Society Gets the Criminals it Deserves: The Resurrection Man from G. W. M. Reynolds’ “The Mysteries of London” (1844-45)

[All images unless otherwise stated are my own, scanned from a first edition of Reynolds’ Mysteries that is in my own collection – permission to use is freely granted providing there is a citation or link to this blog]

George William MacArthur Reynolds’ long-running serial novel, The Mysteries of London (1844-45), was the biggest-selling novel of the Victorian era. It was full of sex, featuring characters such as the debauched aristocrat who keeps four beautiful women at his beck and call to service his every need. There is a lot of violence which is often gratuitous, as well as healthy doses of radical political sentiments. Reynolds (1814-1879) was a radical who espoused many political causes, the principal ones being Republicanism and Chartism. The sex, violence, and political radicalism of this novel and of Reynolds’ other novels moved Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to exclaim that Reynolds’ name was

A name with which no lady’s, and no gentleman’s, should be associated.[1]

This post discusses the principal criminal character in The Mysteries of London, the Resurrection Man. While the Resurrection Man, or Anthony Tidkins as he is also known, is a menace to the good and virtuous (if slightly naïve) hero, Richard Markham, Reynolds simultaneously argues that we should not condemn this criminal character outright.

To begin, however, let us briefly discuss what a Resurrection Man was. The medical profession during the eighteenth century needed bodies to dissect and study. In London, the profession received a steady supply of bodies from the many criminals hanged at Tyburn. However, at the same time that the medical profession was expanding, juries were becoming more lenient and, to put it bluntly, there were not enough people being hanged. Still, the doctors managed to somehow get enough fresh cadavers to operate upon, often asking no awkward questions of the shady characters they had to do business with. Issues came to a head when it was revealed that Burke and Hare, two notorious Body Snatchers from Edinburgh in the 1820s, had not only been digging up graves but also murdering people to sell on to the surgeons. By the time Reynolds was writing The Mysteries of London the Anatomy Act had been passed which had at least gone some way to regulating the supply of cadavers for the medical profession – Doctors could now legally have access to the bodies of deceased people provided there was no existing relatives. The Resurrection Man does not simply dig up corpses, however: his exploits comprise a wide range of criminal activities: extortion, blackmail, highway robbery, burglary, and murder.

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The Resurrection Man Relates his History to the Cracksman – G W M Reynolds, The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Yet the blame for the Resurrection Man’s course of life is attributed to Victorian society. Reynolds humanises him by giving his working- and middle-class readers the Resurrectionist’s backstory.

“I was born thirty-eight years ago, near the village of Walmer, in Kent. My father and mother occupied a small cottage – or rather hovel, made of the wreck of a ship, upon the sea-coast. Their ostensible employment was that of fishing: but it would appear that smuggling … formed a portion of my father’s avocations. The rich inhabitants of Walmer and Deal encouraged him in his contraband pursuits … and in consequence of the frequent visits they paid our cottage, they took a sort of liking to me.”[2]

Okay, so his father was a bit dodgy, and he used to supply the local villages with illegal cut-price luxuries. But neither the father nor young Tidkins are wicked to the core. They are generally good people.

But one morning the Resurrection Man’s father is arrested for smuggling, and the local villagers then become confirmed hypocrites:

“The whole neighbourhood expressed their surprise that a man who appeared to be so respectable, should turn out such a villain. The gentlemen who used to buy brandy of him talked loudly of the necessity of making an example of him: the ladies, who were accustomed to purchase gloves, silks, and eau-de-cologne wondered that such a desperate ruffian should have allowed them to sleep safe in their bed; and of course the clergyman and his wife kicked me ignominiously out of door”.[3]

While his father is in prison, the Resurrection Man and his mother are reduced to a state of dire poverty and the villagers, supposed Christian people, refuse to render them any assistance. The young soon-to-be criminal witnesses the local Parson preach charity and philanthropy from the pulpit.

The father is acquitted for want of evidence but the goodwill that Tidkins’ family enjoyed from the other villagers is never revived. Despite the hypocrisy he has witnessed, young Tidkins strives to grow up honest and respectable by finding himself a job. Yet he is met with more callous treatment at the hands of the villagers:

“I was not totally disheartened. I determined to call upon some of those ladies and gentlemen who had been my father’s best customers for his contraband articles. One lady upon hearing my business, seized hold of the poker with one hand and her salts-bottle with the other ;- a second was also nearly fainting, and rang the bell for her maid to bring her some eau-de-cologne – the very eau-decologne which my father had smuggled for her ;- a third begged me with tears in her eyes to retire, or my very suspicious appearance would frighten her lap-dog into fits ;- and a fourth (an old lady, who was my father’s best customer for French brandy), held up her hands to heaven, and implored the Lord to protect her from all sabbath-breakers, profane swearers, and drunkards”.[4]

From this point forward the young Tidkins realises that he can no longer maintain an honest livelihood even if he wanted to. But still he is not wicked. He becomes a Resurrection Man with his father and carries on the dubious trade for some time. Yet still there is the prospect of redemption for Tidkins. In the course of his duties as a Resurrectionist, he becomes acquainted with a certain medical doctor and his daughter. Tidkins and the daughter fall in love, and it looks as if he is ready to try and turn from his dishonest profession. However, further ill luck befalls the now adolescent Tidkins:

“One morning I was roving amidst the fields, when I heard a loud voice exclaim,- ‘I say, you fellow there, open the gate, will you?’ I turned round, and recognised the baronet on horseback. He had a large hunting whip in his hand.- ‘Open the gate!’ said I; ‘and whom for?’ ‘Whom for!’ repeated the baronet; ‘why, for me, to be sure, fellow.-‘ ‘Then open it yourself.’ said I. The baronet was near enough to me to reach me with his whip; and he dealt me a stinging blow across the face. Maddened with pain, and soured with vexation, I leapt over the gate and attacked the baronet with a stout ash stick which I carried in my hand. I dragged him from his horse, and thrashed him without mercy. When I was tired, I walked quietly away, he roaring after me that he would be revenged upon me as sure as I was born”.[5]

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The Resurrection Man Burns Down the Judge’s House – From G W M Reynolds The Mysteries of London (1844-45) (c) Stephen Basdeo

Unlike what the television period dramas of men such as Julian Fellowes would have you believe, the Victorian and Edwardian eras were not peopled with friendly and benevolent aristocrats. A lot of the time they were exploitative, framing laws in their own interests, resisting any demands for political reform, and treated the working poor with utter contempt. Tidkins is committed to gaol for two years and it is here that his heart becomes truly hardened:

“I could not see any advantage in being good … I swore within myself that whenever I did commence a course of crime, I would be an unsparing demon at my work”.[6]

He is eventually released, and after the manner of the time, there is no probationary service and he is simply left to fend for himself without a crust.

That day came. I was turned adrift, as before, without a shilling and without a crust … How could I remain honest, even if I had any longer been inclined to do so, when I could not get work and had no money – no bread – no lodging? The legislature does not think of all this. It fancies that all its duty consists in punishing men for crimes, and never dreams of adopting measures to prevent them from committing crimes at all. But I now no more thought of honesty: I went out of prison a confirmed ruffian. I had no money – no conscience – no fear – no hope – no love – no friendship – no sympathy – no kindly feeling of any sort. My soul had turned to the blackness of hell![7]

He resolves to get revenge upon the Justice who sentenced him to goal. He breaks into the Justice’s house and helps himself to the food in his pantry. He also carries off with him a significant quantity of silver plate. As he is making his way out of the Justice’s estate, he spies a barn and resolves to set it alight:

“A bright column of flame was shooting up to heaven! Oh I how happy did I feel at that moment. Happy! this is not the word! I was mad – intoxicated – delirious with joy. I literally danced as I saw the barn burning”.[8]

Tidkins’ glee is raised to new heights the day after when he reads in the newspaper that the fire in the Barn spilled over into the main house, and the Justice’s daughter is burned alive! He next puts the Baronet’s estate to the flame:

“Not many hours elapsed before I set fire to the largest barn upon the baronet’s estate. I waited in the neighbourhood and glutted myself with a view of the conflagration. The damage was immense.[9]

Although both the Justice and the Baronet suspect Tidkins of setting their property alight, they cannot prove it and although he is re-arrested he is released due to lack of evidence.

“And the upper classes wonder that there are so many incendiary fires: my only surprise is, that there are so few! Ah! the Lucifer-match is a fearful weapon in the hands of the man whom the laws, the aristocracy, and the present state of society have ground down to the very dust”.[10]

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G W M Reynolds – Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Make no mistake: Reynolds does not ask us to sympathise with Tidkins – he is, after all, a wicked man. Rather, we are supposed to understand what led him to commit crimes in the first place.

Society has made him the way he is: the Resurrection Man was from the working classes, and the cards were stacked against him since birth. He had no choice but to turn to crime. This was a feature of what Gertrude Himmelfarb calls Reynolds’ nihilistic political radicalism: he often highlighted the plight of the working classes and the need for their enfranchisement, but as Himmelfarb says, if one examines Reynolds’ Mysteries, the only social message to be drawn from it is that:

Violence and depravity, licentiousness and criminality, were the only forms of existence, and potentially the only means of redemption, available to the poor.[11]

The root cause of criminality, as Reynolds argues, is the social and political oppression of the working poor. As the Resurrection Man says:

Let a rich man accuse a poor man before a justice, a jury, or a judge, and see how quick the poor wretch is condemned! The aristocracy hold the lower classes in horror and abhorrence. The legislature thinks that if it does not make the most grinding laws to keep down the poor, the poor will rise up and commit the most unheard-of atrocities. In fact the rich are prepared to believe any infamy which is imputed to the poor.[12]

Other questions of society are also raised in Reynolds’ novel, such as how to properly treat prisoners. Turning them out into the street with minimal support will only increase recidivism rates and harden them further. Thus, Reynolds’ depiction of the Resurrection Man’s history anticipates Emile Durkeim’s statement that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’.


References

[1] Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens ed. by Madeline House and Graham Storey 12 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 5: 604.

[2] G. W. M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London 2 Vols. (London: G. Vickers, 1845), 1: 191.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 192.

[5] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[6] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 195.

[7] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 196.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) p.450.

[12] Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1: 193.

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