Penned by Owen Davies, a historian on modern and contemporary witchcraft, Murder, Magic, Madness: The Victorian Trials of Dove and the Wizard is the perfect book for anyone that lives for the cold hard facts. That’s primarily what this book is. There are no real theories or opinions or deep psychological analysis. Everything recounted in Murder, Magic, Madness is documented in history and told with about as much charisma as a technical manual. Not saying that the book is bad, or boring, only that it feels a bit like an Encyclopedia.
I am impressed with the amount of information that Davies gives though. There’s very little detail about this crime available, which means Davies must have worked mega hard on his research. It’s admirable, the amount that he shares, but it’s a shame that he writes it with such frankness.
In 1850s England, in a time when people were living between magic and science, there was a man named William Dove who murdered his wife Harriet, and he wasn’t at all discreet about it. Dove was an interesting fellow. Raised by devout Methodists that dotted on him, William was a true problem child that grew into an even more difficult adult.
Although there weren’t many proper diagnoses available during this time, it’s possible that the man had both a mental illness and a learning disability. He had violent mood swings that came without warning and seemed incapable of grasping a concept if too complicated. The author assumes he had Type 1 Bipolar Disorder and the theory certainly matches up with Dove’s many symptoms.
Dove struggled through adulthood, until one day, he meets a woman who falls in love with him. A strange woman with a presumably equally unpredictable temper named Harriet, and these two had a strange marriage. Of course, none of their home life is discussed in great detail but pieced together through first-hand accounts. House servants, neighbors, and friends who all describe the relationship as being like that of Frank and Monica from Shameless. A mix between extremely happy, extremely sad, childlike puppy love and violent explosions, up until the day that Dove decided to kill her.
The beginning of Dove’s demise started with Henry Harrison, a cunning-folk, and a real do**hebag. Cunning-folk were “professional” practitioners of magic in Britain. They were basically fortune-tellers and fake wizards that called themselves doctors. Obviously, most were frauds. The ones that weren’t could just be called herbalists. They were popular during a time when science was getting difficult to swallow and a lot of people found comfort in magic. Life was hard and, like religion, magic let people hold on to the belief that they held some kind of power over their life.
Davies actually wrote another book all about cunning-folk titled Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History so if you ever want to know more you can check that out.
Harrison was a cunning-folk who lived near the Dove’s and quickly became a person of great fascination for William. According to Murder, Magic, Madness, cunning-folk were often used to track down stolen possessions, which is how the two men supposedly met. Dove was mighty impressed with Harrison’s “skills” and started seeing him for other problems which included domestic issues, particularly involving his wife.
It was technically Harrison’s idea to kill her, but Dove needed no persuasion to go along with the plan. To get him on board, Harrison promised Dove that after Harriet died, fate would see him remarry a new wife who would not only be more beautiful but also rich. Harriet wasn’t exactly a “Stepford Wife”. She talked back, had a temper, and fought her husband’s raging alcoholism. So hearing that he was soon due a new and younger wife, Dove spurred into action and he slowly started the process of poisoning Harriet with strychnine.
Immediately after she got sick, he proceeded to go around the town and make sure he looked as guilty as humanly possible. I’m going to be honest, this whole section of the book had me in hysterics. The things Dove did to make sure he wouldn’t be suspected could’ve made it on the list for the world’s dumbest criminals. It took several days for Harriet to die, as he would give her numerous doses of poison, but every time she showed signs of improvement, Dove would straight up tell people she was going to die. Her doctors and friends came to check-in, and cheer at the color returned to her cheeks, only for Dove to walk in the room and just start talking about funeral arrangements. He even went to the coroner, or the equivalent of one back then, and ask if there was any chance that an autopsy wouldn’t be performed on Harriet.
You’d almost think he was trying to get caught, or maybe he was just that stupid. By the time someone suspected something it was too late. Harriet was dead and it wasn’t an easy passing. She clearly suffered and Dove never got this new wife he was promised. Instead he got shackled and carried off to the jailhouse.
I have my own theory about why Harrison suddenly suggested that Harriet be killed and it involved the custody of a walking stick. Harriet and Harrison made no attempts to hide their apparent distaste for one another but it was only after Dove decided to gift his wizard friend his own personal walking stick that the relationship turned dangerously sour. When Harriet found out her husband gave his walking stick away to a quack she demanded he that get it back. She even went over to Harrison’s house to forcibly reclaim it. Eventually, she succeeded and Dove got his stick back, but not before Harrison carved his initials into the handle. Almost immediately after this dispute is when the plan to kill Harriet started taking form. Meaning there’s a strong chance Harrison made the suggestion all out of spite. Don’t come between two men and their gift exchange.
Trial and aftermath
I’m actually shocked by how thin Murder, Magic, Madness is considering how jammed back it is. It crams in as much as it can in under 300 pages and a lot of it has to do with the murder trial. This takes up most of the book, which might be why I often found myself bored with it. I hate everything about court. One of the reasons why I can never finish a John Grisham novel.
Most of the court sections feel like a transcript; “characters” pop in one after another, every defense and every argument is summed up to its bare minimum, letters written by Dove are presented as well as statements made by witnesses. There’s the introduction of the insanity defense which just introduces several passages of experts arguing over Dove’s mental state with some claiming he was totally deranged and others assuming he was mentally handicapped. It was a “moral insanity” versus “moral idiocy” debate with a few crying out “inborn imbecility.”
It doesn’t end there though. Midway through the trial, Dove attempted a deal with the Devil that he just stole word for word from Goethe’s rewrite of Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. It’s probably the weirdest detail of this story, right along with that walking stick. In the end, Dove was declared guilty and sentenced to hang. Harrison was then tracked down and charged for a multitude of offenses after his past was dug up and people discovered his many past deeds.
No one remembers William Dove today, nor Henry Harrison, but they definitely had an impact on history. Harrison caused a surging fear of intellects while Dove created a reluctant acknowledgment of insanity in relation to crime among the middle and upper class. Why Dove did what he did is never 100% understood as it’s a crime that happened 164 years ago and despite his eagerness to get Harriet out of the picture, I personally got the feeling that Dove wasn’t completely aware of the fact that poisoning Harriet would have resulted in a dead wife. There was a theory that he really believed Harrison’s prediction about Harriet’s death and that by poisoning her he was only speeding up fate.
Either way, Murder, Magic, Madness is a big court transcript sandwiched between two history lectures. Slightly boring, a bit monotone, but you’ll come away with a new look at the evolution of crime. Especially the change in shock value. Two quotes from two newspapers of that time: “This miserable story of folly and of crime goes beyond the boundaries even of fiction”- Western Flying Post, and “…a stranger story than his never passed human lips”- The Leeds Times. Imagine how scandalized they’d be if they could see some of the murder cases going on today.(3 / 5)