McMahon, Vanessa

views updated

McMahon, Vanessa


Education: Essex University, B.A.; Royal Halloway University of London, M.A., Ph.D.


Office—Richmond University in London, Queen's Rd., Richmond-upon-Thames TW10 6JP, England.


Historian, educator, and writer. Richmond University in London, Richmond-upon-Thames, England, adjunct assistant professor, 2002—.


Murder in Shakespeare's England, Hambledon and London (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to books, including Heroes and Villains in Seventeenth Century, edited by C.H.L. George and J. Sutherland, University of Durham Press (Durham, NC), 2004; contributor to periodicals, including the Journal of Social History of Medicine and the British Review of New Zealand Studies.


Vanessa McMahon is a historian whose primary interest is early modern English history of crime, gender, and society. She has written about violence and homicide and medical evaluations of criminal and violent behavior. Her interests also include comparisons between different kinds of criminals and what crime reveals about early modern society and gender. In McMahon's faculty profile on the Richmond University in London Web site, she states that she conducts research on "ideas about monsters across the early modern period and into the modern," where the definition of "monsters" includes "disability, illness, wickedness and imagined creatures."

In her first book, Murder in Shakespeare's England, the author provides a grisly social history of how murder was committed, discovered, and punished in Stuart England. In the process, according to H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online contributor Carla Spivack, the author "assembles a vast and fascinating array of primary documents about homicide in early modern England." McMahon notes in the introduction: "In this book, I am reconstructing the lives of people we otherwise do not know about and have few other points of access to. Therefore, the murder stories herein are presented to act as a reflection of ordinary people and ordinary lives through the extraordinary lens of violence and death."

Using wide-ranging documentation including depositions, pamphlets, songs and ballads, illustrations, and legal tracts, McMahon analyzes numerous specific cases, uncovering details about the most notorious serial killings, sexual assault and murder, and infanticide deaths of the time. The book is organized into chapters featuring different forms of killing such as spouse murder and dueling. Other chapters focus on more general themes, including how crimes were investigated in Stuart England, various types of criminal punishment, and the notion of supernatural influences on crime.

In the introduction to Murder in Shakespeare's England, McMahon writes that "stories of homicide both shocked and thrilled early modern communities and inspired long printed tracts, ballads, songs, popular prints and pictures. Courtrooms were packed for trials, vitriolic language was used to describe the crime in print and executions were always well attended." The author also noted: "It is this combination of horror and titillation as well as the social and gender implications of the stories of crime that this book will assess. A focus on homicide is revealing of both the ordinary and the extraordinary: of everyday life, expectations and social and gendered attitudes as well as patterns of violence and disorder in communities that were more often orderly and law-abiding."

Revealing the public's fascination with these crimes, the author's accounts of some of the era's most notorious cases reveal fascinating details on how crimes were successfully solved with little or no forensic evidence. The author begins each chapter with a brief description of a particular aspect of a crime, whether the death was due to a pub fight or one spouse poisoning another. According to Mary Lindemann in the Journal of Social History, the author uses each case to demonstrate "the historically rooted issues each crime presented." Lindemann added, "She then adduces additional material to explain how circumstances altered chains of events and outcomes, to separate fact from myth, and to arrange a singular occurrence within a broader frame."

Several reviewers had strong praise for Murder in Shakespeare's England. "Readers will be intrigued by the similarities and differences between the law of homicide in seventeenth-century England and homicide's modern categories and conceptualizations," Spivack stated. Lindemann also noted: "Murder, its investigation, the testimony of witnesses and suspects, and depositions, provide scholars with a rich range of evidence that illuminates not only the dark troubled corners the killers of yesteryear inhabited, but also reveals the deeper anatomy of life in the past. Vanessa McMahon's … Murder in Shakespeare's England is [an] impressive addition to the literature of ‘history from crime.’"



McMahon, Vanessa, Murder in Shakespeare's England, Hambledon and London (New York, NY), 2004.


Choice, September, 2005, J.L. Leland, review of Murder in Shakespeare's England, p. 176.

History, April-May, 2005, review of Murder in Shakespeare's England, p. 1209.

Journal of British Studies, July, 2005, Malcolm Gaskill, review of Murder in Shakespeare's England, p. 586.

Journal of Social History, summer, 2006, Mary Lindemann, review of Murder in Shakespeare's England, p. 1209.

Reference & Research Book News, February, 2006, review of Murder in Shakespeare's England.


H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online, (June 17, 2008), Carla Spivack, review of Murder in Shakespeare's England.

Richmond University in London Web site, (June 17, 2008), faculty profile of author.

About this article

McMahon, Vanessa

Updated About content Print Article