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Thinking Criminologically: Engaging with darkness

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Often when you mention the word criminology to lay people outside of the academy, the initial response is “ooh that’s interesting” or “that sounds exciting”. The next step in the conversation usually reverts to the most extreme forms of interpersonal violence, murderers, serial killers and so on. For many, criminology appears to be the home of “whodunnits”. People talk of Ted Bundy, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and want to know why they did what they did. For decades, the unsolved case of Jack the Ripper has been pored over by authors, television makers and the general public. For those who choose to engage, we have seen the female victims of this unknown man, eviscerated, degraded and ultimately slain, again and again for the reader/viewers’ delectation. This is not criminology.

Criminology recognises there are no winners in crime, only people left shattered, those devastated by their actions or those impacted by criminality. People are left bloody, bowed and bereaved through victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Yet just look on a bookshops ‘Crime’ shelves or flick through the programme schedules and you will find no sign of this. As a society we revel in this darkness and package it as entertainment. This is not criminology.

On the news we see discussions around crime and criminals. What should we do? Shall we give the police yet more powers? Shall we give those oh so lenient judges less leeway for discretion? Should we lock the offenders up and throw away the key? Should we bring back National Service? What about a boot camp? Should we consider bringing back the death penalty? How can we teach these people a lesson they won’t forget? Notice that all of these suggestions are designed to be more and more punitive, no discussions are focused around purely rehabilitative programmes, defunding the police or penal abolition. This is not criminology.

The problem with all of the ideas contained within the preceding paragraphs, is they are entirely negative. Criminology despite its focus on crime, criminality and criminalisation, has a positive focus, motivated by empathy and non-violence, if not pacifism. It is about trying to understand complexity and nuance in human and institutional behaviour. It is not interested in simplistic, quick fire, off the cuff answers for crime. It is forward looking, unconcerned with the status quo and more focused on what ought or might be. It intrinsically has social justice at its heart, an overwhelming desire for fairness for everyone, not just some. This is criminology.

This month is Gypsy, Romany, Traveller History Month, this week is also Refugee Week. Both are groups rarely treated fairly, they are criminalised and subjected to victimisation by individuals, institutions and the State. Their narratives have profound importance to our society. These experiences are far more central to Criminology than who Jack the Ripper might have been. This is criminology.

Also the beginning of this week marked the fourth anniversary of the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The graffiti above (I know, @5teveh and @jesjames50!) seems to capture the feelings of many when we consider this horrific tragedy. I taught for the first time on Grenfell in 2020/2021 and again this year. Both times I have been wracked with huge concerns around whether it was appropriate (many of our students are intimately connected), whether it was too soon and whether I could teach around the disaster with sensitivity. Running counter to this was a strong belief that criminology had a duty to acknowledge the disaster and enable our students to also make sense of such horror. In classes we have utilised poetry, music, graffiti and testimony in sessions to give us all space to consider how we can respond as a society. The biggest question of all, is what would justice look like for the bereaved, the survivors, friends, families and neighbours, the first responders? Some of that discussion is focused on the Grenfell Inquiry but far more is on how we can support those involved, what kind of advocacy can we engage with and how we can all raise our voices. As a society we cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can insist that the survivors and their families get meaningful answers. We can also insist that we make room for these individuals and families to have their voices heard. We can demand that fundamental changes are made so that disasters like these do not happen again. That we learn valuable lessons. This is criminology.

Unfortunately, experience tells us that previous victims of similarly horrible disasters do not receive anything that approximates justice, consider the events at Hillsborough in 1989. Likewise, as a society we do not seem able to learn lessons from inquiries, think about the deaths of Victoria Climbié and Peter Connelly. Nevertheless, as humans we have huge capacity for change, we do not need to keep repeating the same behaviours ad nauseum. As scholars of criminology we are well placed to argue for this change, to understand holistically, the complexities of crime and deviance, to empathise and to make space for marginalised voices to be heard. In addition we must be prepared to challenge and advocate for change. Some of us may be pacifist in orientation, but we must never be passive! This is Criminology.

Making a Criminal: A game on criminology

Summer is here and as we try to destress from another annus horribilis …let us play a game.  This is one of the mental games we play in a way to understand a discipline shrouded in mystery and speculation.  You will need no pen, nor paper, just your imagination and a few minutes. 

Clear you mind, isolate your thoughts and give yourself 5 minutes of time to complete. It is all about your imagination. 

Think of a criminal.  Try to think of their face first.  What do they look like?  Imagine their face, their eyes, the nose and the cheekbones.  Hair colour and style.  How’s the neck, the body type, the hands, the legs.  Can you tell their gender, age and their race?  Any other features?  What are they wearing? 

Now try to keep that image in your mind.  You have conjured your criminal and you ought to give them a crime.  What crime has this person committed?  Was it their first crime or have they done the same crime before?  What made them do the crime(s) they did?   

How do you feel about them?  What do you wish to be done about them?  What is your solution to your imaginary villain?  Do you think there are others like them, or was this the one that once removed from your imagination will become unable to generate more images? 

Our mind is truly wonderous.  It can conjure all sorts of images and for those of you, who, managed to engage and to get through the questions and to develop your criminal, well done. 

This approach was used when investigators tried to help people to recall events following a crime, usually involving violence.  The questions are reasonable, and it allowed you, at least those who tried, to form an image and a backstory.  This approach was later discredited, purely because it allowed our stereotypes and prejudices to come to the surface.  You see this game is not about crime; it is about your perception of crime.  It is not about those who do crime, it is simply about you. 

Bring back to mind your criminal.  Your details and characteristics are the projections that you make on what you think about the other, the criminal.  For example, did you think of yourself when asked to imagine a criminal?  What you don’t think you are a criminal?  Ah, you are one of those who think they have never committed a crime.  Ever!  Are you sure?  Not even drinking in the park in your teen years, or a little bit of speeding away from speed cameras? 

Still you do not consider yourself as a criminal, but as a person.  Which is why criminality takes such a hold of people’s imagination.  Criminals are always other people.  Crime is something unthinkable.  Our representation of crime is to evoke our fears and insecurities, as when we were kids entering a dark room.  The mind is truly wonderous, but it can also make us imagine the most horrible things.  Not that horrible things do not happen, but the mind reinforces what it hears, what is sees and what it experiences.  If any of you have experienced crime before, the face of the person who victimised you may become traumatically etched in your consciousness.  Part of that trauma will become fear; it is interesting to note that similar fear is experienced from those who have never been victims of crime. 

Previously, I mentioned investigative processes.  Our fear of crime and our desire to control crime has generated a number of approaches in crime investigation that have tried to unmask the criminal.  Unfortunately, many of those were based on imagination rather than fact.  Why?  Because of how we feel about crime.  Crime causes harm and pain and invokes a lot of our emotions.  Those emotions when tapped by investigators blind us and release our darker stereotypes about the others!                        

The Case of Mr Frederick Park and Mr Ernest Boulton

As a twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify with the people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but its roots are little longer

Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.

So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….

But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;

‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’

(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)

Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:

‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’

‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’

‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’

‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’

Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)

It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.

You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives were firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.

This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.

McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:

Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.

It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..

References

McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]

Yorkshire Ripper: Not an Obituary

Photo by Dhivakaran S on Pexels.com

Wilma McCann, 28

Emily Jackson, 42

Irene Richardson, 28

Patricia Atkinson, 32

Jayne MacDonald, 16

Jean Jordan, 21

Yvonne Pearson, 22

Helen Rytka, 18

Vera Millward, 40

Josephine Whitaker, 19

Barbara Leach, 20

Marguerite Walls, 47

Jacqueline Hill, 20

As the team northerner I took it upon myself to write about Peter Sutcliffe after hearing of his death. Sutcliffe was a serial killer who operated in West Yorkshire and the North West of England. He was convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to kill 7 more in the 1970s, and was serving 20 life sentences for his crimes.

Ironically, the ripper was killed by covid-19, the deadliest killer of 2020 (incidentally I asked students to imagine covid-19 being a serial killer in a lecture yesterday). Reports suggest that he was in ill health prior to contracting the coronavirus, was obese and had diabetes. He died 2 days after his diagnosis after refusing treatment.

When I started writing about the Yorkshire Ripper, I couldn’t help but think about his victims. Those he killed (named above – remember them), those he harmed and who survived, the relatives of both and the women in the areas in which he would prey on his victims, who feared leaving their homes every day for half a decade. These are the people I am thinking about, those who are in my thoughts. How do they feel about the news of his death? How have they felt every time they have heard his name for the last few decades? How, 40+ years later, are the living victims coping?

I didn’t know a lot about Peter Sutcliffe. It was before my time so when I read about the secondary victimisation as a result of police and the prosecution blaming the victims it made me angry. Peter Sutcliffe would prey on women, often prostitutes. The police at the time differentiated between the victims who were sex workers and the victims who weren’t and referred to those that weren’t as ‘innocent victims’, insinuating that the sex workers were not entirely blameless and may have precipitated their fate. Thankfully, West Yorkshire Police have issued a statement to apologise for the language and tone used at the time but the damage has already done.

I’d like to say society has learned from its mistakes, but sadly I don’t think we have. There is still evidence of victim blaming, particularly in cases of femicide and rape. Think of the Grace Millane murder and the protests in Ireland after a barrister suggest the jury consider the victim’s underwear, questioning consent. I hope one day we, as a society, learn. I hope the victims of Peter Sutcliffe get some sort of relief from both his passing and the apology from West Yorkshire Police.

Time to meet our newest colleague: Jessica James

It is quite difficult to write an introductory blog, introducing yourself to new, current and Alumni Criminology students at UoN when you have been there for the past 8 years as either a student or member of staff. What is particularly difficult is figuring out where to start: how do I (re)introduce myself to students, both past and present? What do students want to know? What am I willing to share? What follows is a brief overview of my own journey as a student and with the UoN, as well as a some ‘fun’ (I use this term very lightly) facts about me.

I began my criminological journey in 2012 at the UON. I lived in halls, and had no previous knowledge of anything criminological (or so I thought). I had studied Philosophy and Ethics at A-level which proved helpful throughout my degree (and life in all honesty), but I had not studied psychology or sociology before. I don’t have the fondest memories of year 1; it was all quite overwhelming and A LOT of information to absorb and try to make sense of. And in all truthfulness my grades for the first year were not great (by my standards at least). I think I had feedback from every assessment throughout that first year telling me to check the Harvard Reference Guide! And thankfully in the summer between year 1 and 2, I did check the Guide, in fact I studied the full 100 odd page guide, and never looked back (well occasionally).

Year 2 I decided I was going to get serious about my studies, and serious I got! I didn’t miss a session, I read pretty much everything on the reading lists for my modules and found my voice in a number of seminars. I would say that in comparison to year 1, I really enjoyed my second year of Criminology, especially the placement (yes: even I have completed the placement report and presentation). And my grades reflected the commitment, passion and seriousness which I had applied.

Year 3 was pretty similar to year 2, although the stress levels were heightened. I loved my dissertation, which was an empirical piece on single parenthood and fears around juvenile delinquency. I also loved all the modules I took in year 3, which I cannot say the same for the previous years (sorry team)! Year 3 is when I realised that I would never be bored in Criminology. That is not to say that I do not find some topic areas less interesting than others, or that there are not some theories or perspectives that I do not agree with. But they are not boring (although some topics areas are pushing it). So in one way or another I had decided that my academic journey in Criminology would not end after graduation. And it didn’t.

I became an Associate Lecturer the September after I graduated, and have been on True Crime and Other Fictions and The Science of Crime and Criminals since that first year. I have also led seminars in Research Methods for Criminology, and taken lectures for Violence: From Domestic to Institutional. And basically I never left!

Alongside my AL role, I have completed my MSc in Criminology from the University of Leicester (would have done it at UON but they do not run one: cough cough). I had assumed I would continue my focus on juvenile offending in some capacity, but no I took an entirely different route to one I was familiar with and completed an empirical dissertation on The Prevalence of Rape Myths. Going forward I will hopefully do a PhD, and I currently envisage it being within the realm of Violence Against Women (VAW): but who knows?

In terms of ‘fun’ facts about me, you can know the following:

  • I have two house rabbits who are both 6 years old, and have chewed every note book/pad I have ever owned. If the connection goes via online teaching, they might be responsible
  • I adore pretty much all of the Disney animations, yes even the outright racist and misogynistic ones
  • I eat chocolate every day without fail: pretty sure my body would just stop without it. The same goes for coffee
  • And shocker: I love to read!

So to all new Criminology students, I look forward to meeting you (albeit virtually for the time being) and to all returning students (most of whom I shall have met in some capacity) I look forward to meeting you again! And finally I look forward to the next stage in my academic journey as a Lecturer in Criminology.

Betty Broderick

I’m sure many of you are aware of the Dirty John series two, Betty Broderick. Although it has not had as much coverage as I’d have hoped. Now true crime documentaries are not always the best way to find out the truth, after delving deep into the history of this case, I found it does represent it well. If you haven’t given it a watch, I would definitely recommend it and would love to know your thoughts on the case.

Betty was married to Daniel Broderick, having 4 children and helping him become a doctor and then through law school. Of course, it all ended in 1989 when Betty had finally had enough of the torturous years with her husband’s affair with Linda Kolkena, killing them both. Not that I am condoning what she did at all, it was wrong for her to end his and Linda’s life. Although I do understand why she did do it and believe others in her situation could be led to this end too. After she kept them afloat with money while he went through law school, having his children and being the perfect housewife, he decided she was too old and needed a young wife to suit his new high class life-style.

This is not to say that Daniel was the sole person to blame, Betty was in the wrong too. However, taking a woman’s children away from her and brainwashing them tipped her over the edge, as it would do with many women. Betty brought the children up alone, with Daniel always too busy with his company to care about them. It seems Daniel did love Betty to begin with, but to me, it seems it became easy and stayed with her to do everything for him.

Daniel began socialising with his new girlfriend, rubbing his success in Betty’s face. This really does make me sad for Betty, she had no money because all her time was invested in her husband’s career. When it came to the divorce, it became a game for Daniel, trying to leave her with next to nothing and only supervised visits with her own children. He really did drive her to the point of destruction.

This woman is now 72 and has been in prison since 1989. I may be too generous, but I believe that this woman should be let to live her final years as a free woman. Free from having to fight for her children, fight for money to live and fight for her sanity. Daniel took all these away from her. And, although he did not get to live, Betty merely existed in the years of their divorce. She lost her spark and became depressed.

What do you believe?

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Natalie Humphrey, 1st Year student

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: At the beginning of the year I believed the True Crime module to be the most important in understanding why crimes are caused. However, I quickly learned that these are not always the best source of information! The Science module is the basis of Criminology in the first year, laying down where it emerged, with Lombroso and Bertillon. I believe these figures are important to understand to grasp criminology.


The academic criminology book you must read:
The SAGE dictionary of Criminology has helped me with the basics of the subject. If there was something I became stuck on, this book would usually have an explanation for it. It also has examples which make it much easier to apply

The academic journal article you must read:
Attitudes towards the use of Racial/Ethical Profiling to Prevent Crime and Terrorism, by Johnson, D et al.(2011)
I came across this article when researching my Independant Project on racial stereotyping. It goes into the systematic racism that black people face and how disproportionate racism truly is. With more recently, the George Floyd case, this is still a very prominent article that is true to date

The criminology documentary you must watch:
I am a lover of many true crime documentaries and am always first to watch the new one that has been added to Netflix! The famous ones, such as Ted Bundy’s confession tapes, are fascinating to me, Bundy especially. However, there are many injustices that need to be addressed, not just the notorious serial killers. Jeffrey Epstein’s new documentary is very important in understanding sexual abuse that happened to over 200 underage girls. Athlete A also shows the sexual abuse of underage girls who were part of USA gymnastics.

The most important criminologist you must read:
Becker stood out to me this year as a very important figure. Understanding how young people are so heavily influenced by the labels people and society give, so much so it can shape their lives. Even older people can be easily labelled. This was quite surprising to me at the beginning of my studies.

Something criminological that fascinates me:
DNA and fingerprinting are fascinating to me. I find the science behind the discovery of what occurred at a crime scene and how they unpick it very interesting. This is definitely something I would like to study further.

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
It is a much wider subject than I first thought, it involves so much more than you could imagine. It questions everything in society.

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
I have learned how unjust our criminal justice system is and how much, we as individuals, stereotype every person we meet. I’ve become more aware of this and have a better understanding of what needs to change.

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Racism is a massive problem today. The racism black people face, especially in the US, is hard to understand as a white woman, but difficult to even contemplate people are treated in such ways. George Floyd, as I mentioned before, was killed because of his race. Problems like this would not happen to a white male, especially when his alleged crime was not violent. Young black men are labelled by the media to be seen as a thug and dangerous, causing many to be assumed of acts they just would not commit. Jane Elliott’s experiment on racism and eye colour from the 1970s is still a lesson that needs to be learned today!

When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Its more than it seems. Most just think it's about crime, which yes it is, but there is so much more to it. It is not one subject, it is so many put together. Science, psychology, sociology for example.


“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Mary Adams, recent Graduate and mature student.

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: I would have to say they are all equally important for understanding different aspects of Criminology. In first year I loved The Science of Crime which showed how things have evolved over time, and that what we now see as funny was actually cutting edge in its day. True Crime also makes you look beyond the sensational headlines and separate fact from fiction. In second year Crime & Justice gave a brilliant grounding in the inner workings, and failings, of the criminal justice system. And in third year, the Violence module explores personal and institutional violence, which is especially relevant in current times

The academic criminology book you must read: Becker’s Outsiders and Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics are a must. I also found Hopkins-Burke’s An Introduction to Criminological Theory and Newburn’s Criminology essential reading for first year as well as Finch & Fafinski’s Criminological Skills. For second year I recommend Davies, Croall & Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. If you choose the Violence module in third year you will be grateful for Curtin & Litke’s Institutional Violence. And don’t forget Foucault’s Discipline & Punish!

The academic journal article you must read:
There are so many excellent journal articles out there, it’s difficult to choose! Some of my favourites have been:
'Alphonse Bertillon & the measure of man' by Farebrother & Champkin;
'Bad Boys, Good Mothers & the ‘’Miracle’’ of Ritalin by Ilina Singh';
'Detainee Abuse & the Ethics of Psychology' by Kathryn French;
'Attachment, Masculinity & Self-control' by Hayslett-McCall & Bernard;
'Grenfell, Austerity & Institutional Violence' by Cooper & Whyte;
'The Phenomenology of Paid Killing' by Laurie Calhoun;
'A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists' by J. Arrigo.

The criminology documentary you must watch:
Without a doubt, a must-see is the Panorama documentary London Tower Fire: Britain’s Shame. I would also highly recommend the movie The Stanford Prison Experiment

The most important criminologist you must read:
Of course you must read Lombroso, Beccaria & Bentham. I also enjoyed reading work by feminist criminologists like Pat Carlen, Carol Smart & Sandra Walklate. And of course, Angela Davis is a must!

Something criminological that fascinates me:
What fascinates me is how the powers that be, and a good proportion of the public, cannot seem to realise that social injustice is one of the major factors behind why people commit crime. And the fact that putting more & more people in prison is seen as a ‘good’ thing is mind-boggling!

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
The fact that it is such a diverse subject & incorporates so many other disciplines

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
Question everything! Don’t take anything at face-value. Try to look beyond the attention grabbing headlines to find out the real story. Read, read, read!

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Unfortunately I think there are many pressing problems facing society today, the main ones being social injustice & inequality, systemic racism, institutional violence, and mass incarceration


When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Some people joke that I’m learning how to be a criminal! Others think it’s all about locking people up! I tell them it’s all about looking at the mechanisms in-built in our society that disadvantage & discriminate against whole groups of people, and that, unless we are part of the rich & powerful elite, any one of us could find ourselves in the ‘out’ group at any time. I also tell them to stop reading The Daily Mail, vote Labour, and question everything!!


A Love Letter: in praise of Agatha Christie

For most of my life, I have been an avid reader of all types of books. As my family will confirm, from childhood, I was never without a book. As an adult, I have regularly selected coats with large pockets and bags purely on the basis that they can hold a book. As many students will attest, my answer to most academic questions is “read, read and read some more”. Despite the growth of the internet and other media, which as @drkukustr8talk has noted recently, diverts and subverts our attention and concentration, reading remains my first and truest love.

This, my third ‘Love Letter’, focuses on my favourite author, above all others, Agatha Christie. I have previously dedicated ‘Love Letters’ to poetry, and art. Both of these forms took a long time for me to develop my understanding of and my love for. This ‘Love Letter’ is slightly different.

I first discovered Christie’s novels when I was about 12, since then they have formed a regular backdrop to my life. They act as a comfort blanket when I am tired, stressed, sad or away from home. I have read and reread everything she wrote and know the stories inside and out. Despite my decades of adoration, it remains challenging to know exactly what it is that appeals to me so much about Christie’s novels.

Perhaps it is the symmetry, the fact that for Christie every crime has a solution. Conceivably, given my pacifist tendencies, it could be the absence of explicit violence within her books. Maybe it’s Christie use of stereotypical characters, who turn out to be anything but. You don’t have to look very far to find the oh-so suspicious foreigner, who turns out to be a caring father (Dr Jacob Tanois) or the shell-shocked former military man trained in violence, who metamorphosises into a rather lonely man, who suffers from epilepsy (Alexander Cust). In all these cases, and many others, Christie plays with the reader’s prejudices, whatever they might be, and with deft sleight of hand, reveals that bias as unfounded.

To be honest, until relatively recently, I did not think much about the above, reading Christie was so much part of my life, that I took it very much for granted. All that changed in 2017, when I spotted a ‘Call for Chapters’

https://jcbernthal.com/2017/02/27/call-for-chapters-agatha-christie-goes-to-war/

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, after all I had spent a lifetime reading Christie, not to mention more than a decade studying war and crime. After all, what did I have to lose? I submitted an abstract, with no real expectation that someone who had never studied fiction academically, would be accepted for the volume. After all, who would expect a criminologist to be interested in the fictional writing of a woman who had died over 40 years ago? What could criminology learn from the “golden age” of “whodunnit” fiction?

Much to my surprise the abstract was accepted and I was invited to contribute a chapter. The writing came surprisingly easy, one of very few pieces of writing that I have ever done without angst. Once I got over the hurdle of forcing myself to send my writing to strangers (thank you @manosdaskalou for the positive reassurance and gentle coercion!) , what followed was a thoroughly pleasant experience. From the guidance of the volume’s editors , Drs J. C. Bernthal and Rebecca Mills, to the support from many colleagues, not mention the patience of Michelle (Academic Librarian) who restrained from strangling me whilst trying to teach me the complexities of MLA. Each of these people gave me confidence that I had something different to say, that my thinking and writing was good enough.

Last week, my copy of the book arrived. It was very strange to see my chapter in print, complete with my name and a brief biography. Even more surreal was to read the editors’ introduction and to see my work described therein, with its contribution to the volume identified. I doubt many people will ever read my chapter, it is published in a very expensive academic book destined for academics and libraries. Nevertheless, I have left the tiniest of marks in academic literature and perhaps more importantly, publicly acknowledged my love for the writing of Agatha Christie.

The finished article:

Bowles, Paula, (2020), ‘Christie’s Wartime Hero: Peacetime Killer’ in Rebecca Mills and J. C. Bernthal, Agatha Christie Goes to War, (Abingdon: Routledge): 28-45

TRUE CRIME DOCUMENTARIES AND NEW REVELATIONS – WHAT DO THEY REALLY DELIVER?

Tomorrow, I am speaking to prospective students at our Applicant Discovery Day, and so I decided to focus this week’s blog on my first-year module on True Crimes and other Fictions. It was also inspired by a recent article bought to my attention, in the Guardian, titled ‘From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment?’ (Rubenhold, 2019). The article shows us there is a clear fascination with true crimes, especially the more grisly and serious events. There is also clearly a fascination held with Jack the Ripper as the mystery of his (or her?) identity remains, and is unlikely ever to be definitively solved.

However, the focus of the article is not to recount more grisly details, but is an observation on the desensitization which has occurred in relation to the murder of women. We are bombarded with their images when alive and posing happily alongside gruesome crime scene photos of their deaths. This has occurred since Jack the Ripper, and the reporting on canonical five, famously with the publication of the crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly, described as the ‘poster girl’ for Jack the Ripper’s crimes. My students who had to choose a true crime text and analyse it critically in a book review and presentation highlighted the sensationalisation of these events in the press and the true crime genre as a whole (see Rawlings, 1995; Wiltenberg, 2004 and Bates, 2014).

Another interesting dimension identified by Rubenhold (2019) in the case of Mary Jane Kelly, is that among Ripperologists she is considered the most popular, due to her being seen as attractive but also due to the particularly brutal nature of her death. This takes us nicely to the recent BBC One documentary on the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, which continues in the traditions of depicting images of dead women as entertainment, along with the promise of new revelations on the case. I watched the documentary last night and while there was some focus on the brutality of the killings, there was reference made of the lives of the women and recognition of the assumptions made about them as sex workers, somehow less worthy of our sympathy compared to other victims. However, in anticipation of the documentary, Rubenhold emphasises the dehumanising effect of the victims with the adoption of the ‘virtual reality dissection table’, as the latest tool used to fuel our fascination, in addition to the hundreds of books, websites, blogs and TV documentaries. The new revelations rarely focus on the lives of the women, beyond their status as victims of a brutal killer.

However, what also struck me is the promises made by the documentary, a ‘re-opening’ of the case and using new technology to identify Jack the Ripper. For those who have not engaged with the wealth of literature on the case, the digital and criminological autopsies to identify the killer, and the use of geographical profiling may have provided new and fascinating detail on the key suspects. For those who are aware of literature on the case, the listing of key suspects was nothing new and there was even a high profile new development in the case to identify Aaron Kozminski as Jack the Ripper, with a claim of DNA evidence linking him to one of the victims (Evening Standard, 2019). The revealing of the name, and the revelation of a new victim were presented as new developments warranting re-opening of the case and the scrutiny of criminologists, ex-police detectives, profilers, forensic experts and a celebrity. No doubt the latter was introduced to offer some familiarity to fans of TV crime dramas, and draw viewers in, all part of raising the profile of the documentary. I had recently covered the case in a seminar on my module on True Crimes, using the same suspects which are widely identified in the ‘Ripperology’ community. We listed the evidence presented and all identified Kozminski on the basis of his proximity to Whitechapel, his skills as a barber, and his violence and traumatic childhood in Russia, prior to emigrating to the UK. We examined the validity of the evidence presented in various blogs, online resources, news reports and while there was general agreement about our suspect, other students made the point that we could find equally convincing information about others.

This is the essence of one of the problems of our fascination with true crime accounts – most people will maintain their fascination, based on legitimate emotional responses and assumptions which they will hold on to, and explanations of events they will take as fact. So, when a documentary claims to have new revelations, and conclusions presented in the case as reliable, for many people watching, there would be no need to question this. The same approach seems to be clear with the latest documentaries and dramas on another infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, famous not only for his crimes, but also for his drive to remain relevant and gain attention. Rubenhold emphasises that whatever the focus of these dramas, allowing watchers to gawp at the images or depictions of the victims when they are dead perpetuates this cycle of dehumanising victims and reducing them to entertainment. Much like the Jill Dando case, and numerous others, the reality is that no matter what technology is adopted, or how often cases are re-opened and scrutinised by one expert after another, some cases will simply never be solved.

I think it is this lack of closure which frustrates not just victims and those connected to events, but also viewers who not only demand to see gruesome images but also demand to have new revelations and conclusions to cases. To be told ‘we don’t know and we never will’ is simply not good enough – whole industries have been based on those willing to stake reputations on delivering the truth. Rubenhold calls for and end to the use of crime as entertainment, to stop the ‘parlour game played for our own entertainment and at the victims’ expense’ (2019). It is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can put a stop to this, but perhaps broadcasters, publishers and those in the true crime industry can stop to think about their responsibilities and the constant re-hashing of old ideas as new revelations. It makes the work of criminologists to inform the public more important, as there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of these events, the effects of sensationalizing them, in addition to how the public understand the response to crime – our work continues, and it feels like we still have a lot to do.

References

Bates, K. (2014) Empathy or Entertainment? The form and function of violent crime narratives in early 19th Century broadsides, Law, Crime and History, 2.

Rubenhold, H. (2019) From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment? Guardian, see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/02/from-jack-the-ripper-to-ted-bundy-why-are-dead-womens-bodies-still-being-used-as-entertainment?CMP=fb_gu

Rawlings, P. (1995) True Crime, The British Criminology Conferences: Selected Proceedings. Volume 1: Emerging Themes in Criminology. Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Loughborough University, 18-21 July 1995.

Tobin, O. (2019) Jack the Ripper may have been Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, scientists claim after fresh DNA tests, Evening Standard, see https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/polish-barber-aaron-kosminski-was-jack-the-ripper-scientists-claim-a4094191.html

Wiltenberg, J. (2004), True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism, The American Historical Review, 109 (5):1377-1404.

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