The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Dance of Death; or, The Hangman's Plot (1865-1866)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Dance of Death; or, The Hangman’s Plot was written by “Detective Brownlow and Sergeant Tuevoleur of the French Police,” a pair of pseudonyms for an unknown author. The Dance of Death is a gloriously over-the-top penny dreadful, exactly the sort which caused so many critics and upper-class Victorians to turn against the dreadful as an art form.
The Dance of Death is a sprawling story with a large cast of characters. It begins in the countryside north of London. Dick Spaldings, an honest farmer, discovers that Jenny Hayward, the younger wife who he loves so dearly, is cheating on him with Will Spanton, the unfairly handsome young village schoolmaster. A sleazy villager tips off Spaldings, and he witnesses Will and Jenny having sex, in a scene which was surprisingly frank for 1865 and undoubtedly influenced by the racier sensation novels:
Her warm lips beseeching a husband’s forgiveness, the exhausted creature sank upon the ground, and lost a woman’s restraint. Will slaked the lust which he had felt for so many months....1
Spaldings is devastated by this, and he undergoes a change of personality. He goes bad, becoming perpetually angry (so much so that he disowns his son Harry) and plotting the murder of Jenny and Will. However, before Spaldings can carry out his plan Jenny and Will run away to London together. Harry has also moved to London, and the story shifts to follow his life. Harry takes to thievery, calling himself “Velvet” (as in “smooth as”), and he falls in with a gang of thieves, “the Black Brethren of the Crystal Dagger, or, The Knights of Satan.”2 The Black Brethren, whose ceremonies are Masonic, include “Kokoriko the Hunchback,” “Cannibal Jack,” the charming French thief Johnny Crapaud a.k.a. “Monsieur Armand,” the Fagin-like “Bob O’Link,” the racist stereotype “Black Kettle,” and “Wild Will, the Swell Thief.” Harry becomes Wild Will’s assistant in thievery. After a long series of crimes and chases Wild Will is hanged, thanks to the efforts of Detective Brownlow and Sergeant Tuevoleur, but at the end of the series Harry’s final fate is unrevealed and the Spaldings-Jenny-Will triangle is not resolved. (The Dance of Death’s end is abrupt, which was usually a sign that either the sales of a penny serial were bad and that the order to suddenly cancel the serial was issued by the publisher, or that the police and/or postal inspectors have forced the publisher to bring the serial to an end).
The Dance of Death is not exactly a good story. Whoever wrote it had some skill, so the penny dreadful is readable, but its vocabulary and style are dated. The author’s focus on excess, though well-intentioned, leaves the work head-clobberingly didactic at some points and grisly at others, although there is a certain humor to be taken from the sheer over-the-top indulgence. One of the author’s intentions seems to have been to provoke social activism in their readers. Part of The Dance of Death moralizes against the hopeless situation of the poor, and the author invokes the name of John Stuart Mill to support the case of social reformers and to plead with readers to get involved.3 While this might have been a fig leaf to justify the gorier parts of the story, the passages in which the author describes how badly off the poor are read as if they were honestly meant. The use of reformers’ rhetoric seems to be heartfelt, and the author even drops the name of Dumas to support his case.
The passages with the Black Brethren are full of Thieves Cant and songs, following the trend set by Pierce Egan in Life in London (1821; see: Proto-Mysteries) and Harrison Ainsworth in Rookwood. The author may have been trying to create a sense of realism with the Cant, or trying to add to the feeling of high-spirited adventure created by Ainsworth. But the more gruesome aspects of the novel mitigate against that. It is possible that the author was simply interested in telling an over-the-top story and used the names of Mills and Dumas to try to justify the grue. After all, some justification would have been needed for a novel with the aforementioned sex scene, illustrations of topless women, child-snatching, bloody hand-prints left on walls, women strangling men, disembodied heads flourished gleefully, the poking and teasing of a corpse, fratricide committed for inheritance, gang attacks on the policemen, the use of Satan’s name during the induction ceremony into the Black Brethren, and “Mother Martin,” an aging bawd who helps kidnap virginal girls and sell them to adult men for money. Mother Martin, who is a member of the Brethren, is hanged by the thieves, and her hanging and death throes take up the better part of two pages.
The Dance of Death was originally published by Newsagents’ Publishing Company, the group responsible for a number of the depraved dreadfuls, including The Boy Detective, or the Crimes of London and The Skeleton Crew, or Wildfire Ned.
By 1867 [Edwin J.] Brett had become the sole proprietor and managing editor of the serial publishing side of the Newsagents’ Publishing Company (NPC), accused by a journalist of being the ‘foremost of the gang whose profit is the dissemination of impure literature.’ This firm rapidly inherited the dubious mantle of Lloyd’s Salisbury Square publishing house, initiating, according to another hostile critic, an ‘era of the greatest general depravity, as well as literary wretchedness, in the history of periodical fiction.4
The Newsagents’ Publishing Company “appears to have been raided and closed by the police around 1870”5 as part of the backlash against the depraved dreadfuls. Despite a strong attempt, The Dance of Death never quite reached the depths of depravity and decadence of something like Fanny White, and so is not usually counted among the penny dreadfuls which provoked the moral panic and government and police crackdown of the late 1860s, but The Dance of Death is certainly fit company for Fanny White and Charley Wag to keep.
Wild Will, “the Swell Thief,” is an interesting precursor to the Gentleman Thief. Wild Will is a “Swell,” a stylishly-dressed gentleman of good social position. He was a bank clerk who was seduced by a “dark-eyed beauty...by the name of Rosa Waters”6 and stole £1000 and went to the Continent with her. After the money was gone she left him, so he returned to London. But his reputation was in tatters, he was wanted for questioning by the police, and he had no employment prospects, so he turned to crime. Will is handsome and smart and found crime not particularly difficult. He does find the usual thiefly pursuits of gambling and drinking to be boring, and he finds “ungrammatical” people distasteful, and so, despite being friends with Bob O’Link and the rest of the Black Brethren, Will usually works alone. When Will finds a likely lad, like Harry Spaldings, he takes the lad as an assistant. Will is a boulevardier who lives in high style, affects an aristocratic air, “drives a trap in gay style,” and uses the language of fops (“demmed,” “slap up”)—all very much the style of real-life upper class English men-about-town in the 1860s. He also smokes, drinks, and when vexed uses bad language. He is a habitué of the West End, and his preferred method of crime is to check into a high class hotel using his identities of “Lord Fitzboodle” and “Captain de Vere” and to rob the other guests of the hotel. When pressed, he changes into a cook’s uniform and escapes from the hotel through the kitchen. Will’s downfall comes when he encounters “Rosa Waters” again, this time as “Lady Shepherd.” He tries to disfigure her in a crowded restaurant and is arrested for it, which leads to his execution.
Modern readers will likely feel guilty for enjoying The Dance of Death, but they are likely to enjoy it nonetheless.
Print: Detective Brownlow and Sergeant Tuevoleur of the French Police, The Dance of Death or, The Hangman’s Plot. London: Newsagents’ Publishing Company, 1870.
1 The Dance of Death; or, The Hangman’s Plot (London: Newsagents’ Publishing Company, 1866), 13.
2 The Dance of Death, 44.
3 The Dance of Death, 25.
4 Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics, 54.
5 Springhall, Youth, Popular Culture and Moral Panics, 57.
6 The Dance of Death, 53.