True Crime Studies: “Murder, Magic, Madness” recounts a very strange crime in a very strange time
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)
The Roots Grow Into The Earth
Launching next month The Roots Grow Into The Earth was a delightful read. It’s the premiere novel by horror author Bert S. Lechner. And after reading it, I hope it’s not his last.
The Roots Grow Into The Earth is a collection of nine short stories and novellas, including three previously published stories. The tales are all part of one larger story. A story of darkness, and madness. A story of a creature released that should never have been. That begins then to sink its roots into the Earth and infect innocent people far and wide.
One such example is The Wall. This is the story of a man named Sam and his wife Nat. They have a lovely normal life full of morning coffee and weekend pizza nights. Until Sam notices something on the wall of their home. While it appears to be nothing, a vision starts taking shape. With Sam’s help.
Another story that really moved me was The Orchestra.
Let me first stay that this was not a particularly fleshed out story. We do not see The Conductor before she’s infected. We don’t see the fallout. No real picture is painted for us, it’s more like a sketch.
In the case of The Orchestra, though, this is exactly the right choice. We don’t need to see the whole picture in gruesome technicolor to get what’s happening in this ill fated concert. We understand perhaps too well what’s occurring. And I thought that was brilliant.
I just want to start by gushing over this storytelling style. Short story collections always have a soft spot in my heart. In the case of The Roots Grow, all of the short stories come together to create one truly dark tale.
I also loved the clear Lovecraftian influence of this story. It’s clear that this was something that the author was going for, from interviews and social media comments. But I could tell before I saw any of that.
The story in The Roots Grow is one of madness. But more than that, it’s one of madness and destruction that the victims could not have avoided. There was no being clever enough to avoid these dark roots that touched them. There was no being strong enough, or selfless and good enough. If the roots reach out and touch you, you’ve already lost.
Finally, I want to extend some praise to my favorite character, Joanne. She is dealing with her own madness, her own demons. But she still finds kindness and strength to help others when they need her. Even against some truly dark odds.
What didn’t work
All that being said, I will say that some of the short stories felt incomplete. One prime example is What Lies In The Icy Soil. This appears to be nothing more than the tale of a person possessed by the need to dig. He digs up something that for sure shouldn’t be dug up. But there’s nothing more to the story. We don’t know who this person is. We don’t know who might be missing him, or what might come of this thing he dug up. As a part of the whole story, it fits. But if we are to consider every tale by its own merit, this one doesn’t have much of anything going for it.
That being said, this is one story in a round ten that wasn’t much of anything. The rest of the stories were wonderfully eerie, both on their own and as part of a whole.
The Roots Grow Into The Earth comes out on October 7th. And I think it would be a perfect addition to your Halloween reading list. (4 / 5)
Strange Eons Review: Cornfields and Eldritch Gods
“The elder gods arrived in the sky in early September, like an unholy aurora borealis stretching across a midnight sky. Their vastness blocked the sun, an unending eclipse, a liminal state, a breath that was inhaled but never let go. Lovecraft got it wrong, I think. It was not the sight of the gods that made humanity go mad. It’s what they destroy that hurts us. Somehow, these elder gods, these aliens, had killed time itself.” – Strange Eons by Keria Perkins
Strange Eons is a short story published in Bourbon Penn Issue 30 by Keira Perkins. Perkins, is an Indiana writer of short fiction and poetry that has also appeared in Non-Stalgia and The Heartland Society of Women Writers. Bourbon Penn is an online and print journal that specializes in speculative, odd, and surreal fiction. All issues are available to be read online for free or can be purchased as a paperback from Bookshop.org.
Strange Eons follows a young woman struggling to adjust to a life post-Lovecraftian apocalypse. This is a cozy story, the majority of which takes place as the woman lays in a cornfield and hides from well-meaning but unhelpful family members. While cozy, the piece is ominous, tackling the terror associated with pregnancy. Specifically, the terror that comes from living in a Red State and finding a significant lack of resources or options.
As a Hoosier capable of becoming pregnant, Strange Eons resonated with me. The imagery of cornfields and cicadas were very Indiana. However, so is a young woman covertly asking her sister to drive her to Illinois to receive healthcare. I loved how Perkins merged cosmic horror with the horror of receiving reproductive healthcare in Indiana but also the United States as a whole. All that was missing were predatory billboards advertising fake pregnancy centers! Talk about maddening and terrifying! Throughout the short story, the most horrific part of the young woman’s ordeal is not the eldritch gods appearing but her rather typical, hellish circumstances.
Aside from content, Strange Eons is well-written. It keeps you guessing where the story will go next. If you like a non-tropey cozy take on Lovecraftian horror or have struggled to receive reproductive healthcare, I highly recommend checking out Strange Eons! You can also check out the other stories in this issue of Bourbon Penn here. Or you can see what else Perkins is up to on her website.(5 / 5)
Walking Practice – A Book Review
Walking Practice is Dolki Min’s debut novella about an alien named Mumu, who must learn what it is like to perform as a human. Victoria Caudle, the translator of this unique Korean story, experiments with the English language to properly convey Min’s style. This, complimented with Min’s various drawings of the story’s protagonist, creates a poetic, outlandish reading experience that keeps you hooked from beginning to end.
Walking Practice: Never Enough Practice
After the destruction of their home planet, Mumu crash lands their spaceship in a desolate forest far from human life. They survive by having sex with humans then, with graphic violence and great diligence, eats them.
Mumu has a strict schedule and regimen for this process; they must shapeshift their body to the specific gender and personality their date is attracted to. While this process of gender conformation is a difficult one (as the alien will often tell us), it is nowhere near as hard as the ridiculous habit humans have of walking on two legs. This is one of the many obstacles Mumu must struggle with while playing the game of life.
Mumu is a rich, self-aware character who seems to trust only one human: the reader. They address us directly, asking questions and indulging us with their theories on what it is to live on Earth. They are knowledgeable about the complexities of personhood, and aware that a person’s gender and sex are complex and not one-size-fits-all. After years of experience in multiple genders, the alien theorizes that humans are treated as people as soon as they have a sex and gender assigned to them. However, depending on the sex and gender, that treatment is never equal.
While Mumu performs various genders and personalities to match the sexual desires of their future prey, they do not identify as human. At the end of the day, they go home, stock their human leftovers in the fridge and freezer, and unleash their natural form. Their only priority is their own survival and pleasure (which, arguably, is their most humanlike quality).
“I’ve learned that my face arouses homicidal impulses”
Walking Practice uses horror, science fiction and satire to create a passionate queer narrative. While Mumu is a serial killer who prides themselves on their murderous skills, it is hard not to feel for them when karma strikes back and they are hurt. The poetic elements of Min’s story and Caudle’s translation support our empathy for such a vicious character
Min’s artwork, depicting Mumu’s alien forms, complements Caudle’s stylistic choices. There is enjambment in several paragraphs, (which can be interpreted as the alien either having a flair for the dramatic or genuinely pausing to find the right words), thus enhancing their internal dialogue. There are moments when the Mumu’s stream of consciousness confuses reality from imagination. They will also lose all learned human skills and revert to their mother tongue; words either run together or are spaced apart, and sometimes there are unintelligible symbols. At the surface, it looks like a linguistic nightmare. Once immersed in Mumu’s narrative, it is a work of art.
Walking Practice‘s balance of ambiguity and transparency keeps the reader close while also allowing an array of interpretations. It is an eccentric piece of fiction that plays with the literary status quo, resulting in an entertaining affair with an unforgettable alien. (5 / 5)