‘The morning dawned…the clock had just struck eight, when the voice of a man in the street fell upon his ear. He heard the following announcement:-
Here is a full account of the horrible assassination committed by the miscreant William Bolter upon the person of his wife…only one penny! The fullest and most perfect account – only one penny!’ 
The above passage depicts the street-sale of a broadside after a crime has been committed. Broadsides were single sheets of paper which were sold cheaply to consumers. The broadside trade dates back to the 1500s, and they covered a range of topics including politics, religion, and crime. By the eighteenth century they became almost exclusively focused upon news of crime. At public executions broadsides were sold which purported to carry the ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals condemned to the gallows. This chapter analyses a selection of broadsides between the 1790s and 1830s. It will be argued that these documents were complex pieces of literature which reflected contemporaries’ changing views of sin, crime, and punishment.
Henry Mayhew remarked that a ‘very extensive…portion of the reading of the poor is supplied by the “Sorrowful Lamentations” and “Last Dying Speech, Confession, and Execution” of criminals’. Until recent years historians have arrived at the same conclusions as Mayhew regarding the readership of this literature. In fact, broadsides were formerly dismissed by historians as ‘ephemera catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many…falling below the dignified historian’s line’. Gatrell takes the view that broadsides were produced for and read mainly by the poorer classes due to their inexpensive price. However, other scholars argue that these publications were aimed at a wider audience. ‘On a literary level’, says Chassaigne, broadsides ‘belong to the broader genre of criminal biography’. Criminal biographies emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, along with publications such as The Old Bailey Sessions Papers (published between 1674 and 1913), and The Newgate Calendar (published in various editions in 1774, 1824, and 1826). These publications were commercial ventures, and mirrored the eighteenth-century reading public’s interest in crime as they feared that the country, particularly London, was in the midst of a ‘crime wave’. Henry Fielding (1707-1754) writing in 1751, for instance, predicted that within a few years ‘the Streets of this Town [London], and the Roads leading to it [will be]…impassable without the utmost hazard’. Consequently, in public discourse there was a ‘century-long debate over how to respond to the apparently ever-rising tide of criminality’. In the absence of a professional police force, one response by eighteenth-century law makers to the perceived rise in crime was the gradual introduction of a Bloody law Code. During the eighteenth century over two hundred offences became capital felonies, many of them relating to property theft. Criminal biographies attempted to warn readers against leading a life of sin and vice, because following such a course would end at the gallows. The readership for this material in the eighteenth century was ‘men and women of small property’. The broadsides of the nineteenth century similarly addressed readers from all classes evident in phrases such as: ‘Good people all a warning take’ (emphasis added). Moreover, broadsides were produced for sale primarily at public executions, and people from all classes attended these events. Broadsides were ‘popular’ in so far as they were not socially exclusive, and therefore both the working and middle classes must have read these publications.
The general appearance of broadsides did not change greatly over time. The early broadsides examined here carried a woodcut of the gallows, depicting the moment that the condemned was ‘launched into eternity’. Hangings were a common occurrence in Britain. In London, in addition to Newgate (whence the Tyburn executions were removed in 1783), hangings occurred at Execution Dock, Wapping until 1830, and Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Southwark until 1878. A Londoner born in the 1780s could have witnessed approximately four hundred executions at Newgate alone by the 1840s. The early woodcuts rarely depicted the actual felon represented in the text. Instead they were stock images, re-used by printers on several occasions. Gatrell explains that these items were ‘totemic artefacts…symbolic substitutes for the experiences watched…mementoes of events whose psychic significance was somehow worth reifying’. Precisely what people felt about seeing these macabre images may never be known, given that a distance of nigh-on two hundred years has passed since executions were a part of everyday life. However, Gatrell does have this to say about the ‘artistic representation of death’:
[It] express[ed] a displaced anxiety about death, and a desire for health as well. It express[ed] ‘something that is so dangerous to the health of the psyche that it must be repressed and yet so strong in its desire for articulation that it can’t be’. In a ‘gesture of compromise’ the artist deals with the danger by presenting death in ‘the body of another person and at another site’.
Perhaps the images allayed purchasers’ fears regarding their own mortality, and inwardly they were happy that it was not themselves upon the scaffold.
By the 1820s, however, images of the crime being perpetrated were included by publishers, sometimes appearing instead of the gallows. The contrast in the images represented a shift in the way that condemned people were viewed by the public. The gallows demarcated the condemned as someone to be pitied, whereas an image of the crime in progress marked out the perpetrator as a definite criminal. Sympathy could be extended to a man about to die, but not to a man who was represented as carrying out a heinous act upon another person. The consensus between law makers and the scaffold crowd dictated that villainy, especially against other people’s bodies, must be punished. Take the case of James Cook, pictured below. He is not a sympathetic figure. Instead he is represented as a cruel man, barbarously striking a blow against an older, weaker man.
The representation of violent acts in print culture is connected to a growing demand for violent entertainment during the nineteenth century:
Woodcuts [by c.1820] were extremely detailed, usually capturing the actual moment of violence or presenting to viewers the most heinous aspect of the crime. Theses graphic images shocked and horrified purchasers…at the same time, woodcuts titillated spectators.
The early nineteenth century was the period in which the concept of ‘violence’ was invented. Wood states that although violence ‘had been a widely accepted part of social relations, community self-policing and recreational life in the eighteenth century, [it] gained a new cultural prominence as a ‘“social problem”’. The images on broadsides became a form of entertainment through which contemporaries could vent their longing for increasingly outlawed violent entertainments, such as cock fighting, bull and bear baiting. People access violent entertainment for various reasons; some people ‘seek excitement, others companionship or social acceptance through shared experience, and still others wish to see justice enacted’. Watching a hanging, and seeing the crime being committed in print, fulfilled people’s appetites for violent entertainment, offering a shared community experience whilst seeing justice done. Hence images from the 1820s marked broadsides out as consumer commodities, signalling that people had by this period moved from being producers of violent entertainment, to being consumers of it.
Moreover, as seen above, there is a ‘Correct Likeness of James Cook’. By the 1820s some broadsides carried pictures of the felon which may be linked to the growth of phrenology since c.1811. Phrenologists explored how ‘the lineaments of a person’s character are determined by the shape of the bumps on the head’, and ‘on the basis of their understanding… phrenologists could explain every form of criminal behaviour.’ The image from The Popular Educator in 1854 illustrates the perceptions of how morality and criminality were displayed in the countenance. There is a resemblance between James Cook in the broadside, and image number seven in the phrenology illustration. Both characters share a long nose going out to a point, as well as a chin which sits into the collar. The image illustrates the way in which vice supposedly degraded a man’s facial features. He started as ‘the child,’ and through bad associations descended through the ‘the street,’ to ‘drunkenness,’ ‘vice and misery,’ and ‘beggary’. Cook himself testified at his trial that before he fell into bad company ‘he was a perfectly good character’. In an era before the police photographed known criminals, it is interesting to see how broadsides were beginning to reflect a ‘scientific’ awareness of the causes of crime in their ‘likenesses’ of criminals.
The headline usually followed the same formula of words and phrases. The earliest broadside studied here is entitled ‘The Last Speech, Confession, and Dying Words of James Dormand, who was Execute [sic] at Perth, on Friday 31st May 1793, for Highway Robbery’. In Leicestershire, England, four years later, a broadside was published entitled: ‘The Last Dying Speech, and Confession, of Ferdinando Davis, Who was Executed at Nottingham, on Wednesday 31st March 1802’. Some broadsides would claim to be a copy of a letter or verses written by the condemned and found in their cell, such as ‘A Copy of Verses which was found in the Condemned Cells of Barnicoat and Thompson, Who were Executed at Launceston, on Monday, April 2nd, 1821’. It is doubtful that the verses were ever written by the criminals themselves, and Mayhew sarcastically said that ‘[the prisoner’s] being unable to read or write [seems]…no obstacle to the composition’.
Broadsides recounted what their respective titles advertised; a life, dying speech and execution. The felon’s early life was recounted, for example: ‘James Dormand was a native of Scotland, and born in the north of Ireland, only aged 19 years, of honest and respectable parents’. Many criminals in the earlier part of the period studied appear to have come from honest and respectable families, and after a short account of their birth and parentage usually came the fall from grace. Thomas Hopkinson, born of ‘respectable’ parentage, ended at the gallows because he followed a sinful course:
He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end…his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he scarcely seemed sensible of its depravity; and thus in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till he ‘was driven away with his wickedness.
There is continuity here with the way that eighteenth-century authors represented the lives of criminals in the literature of the period, evident in the biography of Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), a notorious house-breaker, highwayman and gaol-breaker, published in 1724:
This John Sheppard, a youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin…received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter…But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess [a prostitute]…Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!
Throughout the eighteenth century it was assumed that people, regardless of social status, were capable of committing crime as men were inherently sinful, and therefore anyone might become a criminal. Small vices would lead to greater vices and crime, for ‘sin [in the eighteenth century] was both addictive and progressive…contemporary moralists warned that from such little acorns as childhood raids on orchards and the pilfering of “farthings and marbles” grew great oaks of iniquity’. Perhaps this is why property offenders throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were sometimes treated sympathetically by both the scaffold crowd and in the broadside text; they were sinners like other men. At worst, figures such as highwaymen were people ‘with a tragic fatal flaw’.
Yet by the 1820s, the content of broadsides changed, mentioning the victim as well as the criminal. This was the case in the ‘Account of the Interesting Trial of John Stewart and Catherine Wright, for the Murder and Robbery of Robert Lamont’. The criminal and the victim also began to share almost equal prominence within the text, and in some cases the focus of the text was the victim. For example, in 1834 a broadside depicting a highway robbery and murder in Epsom focused solely on the victim of the crime, a Mister John Richardson (Fig. 4). In this broadside, the criminals are not named at all. It simply says that a highway robbery was ‘committed…by two ruffians, on Mr. John Richardson, Farmer’. Gone is the lengthy account of the criminal’s birth, life, and descent into sin. All that is said of the offender is that Mr. Richardson was robbed by a man ‘who is known to be a desperate fellow’. This shift from readers’ identification with the villain to the victim coincides with the emergence of respectability during this period, which was characterised by sobriety, religion, and deference to the law. This being the case, it is no wonder that by the 1820s readers no longer wished to identify or sympathise with robbers.
Another change in the body of the text was the inclusion of the trial. Later broadsides, instead of being entitled as ‘Last Dying Speech, Confession…etc.,’ carried titles such as ‘Trial and Sentence,’ or, as in the case of the burglar William Harley in 1836; ‘The Life, Trial, and Awful Execution of William Harley, for the Chipstead Burglary’ (Fig. 5).The depiction of the trial in the main body of the text left readers in no doubt as to the felon’s guilt. Mitchell and Sharp in 1825 were definitely guilty because ‘after a few minutes’ absence, [the jury] returned a viva voce verdict, finding the pannels [sic] guilty’. Mitchell and Sharp committed a heinous crime, had been found guilty by a jury of their peers, and sentenced to death. Justice had been served. The inclusion of the trial served an important function when many people’s exposure to the workings of the judicial process would have been rare. It included people into the judicial sphere, and with the gradual focus upon the victim in the text, allowed ‘the whole community to unite against the criminal’. Perhaps the inclusion of the trial stimulated debate about the judicial process amongst members of the middle classes, who at this time were clamouring for legal and parliamentary reform. Reform in these areas was led by the Whigs, the party of ‘the social middle’, who implemented the ideas of middle-class reformers in the area of the criminal law. Measures included the downgrading of many capital offences to custodial sentences or transportation. Some middle-class commentators by the 1840s openly disapproved of the death sentence. On 13th November 1849 Charles Dickens attended a public execution at Horse-Monger Lane Gaol. He listed various reasons as to why public executions should be abolished. It was ‘the horrible spectacle,’ together with the behaviour of the crowd, which ‘made [his] blood run cold’. In the letter he further suggested making capital punishment ‘a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large)’. In the nineteenth century justice was not accomplished through a violent spectacle but through a sober legal process:
In punishment-as-spectacle a confused horror spread from the scaffold; it enveloped both executioner and condemned…[when] the publicity has shifted to the trial, and to the sentence; the execution itself is like an additional shame that justice is ashamed to impose on the condemned man.
Whilst in the eighteenth century broadsides functioned as a forum in which anxieties about crime and sin could be expressed and negotiated, by the nineteenth century broadsides were propagating a respectable middle-class view of crime and justice. The shift of focus in broadside narratives from the execution to the trial mirrored the growing middle-class disapproval of state-sanctioned violence. Thus the execution of a prisoner by the 1830s was, it seems, a last resort only after the felon had been found guilty by a jury of his peers.
The final part of the story was the moment that criminals met ‘their awful fate’. A more common euphemism was ‘launched into eternity’, as is the case with Thomas Wilcox. Being ‘launched into eternity’ through hanging was a painful, degrading experience:
The dangling person probably feels cervical pain, and suffers from an acute headache, as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck…sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them…Male prisoners sometimes have penile erections (priapism) after hanging due to the pooling of blood in the legs and lower body once the heart stops…Men may also ejaculate on the rope.
Euphemisms sanitised the state-sanctioned violence of the death sentence. It seems that ‘it [was] ugly to be punishable, but there [was] no glory in punishing’. The representation of the hanging in the broadsides cannot be divorced from the act of the execution. There are several ways of ‘reading’ a public execution. An execution ‘restored the offender to the fraternity of the righteous, and paid the debt he owed to society’. Hay sees the event as an instrument of class terror explaining that there was ‘an astute ruling class who manipulated [the law] to their advantage [over] a [common] people schooled in the lessons of Justice, Terror and Mercy’. Laqueur stresses the ‘carnivalesque’ element of the public execution, in which spectators could defy authority by identifying with the condemned. The notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ will be returned to later. The above explanations, however, are too reductionist for the event was a two-way process. The meaning of the execution was a reaffirmation of the social contract. The hanging allowed people to subvert authority by identifying with the condemned if they wished, but at the same time the crowd were powerless to prevent the law taking its course. The scaffold ‘[signified] death, justice, power and retribution’. Broadsides, therefore, inculcated both a respect for the law to their audience, yet also provide them with a (momentary) opportunity to defy authority.
As a final point, it might be worth stating something about the significance of broadsides to the families of the condemned. It might be supposed that these broadsides were possibly sometimes the only artefact they had left of their loved ones who had suffered at the gallows. There is a work of fiction in the 1830s which reveals that broadsides were kept by families perhaps as mementoes. In 1839 William Harrison Ainsworth wrote the novel Jack Sheppard. The novel is an embellished story of the afore-mentioned Jack Sheppard, who was hanged in 1724. The novel commences in the ‘sorry lodging’ of Jack’s mother, Mrs. Sheppard. Her husband, Tom, has just been hanged, but the reader observes in her dwelling place that:
Over the chimney-piece was pasted a handbill, purporting to be ‘The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Tom Sheppard, the Notorious House-breaker, who suffered at Tyburn on the 25th February 1703’. This placard was adorned with a rude wood-cut, representing the unhappy malefactor at the place of execution.
Novels are the cultural mouthpieces for contemporary practices and attitudes of people in bygone eras, and perhaps Ainsworth had previously seen broadsides used by families in such a way? After all, until 1809 the bodies of malefactors, in particular murderers, were given over to the surgeons in London for dissection. This practice was instituted by the Murder Act of 1752 which prevented giving felons a Christian burial. If a family was denied access to their loved one’s body after death, it is reasonable to suppose that a handbill containing their ‘Last Dying Speech’ may have provided them with some comfort. This may particularly have been the case if the families were destitute, for maybe it would have been the only memento that they had of the deceased. However, it would be virtually impossible for any such testimony of the condemned criminals’ loved ones detailing such a practice to be uncovered.
In conclusion, the appeal of broadsides between the 1790s and 1830s was in their provision of news and entertainment to the reading public. Gatrell says ‘read half a dozen and you have read them all’. Indeed, the images and the texts of the broadsides did appear to follow a similar pattern throughout their history. However, ‘there has hitherto been a tendency to overlook the changing nature of broadsides’. Whilst their general format and appearance changed little over the course of this period, there were subtle differences that can be discerned from studying them over time. The earliest broadsides represented continuity with an eighteenth-century view of criminality which stated that all people were capable of committing crime because of original sin. Broadsides from the 1820s and 1830s, however, told a different story. Respectability is evident in the latter examples because sympathy was not intended for the offender but for the victim. Broadsides also changed from being didactic texts to sources of titillating entertainment, whereby readers could ‘respectably’ indulge their tastes for violent entertainments. The inclusion of the trial in the broadsides further represented increasing approval from the public towards the law. However, readers still avidly consumed tales of historic thieves such as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin, even if they disapproved of contemporary robbers.
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