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The Murdered Person

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Crime; Criminals; Punishment; Capital Punishment; Prisons; Penal Transportation; Penal Colonies
Ethics; Morals; Moral Development; Moral Education; Philosophy; Values
Law; Lawyers; Justice; Courts; Trials
Other Details
Printed : 11/10/1856
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XIV
Magazine : No. 342
Office Book Notes
Views : 955

William Dove of Leeds was found guilty at the York Assizes on 21 July 1856 of murdering his wife by strychnine poisoning.

The jury recommended him to mercy on account of his 'defective intellect', but the Home Secretary did not act on this (had he done so, said The Times, it 'would have been nothing less than a national calamity') and Dove was hanged on 10 August. Before his crime Dove had been involved with the Methodists (as well as with a local 'wizard' and caster of horoscopes whom he blamed for instigating him to commit the murder) and he displayed extreme piety in the condemned cell, singing Wesleyan hymns and making confession. Press reports of all this activated Dickens's loathing of 'pattern penitents' and credulous prison chaplains, a loathing already fully articulated by him in an earlier HW article, the one he refers back to at the beginning of the following article ('Pet Prisoners', 27 April 1850—see Vol. 2 of the Dent edition, pp. 212-227). The 'Prison Philanthropist' was a sixty-seven-year-old Congregationalist from Manchester called Thomas Wright, who sat with Dove through the night before his execution, along with prison officials and a local Wesleyan minister. Wright had, according to The Times (2 August 1856), 'a general order from the Secretary of State to visit criminals like Dove'. What Dickens found particularly appalling in this case, and what provides the immediate stimulus for his article, was Dove's letter to Wright, printed in The Times (11 August) in which he claimed:

I am saved through fire and by death; ordinary means God had used but they failed. He has, therefore, used extraordinary means and ... I shall have reason to bless and praise him through all eternity that he checked me in my mad career and adopted this plan to save me.

The 'two noble lords at loggerheads' are Lords Lucan and Cardigan and the Board of 'their particular friends' is the Crimean Board on Enquiry (see Vol. 3 of the Dent edition, p. 391). According to [a] Manchester Examiner report, Lucan appeared at the Board one day 'with a copy of The Times in his hand complaining loudly of some comment which appeared in that journal'. Both Lords were indeed decorated (they were both made KCBs) as Dickens says, but this was in July 1855, before the Board began to sit.

Dickens's reference in this piece to 'the Law of Divorce' was also highly topical. The manifest injustice of the divorce laws as they stood had led to the establishment of a Royal Commission in 1853. This recommended various changes in the law which would make divorce a practical possiblity for others besides the very wealthy. A bill embodying these changes was introduced into the Lords in June 1854 but then withdrawn. The campaign for reform continued strongly, however, Dickens's presentation of the plight of Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times being a notable contribution to the debate. Articles supporting reform had also appeared in HW, most recently Eliza Lynn Linton's 'Marriage Gaolers' (5 July 1856). The Matrimonial Causes Act was finally passed in 1857. See further John D. Baird, '"Divorce and Matrimonial Causes": An Aspect of Hard Times', Victorian Studies, Vol. 20 (1977), pp. 401-412.

Literary allusions

  • 'the wings of a Dove': Psalm 55, v. 6;
  • 'but that's not much': Shakespeare, Othello, Act 3, Sc. 3;
  • 'the Duke's man ... governor of Barataria': refers to the end of Sancho Panza's 'governorship' of the supposed Island of Barataria (Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part Two, Ch. 53) when the Duke's elaborate practical joke to make Sancho believe he really does govern the city culminates in a mock siege during which Sancho is knocked down and one of the Duke's men stands on him pretending to direct the defenders;
  • 'a bold peasantry, their country's pride': Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village (1770), l.55;
  • 'the murdered person, Legion': see Mark 5:9 ('My name is Legion: for we are many').

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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