Four Reasons Why It Was So Easy to Get Away With Murder in the Past
It’s hard out there for a murderer. Between DNA testing, cameras all over the place and electronic trails of everyone’s every movement, if the cops don’t get you, a podcaster will. That’s fine for those chasing their 15 episodes of Netflix fame, but traditionally, murderers don’t want to be caught. It’s enough to make you long for the days when…
Poison Was Everywhere
Arsenic has been used as a dye and medicine for thousands of years, but it really had its heyday during the Industrial Revolution, when it was burned out of coal in mass quantities and discovered to be useful for all kinds of stuff as long as you didn’t mind a tiny chance of painful death. Pretty much anything that needed to be colored green, including food, contained arsenic, and it was also used as a cheap alternative to tallow in candles and to preserve dead bodies. That last one maybe should have given people reservations about eating it, but they were probably just glad the dead bodies had stopped stinking up the place long enough that they could eat. People were constantly dying back then.
This gave potential murderers several advantages. One, it was super easy to get arsenic. These days, if you want to buy a poisonous dose of a poisonous substance, you have to fill out a bunch of paperwork so a bunch of government agencies know who to call if someone turns up dead from that substance. Not so in Queen Victoria’s reign. Two, it was damn near undetectable. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are really similar to perfectly innocent gastrointestinal illnesses, and this was before modern sanitation, so just about everyone had a tummy ache all the time. With enough patience, an arsenic poisoning could look just like your everyday cholera death. Three, even if someone did figure it out, arsenic was so ubiquitous that people were accidentally poisoning themselves all the time, so how could anyone tell it was intentional?
Not that it was likely anyone would figure it out, because…
Autopsies Weren’t Standard Procedure
It’s not always hard to tell how someone died. If their head is missing, for example, or their body mostly consists of gunshot wounds, it’s a pretty safe bet that it wasn’t natural causes that got ‘em. Not all methods of murder are so obvious, though, which is where autopsies come in handy, but good luck convincing a medieval peasant of that. Desecrating a corpse was considered extremely taboo in Western societies from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era, even in the service of avenging the corpse in question.
As a result, autopsies didn’t become routine until around World War II, and it’s not hard to figure out why that was great for murderers. If they could control themselves enough not to commit super-obvious levels of murder, it was likely no one would ever know their victims had been murdered at all. Remember, these were times when it wasn’t at all uncommon for someone to get a headache, go have a lie-down and never get up again. One of history’s most prolific serial killers — an old Serbian woman who sold poison to unhappy wives — got away with it for so long because her customers simply declined autopsies for their husbands, who had apparently died of “living in the 1800s.”
It helped that…
Women Weren’t Thought Capable of Murder
Being a wealthy white woman throughout Western history was often a double-edged sword: You had almost no freedom, but you were also more coddled than a hairless cat, at least legally. Right through the mid-1900s, American women couldn’t even serve on juries for fear that exposure to such sordid matters would irretrievably corrupt them (and considering today’s true-crime boom, they may have had a point). In fact, women were so infantilized that trying them for murder was considered about as silly as trying a toddler and only slightly less sticky.
Inconveniently, women absolutely did murder, sometimes in front of witnesses or in a manner that left little room for doubt (like one woman who insisted her boyfriend shot himself with his gun still in his pocket), but they were often acquitted just because it was believed that a woman had to be seriously mistreated to stoop to such a manly level as violence. In the case of the self-holstering gun, “the prosecutor concluded that no jury would unanimously believe that such a sweet young thing could commit so brutal a crime.”
You better believe all this legal sympathy ended once women won the right to vote — if they wanted equality, they were gonna get it — but it was fun while it lasted.
Police Didn't Communicate With Each Other
Until about, oh, five minutes ago, one of the best ways for criminals to evade capture was to skip town. For much of history, it was really hard to travel or send a message more than a dozen miles away, so there was no way for police to alert other cities or countries that they’d misplaced a maniac. Forget America’s Most Wanted — most villages had, like, one cop, and he wasn’t gonna abandon his post for a wild good chase.
This is part of the reason there were so many serial killers in the 1970s and 1980s — there were no databases for police to share information about similar crimes yet, so as long as they kept moving around, no one knew the murders were serial. Joseph DeAngelo, aka “The Golden State Killer,” walked free for 40 years despite sprinkling evidence around like fairy dust because, as a cop, he knew that hitting different jurisdictions was the key to doing that.
We still don’t have great databases for tracking non-murder crimes — there are entire TV dramas based on Pulitzer Prize-winning articles about that. Sleep tight!