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  • Gavin Whitehead

Risky Business (S3E9)

Updated: May 1

This episode, we consider Madame Tussaud's unique contribution to the true crime genre. Full transcript below.



Victor Tussaud had a favorite story about his famous grandmother. Sometime after installing herself on Baker Street, Madame Tussaud received a request from an unnamed dean at Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of multiple English monarchs. Amid its chapels and niches, the church housed waxworks of deceased kings and queens, fashioned for display at their funeral processions. The assortment of sovereigns included Elizabeth I, Charles II, William and Mary, and Queen Anne. One of these figures needed refurbishing, the clergyman explained, inquiring if Tussaud would restore it to good condition. Most in her position would have been honored to lend their talents to such an august institution. Yet Marie Tussaud differed from most other craftspeople in one essential respect: she worked for nobody but herself. “Sir,” she balked, “I have a shop of my own to look after and I do not look after other people’s shops.”

Madame Tussaud led much of her life in the open. At the time of her death, many of her contemporaries would have known her on sight as the matronly old lady who greeted them at the wax museum. Yet much of her lived experience remains unreachable to the historian. The handful of letters she left behind, the wildly unreliable memoirs she published, the advertisements she placed in newspapers, and the family lore her descendants disseminated do not suffice to paint a full picture of her. At best they produce a silhouette portrait, the kind her son, Joseph, used to make for customers for one shilling and sixpence.

Despite the lack of hard evidence about her private life, it is beyond question that Madame Tussaud cared about few things as deeply as her wax museum. Whatever transformations she underwent in her personal life, however those changes realigned her priorities, the business never shifted from the center of her existence. As a girl growing up on the Boulevard du Temple, she passed hours upon hours inside the establishment, drawing sketches of illustrious individuals, pouring molten wax into plaster molds, and inserting strands of real human hair into waxwork scalps. As a bride-to-be, she insisted on a prenuptial agreement that empowered her to retain control of the enterprise, flouting expectations that a married woman transfer her property to her husband. As a mother of two, she kissed her two-year-old toddler goodbye and boxed up her handiwork to exhibit overseas for an uncertain period of time. As a traveling show-woman, she abandoned the comforts of domesticity for the rigors of the road, boarding hundreds of stagecoaches and setting up shop in scores of cities. As a grandmother and matriarch of a wax-modeling dynasty, she clocked into work and took her seat beside the cash box almost every day until she finally died at the age of eighty-nine.

Tussaud dedicated her life to an art form and prided herself on the quality of her creations. Accuracy was always the make-or-break metric, and she seldom disappointed. She may never have stuck straws up Napoleon’s nostrils or bent over Jean-Paul Marat’s bloody bathwater to obtain a faithful likeness the way she claimed to have done, but the results still persuaded many a museumgoer otherwise. Her commitment to costume—her meticulous attention to every last button, ruffle, and ring in an outfit—enhanced the effect. For Tussaud, however, making art was the same as making a living. She would not have discerned any meaningful distinction between art and commerce. She worked tirelessly to achieve artistic excellence, to expand and improve her array of waxworks, paintings, statuary, and relics. At the same time, she had her mind on her money and her money on her mind.

As early as the opening of the Den of Illustrious Thieves in the early 1780s, Tussaud was aware of the commercial potential of true-crime entertainment. Decades would elapse before she exploited public interest in criminals to the fullest extent possible. But by the time she made Baker Street her permanent address, she had a corner on the murder market, dishing up thrills unavailable elsewhere. As Tussaud realized, this was risky business. Immortalizing notorious murderers in wax and charging customers to gawk at their effigies could bring down the wrath of the public or the press—journalist Douglas Jerrold certainly gave her a good drubbing in the pages of Punch. Knowing such blowback could hurt ticket sales, Tussaud developed defensive strategies to stave off criticism of the Chamber of Horrors. Today, we’ll think about what the wax museum offered to true-crime culture, how it stood apart from other places of entertainment, and how Tussaud protected herself against her detractors. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 9 of Queen of Crime . . .

Risky Business

True Crime Culture Without the Crime

In her time, Tussaud was just one of many true-crime entertainers. Artists who plied their trade in this genre fulfilled two desires among the general public—first, to see what infamous criminals looked like. The morbidly curious took advantage of several opportunities to see offenders in the flesh. They packed the Old Bailey to watch them on trial and rose before daybreak to attend their hangings. While thousands might witness a killer’s trial or execution, there would always be more who missed out on both events. Even those who could attend would have watched from a distance—perhaps from the back of the Old Bailey galleries or from far below Horsemonger Lane Gaol’s rooftop gallows—and many would have desired a closer look at the offender. There was thus a market for true-to-life images of criminals, which enterprising artists drew, engraved, and painted for sale. Charlotte Corday, assassin of journalist Jean-Paul Marat, understood the haunting allure of a murderer’s likeness. She sat for a portrait while she languished in prison, destined for the guillotine. “Just as one cherishes the images of good citizens,” she explained of her actions, “curiosity sometimes seeks out those of great criminals, which serves to perpetuate horror of their crimes.”

True-crime culture also satisfied an urge to see what nobody save the criminal had seen: the crime itself. Examples abound in both the visual and performing arts. In 1778, hard-up épicier and would-be aristocrat Antoine François Desrues poisoned Madame de la Motte and her teenaged son, Eduard. After Desrues’s capture, a series of engravings akin to a comic strip depicted the plotting, execution, and concealment of his crimes. In one image, Desrues lowers Madame de la Motte’s limp body into a wooden trunk to be buried in a cellar. In another, the poisoner hands her unsuspecting son a cup of toxic hot chocolate. In 1793, Jacques-Louis David unveiled his hagiographic painting of Jean-Paul Marat, knifed in his bath, inspiring subsequent artists to paint his assassination and put their own ideological twist on it. The 1827 Red Barn murder of Maria Marten found representation in peep shows and plays, among other media. In his memoirs, circus proprietor George Sanger recalled his boyhood years on the road with his father’s traveling peep show. Acting as a walking, talking advertisement, Sanger barked at passersby, “Walk up and see the only correct views of the terrible murder of Maria Marten. They are historically accurate and true to life.” A little over a month after the discovery of Marten’s homicide, not one but two theater companies mounted productions that recreated the killing before a live audience, both within walking distance of the Red Barn. At one juncture, the more graphic of these horror shows took viewers inside the crime scene, “where the mutilated body was [seen] lying on . . . the floor, surrounded by the Coroner and the gentlemen of the jury as they appeared . . . after the fatal discovery.” In all these instances, artists recreated the slaying in question or at least envisaged its immediate aftermath.

Madame Tussaud capitalized on the notoriety of criminals in ways that other artists in other media could not. For the sake of accuracy and authenticity, she supposedly attended homicide trials to make sketches of the accused. These illustrations guided her hands when she broke out the beeswax. Thanks to her medium of choice, however, Tussaud could go farther than other visual artists who aimed for accurate portrayals of criminals. Unlike paintings or engravings, for instance, wax figures were three-dimensional and life-sized. This made possible another level of authenticity: Tussaud could dress her models in clothing the murderers had worn in life, purchased from hangman William Calcraft. In general, this flourish would have augmented the illusion of uncanny life so often attributed to waxworks. It’s easier to imagine wax as flesh when covered in garments that have touched warm skin, especially that of the person the model is supposed to represent. This costuming made an even stronger impression when the A-list murderer had fashion sense—think of Sir William Courtenay and his crimson velvet vests or Maria Manning and her black satin gowns. More than other artists who trafficked in true crime, Tussaud created the eerie sensation that you were in the presence of the killer depicted.

In her own unique way, Tussaud also catered to a taste for artistic recreations of homicide. Think about the tableau of George and Maria Manning. Accompanying models of the murderous married couple was a figure of their victim, Patrick O’Connor, as well as a scale replica of the kitchen where police unearthed his body. With this tableau, Tussaud gave patrons all they needed to recreate the homicide in their mind’s eye. On the one hand, George and Maria are joined by O’Connor, as if all are alive. This would suggest a scene that occurred before the murder. On the other hand, the Mannings’ effigies sported outfits that George and Maria had worn in court. In this respect, the tableau conjured legal proceedings that took place after the murder. These evocations of Before and After represented beginning and end points in a narrative about O’Connor’s killing. Aided by information in the museum catalogues, Tussaud invited customers to picture the victim’s untimely demise in their imaginations and thereby fill the missing gap. According to a catalogue from 1851, “[George and Maria] basely murdered [O’Connor], and buried him in the kitchen.” Add the scale model of said kitchen to the mix, and customers would have little trouble envisioning the attempt to conceal the body. A writer for the Theatrical Journal compares the experience of contemplating waxwork criminals to that of watching a play: “And those partial to the drama of blood need only visit the Chamber of Horrors, where he can procure imaginative food enough for the plot of a terrific, or as a little friend of ours would term it, as ‘fierce’ and bloody a melo-drama as was ever presented.” Where painters, playwrights, and other showmen were graphic in depicting violent crime, Tussaud relied instead on the power of suggestion.

What Can You Learn From a Trip to the Wax Museum?

Tussaud had no illusions about the dangers of dealing in imaginary, blood-soaked melodramas. But then, that was only part of her problem. Because of prevailing attitudes toward entertainment in general, she would have to justify the existence of not just the Chamber of Horrors but of the wax museum, period. Throughout the Victorian era, a conviction took root that public amusement ought to be “useful.” Over the previous three centuries or so, Protestantism had instilled a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic in British society, and many had learned to loathe idleness as a result. But entertainment wasn’t idle if it was useful, many believed, and it could be useful if it was instructive. “Useful” amusement taught you a lesson that enriched your life and could even improve the way you lived it. (As an aside, we still value pastimes like this, which is why we praise activities that are “fun and educational.”) Given the misgivings about entertainment, Tussaud was at pains to brand her wax museum as an educational institution. Now’s the right moment to dwell on the idea of a “wax museum” because Tussaud had other museums in mind as she built her own.

The public museum came into existence in the mid-1700s. Before that time, private collectors gathered natural and man-made curiosities—supposed unicorn horns, clockwork automata, and illuminated manuscripts—and showed them to friends. In the mid-to-late eighteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers increasingly called for the public exhibition of such objects as part of a broader initiative to make knowledge accessible to the masses. Public museums multiplied starting in the second half of the eighteenth century. In many cases, however, these institutions were more concerned with shutting out the general public than with welcoming them in.

Consider the British Museum. When it threw open its doors in 1759, it became the first of its kind in Europe. Situated in the seventeenth-century mansion, Montague House, Bloomsbury, the British Museum held the collection of Sir Hans Sloane, an Anglo-Irish physician and naturalist who had kicked the bucket six years earlier. The museum’s trustees feared they would breed disorder if they admitted “a great concourse of ordinary people” and accordingly devised a door policy that favored the affluent, educated, and leisured. Admission was free of charge, but you needed a ticket, which you could only obtain by completing a lengthy application process. You applied at the door, where a porter made a note of your name, address, and social position, a sort of screening procedure that may have discouraged some from applying. Several months passed until you received an invitation to pick up your ticket. The museum closed on those days when the laboring classes were most likely to be free: Saturdays, Sundays, as well as the weeks after Christmas and Easter. In summer, the busiest season, museumgoers were forced to fit in their visit within a four-hour window, from 4-8 p.m.—another hindrance to working-class people since a typical workday might have lasted until 10. Tourists had little hope of gaining admission if they went through the proper channels, so it’s no wonder that tickets were made available on the black market, usually priced at two shillings a pop. Where it usually took months to penetrate the walls of this fortress, the average visit lasted no more than an hour. Officials hurried groups of five from room to room like herds of cattle, leaving little time to study each display. To exacerbate matters, management insisted on identifying each object in Latin. If you hadn’t brushed up on your Linnean taxonomies, you might had trouble working out what it was you were looking at. Given these policies, it should come as no surprise that the number of daily visitors to the British Museum seldom rose above sixty until well into the nineteenth century.

As she toured the United Kingdom, Tussaud wised up to the growing popularity of museums. Savvy as ever, she made hers both more accessible and more comfortable than many of her competitors’. She always courted a middle-class clientele—hers was by no means a museum for the masses. Still, she wanted more ladies and gentlemen perusing her showrooms rather than fewer. Staying open from morning till night and charging affordable rates ensured a steady stream of customers. Unlike visitors to the British Museum, Tussaud’s patrons could wander the waxworks at their leisure, without the hot breath of an attendant on their neck. Tussaud scattered furniture throughout the exhibition for weary museumgoers—they could plunk down in an armchair and rest their feet on an ottoman for as long as they pleased. If they worked up an appetite, they could also buy pork pies and other refreshments.

But what could you learn from a trip to the wax museum? First and foremost, waxworks showed you what famous people looked like. Tussaud was keyed into current events, and headlines about prominent individuals often dictated programming. Tussaud biographer Pauline Chapman even calls her a “journalist in wax.” Tussaud’s models acted as visual supplements to journalism about important politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and more. It’s only natural to want to match a face with a name you read in the paper, and for most of her career, the wax modeler offered what no reporter could: strikingly lifelike visual depictions of newsworthy figures. The public had ways of obtaining images of, say, celestial opera singer Maria Malibran, whose sudden death played a role in Tussaud’s decision to settle in London, but they could not find those images in a newspaper until 1842. That year marked the inception of the Illustrated London News, the world’s first weekly illustrated magazine. Engravings accompanied articles until the early twentieth century, at which time photographs replaced them. The popularity of this periodical spawned a host of imitators.

Yet Madame Tussaud’s was more than a wax-coated newspaper. It also acted as a school for historical instruction. In 1851, visitors to the wax museum could scrutinize likenesses of Martin Luther, Mary Queen of Scots, and Sarah Siddons, a friend of this podcast and a Lady Macbeth for the ages. Many patrons would have found it enlightening to examine the faces and forms of personages they had read about in history books, and they would have derived further instruction from period-appropriate costuming like George IV’s coronation robes and historic relics such as Napoleon’s imposing Waterloo carriage. Tussaud was hardly an Oxford don lecturing on history. Still, the wax museum played a small yet significant role in helping her customers envision the past, and she deserves credit as an influential popular historian.

The catalogues added to the knowledge that visitors gleaned from the waxworks. Reassuring readers that an hour as the wax museum was not wasted time, these slim volumes stressed Tussaud’s mission to blend “utility with amusement” as well as to” convey to the minds of young persons much biographical knowledge—a branch of education universally allowed to be of the highest importance.”

Like the rest of the waxworks, the Chamber of Horrors housed effigies of key players in history, particularly with regard to the French Revolution. Her revolutionaries’ death heads, Marat tableau, and dubious model of the Comte de Lorges helped generations of museumgoers, from Charles Dickens to Arthur Conan Doyle and beyond, form a mental picture of turbulent period. While most infamous murderers gained admission to the Chamber of Horrors due to their prominence in the daily news, in some cases, their likeness could also shed light on a bygone era. Most were retired from the oversized dock in which they stood after a few years—that of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard would be one example. Yet others stuck around, remaining on view even as the wax museum changed locations and ownership. If sightseers saw the sculptures of Burke and Hare in 1928 and consulted a catalogue, they would discover how the twosome caused a sensation exactly 100 years earlier. By insisting on the educational value of displays like the assassinated Marat, Tussaud converted a bloodbath into a history lesson.

Moral Instruction

Today, true-crime podcasters, writers, and screenwriters do what they do for a variety of reasons. In many cases, however, they treat their audiences like potential victims and arm them with knowledge to avoid victimization. By covering murders, scams, and other illicit activity, they instill a vigilance in the audience that can help keep them safe, at least in theory. In the nineteenth century, Madame Tussaud was doing just the opposite. She treated customers like potential criminals and displayed her models of infamous murderers as a means of scaring them straight. She provided what was known as “moral instruction,” a concept that has faded from existence over time. In fact, artists had long justified making art about murder by doing so in the name of moral edification. Tussaud was merely following their example.

For a case in point, look no further than The London Merchant, a tragedy written by playwright George Lillo in 1731. Based on a seventeenth-century murder ballad, the play charts the downfall of a merchant’s apprentice by the name of George Barnwell. Near the beginning, the good-natured youth catches the eye of Sarah Millwood, a wicked prostitute whose cruelty is matched only by her insatiable greed. After seducing the callow Barnwell, Millwood sets him on the path to perdition. First, he sleeps with her. Then, he steals for her. Finally, he kills for her. Goaded by his mistress, Barnwell resolves to murder his uncle and claim his inheritance. The tragedy culminates in a hair-raising murder scene worthy of Hitchcock. Barnwell’s uncle is out for a stroll in the countryside when fears of impending doom wash over him. Per Lillo’s directions, Barnwell’s uncle stands downstage, facing the audience. Meanwhile, Barnwell enters behind him, wearing a mask and armed with a knife. In a “Look-out-he’s-right-behind-you” sequence that anticipates a million horror movies, the audience tenses up as the masked stalker closes in for the kill, invisible to his uncle, who keeps his back turned to him. Barnwell cuts the poor man down, only to pay for his crimes in the end. Both he and Millwood go to the gallows—he contrite and she unrepentant. The London Merchant became one of the most popular plays of the eighteenth century and retained that status into the nineteenth. It was customary to perform the tragedy each year around Christmas as a stern-faced counterpart to the fairytale pantomimes that ran at the same time.

According to Lillo, The London Merchant imparted instruction that could ultimately lead to crime prevention. In a preface to the play, the author argues, “If tragick poetry be . . . the most excellent and most useful kind of writing, [then] the more extensively useful the moral of any tragedy is, the more excellent a piece must be of that kind.” Lillo goes on to define the goal of tragic playwrights as “the exciting of the passions in order to the correcting such of them as are criminal, either in their nature, or through their excess.” Lillo builds on the notion of “correcting” criminal passions at the end of the play. In a direct address to the audience, one of his characters explains what spectators can take away from the performance: “Unless we mark what drew [Barnwell and Millwood’s] ruin on / And, by avoiding that—prevent our own.” Let’s have a look at how Lillo’s dramatic theory plays out to practice. According to him, The London Merchant is engineered to “excite the passions,” to fill the audience with profound emotions like sadness for Barnwell and hatred of Millwood. At the same time, the tragedy reveals the perils of feelings that are “criminal, either in their nature, or through their excess.” Along these lines, Millwood’s avarice and Barnwell’s lust grow so out of control they lead to the killing of the apprentice’s uncle. By “marking” or examining how passions like sexual desire and greed give way to crime onstage, we become attuned to how we could fall victim to those same passions in real life. Equipped with that awareness, we are more likely to avoid the wretched fate of manipulated, lovestruck, murdering Barnwell.

If you’re doubting the effectiveness of this crime-fighting strategy, you’re in good company. In Great Expectations, Charles Dickens has a go at Lillo. One of Pip’s relatives, Mr. Pumblechook, buys a copy of The London Merchant and insists on reading it to him, a wearisome torture that drags on until half-past nine at night. Throughout the reading, Mr. Pumblechook looks up from the text to stare at Pip, shake his head, and declare in a grave voice, “Take warning, boy, take warning.” He does so Pip adds in indignation, “as if it were a well-known fact that I contemplated murdering a near relation.” Pip resents the notion that he should identify with Barnwell. He’s perfectly well-behaved and would never dream of taking another life in cold blood. He doesn’t need a playwright to tell him killing people is wrong. And yet Mr. Pumblechook treats him as if he were just itching to go out and murder his uncle. More absurd still, Mr. Pumblechook seeks to contain Pip’s supposed homicidal tendencies by reading him the world’s most boring play. So much for exciting the passions. Dickens questions whether The London Merchant has anything to teach. Its message encourage you to assume the very worst of well-adjusted people—namely, that they’re capable of hard-heartened murder.

Unpersuasive as the claim might sound, true-crime entertainers still touted their output as tools for crime prevention. The Tussauds certainly did. Recall that Tussaud drew on the layout of the criminal courtroom as she designed the Chamber of Horrors. She arranged her sculptures of murderers in an oversized dock modeled on the one where defendants sat at the Old Bailey. This conceit reminded patrons that, like George Barnwell, these men and women had drawn their last breath as they dropped from the gallows. Anyone wishing to avoid that fate must shun a life of crime. In the 1851 catalogue, that compendium of “useful” information, Joseph and Francis Tussaud maintain that visitors left the Chamber of Horrors far less likely to become offenders: “We assure the public that so far from the exhibition of the likenesses of criminals creating a desire to imitate them. Experience teaches them [i.e., Joseph and Francis] that it has a direct tendency to the contrary.” Tell that to George Manning. He paid a visit to the Chamber of Horrors just a few weeks before a guy got shot and then buried in his kitchen.

Madame Tussaud’s brand of infotainment might come across as quaintly Victorian, but it’s less antiquated than it may seem. I see this podcast as part of that tradition. Don’t get me wrong—unlike Tussaud, the moral instructor, I’m not trying to cut down on crime, though please do refrain from committing murder. But like Tussaud the history teacher, I tell stories about true crime as a way of sharing knowledge about how the world used to be and how it is now. After all, like great art, sensational crimes can often shed light on broader social, political, and economic issues. I hope you’ve learned a lot about the life and times of Madame Tussaud, as well as the figures she molded in wax: Antoine François Desrues, the Comte de Lorges, Jean-Paul Marat, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, William Corder, Burke and Hare, Sir William Courtenay, and George and Maria Manning. With that, we close the doors on this Chamber of Horrors.

Next time, we’re back with the first of five bonus episodes variously related to what we’ve covered this season. In bonus episode 1, we head back to pre-revolutionary France to hear how one enormously popular play inspired the most audacious swindle of the century. If you want more bonus content right away, consider becoming a patron at Again, that’s


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