reference used on the basis of the role to which the referents were assigned in the texts. These questions will be further discussed in Section 6.

5. Reference in the news reportage

In this section, I will present examples of the news reportage in all four murder cases. The division between reference to the murderers and to the victims is mainly done in order to show how the differences in the context, e.g. the situational role, affected the way in which those concerned were described and evaluated. Moreover, the examples referring to both parties are chosen to show particularly how solidarity or the lack of it can affect the use of reference terms. The terms related to both the murderers (in Section 5.1) and the victims (in Section 5.2) are marked in bold, and underlined are those descriptions which further help to determine the textual context of reference.

5.1 The murderers

It is not commonly seen in newspapers that serial killers or murderers are treated with compassion and empathy, considering the graveness of their crime. The reporting of the four murders chosen for this study were mostly reported with high emotivity, although more neutral style was also found, particularly in articles which faithfully copied passages from the Police or Coroner’s reports or witness accounts and courtroom depositions. Examples of low objectivity and solidarity are easy to find. Interestingly, solidarity with the murderer, expressed by empathetic choice of reference, appears in two cases of murder reporting, Peace and Manning. In both cases, this occurs only after the criminals have been caught by the Police and sent to prison to wait for the execution. The empathy shown to Peace increases even more after his failed attempt to jump from the train taking him to prison, during which he is severely injured. Example (1) shows the way in which reference to Peace has changed from a notorious burglar to a much pitied man.

(1) Peace occupies the first cell to the right of the stairs on the second landing; and for his special accommodation it has had added to it a mattress and pillows, together with an ample supply of rugs. There the little old man lies, his grey head curled down under the rugs, and near the door stand the two keepers. There is no doubt whatever that Peace was severely injured, and much stunned and shaken by his fall, but there is also an impression that he has made no attempt to rouse himself since he recovered from his fall.
(The Daily Gazette, January 21, 1879)

The writer uses adjectives like little and old to describe Peace, and mentions how “his grey head curled down”. Further intensity is brought on by the descriptions of Peace’s injuries: adjectives severely injured, much stunned and shaken depict him as more of an object than an agent of wrong-doing.

A similarly detailed account can be found in the news of the Mannings’ day of execution. Maria is referred to as “the unhappy woman” and “the wretched woman” after she has tried to hang herself, while her husband is “the miserable man”. Regardless of the sad context of her attempted suicide, the reference to the wife is not nearly as empathetic as that to the husband, who appears to have received compassion from the public throughout the ordeal.

(2) The unhappy woman attempted self-destruction in the course of Sunday morning. … At about four o’clock in the morning she endeavoured to strangle herself. […] As soon, however, as the wretched woman saw that the watchers were by her side she seemed to rally herself, and put her head under the clothes. […] While the chaplain was endeavouring to excite a repentant spirit in the heart of his wife, Manning at a about quarter past 7 o’clock breakfasted, and then asked permission to walk in the yard, which was granted. […] It was then about a quarter past 8 o’clock, and while there the miserable man expressed to the turnkey who accompanied him a strong desire to see his wife. In a few minutes his wish was gratified.
(Hampshire Advertiser & Salisbury Guardian, November 17, 1849)

If we come back to Peace, similar intensity of evaluation can be seen in Example (3). However, as opposed to the empathetic reference to the murderer in Example (1), this excerpt displays the negative evaluation shown towards Peace by referring to him as “the notorious burglar” and “the cold-blooded murderer”.

(3) As stated in our last impression, Charles Peace, alias John Ward, the notorious burglar of Blackheath, and the cold-blooded murderer of Mr Dyson at Bannercross in 1876, on Wednesday morning committed a more daring and desperate act  than he has ever yet attempted.
(The Daily Gazette, January 21, 1879)

Needless to say, objectivity is at its lowest while intensity is high in the next two examples from the Manning reportage. In (4), no compassion is shown to Maria Manning; instead, she is compared to Jezebel, the wicked seductress from the Bible, who was a foreigner like Maria. The adjectives daring, profane, ready, greedy, painted and attired are all used to give emphasis to the negatively connotative nouns, most of which relate to negative values (e.g. unbeliever, arguer, forger). In (5), both Mannings are described as “atrocious” and “wicked”.

(4) It is Ahab and Jezebel to the life; - Jezebel the daring foreigner, the profane unbeliever, as Maria Manning now seems to have been; the ready arguer, the greedy aggrandizer, the forger, the intriguer, the resolute, the painted and attired even to death.
(The Times, November 14, 1849)
(5) The final exit of those atrocious criminals, is so suggestive, that, in common with all our contemporaries, we must make a few more remarks in reference to them. It were well had the public evinced less curiosity than it has manifested in respect to those wicked people; […] we would fain impress upon our readers the serious impropriety of regarding the history of those great offenders as merely interesting.
(The Era, November 18, 1849)

The evaluation of Palmer goes further in intensity, although in examples like (6) the term of reference (“the criminal”) itself is high in objectivity. The context is decisive here: the passage refers to “the class of monsters to which he belonged”, as well as the atrocities he committed, disgracing humanity. The news coverage on the Palmer case lacks compassion both to the murderer and his victims in general, and although Palmer was compared to the Mannings in the sheer malice of the crime, the reference to him being a monster reflects both the writer’s intensity and involvement to the case.

(6) They [the vulgar and repulsive associations] have also lent a kindred interest to the execution of the criminal, who had otherwise nothing to distinguish him from the class of monsters to which he belonged, except, perhaps, in the heartless and unredeemed atrocity with which he at once disgraced and outraged humanity.
(The Times, June 16, 1856)

Another case that lacks all empathy towards the murderer is of course that of Jack the Ripper. The news coverage of the Ripper murders started right after the first one, but the tone of reporting was relatively low in intensity for the first week. As seen in Example (7) from The Star, however, references to the Ripper turned into a description of a beastly creature rather than a human being after the second murder, thus making the Ripper case the only one of the four to clearly show diachronic change from low to high intensity and from high to low objectivity.

(7) London lies to-day under the spell of a great terror. A nameless reprobate - half beast, half man - is at large, who is daily gratifying his murderous instincts on the most miserable and defenceless classes of the community. There can be no shadow of a doubt now that our original theory was correct, and that the Whitechapel murderer, who has now four, if not five, victims to his knife, is one man, and that man a murderous maniac. There is another Williams in our midst. Hideous malice, deadly cunning, insatiable thirst for blood - all these are the marks of the mad homicide. The ghoul-like creature who stalks through the streets of London, stalking down his victim like a Pawnee Indian, is simply drunk with blood, and he will have more.
(The Star, September 8, 1888)

For the last of the five, the Ripper did his work in the confines of the victim’s private quarters, which meant that he had time to mutilate her body so badly it was barely recognisable as a human one. This led the newspapers to use extremely negative reference to the murderer. Birmingham Daily Post (Example 8) reported using high involvement:

(8) There is reason to believe that the injuries to the face were inflicted after the more elaborate mutilations of the remained of the body, as though the monster, on taking a final look round, previous to taking a flight, became exasperated at the tranquil appearance of his victim’s features. Why the murderer refrained from taking away any of the organs must remain a mystery, for he had ample leisure to perpetrate any atrocity that might occur to his fiendish and diseased imagination.
(Birmingham Daily Post, November 10, 1888)

The style of writing has also been chosen to shock the readers with references to the atrocious and revolting crime committed, like in the Palmer case, by “the monster”. The murderer is described to have conducted “any atrocity that might occur to his fiendish and diseased imagination”. At this point, the Ripper was increasingly referred to as a non-human entity – a ghoul, a creature, a beast, a monster, a fiend – and his actions were depicted as morally or mentally diseased, which was also very typical of ‘fiend naming’ at the time.

5.2 The victims

Contrary to murderers, their victims are usually treated with much compassion and solidarity in the press. The more violent the crime, the more empathy for the victim. For example, the murders Jack the Ripper committed were considered so vile that the objects of his crime, common prostitutes, would be referred to as “poor” and “defenceless”, and, within this particular context, the word unfortunate got a more positive meaning than just describing a woman of the trade. [2] This is very interesting, since prostitutes were classified as among the lowest of the low and usually evaluated as being filthy and animal-like in their carnal pursuits.

The solidarity shown to the victim was even more intense, when the victim was someone considered respectable, as in the case of Peace. In Examples (9) and (10), the accounts of what happened right after the murder and at the funeral are full of compassion for the deceased and his widow. Mr Dyson is referred to as “the unfortunate gentleman” or “the murdered man”, which in itself does not raise much empathy, but it is the immediate context which increase intensity and solidarity. Phrases like “almost beside herself with grief”, “with all tenderness”, and “bathed in tears” set the tone of the description of the sorrow on an emotional level.

(9) They say that they found Mrs Dyson with her husband’s head in her arms, almost beside herself with grief, and hardly knowing what she was doing. The men at once raised up the unfortunate gentleman, and having carried him with all tenderness into his own house, propped him up in a chair until the surgeon for whom they had immediately sent, should arrive.
(The Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, December 2, 1876)
(10) The service at the grave, which was about mid-way between the church and the road leading to the vicarage, was short but impressive, and as the last solemn rites were performed over the corpse of the murdered man it was evident, from the attitude of those present, that they earnestly sympathised with the bereaved family. The widow, who still stood beside Mr. William Dyson, wore a thick veil, which was not sufficient, however, to disguise the fact that she felt her position keenly, and it was noticed that she was bathed in tears at the close of the ceremony.
(The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent, December 4, 1876)

As already mentioned, the Ripper reportage twisted the role of the prostitutes into something more socially acceptable, or, at least, more emotionally compelling. Example (11) shows an instance, in which the second victim, Annie Chapman, is described as “a poor defenseless walker of the streets”. [3] Again, the readers’ emotions are summoned: first, extremely negative evaluation of the murder (“this latest horror”, “were butchered”) and the murderer (“a madman” and his “insatiable thirst for blood”), and then solidarity via the victim’s friend (“bitterly crying”, “I kissed her poor cold face”).

(11) The scene of this latest horror is Hanbury-street, hardly a stone’s throw from Osborne-street and Buck’s-row, where the two other victims were butchered. Indeed, through Hanbury-street on Thursday Mary Ann Nicholls’ terribly-mutilated body was carried on the way to its place of burial. The fourth victim to what must be a madman’s insatiable thirst for blood, is, like the other three, a poor defenceless walker of the streets. A companion identified her soon after she had been taken to the mortuary as “Dark Annie”, and as she came from the mortuary gate bitterly crying said between her tears, “I knowed her; I kissed her poor cold face.”
(The Star, September 8, 1888)

Nicholls was not, however, only described with compassion. In a few cases, the Ripper’s victims were referred to as they were commonly seen in the eyes of their respectable contemporaries. Example (12) shows an account from Nicholls’s person, which explains how her life was “intemperate”, “irregular”, and “vicious”, not to mention that she had been “in great disgrace” while a servant.

(12) She [Mary Ann Nicholls] was of intemperate habits, and left her husband eight years ago on account of drink. […] While there last she was fortunate enough to find a lady in Wandsworth willing to take her into her house as a domestic servant, and at the time she wrote her father a letter, which held out some promise of reform; but her fresh start did not appear to have lasted long, for she soon afterwards left her situation in great disgrace. From that time until her death it was pretty clear that she had been living an intemperate, irregular, and vicious life, mostly in the common lodging-houses in that neighbourhood.
(The Times, September 24, 1888)

A rather similar example can be found in the news reportage of the Manning case. The victim, O’Connor, was described in negative terms in many of the articles about the murder. Several character witnesses testified in the trial that he had been no angel himself, instead, he was – as referred to here – “a sordid, abandoned wretch”, whom nobody liked or missed.

(13) O’Connor was a sordid, abandoned wretch, for whom it is impossible to entertain the least sympathy. He seems to have left behind him few or none to regret him. He will, therefore, be little missed, and the world is perhaps as well without him; but this affords no extenuation of the horrible crime of the Mannings, which in its appalling and cold blooded details - a woman figuring as the chief actor - is almost without a parallel in the annals of crime.
(Dundee Courier, November 7, 1849)

The interesting thing here is, however, that when, at the end of the passage, the topic comes back to the describing the deed (“the horrible crime”, “appalling and cold blooded”, “almost without a parallel in the annals of crime”), the emphasis is on the nature of the crime so vile from which even a person who merits no compassion deserves to die.

6. Representation and solidarity in the linguistic evaluation of murder

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the press was increasingly driven by popularisation, which meant that the production of news was increasingly directed towards a larger number of readers (Conboy 2010: 79). Daily papers were directed towards the middle classes, whereas the Sunday ones were mostly read by the working classes, including more sensational and radical views. Whether or not the Sunday papers’ using emotionally loaded language was a covert strategy to influence the reading audience to the reporter’s point of view remains uncertain. Highlighted subjectivity and focus on entertainment were, however, characteristics strongly associated with the popular press.

The social identities of the murderers and their victims in this study appear to have been constructed by the help of two main perspectives for linguistic evaluation. Firstly, there is what we call the influential factor, which relates to the manner in which the press referred to the murder events themselves, thus affecting the public’s opinion. In language use this was shown by a decrease within the evaluative parameter of objectivity, which appears to be related to an increase within the parameter of intensity. Such negatively connotative attributes as horrible, ghastly, revolting and sickening were used of the murders, particularly in the case of the Mannings and Jack the Ripper. Another factor concerns the personal perspective. This means the way in which the press described the criminals and victims in order to show personal involvement in the matter. There seems to have been low solidarity for the murderers and medium or high solidarity for the victims. Also this relates to an increase in intensity, which in actual language means that the murderers’ conduct was referred to, for example, as atrocious, insane, beastly or devilish,and his person as a fiend, a monster or a homicidal maniac (see Section 2.2. for ‘fiend naming’). The victims, on the other hand, were referred to as poor, unfortunate, undeserving, and defenceless. Figure 1 then shows the reference typical of the murderers in the data, in respect to the evaluative parameters of intensity, objectivity, and solidarity, and Figure 2 does so of the victims.

Figure 1. Typical reference to the murderers.

Figure 1. Typical reference to the murderers.

Figure 2. Typical reference to the victims.

Figure 2. Typical reference to the victims.

We should not forget social factors in constructing the social identities of the criminals and their victims. The pressure within society to place the members of the social margins in general, and criminals in particular, outside the respectable in-group must have been enormous. At the same time as the press were opting for the ‘good’ people, they did so at the expense of the ‘bad’ people: reporting on scandals, sensations and shocking crimes was a way of taking side in social matters. Sometimes it worked against the public good, since, for example, in the case of the Ripper the publicity did not help to catch the murderer. In fact, it might have even made things worse by slowing down or hindering the investigations. In some cases, the dichotomous representation of criminals and victims was done rather randomly, as, for example, the Manning case shows. Whether this is a question of misrepresentation as such (e.g. a murderer is still a murderer whether repentant or not), we cannot, however, clearly say.

The parameter of solidarity is admittedly difficult to define, since it is often described as a positive phenomenon. Can anyone really feel solidarity towards a murderer? Instead, the media often nurture the fear of the unknown and want to unite the public against a common enemy (Tabbert 2015: 152). From this perspective, it is interesting to find examples expressing compassion towards the criminals in the data, but this momentary empathy is often caused by a particular event, like an injury or a confession to the priest. In these cases, the criminals are treated more as circumstantial objects than as active subjects. It is more common to find negative labelling used of the murderers than positive evaluation denoting in-group membership. When it comes to the victims, they are mostly treated with deserved compassion. This also appears in cases in which the victim is a member of the social margins, like in the Ripper case. If the murdered prostitutes had been the topic of any other kind of news reporting, e.g. in articles about the perils of prostitution to respectable society, they would have not been described as “undeserving” or “defenceless”, because they would have been in the subject position. But this time they were in the role of a victim and an object, therefore deserving of public empathy: even “fallen women” are made “angels” by naming. Whether this holds true for victims of other crimes remains to be seen in future studies.


[1] Russell Edwards, Naming Jack the Ripper, Macmillan, 2014. [Go back up]

[2] The unfortunate woman was a common term for a prostitute in the nineteenth century. [Go back up]

[3] The reason why Chapman is called “the fourth victim” in the passage is that before the first of the canonical five murders, the killings of two other prostitutes had occurred, and it was believed that Ripper was the culprit in these cases as well. [Go back up]


19th Century British Library Newspapers Database: http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/news/newspdigproj/database/

British Newspaper Archive: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

The Times Archive: http://gale.cengage.co.uk/times.aspx/

Charles Dickens’ letter to the editor on the execution of the Mannings: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/mr-charles-dickens-and-the-execution-of-the-mannings-reprinted-from-the-times

The case of Dr William Palmer on the National Library of Medicine’s site: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/visibleproofs/galleries/cases/taylor_image_2.html

Images of Charles Peace and his trial on the Murderpedia site: http://murderpedia.org/male.P/p/peace-charles-photos.htm

“WORLD EXCLUSIVE: Jack the Ripper unmasked: How amateur sleuth used DNA breakthrough to identify Britain’s most notorious criminal 126 years after string of terrible murders” on The Daily Mail: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2746321/Jack-Ripper-unmasked-How-amateur-sleuth-used-DNA-breakthrough-identify-Britains-notorious-criminal-126-years-string-terrible-murders.html

Images of the Mannings: https://www.pinterest.com/issyxb/maria-manning/

Horsemonger Lane Gaol: http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/1859map/horsemonger_prison_a.html

Jack the Ripper 1888: The Whitechapel Murders History Resource website: http://www.jack-the-ripper.org/


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