Fake News: The Sensational Murder That Never Was


American cartoonist, Frederick Burr Opper (1857-1937) provides the current, obsessive ‘fake news’ market with a superb visual foundation with his late 19th century illustration of those same concerns. We all know it’s not a new ploy in order to make money and/or political gain by deception and falsehoods – it has been around for as long as humans have communicated with each other, but I have to admit to being taken-aback by my recent discovery of a fake news item that, until I sat down to write this blog, I had thought was genuine.

As this involves a terrible murder, I suppose I should be happy it did not occur but I feel deceived by a certain Mr. James Catnach’s successful attempt to dupe me and many others.

Admittedly I was not around at the time of this deception, ie: in the early 19th century! But his fake news of the sensational murder of an innocent young lady by a Jekyll & Hyde style lover, lives on as an established, oft’ cited moral tale in the annals of crime.

I won’t dwell on Catnach’s life other than to say that after a shaky start, he became a highly successful producer of cleverly worded and illustrated documents for what was called the ‘catchpenny’ trade in London’s 19th century printing frenzy to capture the attention of peoples’ thirst for sensational stories and crime news.

It was a money-spinner to sell what were called broadsides, sometimes called broadsheets of the latest murders with an artist’s impression of the actual murder, dismembered body or other gruesome details that could be carved on a woodcut or copper engraving and printed off on a one-sheet, one side ‘read-all about it,’ mixture of verse, story, and morality tale with often lurid sexual undertones. It was ephemeral news, made to be discarded when read.

 I suppose I am really admitting how clever this man was in pitching exactly the right tone of moral indignation and poignant, tear-jerking empathy which I certainly felt reading Mary Ann Walmsey’s letter to her lover Charles Young (undated).1-johnson20-ddk-0001-003

Consider how the last two lines deliver her anxiety well and truly to the sympathetic reader (including me) and Charles needs to do right by her or else! But being a monster of unparalleled proportions, here is the broadsheet heading that people flocked to exchange for their penny.johnson20-ddk-0001-001Eagle-eyed readers will notice Catnach names the tragic victim as Mary Ann Walmsley but captions her image as Mary Anne Wansley. But who cares, once you read Catnach’s text, ie:

Shewing, how under pretence of Marriage, the Villain Seduced her, and how she became pregnant by him, after which he gave her a deleterious drug, which threw her into a deep sleep, when the Monster stabbed her to the heart with a knife, and threw her Body into a Lake, which was wonderfully discovered by a Shepherd’s dog. Also the Committal of the Murderer.”

He’s even managed to contrive a ‘Lassie-the-dog’ style discovery of the body – but there’s no date to this broadside; a muddle of the victim’s name; and where is the lake located? Although Catnach promises details of Young’s committal – none are forthcoming when you read on. But we do have a picture of the moment of the actual murder.1-johnson20-ddk-0001-001This too, is a little confusing – has he done the deed or looking around for possible observers before he plunges the knife into her breast? I had always dismissed it as artistic licence, but it seems a little sloppy on subsequent viewing.

I had intended to add some flesh to the bones of the rather skimpy main story on the broadside in which the lake becomes a pond and Mary Ann is the daughter of “..a highly respectable individual in the West Riding of Yorkshire,” but this is where I encountered a dead-end!

I can find no trace of this (undated) murder anywhere. I can find no murder committed by a Charles Young that fits, nor a victim called Mary Ann Walmsley or Mary Anne Wansley. The wonders of digitally word-searching legal records, court appearances, committals, sentences and all possible local newspaper stories has yielded nothing. I was disappointed when I realised my intended story about how such a scandalous murder was reported, who the family were and what actually happened to Charles Young was no longer possible – but now we have a mystery instead.

Was this a real murder that was suddenly hushed up and other means of dealing with it – in the utmost secrecy –  were invoked? Did the ‘highly respectable individual’ exist and became complicit in a cover-up of his daughter’s murder? If so, why?

Such a conspiracy does seem unlikely as Catnach’s broadside has no real clues anyway and certainly no dates and timings to work from that he would have deliberately left out –  He just would have been warned off publishing it at all!

So was he raking in some money for a murder that never was?

If anyone reading this knows different, please let me know. Was there such a murder and somehow I’ve missed the real media story or is it after all, just  fake news?johnson20-ddk-0001-0

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