Books

My great-great aunt was murdered – and this was my very own true crime investigation

Kim Donovan learnt to tread lightly when uncovering family secrets

The photograph of Herbert and Mary Jane Bennett that inspired a deep dive into a traumatic family history

I was 10 years old when I discovered that my great-great aunt had been murdered. I can vividly remember the day: I was looking through my grandparents’ old photographs, when I came across a black-and-white image of a man and a woman, posing for a formal portrait in a photographer’s studio. It was a cabinet card, a photograph mounted on a piece of stiff cardboard in a manner that was popular in the late 19th century.

“Who are these people?” I asked my grandmother. She pointed to the woman. “That’s Mary Jane Bennett, my mother’s half-sister.” My grandmother paused, before adding: “She was murdered just before my mother was born.”

The man in the photograph was my great-great aunt’s husband. I would later learn that the image had been taken in a small studio in Great Yarmouth around the time of their marriage in 1897, during what (I imagined) to be a romantic holiday. The love they shared would soon begin to crumble, just as the rounded edges of the cardboard mount had 100 years later.

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As the years passed, I kept being pulled back to the image, and when I eventually decided to start researching the story, only fragments of the narrative remained. At the time, I was motivated by a desire to know the truth, to discover the facts of the case, and to be able to tell my grandmother and other members of our family what had happened to our relative all those years ago. I would eventually realise that there were some things my grandmother would probably have preferred to stay hidden.

Over the course of my research, I unearthed long forgotten family secrets that had brought great shame to my great-great grandfather and his family when they were revealed in court at the turn of the 20th century. These shames were recounted so vividly by reporters, that – when I read the accounts – I felt as if I were sat in that grim, gloomy courtroom alongside them: a voyeur bearing witness to the disclosure of hidden truths that would have deeply shocked my grandmother had she still been alive to hear them. I could picture the scene, imagine the gasps that had reverberated around the room, see the reporters scratching gleefully on their parchment, recording the latest chapter in this sensational story.

While interest in true crime has soared in recent years, a thirst for crime news has existed for centuries. The Victorians revelled in crime and were avid consumers of violent entertainments. In their infancy, the UK and US tabloid presses thrived on sensationalism long before journalist Eric Pooley coined the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

In more recent years, true crime has crossed over to non-traditional formats. From podcasts to documentaries and TV shows, true crime now floods the airwaves and dominates our screens, occupying our thoughts across multiple platforms. In television, true crime is the biggest documentary subgenre, and continues to grow. But do we, as consumers, become so drawn into the sensation of these stories that we forget that they involve real people

Behind every true crime documentary is a victim – a person with real human connections – and the traumas they experience can have a lasting impact on generations to come. The respect a victim receives in the retelling of their story often depends on who’s telling it, and how it’s being told. Some content creators deal with stories very sensitively, others turn victims into marketable commodities.

I thought very carefully about how I would approach the re-telling of Mary Jane’s story while I was writing The Mysterious Mrs Hood, particularly as the case had been so sensationally reported in the past. As a relative of Mary Jane’s, I was also aware of the personal biases that I held, biases that stemmed from wanting to see justice done. I found that my background as an academic librarian helped to keep me centred in my analysis of the case.

Every detail I uncovered as I delved deeper into my research brought me one step closer to understanding the events surrounding Mary Jane’s murder. I gained an insight into the characters, their lives and what made them human. Through the words and observations of those who knew her, I carefully pieced together the story of Mary Jane’s life.

I felt the passage of time, the ripples of her actions, her loves, her lies, her deceit, and above all, her desperate struggle for survival. And what did I learn? Ultimately, I learned that Mary Jane’s story was not one that should be lost to the passage of time. Hers was a story that deserved to be shared. I hope I have done her justice in The Mysterious Mrs Hood.

The Mysterious Mrs Hood by Kim Donovan is out on 22 February. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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