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THE NOTEBOOK OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER
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THE NOTEBOOK OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER

THOMAS DE QUINCEY

CONTENTS.

THREE MEMORABLE MURDERS
TRUE RELATIONS OF THE BIBLE TO MERELY HUMAN SCIENCE
LITERARY HISTORY OF THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
THE ANTIGONE OF SOPHOCLES
THE MARQUESS WELLESLEY
MILTON _vs._ SOUTHEY AND LANDOR
FALSIFICATION OF ENGLISH HISTORY
A PERIPATETIC PHILOSOPHER
ON SUICIDE
SUPERFICIAL KNOWLEDGE
ENGLISH DICTIONARIES
DRYDEN'S HEXASTICH
POPE'S RETORT UPON ADDISON

THREE MEMORABLE MURDERS.

A SEQUEL TO 'MURDER CONSIDERED AS ONE OF THE FINE ARTS.' [1]

[1854.]

It is impossible to conciliate readers of so saturnine and gloomy a class
that they cannot enter with genial sympathy into any gaiety whatever but
least of all when the gaiety trespasses a little into the province of the
extravagant. In such a case not to sympathize is not to understand; and
the playfulness which is not relished becomes flat and insipid or
absolutely without meaning. Fortunately after all such churls have
withdrawn from my audience in high displeasure there remains a large
majority who are loud in acknowledging the amusement which they have
derived from a former paper of mine 'On Murder considered as one of the
Fine Arts;' at the same time proving the sincerity of their praise by one
hesitating expression of censure. Repeatedly they have suggested to me
that perhaps the extravagance though clearly intentional and forming one
element in the general gaiety of the conception went too far. I am not
myself of that opinion; and I beg to remind these friendly censors that
it is amongst the direct purposes and efforts of this _bagatelle_ to
graze the brink of horror and of all that would in actual realization be
most repulsive. The very excess of the extravagance in fact by
suggesting to the reader continually the mere aeriality of the entire
speculation furnishes the surest means of disenchanting him from the
horror which might else gather upon his feelings. Let me remind such
objectors once for all of Dean Swift's proposal for turning to account
the supernumerary infants of the three kingdoms which in those days
both at Dublin and at London were provided for in foundling hospitals by
cooking and eating them. This was an extravaganza though really bolder
and more coarsely practical than mine which did not provoke any
reproaches even to a dignitary of the supreme Irish church; its own
monstrosity was its excuse; mere extravagance was felt to license and
accredit the little _jeu d'esprit_ precisely as the blank impossibilities
of Lilliput of Laputa of the Yahoos &c. had licensed those. If
therefore any man thinks it worth his while to tilt against so mere a
foam-bubble of gaiety as this lecture on the aesthetics of murder I
shelter myself for the moment under the Telamonian shield of the Dean.
But in reality my own little paper may plead a privileged excuse for its
extravagance such as is altogether wanting to the Dean's. Nobody can
pretend for a moment on behalf of the Dean that there is any ordinary
and natural tendency in human thoughts which could ever turn to infants
as articles of diet; under any conceivable circumstances this would be
felt as the most aggravated form of cannibalism--cannibalism applying
itself to the most defenceless part of the species. But on the other
hand the tendency to a critical or aesthetic valuation of fires and
murders is universal. If you are summoned to the spectacle of a great
fire undoubtedly the first impulse is--to assist in putting it out. But
that field of exertion is very limited and is soon filled by regular
professional people trained and equipped for the service. In the case of
a fire which is operating upon _private_ property pity for a neighbor's
calamity checks us at first in treating the affair as a scenic spectacle.
But perhaps the fire may be confined to public buildings. And in any case
after we have paid our tribute of regret to the affair considered as a
calamity inevitably and without restraint we go on to consider it as a
stage spectacle. Exclamations of--How grand! How magnificent! arise in a
sort of rapture from the crowd. For instance when Drury Lane was burned
down in the first decennium of this century the falling in of the roof
was signalized by a mimic suicide of the protecting Apollo that surmounted
and crested the centre of this roof. The god was stationary with his lyre
and seemed looking down upon the fiery ruins that were so rapidly
approaching him. Suddenly the supporting timbers below him gave way; a
convulsive heave of the billowing flames seemed for a moment to raise the
statue; and then as if on some impulse of despair the presiding deity
appeared not to fall but to throw himself into the fiery deluge for he
went down head foremost; and in all respects the descent had the air of a
voluntary act. What followed? From every one of the bridges over the
river and from other open areas which commanded the spectacle there
arose a sustained uproar of admiration and sympathy. Some few years before
this event a prodigious fire occurred at Liverpool; the _Goree_ a vast
pile of warehouses close to one of the docks was burned to the ground.
The huge edifice eight or nine stories high and laden with most
combustible goods many thousand bales of cotton wheat and oats in
thousands of quarters tar turpentine rum gunpowder &c. continued
through many hours of darkness to feed this tremendous fire. To
aggravate the calamity it blew a regular gale of wind; luckily for the
shipping it blew inland that is to the east; and all the way down to
Warrington eighteen miles distant to the eastward the whole air was
illuminated by flakes of cotton often saturated with rum and by what
seemed absolute worlds of blazing sparks that lighted up all the upper
chambers of the air. All the cattle lying abroad in the fields through a
breadth of eighteen miles were thrown into terror and agitation. Men of
course read in this hurrying overhead of scintillating and blazing
vortices the annunciation of some gigantic calamity going on in
Liverpool; and the lamentation on that account was universal. But that
mood of public sympathy did not at all interfere to suppress or even to
check the momentary bursts of rapturous admiration as this arrowy sleet
of many-colored fire rode on the wings of hurricane alternately through
open depths of air or through dark clouds overhead.

Precisely the same treatment is applied to murders. After the first
tribute of sorrow to those who have perished but at all events after
the personal interests have been tranquillized by time inevitably the
scenical features (what aesthetically may be called the comparative
_advantages_) of the several murders are reviewed and valued. One
murder is compared with another; and the circumstances of superiority as
for example in the incidence and effects of surprise of mystery &c.
are collated and appraised. I therefore for _my_ extravagance claim an
inevitable and perpetual ground in the spontaneous tendencies of the human
mind when left to itself. But no one will pretend that any corresponding
plea can be advanced on behalf of Swift.

In this important distinction between myself and the Dean lies one reason
which prompted the present writing. A second purpose of this paper is to
make the reader acquainted circumstantially with three memorable cases of
murder which long ago the voice of amateurs has crowned with laurel but
especially with the two earliest of the three viz. the immortal
Williams' murders of 1812. The act and the actor are each separately in
the highest degree interesting; and as forty-two years have elapsed since
1812 it cannot be supposed that either is known circumstantially to the
men of the current generation.

Never throughout the annals of universal Christendom has there indeed
been any act of one solitary insulated individual armed with power so
appalling over the hearts of men as that exterminating murder by which
during the winter of 1812 John Williams in one hour smote two houses
with emptiness exterminated all but two entire households and asserted
his own supremacy above all the children of Cain. It would be absolutely
impossible adequately to describe the frenzy of feelings which throughout
the next fortnight mastered the popular heart; the mere delirium of
indignant horror in some the mere delirium of panic in others. For twelve
succeeding days under some groundless notion that the unknown murderer
had quitted London the panic which had convulsed the mighty metropolis
diffused itself all over the island. I was myself at that time nearly
three hundred miles from London; but there and everywhere the panic was
indescribable. One lady my next neighbor whom personally I knew living
at the moment during the absence of her husband with a few servants in a
very solitary house never rested until she had placed eighteen doors (so
she told me and indeed satisfied me by ocular proof) each secured by
ponderous bolts and bars and chains between her own bedroom and any
intruder of human build. To reach her even in her drawing-room was like
going as a flag of truce into a beleaguered fortress; at every sixth
step one was stopped by a sort of portcullis. The panic was not confined
to the rich; women in the humblest ranks more than once died upon the
spot from the shock attending some suspicious attempts at intrusion upon
the part of vagrants meditating probably nothing worse than a robbery
but whom the poor women misled by the London newspapers had fancied to
be the dreadful London murderer. Meantime this solitary artist that
rested in the centre of London self-supported by his own conscious
grandeur as a domestic Attila or 'scourge of God;' this man that walked
in darkness and relied upon murder (as afterwards transpired) for bread
for clothes for promotion in life was silently preparing an effectual
answer to the public journals; and on the twelfth day after his inaugural
murder he advertised his presence in London and published to all men the
absurdity of ascribing to _him_ any ruralizing propensities by striking a
second blow and accomplishing a second family extermination. Somewhat
lightened was the _provincial_ panic by this proof that the murderer had
not condescended to sneak into the country or to abandon for a moment
under any motive of caution or fear the great metropolitan _castra
stativa_ of gigantic crime seated for ever on the Thames. In fact the
great artist disdained a provincial reputation; and he must have felt as
a case of ludicrous disproportion the contrast between a country town or
village on the one hand and on the other a work more lasting than
brass--a [Greek: _chtaema es aei_]--a murder such in quality as any murder
that _he_ would condescend to own for a work turned out from his own
_studio_.

Coleridge whom I saw some months after these terrific murders told me
that for _his_ part though at the time resident in London he had
not shared in the prevailing panic; _him_ they effected only as a
philosopher and threw him into a profound reverie upon the tremendous
power which is laid open in a moment to any man who can reconcile himself
to the abjuration of all conscientious restraints if at the same time
thoroughly without fear. Not sharing in the public panic however
Coleridge did not consider that panic at all unreasonable; for as he said
most truly in that vast metropolis there are many thousands of households
composed exclusively of women and children; many other thousands there are
who necessarily confide their safety in the long evenings to the
discretion of a young servant girl; and if she suffers herself to be
beguiled by the pretence of a message from her mother sister or
sweetheart into opening the door there in one second of time goes to
wreck the security of the house. However at that time and for many
months afterwards the practice of steadily putting the chain upon the
door before it was opened prevailed generally and for a long time served
as a record of that deep impression left upon London by Mr. Williams.
Southey I may add entered deeply into the public feeling on this
occasion and said to me within a week or two of the first murder that
it was a private event of that order which rose to the dignity of a
national event. [2] But now having prepared the reader to appreciate on
its true scale this dreadful tissue of murder (which as a record belonging
to an era that is now left forty-two years behind us not one person in
four of this generation can be expected to know correctly) let me pass to
the circumstantial details of the affair.

Yet first of all one word as to the local scene of the murders.
Ratcliffe Highway is a public thoroughfare in a most chaotic quarter of
eastern or nautical London; and at this time (viz. in 1812) when no
adequate police existed except the _detective_ police of Bow Street
admirable for its own peculiar purposes but utterly incommensurate to the
general service of the capital it was a most dangerous quarter. Every
third man at the least might be set down as a foreigner. Lascars Chinese
Moors Negroes were met at every step. And apart from the manifold
ruffianism shrouded impenetrably under the mixed hats and turbans of men
whose past was untraceable to any European eye it is well known that the
navy (especially in time of war the commercial navy) of Christendom is
the sure receptacle of all the murderers and ruffians whose crimes have
given them a motive for withdrawing themselves for a season from the
public eye. It is true that few of this class are qualified to act as
'able' seamen: but at all times and especially during war only a small
proportion (or _nucleus_) of each ship's company consists of such men: the
large majority being mere untutored landsmen. John Williams however who
had been occasionally rated as a seaman on board of various Indiamen &c.
was probably a very accomplished seaman. Pretty generally in fact he was
a ready and adroit man fertile in resources under all sudden
difficulties and most flexibly adapting himself to all varieties of
social life. Williams was a man of middle stature (five feet seven and
a-half to five feet eight inches high) slenderly built rather thin but
wiry tolerably muscular and clear of all superfluous flesh. A lady who
saw him under examination (I think at the Thames Police Office) assured
me that his hair was of the most extraordinary and vivid color viz.
bright yellow something between an orange and lemon color. Williams had
been in India; chiefly in Bengal and Madras: but he had also been upon the
Indus. Now it is notorious that in the Punjaub horses of a high caste
are often painted--crimson blue green purple; and it struck me that
Williams might for some casual purpose of disguise have taken a hint
from this practice of Scinde and Lahore so that the color might not have
been natural. In other respects his appearance was natural enough; and
judging by a plaster cast of him which I purchased in London I should
say mean as regarded his facial structure. One fact however was
striking and fell in with the impression of his natural tiger character
that his face wore at all times a bloodless ghastly pallor. 'You might
imagine' said my informant 'that in his veins circulated not red life-
blood such as could kindle into the blush of shame of wrath of pity--
but a green sap that welled from no human heart.' His eyes seemed frozen
and glazed as if their light were all converged upon some victim lurking
in the far background. So far his appearance might have repelled; but on
the other hand the concurrent testimony of many witnesses and also the
silent testimony of facts showed that the oiliness and snaky insinuation
of his demeanor counteracted the repulsiveness of his ghastly face and
amongst inexperienced young women won for him a very favorable reception.
In particular one gentle-mannered girl whom Williams had undoubtedly
designed to murder gave in evidence--that once when sitting alone with
her he had said 'Now Miss R. supposing that I should appear about
midnight at your bedside armed with a carving knife what would you say?'
To which the confiding girl had replied 'Oh Mr. Williams if it was
anybody else I should be frightened. But as soon as I heard _your_
voice I should be tranquil.' Poor girl! had this outline sketch of Mr.
Williams been filled in and realized she would have seen something in the
corpse-like face and heard something in the sinister voice that would
have unsettled her tranquillity for ever. But nothing short of such
dreadful experiences could avail to unmask Mr. John Williams.

Into this perilous region it was that on a Saturday night in December
Mr. Williams whom we suppose to have long since made his _coup d'essai_
forced his way through the crowded streets bound on business. To say was
to do. And this night he had said to himself secretly that he would
execute a design which he had already sketched and which when finished
was destined on the following day to strike consternation into 'all that
mighty heart' of London from centre to circumference. It was afterwards
remembered that he had quitted his lodgings on this dark errand about
eleven o'clock P. M.; not that he meant to begin so soon: but he needed to
reconnoitre. He carried his tools closely buttoned up under his loose
roomy coat. It was in harmony with the general subtlety of his character
and his polished hatred of brutality that by universal agreement his
manners were distinguished for exquisite suavity: the tiger's heart was
masked by the most insinuating and snaky refinement. All his acquaintances
afterwards described his dissimulation as so ready and so perfect that
if in making his way through the streets always so crowded on a Saturday
night in neighborhoods so poor he had accidentally jostled any person he
would (as they were all satisfied) have stopped to offer the most
gentlemanly apologies: with his devilish heart brooding over the most
hellish of purposes he would yet have paused to express a benign hope
that the huge mallet buttoned up under his elegant surtout with a view
to the little business that awaited him about ninety minutes further on
had not inflicted any pain on the stranger with whom he had come into
collision. Titian I believe but certainly Rubens and perhaps Vandyke
made it a rule never to practise his art but in full dress--point ruffles
bag wig and diamond-hilted sword; and Mr. Williams there is reason to
believe when he went out for a grand compound massacre (in another sense
one might have applied to it the Oxford phrase of _going out as Grand
Compounder_) always assumed black silk stockings and pumps; nor would he
on any account have degraded his position as an artist by wearing a
morning gown. In his second great performance it was particularly noticed
and recorded by the one sole trembling man who under killing agonies of
fear was compelled (as the reader will find) from a secret stand to become
the solitary spectator of his atrocities that Mr. Williams wore a long
blue frock of the very finest cloth and richly lined with silk. Amongst
the anecdotes which circulated about him it was also said at the time
that Mr. Williams employed the first of dentists and also the first of
chiropodists. On no account would he patronize any second-rate skill. And
beyond a doubt in that perilous little branch of business which was
practised by himself he might be regarded as the most aristocratic and
fastidious of artists.

But who meantime was the victim to whose abode he was hurrying? For
surely he never could be so indiscreet as to be sailing about on a roving
cruise in search of some chance person to murder? Oh no: he had suited
himself with a victim some time before viz. an old and very intimate
friend. For he seems to have laid it down as a maxim--that the best person
to murder was a friend; and in default of a friend which is an article
one cannot always command an acquaintance: because in either case on
first approaching his subject suspicion would be disarmed: whereas a
stranger might take alarm and find in the very countenance of his
murderer elect a warning summons to place himself on guard. However in
the present ease his destined victim was supposed to unite both
characters: originally he had been a friend; but subsequently on good
cause arising he had become an enemy. Or more probably as others said
the feelings had long since languished which gave life to either relation
of friendship or of enmity. Marr was the name of that unhappy man who
(whether in the character of friend or enemy) had been selected for the
subject of this present Saturday night's performance. And the story
current at that time about the connection between Williams and Marr
having (whether true or not true) never been contradicted upon authority
was that they sailed in the same Indiaman to Calcutta; that they had
quarrelled when at sea; but another version of the story said--no: they
had quarrelled after returning from sea; and the subject of their quarrel
was Mrs. Marr a very pretty young woman for whose favor they had been
rival candidates and at one time with most bitter enmity towards each
other. Some circumstances give a color of probability to this story.
Otherwise it has sometimes happened on occasion of a murder not
sufficiently accounted for that from pure goodness of heart intolerant
of a mere sordid motive for a striking murder some person has forged and
the public has accredited a story representing the murderer as having
moved under some loftier excitement: and in this case the public too much
shocked at the idea of Williams having on the single motive of gain
consummated so complex a tragedy welcomed the tale which represented him
as governed by deadly malice growing out of the more impassioned and
noble rivalry for the favor of a woman. The case remains in some degree
doubtful; but certainly the probability is that Mrs. Marr had been the
true cause the _causa teterrima_ of the feud between the men. Meantime
the minutes are numbered the sands of the hour-glass are running out
that measure the duration of this feud upon earth. This night it shall
cease. To-morrow is the day which in England they call Sunday which in
Scotland they call by the Judaic name of 'Sabbath.' To both nations under
different names the day has the same functions; to both it is a day of
rest. For thee also Marr it shall be a day of rest; so is it written;
thou too young Marr shalt find rest--thou and thy household and the
stranger that is within thy gates. But that rest must be in the world
which lies beyond the grave. On this side the grave ye have all slept your
final sleep.

The night was one of exceeding darkness; and in this humble quarter of
London whatever the night happened to be light or dark quiet or stormy
all shops were kept open on Saturday nights until twelve o'clock at the
least and many for half an hour longer. There was no rigorous and
pedantic Jewish superstition about the exact limits of Sunday. At the very
worst the Sunday stretched over from one o'clock A. M. of one day up to
eight o'clock A. M. of the next making a clear circuit of thirty-one
hours. This surely was long enough. Marr on this particular Saturday
night would be content if it were even shorter provided it would come
more quickly for he has been toiling through sixteen hours behind his
counter. Marr's position in life was this: he kept a little hosier's shop
and had invested in his stock and the fittings of his shop about 180
pounds. Like all men engaged in trade he suffered some anxieties. He was
a new beginner; but already bad debts had alarmed him; and bills were
coming to maturity that were not likely to be met by commensurate sales.
Yet constitutionally he was a sanguine hoper. At this time he was a
stout fresh-colored young man of twenty-seven; in some slight degree
uneasy from his commercial prospects but still cheerful and
anticipating--(how vainly!)--that for this night and the next night at
least he will rest his wearied head and his cares upon the faithful bosom
of his sweet lovely young wife. The household of Marr consisting of five
persons is as follows: First there is himself who if he should happen
to be ruined in a limited commercial sense has energy enough to jump up
again like a pyramid of fire and soar high above ruin many times
repeated. Yes poor Marr so it might be if thou wert left to thy native
energies unmolested; but even now there stands on the other side of the
street one born of hell who puts his peremptory negative on all these
flattering prospects. Second in the list of his household stands his
pretty and amiable wife who is happy after the fashion of youthful wives
for she is only twenty-two and anxious (if at all) only on account of her
darling infant. For thirdly there is in a cradle not quite nine feet
below the street viz. in a warm cosy kitchen and rocked at intervals
by the young mother a baby eight months old. Nineteen months have Marr
and herself been married; and this is their first-born child. Grieve not
for this child that it must keep the deep rest of Sunday in some other
world; for wherefore should an orphan steeped to the lips in poverty
when once bereaved of father and mother linger upon an alien and
murderous earth? Fourthly there is a stoutish boy an apprentice say
thirteen years old; a Devonshire boy with handsome features such as most
Devonshire youths have; [3] satisfied with his place; not overworked;
treated kindly and aware that he was treated kindly by his master and
mistress. Fifthly and lastly bringing up the rear of this quiet
household is a servant girl a grown-up young woman; and she being
particularly kind-hearted occupied (as often happens in families of
humble pretensions as to rank) a sort of sisterly place in her relation to
her mistress. A great democratic change is at this very time (1854) and
has been for twenty years passing over British society. Multitudes of
persons are becoming ashamed of saying 'my master' or 'my mistress:' the
term now in the slow process of superseding it is 'my employer.' Now in
the United States such an expression of democratic hauteur though
disagreeable as a needless proclamation of independence which nobody is
disputing leaves however no lasting bad effect. For the domestic
'helps' are pretty generally in a state of transition so sure and so rapid
to the headship of domestic establishments belonging to themselves that
in effect they are but ignoring for the present moment a relation which
would at any rate dissolve itself in a year or two. But in England where
no such resources exist of everlasting surplus lands the tendency of the
change is painful. It carries with it a sullen and a coarse expression of
immunity from a yoke which was in any case a light one and often a benign
one. In some other place I will illustrate my meaning. Here apparently
in Mrs. Marr's service the principle concerned illustrated itself
practically. Mary the female servant felt a sincere and unaffected
respect for a mistress whom she saw so steadily occupied with her domestic
duties and who though so young and invested with some slight authority
never exerted it capriciously or even showed it at all conspiciously.
According to the testimony of all the neighbors she treated her mistress
with a shade of unobtrusive respect on the one hand and yet was eager to
relieve her whenever that was possible from the weight of her maternal
duties with the cheerful voluntary service of a sister.

To this young woman it was that suddenly within three or four minutes
of midnight Marr called aloud from the head of the stairs--directing her
to go out and purchase some oysters for the family supper. Upon what
slender accidents hang oftentimes solemn lifelong results! Marr occupied
in the concerns of his shop Mrs. Marr occupied with some little ailment
and restlessness of her baby had both forgotten the affair of supper; the
time was now narrowing every moment as regarded any variety of choice;
and oysters were perhaps ordered as the likeliest article to be had at
all after twelve o'clock should have struck. And yet upon this trivial
circumstance depended Mary's life. Had she been sent abroad for supper at
the ordinary time of ten or eleven o'clock it is almost certain that she
the solitary member of the household who escaped from the exterminating
tragedy would _not_ have escaped; too surely she would have shared
the general fate. It had now become necessary to be quick. Hastily
therefore receiving money from Marr with a basket in her hand but
unbonneted Mary tripped out of the shop. It became afterwards on
recollection a heart-chilling remembrance to herself--that precisely as
she emerged from the shop-door she noticed on the opposite side of the
...



 
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