Constructing the Cult of the Criminal: Kate Webster – Victorian Murderess and Media Sensation

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It is evident, not least from the other chapters in this volume that micro-histories regularly tell us much about criminals, the crimes they perpetrate and their context. Yet, micro-histories can also shed light on both authoritative reactions to illegality and more popular or customary attitudes to its committal. This chapter explores the latter perspective, whilst concerned with the origins of the intense and widespread fascination with homicide. This has seemingly widened its reach to such an extent (and at such alarming speed) that present day social commentators have been at pains to point out the threat that it poses to modern, civilised society. Scholars have firmly situated the enduring zenith of this unhealthy obsession in the modern era, suggesting the last three decades of the twentieth century established what we could call ‘the cult of the criminal’. Certainly the paroxysm and proliferation of multiple murderers (latterly defined as serial killers) stimulated the media’s attention from that time onwards. Yet, there is now evidence to suggest that the origins of this ‘cult of the criminal’ emerge earlier than the 1970s. Indeed our preoccupation with murder had already assumed powerful proportions long before some of the infamous (official) first-wave serial killers (such as Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, Peter Sutcliffe or Dennis Nilsen) were even born. For instance, historians such as Judith Flanders, Rosalind Crone and Lucy Worsley have compellingly argued that the Victorian popular fascination for murder was just as pervasive as in contemporary times. Indeed, the only real difference between the two eras lies in the development of new media technologies from the late twentieth century onwards, which have enabled this fascination to reach a wider, global audience more rapidly than in earlier periods.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLaw, Crime and Deviance since 1700
Subtitle of host publicationMicro-studies in the History of Crime
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-4742-9572-7, 978-1-4725-8530-1
ISBN (Print)978-1-4725-8527-1, 978-1-4725-8528-8
Publication statusPublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes


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