Convicted by ephemera

Shotguns required (still require?) material to be inserted between the powder and the shot, to prevent gases from leaking past the projectiles at firing. Gun-wadding was frequently torn-up waste-paper, whatever was to hand. As it was ejected with the shot, it could survive to provide much-needed evidence. In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Lady Dedlock is incriminated in the murder of the lawyer Tulkinghorn when detective Bucket discovers that wadding near the body is ‘a bit of the printed description of [the Dedlock’s] house at Chesney Wold’.

Judith Flanders points out in this week’s TLS that Elizabeth Gaskell uses a similar plot device in Mary Barton, and that these (and several other) authors drew on a real-life case in 1840, when wadding proved crucial in identifying the murderer. And, Flanders continues, ‘life finally caught up with fiction in 1884, when John Toms was convicted of murder on the evidence of a piece of wadding which was identified as matching a broadside in his possession.’

Johnson’s Chemistry of Common Life (illustrated) was the wadding in the murder weapon in ‘The Judgement of Conscience’, Female Detective, ?1862/3. Judith Flanders will give a paper on female detectives in 19th-century fiction at the Second Annual Conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association.