The Bermondsey Horror

Part of my project this summer has including utilizing the archives of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and the OSU Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. I have found a lot of cool artifacts, like collected volumes of the sensation stories known as the Mysteries of London, several volumes of The Strand (the magazine in which the Sherlock Holmes stories were first published), and volumes of the American Illustrated Police News. Some of my favorite artifacts so far are a set of three Victorian cards, each of which features a prominent character in a case known as The Bermondsey Horror.

Maria Manning, who stands charged for the murder of Patrick O’Connor. Photo taken and posted with the permission of the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Please do not repost in any way.

On August 9, 1849, Patrick O’Connor went to the house of Maria and Frederick Manning for dinner, at Maria’s invitation. His body would be discovered by police days later, buried under the floor of the Mannings’ house, along with Maria’s bloodstained dress. Maria and Frederick, who had fled separately after taking most of O’Connor’s possessions, were later arrested and charged with the murder. At their trial, husband and wife blamed each other for the murder. Mr. Manning’s lawyer gave Maria the role of the mastermind, as she was the one who had extended the invitation to O’Connor, who had known about his possessions, and had lied about O’Connor being at her house for dinner that fatal night. Mr. Manning was accused of acting out of jealousy. However, the jury charged both with the murder and the couple was hanged together.

Frederick Manning, who stands charged for the murder of Patrick O’Connor. Photo taken and posted with the permission of the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Please do not repost in any way.

Patrick O’Connor, victim of Frederick and Maria Manning. Photo taken and posted with the permission with the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library. Please do not repost in any way.

The Bermondsey Horror captured the imaginations of the Victorians. People flocked to their execution, paying good money for seats with a good view. Charles Dickens, who attended the Mannings’ execution, wrote in a letter to The Times, “that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun,” thus condemning the practice of public executions. Rumors arose that because of the black satin dress which Maria wore when she was hung, the material was effectively boycotted and went out of style. As Albert Borotwitz points out in his book on the Mannings, “the reports of the death of black satin have been greatly exaggerated” (Borotwitz 296). Nevertheless, Maria especially struck a fascinating figure and was often depicted in that heavy black dress, as seen in the cards above.

The illustrations above, though unusual in their high quality, are fairly typical in their depictions of these criminals. Maria wears her black satin dress buttoned to her chin and carries the gloves she wore in the trial. Both she and Frederick are looking directly at the viewers, a deliberate move often use to make criminals appear more sinister, though I think Frederick’s thick eyebrows also play a role in his intimidating stare.

These ‘murder cards’ are part of a longer Victorian obsession with cards of all kinds. Cards played a large role especially in upper class society, which used them to denote status, introductions, and send messages like holiday greetings, invitations, condolences, and even flirtation. Collectible cards like the ones above were cheap and easy to find, and were often used to provoke conversation. These particular cards would have most likely been sold alongside of criminal broadsides, single newspaper sheets that would display a few illustrations, along with a description of the murder, ‘confessions’ of the criminals, or even poems that the criminals had ‘written’ while in prison. The point of these items would be to deter people from crime, though as Dickens pointed out, they tended to make a spectacle of these grim crimes more than warn people away.

The theme of crime and public hangings as a spectacle was not merely limited to the Mannings either. In 1840, William Makepeace Thackeray attended the hanging of Courvoisier, a servant who was found guilty of murdering his master. Like Dickens, Thackeray’s account of a public hanging was more of a description of the mob than of the hanging itself, condemning the practice altogether. Thackeray is fascinated by the good humor of the crowd, the fact that up until a little before the time that Courvoisier is supposed to be hanged, “scarcely a word had been said about [him]” (7). Instead, the execution is treated by the spectators like a show, and many of those they had spoken to “had seen many executions,” and none of them “ever thought about it after a bit,” (Thackeray, 7).

Public executions became a sort of pastime in Victorian London, an event to be sold by the press and marveled at by the people. Rather than inspire “terror, and a general expression of disgust and fear,” Thackeray, before Dickens wrote on the Mannings’ execution, makes it clear that “The punishment had grown to be a joke,” in the minds of those who attended such events (Thackeray, 7). The Mannings’ execution and these cards are part of a larger tradition of criminal tourism and obsession with crime that had begun in the Victorian Era and would eventually lead to the creation of the genre of crime fiction.



Borotwitz, Albert. The Woman Who Murdered Black Satin. Ohio State University Press, 1981.

“Charles Dickens to The Times – I stand Astounded and Appalled.” Farnam Street, Accessed 15 June 2019.

Rusch, Barbara. “The Secret Life of Victorian Cards.” ABAA, Accessed 13 June 2019

“English Crime and Execution Broadsides.” Harvard Library, Accessed 13 June 2019

Thackeray, William Makepeace. “Going to See a Man Hanged.” Frasers Magazine for Town and Country, Ex-Classics, Accessed 17 July 2019.

*A huge thanks is due to the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books & Manuscripts Library for their support, and to Dr. Samuel Saunders for answering all of my questions about Victorian ephemera. The ephemera pictured above are the property of the Ohio State University Libraries, Rare Books & Manuscripts Library, and are featured in this article with their permission.

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