Vexing Victorian Villains (V of them)


Let them curse me to hell, leave it to history to tell,

What I did, I did well, and I did it for my country.

~from “Assassins”

I’m not sure about what this says about me,  but I always preferred a well-defined villain (or antihero) to a clean-cut hero. This is why, when re-reading, for example, Harry Potter, I can easily revisualize the story as Snape’s and not Harry’s. Let’s face it. Bad guys, or at least guys with a tormented soul, are usually much more interesting.

As I’ve been writing notes for my steampunk novel, I’ve revisited the 19th century with as much fervor as if I were back in college. It helps to have the music of Sondheim’s “Assassins” creating the right mood and Poe’s brooding Raven keeping a watchful eye. We often think of the Victorian age as one of happiness and flowery language and proper ladies and gentlemen. Turns out it usually wasn’t so nice and Disneyesque.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy modern conveniences like microwaves and not having to dodge horse droppings on the street. But if I were given the opportunity to somehow travel back in time, I’d want to interview these guys for my book. That is, provided I’d be guaranteed to get back in one piece. I’d also like to clarify that while I find these historical baddies oddly magnetic, I doubt there’d be a lasting relationship unless it involved me getting shot, hacked to pieced, or left to rot in the ruins of an old house’s basement.

Villain #1: Billy the Kid (1859?-1881)

Whether his true name was William H. Bonney or William Henry McCarty, history remembers him as Billy the Kid. Like Robin Hood or William Tell, his image has been romanticized and exaggerated so much over the years that it’s hard to know the truth of his life. Most people know him as an infamous gunfighter; he was a largely obscure rustler and horse thief before Sheriff Pat Garrett placed a $500 bounty for his capture in 1880. A friend of Billy’s posthumously described the young man as “a good boy…maybe a little too mischievous at times.” Perhaps that’s putting a life of crime too euphemistically. 21st Century Cute Guy He Resembles: Owen Wilson

Villain #2: H.H. Holmes (1861-1896)

Many Americans may not know his name, but Holmes is now widely considered to be the first modern serial killer in the United States. He created a very literal house of horrors during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (the story is told in Erik Larson’s excellent The Devil in the White City). Although he only confessed to four murders, some historians believe he may have been responsible for as many as 200 deaths, including those of one of his wives. What is especially gruesome in the case of Holmes is that he was known to sell his victims’ bones for medical research. Um, ew. 21st Century Cute Guy He Strangely Resembles: Johnny Depp

Villain #3: Ned Kelly (1854?-1880)

Depending on whom you ask, Edward “Ned” Kelly is a cold-blooded killer or else a celebrated folk hero, much like Billy the Kid. Born in Australia to an Irish convict father, Kelly got in trouble with the law early and often. His life in the wild bush was a colorful one indeed, ranging from horse rustling to highway robbery to raiding police stations. Eventually hanged for his shooting a constable, Kelly became a hero especially to the Irish expatriates in Australia and is widely celebrated today. His first crime? The assault and robbery of a Chinese man named Ah Fook. Alas, I cannot top that one. 21st Century Cute Guy He Strangely Resembles: Leonardo DiCaprio

Villain #4: John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865)

Even the people who snoozed through American History classes recognize Booth’s name. Before he became the assassin of America’s greatest president, Booth was the most popular actor of his day, the youngest son of a famous theatrical family. Despite his good looks and theatrical flair, he was also a bigoted racist who couldn’t stand the idea of the South losing the Civil War. In a plot whose truths are much stranger than fiction, he plotted to kill and/or kidnap President Lincoln long before his fateful Good Friday in 1865. As a teenager, Booth had his fortune told by a gypsy who informed him he was “born under an unlucky star.” Stranger than fiction, indeed. 21st Century Cute Guy He Strangely Resembles: Jude Law

Villain #5: Jack the Ripper

Arguably the most famous unsolved murder case of them all, the Ripper’s true identity is a mystery more than a century later and may never be known. A contemporary, and kindred spirit, of H.H. Holmes, the Ripper was responsible for the deaths of at least five women in London’s Whitechapel district in the late 19th century. Countless books and movies about Jack have been released and he continues to fascinate. Though no one knows what he looked like, I imagine him somewhere between Christian Bale and Liam Neeson.

Who do you think were some of the greatest villains and villainesses in history, Victorian or otherwise?

As always, be sure to click “Like” if you enjoyed this post and subscribe to P&Q…for plenty of ripping good times! 

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on February 7, 2012.

11 Responses to “Vexing Victorian Villains (V of them)”

  1. On the female side, I find Lizzie Borden quite intriquing.

  2. What about Lizzy Borden?

  3. My favourite Victorian bogeyman is Spring-Heeled Jack, who doesn’t really fit in with your list because he probably didn’t exist… I like him because, although he’s mainly known for terrorising London, he apparently made a few appearences very close to where I live…

    • I’ll have to do some research on him…is he a contemporary of Jack the Ripper? Hoping to take another trip to London within a year or so and I’d love to do one of those historical tours.

  4. I really don’t understand the admiration people in Australia still have for Ned Kelly. Maybe they like his cool headgear, which was very inventive for the time I’m sure. We have lots of young guys getting tattoos of Kelly’s last words “Such is life”. Sure, it’s a nice sentiment, IF it wasn’t one of a convicted criminal. Who knows, maybe he just represents the original underdog, and us Aussies sure do love one of those.

    • Could be…there are plenty of those revered criminal types in the States, from Jesse James to Butch and Sundance to Bonnie and Clyde. Some people just go for the bad ‘uns, I think. (I myself have a weird sort of affection for Booth despite his obvious psychopathies.)

  5. Great article! I’m always rooting for the villain!

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