Extract from Remembrances of a Gutter Press Hack by Gideon Pound, published Hardier-Walt, 1923
We led with a monkey on the front page. It’s the first rule of common man journalism: always lead with the monkey. Blood is good, child endangerment is better, and savagery tops the list. A monkey stealing a baby and dangling it off a building? That’s a rum mix that ticks every box. Nothing scandalises a reader than the Empire failing to control nature, and there is nothing society likes more than to feel scandalised.
Death only made the splash if there was something exotic about it. The woodcuts of Vicky’s London always show some gruff sod hauling a coffin, and it’s for sound reason. Britain was, in truth, three realms in those days. There was London, where ladies and gentlemen marvelled at the wonders of our age; the Country, where they went to escape those wonders; and there was the underbelly, all ripe with faeces and fevers. For every gentleman’s invention ten Yorkshire lads broke their backs shovelling coal into a furnace, and for every woman who promenaded across Westminster Bridge with a parasol under her shoulder there were two seamstresses dying of consumption.
The Gazette thrived on this blood like a leech to London’s sores. The Times could keep its wars and high brow readership, who study its pages like verses from the gospels over cigars and brandy. The Illustrated Crime Gazette gave the people what they wanted: gruesome tales of terror, yours for a mere penny, and every word the truth, God as my witness.
That’s why I found myself attending the Patterson death. The issue was short some colour, and when we heard the station was sealed off I was tasked with poking my beak in to see if it was because of something interesting we could print.
I arrived at Fenchurch Street a little after two in the morning. The mutton chompers were out in full force, at least a dozen constables accompanied by two mechanised Lovelace Coppers, giant wheezing clockwork rustbuckets that constantly spat hot water from their tanks and clattered along rhythmically. No good for detection, but a seven foot lumbering copper and brass automaton armed with a truncheon is dashed useful for law enforcement – which is precisely why the Corporation of London had hiked up the taxes to pay for a fleet of ’em.
I slipped one of the more corrupt (by which I mean human) constables a bribe to tell me what happened, then side-stepped the Copper patrol and crept to the platform for a look-see to confirm it. They’d cut the body down, and the poor bastard who found the girl had been taken for a stiff drink. The corpse was laid out for the coroner on the platform, and as I came closer I couldn’t help but think it was rather queer.
I’d covered hangings before and knew how bodies kick and convulses, roughing up the flesh even if the neck snaps clean on the fall. Yet her neck was sublime, without a scratch or sign of rope burns. Her China doll eyes, too, were out of place, for they were two clear unblemished beads; strangulation turns eyes bloodshot as the capillaries burst. And then there was the scent. She smelled like a musty rose, a heavy kind of sweet perfume that hung in the air. I couldn’t place it, but it was no fragrance I knew, and it seemed out of place on a corpse so recently hanged.
I think I’d have pinned that whiff down if I’d smelt it for a bit longer, but at that moment was caught by the constabulary, and soon found myself hauled back behind the cordon. After that the Met’s commander set a Copper to block the doors, and, avenues of inquiry exhausted, I returned to the press to file copy.
My story made page 4, as I recall. We typeset it the next morning, the print blockheads titling it ‘Fearful scene – suicide at Fenchurch Street’, and the artists drawing her dangling there with a swollen, black tongue poking out of her mouth. I told them it wasn’t like that, and said straight up I didn’t believe it was a suicide, but I was only a junior reporter at the time and nobody cared. Emily Patterson had been a governess. She wasn’t in high society and her guts hadn’t been smeared down the Commercial Road, so she wasn’t worthy of the dog’s bollocks. The matter was closed.
That’s why The Gazette went with a monkey as its lead on the day it all started, and I almost missed the biggest story of my career.