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  • Gavin Whitehead

The True Crime Controversy of 1849 (S3E8)

Updated: Apr 19



In 1849, George and Maria Manning murdered a guest in their London home and fled the British capital. A dramatic hunt for the killers ensued. After police captured the runaway married couple, Maria achieved near-celebrity status as she made her way through the justice system. When renowned wax modeler Madame Tussaud unveiled a likeness of Maria in the Chamber of Horrors, a showroom in her wax museum that exhibited effigies of notorious criminals, Tussaud met with perhaps the fiercest criticism she had ever faced in her career. Show notes and full transcript below.



Above: This engraving accompanied "Old Bailey Drams" in the March 24, 1849 issue of Punch. It's a fanciful advertisement for a homicide trial, promising spectators "REAL CRIMINALS!!"


 

SHOW NOTES


An 1849 broadside engraving that shows Maria Manning ascending the scaffold, attired in her trademark black satin gown.


"The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Nov. 13" by John Leech, an illustrator for Punch. Ignoriging the Mannings entirely, this cartoon ironically treats the crowd of spectators at their execution as the source of moral education, their levity, vice, and lack of fellow-feeling to be shunned by the viewer.


Mrs. Siddons With the Emblems of Tragedy by Sir William Beechey, completed in 1793. Sarah Siddons was the Meryl Streep of the English stage in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Siddons in the role of Lady Macbeth, painted in 1814 by Henry George Harlow. Siddons's performance as Lady Macbeth was the stuff of legend, remembered and venerated by the theatergoing public decades after her death.


Broadside engraving that shows Maria Manning in the act of murdering Patrick O'Connor. She appears to be wearing a black satin dress for the occasion, just as she did during her trial and execution.


 

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY


---Borowitz, Albert. The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin: The Bermondsey Horror. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981.

---Berridge, Kate. Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006.

---Chapman, Pauline. Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors: Two Hundred Years of Crime. London: Constable, 1984.

---Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime. New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

---Pilbeam, Pamela. Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks. London; New York: Humbledon and London, 2003.

---Whitehead, Gavin. (My dream of citing myself has finally come true!) “The Pleasures and Problems of Consuming True Crime as Theatrical Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London.” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, 50, no. 1 (2022): 61-85.


 

TRANSCRIPT


Charles Dickens strolled into Horsemonger Lane at about midnight and found that a crowd had already gathered in front of the jail. It was November 13, 1849, and scores of Londoners had come out to watch a morbid form of popular entertainment: a public execution. After daybreak that morning, not one but two convicted murderers would hang. At first, Dickens had waffled on whether to come at all—he opposed the death penalty and shuddered at the memory of viewing a hanging nine years earlier. But then, two days ago, on November 11, he caved in and made arrangements to attend. The execution would take place on the rooftop gallows of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in South London, and thousands of onlookers were expected to turn out. The overwhelming majority would cram together on the street, shoulder to shoulder, craning their necks so they could see the action overhead. Better-off sightseers could watch in greater comfort. For a nominal fee, they could rent seats in houses and businesses across the road from the jail. Dickens went with this option, splitting the cost with four friends. As he explained in a letter to one of them, John Leech, a staff cartoonist for the satirical magazine, Punch: “We have taken the whole of the roof (and the back kitchen) for the extremely moderate sum of Ten Guineas, or two guineas each.


After roaming the streets and popping into a gin palace to take the social temperature of the neighborhood, Dickens settled down at his cushiony observation post, gazing on the fray from above. As the hours ticked by, a stream of humanity flooded Horsemonger Lane. Merriment prevailed. Boys and girls not yet in their teens hooted, hollered, laughed, whistled, and sang. As the first rays of dawn crept over the horizon, however, thieves and ruffians joined the party, picking pockets—and picking fights—at regular intervals. Women fainted and were carried away, their dresses disordered. Police barked orders, trying to keep the peace. Meanwhile, gentlemen smoked cigars and sipped champagne in the Winter Terrace pub across from the prison, equipped with opera-glasses for optimal viewing. In total, an estimated 30,000 spectators flocked to the jail.


Finally, daybreak. All eyes turned to the gallows on the roof. From the jail emerged the stars of the show: George and Maria Manning, the husband and wife convicted of murdering a guest in their home. Since their much-discussed trial at the Old Bailey, London’s storied criminal court, Maria had overshadowed her husband, feared and revered as themodern incarnation of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.


One of Dickens’ companions, writer John Forster, recorded Maria’s last moments in a breathless letter to a friend. “She was beautifully dressed,” the superfan lathers, italicizing those last two words, “every part of her noble figure finely and fully expressed.” Maria had always dressed to kill, and today she had selected a black satin gown with a spotless white collar and matching gloves, as well as a dark veil. Maria’s self-possession also awed Forster. According to him, she mounted the gallows “with a step as firm as if she had been walking to a feast.” When the hangman tightened the rope around her neck, she “stood as steadily as the scaffold itself.” Finally, the Mannings dropped and dangled for all to see. In by far the creepiest passage of his letter, Forster gushes about Maria’s beauty in death, thrown into relief by her husband’s hideous corpse: “The wretch beside her was a filthy shapeless scarecrow—she had lost nothing of her gentle aspect.” Reflecting on the hot-and-bothered rapture that Maria had induced in him, Forster concludes, “This is heroine-worship, I think!”


Whereas Forster only had eyes for Mrs. Manning, Dickens kept his eye on the crowd—and he wasn’t worshipping anybody. After the execution, he marched home and fired off a letter to the editor of The Times of London, in which he fiercely condemned the levity of the crowd: “When the sun rose brightly—as it did—it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as if fashioned in the image of the Devil.” Dickens was so disgusted by the barbarizing effect of the scene that he called for the immediate abolition of public executions, advocating that hangings take place within the walls of the prison instead. Though impressed by the energy of Dickens’ writing, the editors scoffed at this proposal, primarily in the name of transparency and accountability: if condemned men and women were not executed in public, the editors argue, “the mass of the people would never be sure that great offenders were really executed, or that the humbler class of criminals were not executed in greater numbers than the State chose to confess.” The editors further question whether the crowd’s exuberance was truly indicative of degraded moral character. Dickens’ letter and this editors’ response ignited a firestorm. Both the novelist and The Times were inundated with impassioned missives about their analysis—some agreeing, others disagreeing. Quite unexpectedly, the Mannings’ execution had generated the most heated debate over the ethics of capital punishment in years.


The case of the Mannings remained a lightning-rod well after their hanging, thanks in part to Madame Tussaud. Within a week of the execution, George and Maria Manning would become the latest inductees into the Chamber of Horrors. Before Tussaud could unveil her handiwork, however, she needed the cooperation of another local celebrity, state-appointed hangman William Calcraft. Shortly after ushering the Mannings into the afterlife, Calcraft packed up the married couple’s last effects and met with a representative from Tussaud’s. The institution appears to have paid him the handsome sum of £100 for the clothing the Mannings had worn in their final days, including one of Maria’s black satin dresses. Tussaud would costume the criminals’ likenesses in these very garments. Tussaud had made similar purchases before, especially since she started updating the Chamber of Horrors on a regular basis, but this acquisition would meet with perhaps the fiercest blowback from the press that she had ever experienced.


Victorians were just as crazy about true crime as we are. In our episode about the Red Barn murder of 1827, we talked about the various forms of true-crime culture that catered to their obsession with real-life homicides—broadsides, peep shows, melodramas, murder ballads, and more. Much as we do nowadays, however, Victorians argued about the ethics of consuming true-crime culture as entertainment. Moralists raised a number of objections, but today I want to zero in on just one: for some critics, true crime fanatics glorified criminals, even treating them like star performers putting on a show both at court and on the scaffold. Objectors also faulted entertainment venues like the Chamber of Horrors because they made money on the public fascination with notorious killers. The case of Maria Manning neatly illustrates these points. Today, we’ll hear how the Mannings’ crime captivated Britain, how Maria attained near-celebrity status as a modern “Lady Macbeth,” and how Madame Tussaud got swept up in the controversy swirling around the trial and execution of the married couple. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 8 of Queen of Crime . . .


The True Crime Controversy of 1849


The Awkward Triangle


Before she became London’s latest Lady Macbeth, Maria Manning had worked as a lady’s maid. Born Marie de Roux in 1821, she grew up in Geneva and by the age of twenty-two, she had bid farewell to Switzerland and emigrated to England. There, she found employment in the service of Lady Jane Palk. As a lady’s maid, Maria stood toward the top of the pecking order in the household staff. Her duties included helping her mistress dress in the morning, pitching in with hair and makeup, and keeping her bedroom in order. Since Maria worked for families with fat wallets and fancy titles, she would have handled—and admired—the period’s most fashionable silks and slippers. By all appearances, Maria performed to her employers’ satisfaction. After Lady Palk passed away in January 1846, Maria had no trouble securing a position in an even swankier household, that of Lady Evelyn Blantyre, daughter of the Duchess of Sutherland. This job entitled Maria to a bed in the palatial Stafford House in London. Presiding over the residence was Lady Evelyn’s mother, mistress of the robes to Queen Victoria. Because of the Duchess’s social status, Stafford House attracted luminaries in the literary and artistic communities along with other notables—it even played host to Victoria herself. When the monarch first entered the property’s magnificent great hall, she reportedly quipped, “I have come from my house to your palace.”


By her mid-twenties, Maria was ready to marry, and she had much to make her a desirable bride. It never hurts to be easy on the eyes, and she certainly was—five-foot-seven, pleasingly stout, with long dark hair and a fresh complexion, blemished only by a scar that stretched from the bottom of her right cheek to her neck. Maria was also known to dress sharply and favored black satin gowns. Finally, her years of waiting on ladies endowed her with an air of respectability. In time, she won the affections of two admirers.


The first was a man named Patrick O’Connor, whose murder would ultimately send her to the gibbet. It’s unclear when and under what circumstances Maria met O’Connor, but the meeting blossomed into a yearslong love affair. On the face of it, O’Connor may not have seemed an ideal mate. About twenty years Maria’s senior, the Irish-born O’Connor was tall and thickset, with a mouthful of false teeth and “an enormous angular jaw that protruded as dramatically as Dick Tracy’s,” according to Albert Borowitz, a true-crime historian who wrote a comprehensive and often humorous book about this case, The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin. What O’Connor lacked in youthful vigor he made up for in income. A customs officer who dabbled in moneylending, he kept comfortable lodgings in London. As Maria may or may not have known, her beau had filled his coffers by illicit means, engaging in usury, fraud, and the sale of smuggled tobacco. His post at the customs office facilitated this last offense. We have little insight into what attracted O’Connor to Maria. She certainly charmed him with her Swiss accent, which sounded to him like the pronunciation of Madame Céleste, a French actress and dancer of international repute. Less endearing were Maria’s expectations of marriage. O’Connor would have sooner worn a noose around his neck than a ring around his finger. His friends later testified that he had shown them letters from Maria with lines to this effect: “Of what good is it to continue our correspondence? You never speak of marriage.” Still, she stuck around.


Enter suitor number two: George Manning, a guard who worked for the Great Western Railway. Maria’s first mistress, Lady Jane Palk, rode that line on the regular, and it’s probable that Maria first met George while accompanying her employer. Though closer in age to Maria than O’Connor, he wasn’t anybody’s idea of a heartthrob. George had a “bloated face” in the words of a not-super-flattering police description and a backbone of rubber—those who knew him described him as weak-willed and feckless.


Maria soon found herself one of three points on a love triangle, a geometric arrangement that suited her well enough, at least for a while. When George started courting her, she could have dumped O’Connor, but nope—she kept right on seeing him. In fact, after transferring to the service of Lady Blantyre Blantyre, Maria received visits from both O’Connor and George at Stafford House, even introducing the two to each other. According to Borowitz, “They shook hands but would never be friends.” Finally, George did what O’Connor appeared unable to: he popped the question. Maria accepted, and the two took their wedding vows at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, on May 27, 1847. Despite getting hitched, Maria continued to visit O’Connor, often unaccompanied though sometimes dragging her husband along.


Maria’s married life kicked off with a nasty surprise: George lost his job, perhaps because of criminal activity. Over the course of a year, thieves had plundered four thousand pounds worth of gold bullion from a train that George was supposed to have guarded. Though perhaps lacking the evidence to prove it in court, his employers strongly suspected that George had acted as an accomplice, making it the right time for him to tender his resignation. Abruptly in need of another source of income, the Mannings packed their bags and moved to Taunton, Somerset, where George ran an inn—and ran it straight into bankruptcy.


By 1849, the Mannings had moved back to London and taken up residence in a two-story villa with a walled back garden at 3 Minver Place in the neighborhood of Bermondsey. Life in this decidedly working-class district was both unpleasant and precarious.Bermondsey stood on the southern side of the Thames, a stone’s throw from London Bridge. For more than 150 years, it had served as the center of the metropolis’s leather trade, a notoriously smelly industry. Sanitation was poor, and parts of Bermondsey dipped below the waterline. One filthy stretch bore the name of “Jacob’s island” because it was surrounded by ditches that filled during high tide. Novelist Charles Kingsley visited Jacob’s Island and came away horrified by what he witnessed: “people having no water to drink, hundreds of them, but the water of the common sewer which stagnated, full of dead fish, cats and dogs under their windows.” These conditions were ideal for the thriving of infectious diseases, and in 1849, a virulent strain of cholera ravaged the British capital in general and Bermondsey in particular. By September, the plague had claimed a staggering 10,142 lives across London, and with 591 of its residents dead, Bermondsey suffered the city’s second-highest mortality rate. At the height of the epidemic, the sun rose and set on an endless funeral procession. The Illustrated London News reported of Bermondsey, “All day long was the sullen bell tolling—from morning to night it scarcely ceased a moment; for as soon as it had rung the knell for another departed spirit there was a fresh funeral at the churchyard-gate, and again that 'ding-dong' pealed mournfully through the sad and sultry atmosphere.”


As the death toll climbed, the Mannings’ marriage disintegrated. Money was scarce, and they often quarreled—one account claimed that Maria even threatened George with a knife—and Maria is said to have left her husband more than once only to return. On these and other trying occasions, the miserable woman sought comfort in O’Connor’s company.


As a lady’s maid, Maria had tasted the high life. Now, she could hardly have sunk lower. She was married to a dead-beat and surrounded by death in pestilential Bermondsey. In the late summer of 1849, she was prepared to take drastic measures to improve her situation.


The Vanishing of Patrick O’Connor


It was Friday, August 17, 1849, and nobody had seen Patrick O’Connor for eight days. On August 9, Maria Manning invited O’Connor to dine with her and George at their home. That night, O’Connor bumped into friends on London Bridge and told them he was headed to 3 Minver Place, even producing a written invitation from Maria. The next day, his cousin and co-worker, William Flynn, started to worry after Patrick missed his shift at the London Docks. Later that week, accompanied by a policeman, Flynn made inquiries concerning Patrick’s visit to the Manning residence. Maria behaved oddly throughout the interview, denying that O’Connor had come to dinner that evening and at one point moaning in melodramatic fashion, “Poor O’Connor! He was the best friend I had in London.” That sounded ominous and no less fishy to Flynn, as if Maria knew something horrible had befallen him. The mystery grew fishier on the afternoon of Monday, August 12, when neighbors spotted Maria loading a white trunk full of luggage onto a cab and driving off. By Tuesday, 3 Minver Place stood unoccupied. Maria had evidently skipped town, and nobody could say what had become of George. On Friday, Constables Henry Barnes and James Barton went to the Mannings’ home, armed with shovels. Dreading what their search might bring to light, the officers went around back to the garden. When their efforts unearthed nothing but soil, they made their way back to the front entrance and let themselves in. After scouring the ground floor, they descended to the basement. The pair passed through the first of two kitchens, noticing nothing out of the ordinary, and proceeded to the second. Barnes immediately had a bad feeling about this one. Outfitted with an iron-barred window that looked out onto the garden, it struck him as conspicuously neat and tidy; the Mannings had scrubbed the flagstones on the floor until they were bright white. As he scanned and rescanned the room, Barnes’ eye lingered on something that had previously evaded him—a damp discoloration between two flagstones. Getting down on one knee, he poked it with his clasp knife and found it soft. Somebody had recently disturbed this flooring, and Barnes would not rest until he and his partner had taken it all up. Equipped with a crowbar and a boathook between them, the officers wrenched up the stonework and broke the earth underneath. The stench of death stung their nostrils as they uncovered what at first appeared to be a torn white rag. Giving it a tug, Barnes realized with a sense of nauseated accomplishment what it actually was: a human toe. “We’ve found him,” he declared.


The police made short work of the grisly exhumation. O’Connor had met with a gruesome end. His attacker—or attackers—had shot him in the head before clubbing him with a crowbar and burying him, naked, beneath the kitchen floor. Combing over the victim’s lodgings, they discovered that somebody had stolen valuables, including a certificate for railway shares.


The Bermondsey Horror, as the crime became known, shocked the metropolis. It was so unspeakable, nobody could stop talking about it. A husband and wife—suspected of murder! And to bury a body beneath the kitchen floor! The Mannings appalled and fascinated the public because their offense had struck two nerves: first, they had defiled the sacred institution of marriage, and second they had converted their own home into a boneyard, an unthinkable act in an age that worshipped domesticity.


Hats Off


With the Mannings at large, Scotland Yard would have to work at top speed if it had any hope of catching them. Maria and George had a considerable head start, and thanks to the invention of modern technologies like the railway and the steamship, the speed of travel had accelerated dramatically. All the fugitives had to do was take a train to, say, Liverpool, hop on a steamer, and they would be crossing the Atlantic in no time. Alternatively, they could flee to continental Europe by ferry. Daunting as their task was, police had access to cutting-edge technologies that could aid them in the chase, chief among them the electric telegraph. Developed by Sir William Frothergil Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1837, this device enabled blink-of-an-eye communication across great distances, allowing the Yard to alert authorities across the United Kingdom to the search for the Mannings. Still, every minute that passed without an arrest increased the chances of the runaways’ reaching New York or melting into the shadows of Paris or Amsterdam.


Detectives flew into high gear, bombarding port cities with wires notifying local police of the pursuit and even boarding ships to interrogate passengers with the name of Manning. These efforts, though resourceful, got them nowhere. The first breakthrough came closer to home, without the aid of newfangled gadgets. One Sergeant Shaw pounded the pavement in search of the cabman who had picked up Maria when she absconded from 3 Minver Place. From the day of Maria’s flight to the end of that week, Shaw questioned dozens of cab drivers, to no avail. Then, on Monday, August 20, he finally spoke with a cabbie named Kirk who remembered dropping the wanted woman off at the London and North Western Railway station, now Euston Station. Shaw’s discoveries were swiftly relayed to Inspector John Hayes. Following up at the train station, Hayes learned that a woman answering Maria’s description had boarded a locomotive for Edinburgh. In a splurge that would later scandalize the public, she had purchased a first-class ticket. Inspector Hayes hightailed it back to the Yard where he fired off a telegram to the Edinburgh police, apprizing them of the fugitive’s likely presence there. It was 2:50 p.m. on Tuesday, August 21.


Less than one hour after Hayes sent this dispatch, Scotland Yard received an amazing communication from the Edinburgh police: they already had Maria in custody.


The capture came about thanks to two bankers, Mesers. Hughson and Dobson. Both worked at Edinburgh’s Royal Exchange. Four days prior, on Saturday, August 18, a woman had entered the bank, introducing herself as Mrs. Smith. This Mrs. Smith had arrived in the city in the past few weeks, she claimed in the course of their conversation, and what a lovely city! She’d had such wholesome, law-abiding fun during her stay, especially while swimming in the sea at nearby Portobello. In time, Mrs. Smith revealed what had brought her to the exchange. She had in her possession railway shares that she wished to sell as well as three to five hundred pounds that she intended to invest in railway stock. Hughson and Dobson promised to contact their London colleagues about the prospect of selling her securities, after which Mrs. Smith handed over a certificate for the shares along with a piece of paper with her name and local address written on it. Two days later, Edinburgh’s most gung-ho railway investor came back to the bank. At first making small talk with Dobson—Hughson was out of the office—she then inquired if he could return the certificate she had left Saturday. Her mother had fallen ill in Newcastle, England, and she needed to travel there to look after her. “Of course, I must pay every attention to my beloved parents,” the dutiful daughter added, flashing an inappropriate, I’m-obviously-lying-to-you smile as she said so. Dobson obliged, handing back the railway shares and tearing up the receipt. Turning to leave, Mrs. Smith paused and asked offhandedly whether he could return the note with her name and address on it, too. Nothing doing—Dobson couldn’t find it. Clearly disappointed, she said her goodbyes and exited the bank, leaving Dobson to puzzle over the sudden change of plans.


He would find out what Mrs. Smith was up to in less than twenty-four hours. The next day, he and Mr. Hughson received a printed letter informing them that railway shares had been stolen in London and warning them not to deal in the aforesaid shares. The bankers’ suspicions immediately fell on Mrs. Smith. Then, it hit Dobson: tucked away somewhere in the Royal Exchange was her current address. Dobson swept through the office in search of it, and this time it turned up. He double-timed it to the police with the slip of paper in hand, telling them all about this suspicious Mrs. Smith, whose number-one hobby appeared to be trafficking in stolen railway shares.


About thirty minutes later, two police officers knocked on the door of Mrs. Hewart’s lodging house. With the landlady’s permission, they entered the room of her newest lodger and found a woman perusing a copy of the London Times inside. “Mrs. Smith I presume,” one of them began after announcing their presence. “Yes,” she replied, looking up from the paper. Yeah, right. The lawmen placed the unmasked Mrs. Manning under arrest and searched her rooms. They uncovered precisely what they expected: her baggage contained O’Connor’s stolen possessions. One Manning down, one to go. We'll hear how the manhunt concluded after a quick break.


A full week after Maria’s capture, on August 28, the police received a tip from a woman who claimed to have seen George aboard a steamship, destined for Jersey, an island in the English Channel. Detective Sargent Langley booked it to the docks.


By 9:30 pm the following Saturday, Langley had followed the fugitive to Jersey. The sergeant and a local vigilante crimefighter stepped out of a carriage, about two hundred yards away from a picturesque cottage called Prospect House. The property belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Bertau. A few days earlier, a newcomer to Jersey had rented a large bedroom at four shillings a week, the landlady agreeing to cook his meals and wash his laundry. He called himself Jennings and made no secret of his drinking problem—he downed a bottle of brandy every single day. Yet the outsider clearly had something else to hide. He trembled all over when asked where he had come from and retreated to the back kitchen when a visitor to the Berteau residence tried to make his acquaintance. Equally bizarre was his peculiar habit of pulling his felt hat over his face when he went for strolls in the Prospect House gardens, as if to avoid recognition. Soon, the townsfolk suspected his involvement in the Bermondsey Horror, which they had read about in the papers. Detective Sargent Langley had little trouble locating the outlaw. He and his companion went in through the front door of Prospect House and tiptoed upstairs, guided by the light of a candle. Fully prepared to break down the door to George’s room, they were surprised to find it ajar. Crossing the threshold, Langley immediately recognized George, fast asleep in bed. Langley’s sidekick sprang onto the mattress, restraining the fugitive. Jolted from slumber, George cried, “Hallo, what are you about? Do you mean to murder me?” Then, seeing Langley, he understood. Heaving a sigh of relief, he said, “Ah, Sargent, is that you? I am glad you are come.”


The hunt was over. In catching their quarry, police had beaten unfavorable odds. The suspected murderers had covered hundreds of miles between them, the one fleeing north to Edinburgh, the other south to Jersey. Gobbling up each sensational morsel tossed by the press, the public savored the cat-and-mouse detective work. That the telegraph had zapped vital leads across the country and back again only heightened the excitement.


The Lady Macbeth of Bermondsey


As the Mannings made their way through the legal system, Maria reminded the public of one of Shakespeare’s most fearsome inventions, Lady Macbeth. As pretty much any critical introduction to Shakespeare’s tragedy will tell you, Macbeth explores the consequences of overweening ambition. Near the beginning, Macbeth crosses paths with three witches, usually called the weird sisters, who prophesy that he will rule as king of Scotland. He’s thrilled by the prospect, as is his wife, but she has misgivings. To Lady Macbeth’s mind, her husband is too good-natured for his own good. Macbeth may dream of ascending the throne, but he lacks the ruthlessness to make that a reality. In a ferocious soliloquy, Lady Macbeth entreats the powers that be, “Unsex me here / And fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty.” Simply put, Lady Macbeth’s wickedness depends on a renunciation of conventional womanhood. Freshly “unsexed,” she hatches a plan to kill the king, Duncan, a friend of the family, and pressures her spouse to catty it out. When Duncan stays at their castle as a guest, Macbeth sneaks into the monarch’s bedchamber and stabs him in his sleep. Macbeth wears the crown only to be conquered and cut down in the finale. Lady Macbeth perishes, mad with remorse.


Maria’s reputation as a modern Lady Macbeth all goes back to her lawfully wedded husband. When police cornered her in Edinburgh and reminded her that anything she said could be used against her, Maria wisely remained silent with regard to O'Connor. In fact, she spoke little throughout the first phase of the legal proceedings, answering questions only as necessary. Not so with George. Almost as soon as Detective Langley dragged the boozer out of bed, he cheerfully pointed the finger at Maria. “I am glad of it,” he declared on hearing of her arrest. “That will save my life. She is the guilty party; I am as innocent as a lamb.” Over the next six weeks or so, George would change his story so often and so dramatically as to render his testimony utterly unreliable. Nonetheless, he remained steadfast in professing his own innocence and laying blame on Maria. He eventually accused her of plotting as well as committing the murder. At the time of his rude awakening on Jersey, George did not compare Maria to the Shakespearean villain directly, but his allegations—coupled with what was known about O’Connor’s activities the night of his disappearance—encouraged the press to yoke Lady Macbeth and Mrs. Manning in its coverage. Much like King Duncan in Shakespeare’s tragedy, O’Connor had visited the Mannings in what the title character calls “double trust,” first as a friend and then as a guest, only to be betrayed. On top of that, you had a homicidal married couple with a steely wife included. Shakespearean allusions were all but guaranteed. Given how rabid and irresponsible some of the reporting was, I’m surprised nobody threw in a few witches just to spice up the story.


Early on in legal proceedings, journalists portrayed Maria as overly ambitious à la Lady Macbeth. Nobody accused her of regicide, but they saw her as desperate to live the high life, even prepared to kill for it. Maria booked a first-class ticket out of London to make her getaway, remember, more than likely with the money of the murder victim. Then, she had tried to sell his railway shares. Reporters saw Maria’s penchant for black satin dresses as further evidence of her unabashed social climbing. Throughout the Victorian era, black satin gowns served as go-to attire for middle-class housewives, “denoting respectability without undue pride” in the words of fashion historian C. Willett Cunnington. Yet Maria hailed from hardscrabble Bermondsey. In the eyes of classist commentators, she had no business running around in black satin. Reporting on one of her first public appearances, a writer for the Bradford Observer characterized her as “a vulgar Lady Macbeth, absorbed in some ambition of dressing finely.” In slipping on black satin, this journalist implies, Maria was masquerading as a woman above her actual station and therefore perpetrating the fashion-crime equivalent of usurping a throne.


More than just ambitious, Maria was supposedly unfeminine in ways that recalled Lady Macbeth. She revealed this part of her identity at the climax of her trial. The proceedings had been ugly—part homicide trial, part domestic dispute by proxy. The Mannings were tried jointly, yet each had lined up separate lawyers. George’s attorney ran with his client’s accusations, holding Maria solely responsible for the slaying. In response, Maria’s counsel called out George for throwing his wife under the bus, the ungallant scoundrel. After the defense and prosecution had rested, the jury withdrew and resurfaced after forty-five minutes. Maria and George awaited the verdict in the dock. On the wooden ledge before them, attendants had sprinkled sprigs of rue, an herb thought to possess medical properties that prevented the spread of “gaol fever,” or typhus, which prisoners supposedly picked up at Newgate and transmitted to the public when they came to court. After the jury handed down its verdict, an air of solemnity filled the Old Bailey. A clerk asked Maria if she had anything to say in response to the outcome. Up to this moment, she had said little more than the bare minimum in public, and onlookers had every reason to expect the same now. How wrong they were. To the astonishment of all, Maria rose to her feet and flew into a fury, chastising everyone for a miscarriage of justice. “I am not guilty of the murder of Mr. O’Connor,” she roared. “If I had wished to commit murder I would not have attempted the life of the only friend I have in the world—a man who would have made me his wife in a week, if I had been a widow.” Needless to say, this characterization was more than a little awkward with her alive-and-kicking husband seated right beside her. Maria’s impassioned yet eloquent tirade rattled the judge, but he and all involved were in for another jolt. He donned the black cap customarily worn while passing the death sentence and started to make his grim pronouncement only for Maria to cut him off: “No, no: I won’t stand it,” she bellowed. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. There is neither law nor justice here.” Soon thereafter, she stunned the assembly with a parting gesture. She picked up a sprig or two of the rue in front of her and cast them into the courtroom—a display of pure, unadulterated contempt. This eruption struck the public as inappropriate for a woman, inviting comparisons to Lady Macbeth. Referring to the outburst, journalist Leigh Hunt described Maria as “unsexed, quite,” almost certainly a nod to the soliloquy we talked about earlier.


For many who followed the trial, Maria’s Lady Macbeth-like meltdown lent credibility to George’s allegations and persuaded them that she was capable of murder. (In so doing, they sort of ignored the fact that Lady Macbeth never actually kills anyone in the play; technically, she only orchestrates Duncan’s murder.) Anyway, for all these comparisons to the killing of King Duncan in Macbeth, in which teh identity of the perpetrator is clear as day, the world will never know who planned O’Connor’s murder or who pulled the trigger. Neither of the Mannings provided a credible account of that night. However, when it comes to the actual commission of the murder—I mean the moment the killer opened fire on O’Connor—things looked worse for George than Maria. She definitely had knowledge of the homicide after the fact and probably knew it would happen beforehand, but there was no concrete evidence tying her to the crime scene on the night of the killing. The same could not be said of George—a witness spotted him smoking his pipe while seated on the back-garden wall at about 6:45 p.m. What’s more, another witness saw Maria far from the crime scene. On the night in question, O’Connor’s landlady talked to Maria at his lodgings, a forty-five-minute walk from the Manning residence. Maria turned up at about 5:45 p.m. and asked to speak with her tenant, and being told that he was away, she made herself comfortable and waited for about an hour and a half until finally leaving circa 7:15 when O’Connor never showed. Based on this testimony, Maria’s attorney put forward this hypothetical version of events: O’Connor failed to materialize at 3 Minver Place at the appointed time, prompting Maria to go out looking for him. At least two or three hours passed while she went to his lodgings, waited there, and then returned. During this interval, O’Connor finally called, whereupon George killed him. When Maria came home, she discovered O’Connor already dead. This theory is plausible, though impossible to prove.


Nevertheless, despite a lack of evidence placing Maria at home on the night of the homicide, Mrs. Manning’s self-assertive diatribe at the Old Bailey made her look like a Lady Macbeth, and that was all the proof the public needed of her culpability. In a lengthy letter to the Sunday Times, the sender clearly accepts George’s telling of events, in which Maria pulled the trigger, arguing of her, “Mrs. Manning, in fact, appears to have been the Lady Macbeth of the Bermondsey murder. And the violence of temper which she has since displayed, and the expressions which have dropped from her, abundantly show that she is well-fitted to fill such a part. Few can doubt that she had complete control over her husband. In fact, she appears to be just the woman who would not permit anyone to rule her.” Others agreed. Soon, images circulated depicting Maria in the act of killing O’Connor. In one engraving, featured on the Art of Crime website, Maria absurdly appears to be dressed in black satin—because what else would she have worn while cutting down O'Connor? Meanwhile, George is nowhere in sight. Let’s take a moment to appreciate how fascinating if also depressing this is: Maria’s unfeminine courtroom conduct condemned her to the gallows in the popular imagination due not so much to legal as perceived Shakespearean precedent.


The Glamor of Lady Macbeth


Maria’s association with Lady Macbeth made her the target of undisguised classism and misogyny. At the same time, it gave her an aura of glamor and gravitas. It was as if she were a star actress playing Lady Macbeth to perfection.


There are good reasons for why observers saw her as akin to a character in a play. Much like we do in the present moment, Victorians often thought of homicide trials as theatrical entertainment. To give an example, in A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens mentions London-dwellers who “paid to see the play at the Old Bailey.” Yet London’s addiction to courtroom dramas reached a new high in 1849. Earlier that year, before the Bermondsey Horror, a man named James Blomfield Rush stood trial in London for a home invasion and double homicide in Norwich. Onlookers swarmed the courtroom to watch the action unfold in record numbers. Ridiculously, this caused overcrowding, and in an effort to curtail the number of spectators, the Old Bailey started charging admission for seats in the galleries, making it more like a playhouse than ever. This new policy rubbed moralists the wrong way. Homicide trials should be solemn occasions, they insisted, not thinly veiled commercial entertainment. The Old Bailey leadership might as well have hired vendors to sell ginger beer and oranges—the favorite concessions of nineteenth-century playgoers. Witty as ever, Punch ran an article about the commercialization of the legal system titled “Old Bailey Dramas,” which was accompanied by a mock advertisement, promising customers “Real Criminals!!,” “Genuine Pathos,” and (my personal favorite) “Legal Jokes.” Check it out on the Art of Crime website.


In some cases, then, the Old Bailey acted as a stage on which star criminals were born. Well, on top of that, Lady Macbeth ranks as one of Shakespeare’s most formidable women and is therefore a star vehicle unlike any other. Theatergoers have always bowed down to actresses who nail the part. In the mid-1800s, the name of one performer sprang to mind immediately as the Lady Macbeth to end them all: Sarah Siddons, arguably the most acclaimed British actress of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I’m not trying to put anybody down, but few of us will ever match Siddons in terms of sheer badassery. Seriously, go have a look at Sir William Beechey’s portrait, Mrs. Siddons With the Emblems of Tragedy, and tell me I’m wrong. You can check it out on the podcast website. The painting shows the radiant Siddons in three-quarters profile against a gloomy background, holding a tragic mask in front of her face in one hand and a dagger in the other. Writing about her performance in the role of Lady Macbeth, nineteenth-century drama critic William Hazlitt gave Siddons a review most actresses could only dream of: “[Her acting] was something above nature. It seemed almost as if a being of a superior order had dropped from a higher sphere to awe the world with the majesty of her appearance. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine; she was tragedy personified.” Siddons’s Lady Macbeth became the stuff of legend, remembered and venerated by the theatergoing public decades after her death in 1831.


Maria’s guilty-verdict rant made for world-class theater, imbuing her with star-power reminiscent of Siddons and other famous performers in the role of Lady Macbeth. This was deplorable to the minds of many onlookers. Satirizing how others reveled in the drama of Maria’s outburst, an article in Punch ironically praised it as an all-star performance, “much more real” than Mrs. Warner, a well-regarded actress who happened to be playing Lady Macbeth onstage at the time. This journalist was far from alone in his disapproval. In a letter to the Liverpool Mercury, one writer describes a conversation with a friend: “speaking of the convict, Mrs. Manning, [my friend] compares her to Lady Macbeth, and says, paradoxically, that ‘while her obstinacy shocks, her firmness challenges a kind of involuntary regard [or respect].’” The writer of this letter goes on to chide his friend for celebrating a convicted criminal.


Like few others had, the trial of the Mannings revealed the extent to which Victorians watched the administration of justice like a Shakespeare production. Those who applauded the key players often came in for criticism. In the weeks and months following the Mannings’ trial and execution, Madame Tussaud would be subject to even harsher condemnation. We'll hear more after a quick break.


The Mannings—at Home


George and Maria Manning’s wax statues made their Chamber of Horrors debut in November 1849, almost immediately after the couple’s hanging, dressed in clothing purchased from Mr. Calcraft. Joining the twosome was a replica of O’Connor as he appeared in life, plus a scale model of the kitchen where his body was entombed.


Tussaud always promised accuracy in her handiwork, and the Manning affair was no exception. According to Douglas Jerrold, a writer for Punch, she had even gone to their trial and made sketches of the defendants to work from later. Someone else who attended the proceedings certainly thought Tussaud had knocked it out of the park. A writer for the Theatrical Journal, a trade publication, visited the wax museum specifically to eyeball the Mannings’ effigies. The journalist went with at least one companion and the group was debating the fidelity of the sculptures when a stranger butted in. The gentleman assured them that Tussaud had delivered the goods. He should know—he had acted as George’s solicitor!


Others were less impressed. A small yet vocal group of journalists railed against Tussaud’s for glamorizing these villains, Maria in particular. A writer for Art Journal sardonically names the Mannings “The expected celebrities” in the Chamber of Horrors, grumbling that “thrice dyed miscreants” such as these spousal partners in crime garnered excessive attention from the public. By far her most vociferous critic was Douglas Jerrold, the reporter for Punch. “The witch works in wax,” he snarls of Tussaud, “and destroys the living decencies.” Then he provides by far the most vivid—and funniest—contemporary description of Maria’s wax portrait: “Beautifully has MADAME TUSSAUD elevated the character of the fair destroyer of the murdered PATRICK O’CONNOR. A lively rose-blush pervades her full-blown face, and her large ripe lip seems pouting with the first syllable of ‘mur-der.’ And then her head is so tastefully, so touchingly enveloped—as though drest at the jury—covered with old point lace, made classic by Mrs. Siddons in Lady Macbeth […]. We think the artist should have placed just a sprig of rue between the fingers of MARIA—the now historic rue she pitched so strong at the lawyers. However, if the rue be wanting, the black satin gown is unexceptionable. There she stands in silk satin, a beauteous thing to be daily rained upon by a shower of six-pences.” More “fair” than foul from Jerrold’s point of view, Maria hardly comes across as a convicted murder. In beautifying her sculpture, Tussaud has elevated her character, and Jerrold describes this elevation in terms of theatrical celebrity—he even invokes the superhuman Sarah Siddons.


Jerrold wasn’t through with Tussaud. From December 1849 to March of the following year, he waged a one-man moral crusade against her. Some of his complaints sparkle with impish lightheartedness. For example, in a holiday edition of Punch, he jokes that Tussaud has hung mistletoe above the statue and started charging three pence for a kiss, another jab at the eroticism of the wax portrait. In a particularly wild-eyed, vein-popping takedown, he charges Tussaud with “a wickedness approaching high treason” for hanging recently acquired portraits of King George III and Queen Caroline under the same roof as “the infernal machine of [Giuseppe] FIESCHI [the would-be assassin of the king of France] and the black satin gown of MARIA MANNING!”


In more than seven decades of plying her trade, Tussaud had never faced a more dogged detractor in the press, at least to my knowledge. The moral outrage over the Mannings’ execution and the public response to it had clearly bled into the reception of Maria’s portrait at the wax museum. I wish we knew how Tussaud felt about Jerrold’s attacks, or whether she paid them any mind at all, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of her reaction. If they ever came to her attention, it’s easy to imagine her shrugging them off—plenty of customers were more than happy to pay their sixpence to look upon the Mannings and their victim in wax.


Eventually, Jerrold relented, and the ripples of the true crime controversy of 1849 faded. Maybe Jerrold felt that he had made his point. Maybe he ran out of jokes. Maybe he came to view it as just a little absurd to crusade against a ninety-year-old granny as the height of moral depravity. Or maybe he thought it disrespectful to wail on this particular punching bag given the events of April 1850.


On the fifteenth of that month, Tussaud passed away. Soon after her death, her sons, Joseph and Francis, cast the mother’s face in white plaster, creating a death mask that survives to this day. Roughly twenty-four hours later, a small group of family, friends, and servants gathered for the funeral at a Roman Catholic chapel in Chelsea. We have little information about the burial, other than the cost of it: sixty-three pounds, four shillings, and sixpence. In the words of Kate Berridge, “One imagines plumed horses and a sufficient display of black bombazine and sombre trappings to convey just the right amount of respect, neither too ostentatious nor too frugal to put in question the family’s solid middle-class propriety.” Tussaud had left the world, but her waxworks would long outlast her, her children, and even her grandchildren. The Brothers Tussaud inherited the family business, which continued to prosper, eventually growing into the international entertainment empire we know today. The Chamber of Horrors remains a mainstay at the London wax museum, constantly updated with new criminals, from Dr. Crippen to Charles Manson. The Chamber enjoyed this reputation for more than 150 years until 2016, when it closed down to make way for the Sherlock Holmes Experience. Due in part to the resurgent popularity of true crime, however, the Chamber reopened six years later.


And Maria Manning? Needless to say, she faded from the popular memory long ago. If she has had an afterlife, though, it’s as an obscure factoid in the annals of literary history. Three years after her execution, Maria inspired a fictional character, a foreign-born lady’s maid named Madame Hortense who guns down a solicitor and tries to get away with it. This femme fatale commits her crime in one of the best-loved tales of the nineteenth century, written by an author who saw Maria perish with his own two eyes. That book is Bleak House, the novelist Charles Dickens.


Next episode, we’ll look back on this season and consider what we’ve learned about Madame Tussaud and the impact she had on the true crime genre.


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