Eliza Adkins couldn’t go on listening to the distressed cries of her child for another minute. Put yourself in her shoes. Homeless, friendless, without recourse to money and unemployable so long as little Zadock needed her. Forty-two years on the planet – possibly more – had finally brought her to the Loughborough Union Workhouse, and now she was separated from her son by an iron grid. His screams for her floated through the unbridgeable space between them. She seized him when she could, and they fled for the Leicestershire countryside.

On 30 July 1865, Zadock’s body was found at the bottom of a well, drowned, with nothing but wild gooseberries in his stomach – an improvised last meal. This was only one of countless stories of Victorian crime in which the driving forces seemed to relate to prevailing social conditions, the circumscribed role of women, poverty and unconquerable despair. In retrospect, Eliza’s life sentence might be recognised as a merciful alternative to execution (the last executions in the UK were less than a hundred years away, and public executions were done away with on the British mainland in 1868), but we might still be appalled and outraged by the inability of the social institutions of Victorian Britain to alleviate suffering and to manage risk.

Of course, there were others who did not fall into the category of the destitute and the despondent. Some, like Percy Lefroy Mapleton, selfishly preferred a daring but brutal crime to the quotidian rigours of work; some, like William Palmer (who was as workshy as Mapleton, in truth), seemed almost robotic in their manner, fixating on a modus operandi and pursuing it – quite literally – ad nauseam. Poisons were everywhere, not least in Palmer’s case, and their victims were distributed throughout society, from Thomas Ball, the obnoxious labourer whose death was caused (perhaps) by an accidental dose of arsenic-based insecticide, to James Maybrick, the no-less-objectionable cotton merchant who died with the contents of a small pharmacy in his insides.

Along the way, crimes of diverse and sometimes unfamiliar descriptions kept the police – a social fixture by the middle of the century, but broadly unknown in its first quarter – on their toes. Terrorism became a problem, especially in the 1880s, and some of the finest men available to the Metropolitan Police, in London, were instrumental in attempts to blunt its often indiscriminate edge. The decade closed with more innovation: the shock and horror of the Whitechapel Murders, in which Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, defeated all attempts to ensure justice for the random, unfortunate victims of his unprecedented violence.

As the nineteenth century went on, the law attempted to evolve, better reflecting the desperate situations of some of those whose actions deviated from the norm. Dealing with the case of Daniel M’Naghten, doctors and alienists helped to codify the legal implications of madness (not that these were greeted with enthusiasm by the Queen, who was too often the target of the murderous misjudgements of individuals who had become estranged from reality). There are signs of compassion in addition to the doctrinaire dispassion, but some groups – children, in particular – were always vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment by those with power over them. The demise of Reginald Channell Cancellor, a lad of fourteen who was stuck on his four times table, is only one sad example of this phenomenon at work.

Our perception of Victorian society is affected as greatly by our understanding of its criminal underbelly as it is by its legacy of high culture – its literary fiction, its art, its drama. In The A-Z of Victorian Crime, we have attempted to illuminate some darkened corners, looking again at some familiar cases, and exploring some which may be less familiar. The reader is invited to follow us back there, among the ghosts of the past, and to make themselves ready to be appalled, horrified and saddened in equal measure.

Victorian Crime

M W Oldridge and co- authors Neil Bell, Kate Clarke and Trevor Bond's new book The A-Z of Victorian Crime is available for purchase now.