If you were a criminal, what would you choose – a life sentence in prison, the death sentence, or to be surgically blinded?
In the 18th century, people asssumed that if you shunned work and acted like an idle apprentice, you would become a criminal.
Society Gets the Criminals it Deserves: The Resurrection Man from G. W. M. Reynolds’ “The Mysteries of London” (1844-45)
What makes a person commit crime? How does a person become a hardened criminal? These are questions which we ask today and which the Victorians also asked of their society? This post examines G W M Reynolds’ answer to these questions.
In the late-Victorian period The Edinburgh Review wrote that ‘There is now before us such a veritable mountain of pernicious trash, mostly in paper covers, and “Price One Penny”; so-called novelettes, tales, stories of adventure, mystery and crime; pictures of school life hideously unlike reality; exploits of robbers, cut-throats, prostitutes, and rogues, that, but for its actual presence, it would seem incredible’.
Last Dying Speeches, Trials, and Executions: The Changing Format and Function of Crime Broadsides, c.1800 – c.1840
A paper delivered at Pernicious Trash? Victorian Popular Fiction, c.1830-c.1880, Leeds Trinity University 12 September 2016.
Capt. Alexander Smith’s “A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats” (1714)
Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), with its combination of excessive moralism and sensational reporting, set the tone for all successive ‘true’ crime writing.
In 1867 William Knipe authored “The Criminal Chronology of York Castle” – the most comprehensive survey of crime in Yorkshire from the medieval period to the Victorian era.
Abstract. Robin Hood needs no introduction. He is the noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor, living a merry life in Sherwood Forest. Yet people often forget that Robin Hood was a criminal. Indeed, Robin Hood Studies are often seen as a class apart from traditional legal and criminal histories, perhaps because of their ‘popular’ nature. Undoubtedly, by the nineteenth century, Robin Hood emerged as a national hero, partly due to his glorification by Romantic-era writers such as Sir Walter Scott. Yet as my paper will show, there was always uneasiness in some Robin Hood texts between judging Robin’s good deeds on the one hand, and his criminality on the other. Writers explained this in various ways. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819) disapproved overall of Robin’s outlawry, but concluded that his actions were necessary for the safeguarding of the nation. Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) gave Robin an a detailed backstory, explaining that he was outlawed only because he was guilty of resisting oppressive Forest Laws, and hence there was justification for his criminal career. Pierce Egan, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), chose not to portray Robin as an outlaw at all, but as a radical political fighter. Yet in these texts also, other outlaws who are not part of Robin’s band are depicted as murderous brutes. My paper thus argues that these moral judgments (and sometimes the absence of any type of judgment) upon Robin Hood’s outlawry were a way of separating one of England’s foremost national heroes, who was ultimately a criminal, from the ‘criminal class,’ a notion which gained currency during the nineteenth century and held that there was a certain underclass in society which was responsible for the majority of crime.
A forthcoming public talk to be delivered at Pontefract Castle on 8 May 2016.
The lives of murderers, ravishers, thieves, highwaymen, burglars, forgers, Pirates, and Street Robbers adorned the pages of “The Newgate Calendar”.