the dead of Night
in Lambeth Marsh
Murder (m2.0de0), sb. Forms: a. 1 mor1or, -ur, 3-4 mor1re, 3-4, 6 murthre, 4 myr1er, 4-6 murthir, morther, 5 Sc. murthour, murthyr, 5-6 murthur, 6 mwrther, Sc. morthour, 4-9 (now dial. and Hist. or arch.) murther; b. 3-5 murdre, 4-5 moerdre, 4-6 mordre, 5 moordre, 6 murdur, mourdre, 6- murder. [OE. mor3or neut. (with pl. of masc. form mor1ras) = Goth. maur1r neut.:-OTeut. *mur1rom:-pre-Teut. *mrtro-m, f. root *mer-: mor-: mr- to die, whence L. mori' to die, mors (morti-) death, Gr. mort'j, brot'j mortal, Skr. mr. to die, mara masc., mrti fem., death, marta mortal, OSl. mi'r'eti, Lith. mirti to die, Welsh marw, Irish mar1 dead.
The word has not been found in any Teut. lang. but Eng. and Gothic, but that it existed in continental WGer. is evident, as it is the source of OF. murdre, murtre (mod. F. meurtre) and of med. L. mordrum, murdrum, and OHG. had the derivative murdren Murder v. All the Teut. langs. exc. Gothic possessed a synonymous word from the same root with different suffix: OE. mor3 neut., masc. (Murth1), OS. mor3 neut., OFris. morth, mord neut., MDu. mort, mord neut. (Du. moord), OHG. mord (MHG. mort, mod. G. mord), ON. mor3 neut.:-OTeut. *mur1o-:-pre-Teut. *mrto-.
The change of original 3 into d (contrary to the general tendency to change d into 3 before syllabic r) was prob. due to the influence of the AF. murdre, moerdre and the Law Latin murdrum.]
1. The most heinous kind of criminal homicide; also, an instance of this. In English (also Sc. and U.S.) Law, defined as the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought; often more explicitly wilful murder.
In OE. the word could be applied to any homicide that was strongly reprobated (it had also the senses 'great wickedness', 'deadly injury', 'torment'). More strictly, however, it denoted secret murder, which in Germanic antiquity was alone regarded as (in the modern sense) a crime, open homicide being considered a private wrong calling for blood-revenge or compensation. Even under Edward I, Britton explains the AF. murdre only as felonious homicide of which both the perpetrator and the victim are unidentified. The 'malice aforethought' which enters into the legal definition of murder, does not (as now interpreted) admit of any summary definition. A person may even be guilty of 'wilful murder' without intending the death of the victim, as when death results from an unlawful act which the doer knew to be likely to cause the death of some one, or from injuries inflicted to facilitate the commission of certain offences. It is essential to 'murder' that the perpetrator be of sound mind, and (in England, though not in Scotland) that death should ensue within a year and a day after the act presumed to have caused it. In British law no degrees of guilt are recognized in murder; in the U.S. the law distinguishes 'murder in the first degree' (where there are no mitigating circumstances) and 'murder in the second degree'.
In Victorian London, even in a place as louche and notoriously crime-ridden as Lambeth Marsh, the sound of gunshots was a rare event indeed. The marsh was a sinister place, a jumble of slums and sin that crouched, dark and ogrelike, on the bank of the Thames just across from Westminster; few respectable Londoners would ever admit to venturing there. It was a robustly violent part of town as well--the footpad lurked in Lambeth, there had once been an outbreak of garroting, and in every crowded alley were the roughest kinds of pickpocket. Fagin, Bill Sikes, and Oliver Twist would have all seemed quite at home in Victorian Lambeth: This was Dickensian London writ large.
But it was not a place for men with guns. The armed criminal was a phenomenon little known in the Lambeth of Prime Minister Gladstone's day, and even less known in the entire metropolitan vastness of London. Guns were costly, cumbersome, difficult to use, hard to conceal. Then, as still today, the use of a firearm in the commission of a crime was thought of as somehow a very un-British act--and as something to be written about and recorded as a rarity. "Happily," proclaimed a smug editorial in Lambeth's weekly newspaper, "we in this country have no experience of the crime of 'shooting down,' so common in the United States."
So when a brief fusillade of three revolver shots rang out shortly after two o'clock on the moonlit Saturday morning of February 17, 1872, the sound was unimagined, unprecedented, and shocking. The three cracks--perhaps there were four--were loud, very loud, and they echoed through the cold and smokily damp night air. They were heard--and, considering their rarity, just by chance instantly recognized--by a keen young police constable named Henry Tarrant, then attached to the Southwark Constabulary's L Division.
The clocks had only recently struck two, his notes said later; he was performing with routine languor the duties of the graveyard shift, walking slowly beneath the viaduct arches beside Waterloo Railway Station, rattling the locks of the shops and cursing the bone-numbing chill.
When he heard the shots, Tarrant blew his whistle to alert any colleagues who (he hoped) might be on patrol nearby, and he began to run. Within seconds he had raced through the warren of mean and slippery lanes that made up what in those days was still called a village, and had emerged into the wide riverside swath of Belvedere Road, from whence he was certain the sounds had come.
Another policeman, Henry Burton, who had heard the piercing whistle, as had a third, William Ward, rushed to the scene. According to Burton's notes, he dashed toward the echoing sound and came across his colleague Tarrant, who was by then holding a man, as if arresting him. "Quick!" cried Tarrant. "Go to the road--a man has been shot!" Burton and Ward raced toward Belvedere Road and within seconds found the unmoving body of a dying man. They fell to their knees, and onlookers noted they had cast off their helmets and gloves and were hunched over the victim.
There was blood gushing onto the pavement--blood staining a spot that would for many months afterward be described in London's more dramatically minded papers as the location of a heinous crime, a terrible event, an atrocious occurrence, a vile murder.
The Lambeth Tragedy, the papers eventually settled upon calling it--as if the simple existence of Lambeth itself were not something of a tragedy. Yet this was a most unusual event, even by the diminished standards of the marsh dwellers. For though the place where the killing occurred had over the years been witness to many strange events, the kind eagerly chronicled in the penny dreadfuls, this particular drama was to trigger a chain of consequences that was quite without precedent. And while some aspects of this crime and its aftermath would turn out to be sad and barely believable, not all of them, as this account will show, were to be wholly tragic. Far from it, indeed.