Thomas De Quincey

Murder as a fine art

A new paper on Murder as a Fine Art might open thus: that on the model of those Gentlemen Radicals who had voted a monument to Palmer, etc., it was proposed to erect statues to such murderers as should by their next-of-kin, or other person interested in their glory, make out a claim either of superior atrocity, or, in equal atrocity, of superior neatness, continuity of execution, perfect preparation or felicitous originality, smoothness or curiosa felicitas (elaborate felicity). The men who murdered the cat, as we read in the Newgate Calendar, were good, but Williams better who murdered the baby. And perhaps (but the hellish felicity of the last act makes us demur) Fielding was superior. For you never hear of a fire swallowing up a fire, or a rain stopping a deluge (for this would be a reign of Kilkenny cats); but what fire, deluge, or Kilkenny cats could not do, Fielding proposed, viz., to murder the murderers, to become himself the Nemesis. Fielding was the murderer of murderers in a double sense—rhetorical and literal. But that was, after all, a small matter compared with the fine art of the man calling himself Outis, on which for a moment we must dwell. Outis—so at all events he was called, but doubtless he indulged in many aliases—at Nottingham joined vehemently and sincerely, as it seemed, in pursuit of a wretch taxed with having murdered, twelve years previously, a wife and two children at Halifax, which wretch (when all the depositions were before the magistrate) turned out to be the aforesaid Mr. Outis. That suggests a wide field of speculation and reference.

Note the power of murderers as fine-art professors to make a new start, to turn the corner, to retreat upon the road they have come, as though it were new to them, and to make diversions that disarm suspicion. This they owe to fortunate obscurity, which attests anew the wonderful compensations of life; for celebrity and power combine to produce drawbacks.

A foreigner who lands in Calcutta at an hour which nobody can name, and endeavours to effect a sneaking entrance at the postern-gate[2] of the governor-general’s palace, may be a decent man; but this we know, that he has cut the towing-rope which bound his own boat to the great ark of his country. It may be that, in leaving Paris or Naples, he was simply cutting the connection with creditors who showed signs of attachment not good for his health. But it may also be that he ran away by the blaze of a burning inn, which he had fired in order to hide three throats which he had cut, and nine purses which he had stolen. There is no guarantee for such a man’s character. Have we, then, no such vauriens at home? No, not in the classes standing favourably for promotion. The privilege of safe criminality, not liable to exposure, is limited to classes crowded together like leaves in Vallombrosa; for them to run away into some mighty city, Manchester or Glasgow, is to commence life anew. They turn over a new leaf with a vengeance. Many are the carpenters, bricklayers, bakers’ apprentices, etc., who are now living decently in Bristol, Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool, after marrying sixteen wives, and leaving families to the care of twelve separate parishes. That scamp is at this moment circulating and gyrating in society, like a respectable te-totum, though we know not his exact name, who, if he were pleased to reveal himself in seventeen parts of this kingdom, where (to use the police language) he has been ‘wanted’ for some years, would be hanged seventeen times running, besides putting seventeen Government rewards into the pockets of seventeen policemen. Oh, reader, you little know the unutterable romances perpetrated for ever in our most populous empire, under cloud of night and distance and utter poverty, Mark that—of utter poverty. Wealth is power; but it is a jest in comparison of poverty. Splendour is power; but it is a joke to obscurity. To be poor, to be obscure, to be a baker’s apprentice or a tailor’s journeyman, throws a power about a man, clothes him with attributes of ubiquity, really with those privileges of concealment which in the ring of Gyges were but fabulous. Is it a king, is it a sultan, that such a man rivals? Oh, friend, he rivals a spiritual power.

Two men are on record, perhaps many more might have been on that record, who wrote so many books, and perpetrated so many pamphlets, that at fifty they had forgotten much of their own literary villainies, and at sixty they commenced with murderous ferocity a series of answers to arguments which it was proved upon them afterwards that they themselves had emitted at thirty—thus coming round with volleys of small shot on their own heads, as the Whispering Gallery at St. Paul’s begins to retaliate any secrets you have committed to its keeping in echoing thunders after a time, or as Sir John Mandeville under Arctic skies heard in May all those curses thawing, and exploding like minute-guns, which had been frozen up in November. Even like those self-replying authors, even like those self-reverberators in St. Paul’s, even like those Arctic practitioners in cursing, who drew bills and post obits in malediction, which were to be honoured after the death of winter, many men are living at this moment in merry England who have figured in so many characters, illustrated so many villages, run away from so many towns, and performed the central part in so many careers, that were the character, the village, the town, the career, brought back with all its circumstances to their memories, positively they would fail to recognise their own presence or incarnation in their own acts and bodies.

We have all read the story told by Addison of a sultan, who was persuaded by a dervish to dip his head into a basin of enchanted water, and thereupon found himself upon some other globe, a son in a poor man’s family, married after certain years the woman of his heart, had a family of seven children whom he painfully brought up, went afterwards through many persecutions, walked pensively by the seashore meditating some escape from his miseries, bathed in the sea as a relief from the noon-day heat, and on lifting up his head from the waves found himself lifting up his head from the basin into which that cursed dervish had persuaded him to dip. And when he would have cudgelled the holy man for that long life of misery which had, through his means, been inflicted upon himself, behold! the holy man proved by affidavit that, in this world, at any rate (where only he could be punishable), the life had lasted but thirty-three seconds. Even so do the dark careers of many amongst our obscure and migratory villains from years shrink up to momentary specks, or, by their very multitude, altogether evanesce. Burke and Hare, it is well known, had lost all count of their several murders; they no more remembered, or could attempt to remember, their separate victims, than a respectable old banker of seventy-three can remember all the bills with their indorsements made payable for half-a-century at his bank; or than Foote’s turnpike-keeper, who had kept all the toll-bar tickets to Kensington for forty-eight years, pretended to recollect the features of all the men who had delivered them at his gate. For a time, perhaps, Burke (who was a man of fine sensibility) had a representative vision of spasms, and struggles, and convulsions, terminating in a ten-pound note indorsed by Dr.——. Hare, on the other hand, was a man of principle, a man that you could depend upon—order a corpse for Friday, and on Friday you had it—but he had no feeling whatever. Yet see the unity of result for him and Burke. For both alike all troublesome recollections gathered into one blue haze of heavenly abstractions: orders executed with fidelity, cheques on the bankers to be crossed and passed and cashed, are no more remembered. That is the acme of perfection in our art.

One great class of criminals I am aware of in past times as having specially tormented myself—the class who have left secrets, riddles, behind them. What business has any man to bequeath a conundrum to all posterity, unless he leaves in some separate channel the solution? This must have been done in malice, and for the purpose of annoying us, lest we should have too much proper enjoyment of life when he should have gone. For nobody knows whether the scoundrel could have solved it himself—too like in that respect to some charades which, in my boyish days (but then I had the excuse of youth, which they had not), I not unfrequently propounded to young ladies. Take this as a specimen: My first raises a little hope; my second very little indeed; and my whole is a vast roar of despair. No young lady could ever solve it; neither could I. We all had to give it up. A charade that only needs an answer, which, perhaps, some distant generation may supply, is but a half and half, tentative approach to this. Very much of this nature was the genius or Daimon (don’t say Demon) of Socrates. How many thousands of learned writers and printers have gone to sleep over too profound attempts to solve that, which Socrates ought to have been able to solve at sight. I am myself of opinion that it was a dram-bottle, which someone raised a ghost to explain. Then the Entelecheia of Aristotle; did you ever read about that, excellent reader? Most people fancy it to have meant some unutterable crotchet in metaphysics, some horrible idea (lest the police should be after it) without a name; that is, until the Stagyrite repaired the injustice of his conduct by giving it a pretty long one. My opinion now, as you are anxious to know it, is, that it was a lady, a sweetheart of Aristotle’s; for what was to hinder Aristotle having a sweetheart? I dare say Thomas Aquinas, dry and arid as he was, raised his unprincipled eyes to some Neapolitan beauty, began a sonnet to some lady’s eyebrow, though he might forget to finish it. And my belief is that this lady, ambitious as Semele, wished to be introduced as an eternal jewel into the great vault of her lover’s immortal Philosophy, which was to travel much farther and agitate far longer than his royal pupil’s conquests. Upon that Aristotle, keeping her hand, said: ‘My love, I’ll think of it.’ And then it occurred to him, that in the very heavens many lovely ladies, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Ariadne, etc., had been placed as constellations in that map which many chronologists suppose to have been prepared for the use of the ship Argo, a whole generation before the Trojan war. Berenice, though he could not be aware of that, had interest even to procure a place in that map for her ringlets; and of course for herself she might have. Considering which, Aristotle said: ‘Hang me! if I don’t put her among the ten Categories!’ On after thoughts he put her higher, for an Entelecheia is as much above a Category as our Padishah Victoria is above a Turkish sultan. ‘But now, Stag,’ said the lady (privileged as a sweetheart she called him Stag, though everybody else was obliged to call him Stagyrite), ‘how will they know it’s meant for me, Stag?’ Upon which I am sorry to say the philosopher fell to cursing and swearing, bestowing blessings on his own optics and on posterity’s, meaning yours and mine, saying: ‘Let them find it out.’ Well, now, you see I have found it out. But that is more than I hope for my crypto-criminals, and therefore I take this my only way of giving them celebration and malediction in one breath.


MLA Citation

De Quincey, Thomas. “Murder as a fine art.” 1828. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 3 Jun 2015. 22 Feb 2024 <>.

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