Charles Peace and Kate Webster

Mapping Crime case study by Alice Smalley, The Open University.

Charles Peace and Kate Webster were both executed in 1879, more than a decade after the abolition of public executions.  Moreover, the crimes of Peace and Webster both excited considerable public interest, although the press representations of these characters differed significantly.  Despite his execution for the murder of a Mr Dyson, Charles Peace was ‘primarily celebrated for hid larcenous rather than his murderous achievements’.[1]  Conducting a number of burglaries in Hull, London, Sheffield and the surrounding areas, and on many occasions outfoxing the police, Peace became something of a celebrated and comedic character.  Conversely, Kate (Catherine) Webster was a much darker figure, presented in the press as a typical female recidivist.  Webster was found guilty of murdering her employer, Mrs Thomas, after she had been dismissed from her job as a servant in 1879.  The Mapping Crime resources in the John Johnson Collection can be used to explore the ways in which these criminals were represented, and so to draw some conclusions about methods of crime reporting in the late-nineteenth century.  Mapping Crime links together a considerable amount of data: a range of periodicals from both the 19th Century UK Periodicals and British Periodicals; an overwhelming number of newspaper articles from the British Library 19th Century newspapers online (850 and 350 hits for “Charles Peace” and “Kate Webster” respectively); broadsides from the John Johnson collection; and the trials of criminals contained in Old Bailey Proceedings Online.  These sources offer the researcher a variety of avenues to explore, including the close relationship between older and newer forms of print and the connections between the provincial and metropolitan presses in the nineteenth century. 

Trial & execution of Charles Peace for the murder of Mr Dyson at Banner Cross, 1879

The decade of the 1850s, we have been told, witnessed the decline of broadsides and the rise of the Sunday newspaper.  This Sunday Press, whose expansion was aided by the repeal of taxes upon knowledge, was described by Raymond Williams as a ‘transitional stage’ in British journalism, an important move away from ‘popular matter in a political sense…to popular matter in a commercial sense’.[2] However, Mapping Crime illustrates some of the continuities which existed in print culture.  There were important similarities between the older print form of the broadside and the supposedly new and ‘transitional’ newspapers.  A broadside was produced to commemorate the executions of both Kate Webster and Charles Peace, a practice which was only continued by the more ambitious broadside printers for major executions after the 1860s.  Such broadsides can be found in the John Johnson Collection.   The John Johnson Collectionshows that the printed woodcuts of the execution scenes of both Charles Peace and Kate Webster were identical.  Moreover, the first paragraph of each was also identical, outlining the execution scene and the moment that ‘the unhappy criminal was ‘launched into eternity’.  Both broadsides also included a ballad, as well as more general details of the crime and the proceedings of the court. 

Trial, sentence & execution of Kate Webster for the murder of Mrs. Thomas, at Richmond

Coverage of the executions of these murderers was not peculiar to the broadside.  The Illustrated Police News (accessed in the British Library’s 19th Century Newspapers Online), similarly produced stock accounts of the execution of Kate Webster and Charles Peace.  The front-page illustrations of the execution scene encouraged readers to act as a ‘spectator’ of the execution, despite the fact that it had taken place inside the walls of the prison.  Although more detailed than the broadside woodcut, the woodcut illustrations featured in the Illustrated Police News were nevertheless highly stylized. 

EXECUTION OF PEACE. The Illustrated Police News etc (London, England), Saturday, March 1, 1879; Issue 785.

The illustrations of Webster’s and Peace’s executions were almost identical, showing the criminals with a noose around their necks, receiving their last prayer, and surrounded by prison guards.  Also included were portraits of the criminal as well as a picture of Marwood (the hangman).  These large front-page illustrations suggest that the Illustrated Police News, like the earlier broadsides, could be bought as a memento of these famous executions.  They possessed the same ‘totemic’ value as their broadside ancestors; woodcut illustrations were at the centre of the Illustrated Police News, making iconic meanings explicit.[3]

EXECUTION OF CATHERINE WEBSTER AT WANDSWORTH GAOL. The Illustrated Police News etc (London, England), Saturday, August 2, 1879; Issue 807.

The weekly instalments and updates in the cases of both Peace and Webster were not peculiar to the Illustrated Police News.  As Mapping Crime illustrates, interest in Peace and Webster was widespread.  The crimes were regularly reported in weekly and daily newspapers, and in the London and provincial press.  The City Jackdaw (1875-1880), a Manchester weekly which advertised itself as ‘humorous and satirical’, criticised the levels of interest taken in Kate Webster’s execution by both the Lancashire and metropolitan press.[4] The reporter noted that the Lancashire dailies (including the Courier, Guardian, Evening News, Evening Mail, Liverpool Courier and Liverpool Mercury) devoted ten columns to the execution of Webster, which the newspaper claimed was ‘really above a joke’, given ‘the dose we have had during the past few weeks’.  However, the magazine noted that London fared no better, and in four seemingly respectable newspapers (Times, Standard, Telegraph and Daily News), there were seven columns devoted to the reporting of the execution.[5]  This demonstrates that provincial audiences were equally interested in metropolitan crimes.  The City Jackdaw was similarly critical of the public response to the Charles Peace murder, noting the universal interest in criminals and crime.  The periodical notes: ‘for some weeks the whole of our reading population have been absolutely besotten with Peace-worship.  No sooner has a really notorious criminal become convicted at the bar of English justice than he is immediately set up by the newspapers as a nucleus to both a paper and contents’ bill.  Young and old rush impetuously to bow at the shrine of criminal worship.’[6] 

Whilst this case study has focused predominantly upon what Mapping Crime can tell us about the reporting of crime in the nineteenth century, the resource can also be used to examine how both murderers infiltrated the popular culture of the late-nineteenth century.  Moving from simply comparing the various news reporting styles of the differing types of print culture, this resource allows us to examine the role occupied by these criminals in the public psyche, and can help to illuminate public perceptions of crime more generally.  Both Kate Webster and Charles Peace featured in a number of advertisements and other articles, demonstrating the intense public interest in these characters, and their subsequent commercial value.  Advertisements for the Madame Tussaud’s exhibitions of both criminals appeared soon after their execution and Kate Webster also featured in a satirical piece on ‘The Art of Flirting’ in Judy on 13 August 1879.  Despite the supposedly serious and threatening nature of her crime, Kate Webster was still given a celebrity status, and her crime could be discussed in a flippant manner.  The article provides its ‘young lady’ readers with a list of possible questions to ask on a date, which were sure to lead to ‘serious flirtation’.[7]  The article suggested that women ask their dates ‘Wasn’t it a shame they didn’t allow the reporters to go to Kate Webster’s execution?’.

Mapping Crime shows a society and a popular culture that was obsessed with murder.   Such an observation is not just true of the Victorian period.  As late as 1925 The Bookman would note the increasing tendency to retell stories of past famous crimes and trials, including accounts of Kate Webster herself.  The article questions ‘what fiction writer could have conceived…a Kate Webster?  Kate Webster, who, after she only half killed her victim, commenced to cut up her body’.[8]  However, this interest in crimes past was not simply a phenomenon of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. One only has to look at the expansion of Ripperology to see that society today continues to be fascinated with crime and popular representations of crimes past.  Mapping Crime not only allows an insight into how past societies perceived and encountered crime, but on a much baser level it also satisfies our own curiosities and ‘human interest’.

Bibliography:

‘Caws of the Week’, City Jackdaw, 1 August 1879, p. 300.

‘Criminal Worship’, City Jackdaw, 21 February, 1879, p. 117.

Illustrated Police News, 19 July 1879, p. 2.

‘The Art of Flirtation’, Judy, 13 August 1879, p. 75.

Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland

Eds. Brake, Laurel and Marysa Demoor. London: The British Library, 2009. Vol. 1. 1 vols. Print.

Altick, Richard D. Victorian Studies in Scarlet. London: Dent, 1972. Print.

Fox, Warren. “Murder in Installments”: The Newspapers and the Case of Franz Muller (1864).” Victorian Periodicals Review 31 (1998). Print.

Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree : Execution and the English People, 1770-1868. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

Images:

Trial & execution of Charles Peace for the murder of Mr. Dys[on] at Banner Cross.  John Johnson Shelfmark: Broadsides: Murder and Executions folder 11 (13). ProQuest durable URL

Trial, sentence & execution of Kate Webster for the murder of Mrs. Thomas, at Richmond. John Johnson Shelfmark: Broadsides: Murder and Executions folder 11 (18). ProQuest durable URL

Copyright © 2009 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

EXECUTION OF PEACE. The Illustrated Police News etc (London, England), Saturday, March 1, 1879; Issue 785.

EXECUTION OF CATHERINE WEBSTER AT WANDSWORTH GAOL. The Illustrated Police News etc (London, England), Saturday, August 2, 1879; Issue 807.

Copyright © 2010 Gale, British Newspapers 1600-1900.

Comments are welcome for sharing with other users, but regrettably the editors of Curators’ Choice are not necessarily able to respond to enquiries.


[1] Richard D. Altick, Victorian Studies in Scarlet (London: Dent, 1972)., p. 231.

[2] Warren Fox, “Murder in Installments”: The Newspapers and the Case of Franz Muller (1864),” Victorian Periodicals Review 31 (1998). P. 274.

[3] V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree : Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). P. 175.

[4] ‘City Jackdaw’ in Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland

eds. Laurel Brake and Marysa Demoor (London: The British Library, 2009), vol. 1, 1 vols., p. 121.

[5] ‘Caws of the Week’, City Jackdaw, 1 August 1879, p. 300.

[6] ‘Criminal Worship’, City Jackdaw, 21 February, 1879, p. 117.

[7] ‘The Art of Flirtation’, Judy, 13 August 1879, p. 75.

[8] ELLIS, S M, STORIES OF CRIME., Bookman, 68:407 (1925:Aug.) p.259

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