‘Life after Death’: Legacies of Executed Criminals in the Nineteenth Century

July 6, 2011

Mapping Crime case study by Rosalind Crone, The Open University.

Crime broadsides are often said to represent the poor man’s newspaper in the nineteenth century. By the 1820s at least, printers had established a specific formula whereby a series of cheap, but highly decorous sheets of various sizes were produced for notable, especially violent crimes, capturing the event, the trials of the accused and the moment of his or her execution. The resources linked to the large number of crime broadsides in the John Johnson Collection as part of Mapping Crime highlight the relationship of these sheets to the newspaper and periodical press of the time, where these crimes were similarly reported.

An edition of the Newgate Calendar from 16th September 1824, including the trials, and sentences, of the prisoners tried at the Old Bailey, this Sessions... together with the lamentation of those who are cast for death.

However, the resources linked to the broadsides also show that for at least a significant cluster of gruesome crimes the memory of these events was fanned by various cultural phenomena. In other words, a number of criminals were kept alive in popular culture for long periods after their deaths. This is, at first, most obvious in the links to the online Newgate Calendar. At least ten nineteenth-century criminals who feature in the broadsides in John Johnson also have entries in the Newgate Calendar: apart from two forgerers (Fauntleroy and Hunton) and one traitor (Thistlewood) the rest appear to have achieved notoriety through the crime of murder. The Newgate Calendar was a collection of biographies of criminals, most of whom were British and active from the eighteenth-century onwards. The publication first appeared in the 1770s, and although it was based on earlier, similar voluminous collections, it was more lavish and moralistic than anything that had appeared before with a price tag which suggested a more affluent audience eager to include the books in their libraries. The edition which features as part of the Mapping Crime resource was published as late as 1926, highlighting the persistent demand for both the publication and stories of significant crimes from times past.

The Rugeley poisonings... The trial of William Palmer, at the Central Criminal Court, London, for poisoning John Parsons Cook...

Newgate Calendars were not the only publications produced in the wake of a criminal scandal with the aim of generating high sales from a public anxious to keep the memory of the crime alive. Internal links within the John Johnson Collection supplied as part of Mapping Crime highlight the production of a range of more durable sheets, pamphlets and volumes which brought together the key elements of the crime and its punishment and, unlike disjointed broadside or newspaper reports, presented the events as a digestible narrative. Many of these publications were produced by established newspapers as way of generating extra revenue. For instance, attached to the broadside printed for the execution of the infamous serial poisoner, William Palmer, at Rugeley in 1856 is the forty-page pamphlet produced by the Illustrated Times complete with the transcript of the trial, memoir of the prisoner and sixty illustrations. Similarly, items connected with the execution of James Blomfield Rush for the murders at Stanfield Hall include the series of engravings commissioned by the Norwich Mercury at the conclusion of the trial. Evidence from other historical sources suggests that some purchasers would use these illustrations to decorate the walls of their dwellings.

The examples of such pamphlets, volumes and other types of crime ephemera contained in the John Johnson Collection represent just the tip of the iceberg. Following the link provided to the British Library Newspapers reveals the extent of this practice. For example, after the execution of Frederick and Maria Manning for the murder of their lodger, Patrick O’Connor, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper advertised the publication of ‘The Trial of the Mannings’, reminding readers to ask the newsagent for ‘Lloyd’s Edition’. Those newspapers that did not publish their own pamphlets on famous crimes did not refrain from advertising those produced by others. Searches in British Library Newspapers for ‘Bishop and Williams’, the metropolitan Burkers (or body snatchers), active during the early 1830s, returns advertisements in the Morning Post for Pierce Egan’s book, The Murder of the Italian Boy, published in December 1831 and sold for 1 shilling sixpence.

The trial of Corder, for the murder of Maria Marten, at Polstead, Suffolk

Books and pamphlets were not the only form of criminal legacy in the nineteenth century: links in the Mapping Crime resource also draw our attention to the performative characteristics of the legacies of the executed. Audiences could experience and remember a crime through its performance, not just through reading. The additional resources from the John Johnson Collection which appear alongside the broadside printed for the trial of William Corder are particularly instructive. Corder murdered his paramour, Maria Marten, in the Red Barn located in a Suffolk village in 1826; it was, more or less, a straightforward domestic crime. However, the discovery of Maria’s body apparently through the prophetic dreams of her step-mother ensured the crime gained notoriety throughout the country. By the time Corder was executed in 1828, the murder had become a popular melodrama played in theatres all over Britain. One of the playbills from the Lincoln Theatre survives in the John Johnson Collection.

A beautiful cyclorama of the mysterious murder of Maria Marten, by William Corder...

As does a catalogue from a waxwork exhibition on Pentonville Hill in London which advertised a ‘Cyclorama’ of the tragedy, treating viewers to key scenes of the murder. This link provides strong inducements to dig deeper. After all, the most famous waxwork exhibition in London, Madame Tussaud’s, featured a chamber of horrors which contained effigies of some of the most famous criminals of the nineteenth century. Again, following the links in Mapping Crime to the British Library Newspaper resource reveals a treasure trove: searches for specific criminals from the John Johnson Collection at times returns results which contain advertisements for the addition of wax effigies of these men and women to Tussaud’s ghastly chamber. Only a month after the execution of James Greenacre for the murder of his former lover, Hannah Brown, the Morning Post published this advertisement: ‘The Execrable Greenacre. Madame Tussaud and Sons, anxious to obey the wishes of their numerous visitors, have completed a full-length model of the fiend Greenacre. The likeness, taken from the best authority, represents him as he appeared at his trial’.

It is clear that a range of cultural phenomena existed to keep alive the memory of a select number of criminals in the nineteenth century; but were memories kept alive? The impact of these publications and performances is first evident in the broadsides themselves. Broadside authors at times made reference to notorious past crimes when reporting on a current tragedy, perhaps with the intention of creating a similar sensation out of the crime at hand. Mapping Crime highlights some of these links. When news broke of the discovery of a horribly dismembered and burnt corpse in aSurrey barn in 1842, broadside printers immediately compared the events to those of the Greenacre-Brown tragedy of 1837. One author stated Daniel Good’s appalling murder of Jane Jones ‘in the annals of crime, has only been equalled in atrocity by that of Hannah Brown, by Greenacre, and that of Mr Paas, at Leicester’. Connections between past and present murders could also be used to illustrate the didactic value of crime. Eliza Grimwood, for example, did not take warning from the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, despite being ‘on a visit at a friend’s in the neighbourhood and the first person who entered the Red Barn and saw the mangled corpse of that ill-fated girl’. Instead, Grimwood went on to lead a reckless, immoral life and hence suffered a similar fate.

Finally, there is some very slight evidence that ordinary people at times invoked the names of famous murderers to describe particular human interactions, especially violent ones. Some of this evidence can be found in the transcripts of trails at the Central Criminal Court housed at the Old Bailey Online. Mapping Crime links crime broadsides directly to trials. But searching for the names of specific criminals generally in the Old Bailey Online database highlights the use of those names in other trials to describe violent encounters. For example, After the especially gruesome murder and mutilation of Hannah Brown by James Greenacre in 1837, several criminal trials followed in which witnesses claimed that the accused had invoked the name of Greenacre much to their concern and fright. During a robbery in June 1837, victim Catherine Crawford of the Hutchinson Arms in Ratcliffe claimed that the thief stated: ‘“If you do not give [the money] to me, it will be the worst day’s work you ever did, for I will serve you as Greenacre served Mrs Brown’ – I am quite sure he used that expression – he repeated several times about Greenacre, and I was very much alarmed’.

Images:

Newgate calendar. Including the trials, and sentences, of the prisoners tried at the Old Bailey, this Sessions. Together with the lamentation of those who are cast for death.  John Johnson Shelfmark: Broadsides: Murder and Executions folder 1 (2). ProQuest durable URL

The Rugeley poisonings… The trial of William Palmer, at the Central Criminal Court, London, for poisoning John Parsons Cook : With a complete memoir of the prisoner, and a full account of the numerous cases of poisoning in which he is suspected to be implicated. Illustrated with sixty engravings, comprising… every place or object of interest connected with these startling crimes.  John Johnson Shelfmark: Broadsides: Murder and Executions folder 11 (36). ProQuest durable URL

The trial of Corder, for the murder of Maria Marten, at Polstead, Suffolk.  John Johnson Shelfmark: Broadsides: Murder and Executions folder 5 (11). ProQuest durable URL

An entire new exhibition, at 16, Pleasant Row, Pentonville Hill, near Battle Bridge [A beautiful cyclorama of the mysterious murder of Maria marten, by William Corder…].  John Johnson Shelfmark: Waxworks 3 (6). ProQuest durable URL

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

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

Advertisements

Charles Peace and Kate Webster

July 4, 2011

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


To hell and back: surviving the gallows

April 17, 2009
A broadside reporting Mary Green's execution and revival

A broadside reporting Mary Green's execution and revival

In 1819 Mary Green was found guilty of using counterfeit banknotes, a capital offence. Sentenced to death by hanging, Mary was executed on the morning of 22nd March on a scaffold constructed in front of the notorious Newgate Prison.

After “hanging the usual time” she was declared dead and her body released to friends for burial. To their astonishment, the “deceased” began to show signs of life. A doctor was quickly summoned and Mary was soon brought back to her senses.

Surprisingly, Mary appears to have suffered few lasting effects from her unfortunate ordeal. She is believed to have taken another name and started a new life in Canada. She died for the second, and final, time in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1834.

There are several other recorded instances of surviving the death penalty, the most famous tale being that of John “Half-hanged” Smith, hanged at Tyburn on 24th December, 1705. Capitally convicted for robbery, Smith was granted a reprieve while he was actually hanging on the scaffold. Having hung for 15 minutes or more, Smith was cut down and returned to life.

When asked what it felt like to be hanged, Smith reported seeing “a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain.” The pain, it seems, was reserved for his return to the living: “After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling or shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who cut me down.”

John Smith's story retold in an 1830s broadside

John Smith's story retold and updated for an 1820s broadside, complete with details of a fictional second hanging.

Smith apparently failed to learn his lesson – he was indicted for housebreaking at least twice more, narrowly avoiding the gallows each time.

Not every gallows survivor was as lucky as Mary Green or John Smith. A Mrs Cope of Oxford also lived through her death sentence in 1658, but this time the unsympathetic authorities simply insisted on mounting a second, more successful, attempt the following day. – Ken Gibb

Images:
An account of the extraordinary life and execution of Mary Green. John Johnson Shelfmark: Harding B 9/1 (30)(ProQuest durable URL)

A singular character. John Johnson Shelfmark: Harding B 9/1 (40) (ProQuest durable URL)

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

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


A brief guide to broadsides

August 22, 2008

From the 16th to the mid-19th centuries, the general public looked to the broadside for news of the latest sensational crimes, murders and executions. As one of the most popular forms of street literature, broadsides were the tabloid newspapers of their day, selling near the gallows on execution days for just a penny. Public hangings were virtually a form of entertainment, attracting large crowds eager for a grandstand view of the proceedings, and the broadside vendors were ready to shout their news the moment the accused was “launched into eternity.”

  

The execution of John Akrill

This example, entitled Some particulars of the execution of John Akrill, is typical of the broadside format. A single sheet of paper printed on one side, the broadside usually included an account of the crime, a woodcut illustration (in this example, a scene depicting the execution), a description of the convict’s final hours and his last dying confession. The latter was often given in the form of a cautionary verse, emphasising the sorrow of the convict and warning readers of the dangers of drink and bad company. John Akrill, the unhappy subject of this particular broadside, was sentenced to death in 1827 for the crime of horse stealing, one of nearly 500 offences at that time punishable by death.

 

While many thousands of broadsides were printed, the market was dominated by only a few printers. Profits depended on the printer’s ability to produce and sell broadsides quickly and cheaply, and production costs were kept to the bare minimum. Woodcuts could be reused as the occasion demanded, and stock illustrations of the gallows even had a removable section designed to accommodate the required number of hanging bodies!

The gallows

 

Broadsides were often prepared far in advance of the execution date and were notoriously unreliable, containing numerous printing errors and inaccuracies of all kinds. Many, if not all, of the gallows speeches and confessions reported were completely fictional, while some printers even reused entire texts, changing only the names.

 

 The John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera contains several hundred crime broadsides, all of which are being catalogued and digitised as part of the joint Proquest and Oxford University project, The John Johnson Collection: An Archive of Printed Ephemera. – Ken Gibb

 

Images:

Some particulars of the execution of John Akrill. John Johnson Shelfmark: Crime 1 (4) (ProQuest durable URL)

 

The last dying speech and confession of Thomas Howard. John Johnson Shelfmark: Crime 1 (97) (ProQuest durable URL)

 

Copyright © 2008 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  Reproduced with the permission of ProQuest.  Further reproduction prohibited without permission

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