Criminality and Animal Cruelty in 18th-Century England

I am currently in the final stages of editing a book chapter I have written for Prof. Alexander Kaufman’s and Penny Vlagopoulos’s forthcoming work entitled Food and Feasting in Post-1700 Outlaw Narratives (2018). My own contribution focuses upon butchers who turned to highway robbery in the eighteenth century. While the feedback I received from the editors was generally positive (I’ve never yet managed to produce the ‘perfect’ work which can be published ‘as is’ – maybe one day!), the editors felt I had let myself get side-tracked in the essay by veering a little too much into views of animal cruelty and its connection to criminality in the eighteenth century. Thus, I present here my book chapter off-cut as I saw no reason to discard it altogether.

During the eighteenth century, moralists assumed that the seeds of a person’s criminal inclinations could be discerned through their treatment of animals. Their reasoning was that, if a person could torture and harm a defenceless creature when they were young, then this could potentially translate into homicidal tendencies when they were older. Throughout the period, then, a number of contemporary literary and artistic works drew attention to this idea.

One of the first examples of a youthful rogue torturing an animal is found in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665). This was a fictional biography of a criminal called Meriton Latroon which drew upon contemporary accounts of highwaymen and thieves for inspiration. At the beginning of the book, the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, tells the reader the following situation that occurred in his youth:

Thus happen’d, my father kept commonly many turkeys; one among the rest could not endure a fight with a red coat, which I usually wore. But that which most of all exasperated my budding passion, was, his assaulting my bread and butter, and instead thereof, sometimes my hands; which caused my bloomy revenge to use this stratagem: I enticed him with a piece of custard (which I temptingly shewed him), not without some suspition of danger which fear suggested, might attend my treachery, and so led me to the orchard gate, which was made to shut with a pulley; he reaching in his head after me, I immediately clapt fast the gate, and so surprized my mortal foe: Then did I use that little strength I had, to beat his brains out with my cat-stick; which being done, I deplum’d his tayl, sticking those feathers in my bonnet, as the insulting trophies of my first and latest conquest. Such then was my pride, as I nothing but gazed up at them; which so tryed the weakness of mine eyes and so strain’d the optick nerves, that they ran a tilt at one another, as if they contended to share with me in my victory.[1]

Meriton takes pleasure in his cruelty: he finds the turkey annoying, and resolves to rid himself of this “mortal foe”; he does not, however, humanely dispatch the poor animal but smashes his head in the gate, and the fact that he strains his optic nerve reveals that he whips himself up into a frenzy while beating the poor thing.

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Perhaps the most memorable association between animal cruelty and criminality from the eighteenth century, however, is found in William Hogarth’s series of images entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751).[i] The first in the series, The First Stage of Cruelty, depicts a group of children and bystanders enjoying the sight of a dog mauling a cat. Elsewhere in the illustration, two cats are hanged by their tales from a street sign, and two other adolescents are sticking an arrow into a dog’s rectum, while a poor bird is being blinded by with a red hot poker in her eye by two other youths. The inscription underneath the image laments the bloodthirstiness of London’s youth:

While various scenes of sportive woe

The infant race employ,

And tortur’d victims bleeding shew

The tyrant in the boy.

Behold! A Youth of gentler heart,

To spare the creature’s pain

O take, he cries – take all my tart,

But tears and tart are vain.

Learn from this fair example – You

Whom savage sports delight,

How cruelty disgusts the view

While pity charms the sight.[ii]

In order to cement the relationship between animal cruelty and criminality, Hogarth depicts a street artist drawing the instigator of this horrid event, young Tom Nero, being hanged on the gallows. Throughout the succeeding illustrations, Nero progresses through life committing various cruel acts until finally, he murders somebody. He is executed for this act, and in the final instalment, The Reward of Cruelty, his body is laid upon the surgeon’s table being dissected.[iii] Perhaps to avenge the cruel treatment of his fellow canines in the earlier image, a dog can be seen eating Nero’s heart that has fallen to the ground.

Not long after Hogarth published his series of prints, a highwayman named William Harrow (d. 1763) was executed at Tyburn. His biography, as recorded in Remarkable Trials and Interesting Memoirs of the Most Noted Criminals (1765), points out that he took great delight in cockfighting.[iv] Another biography published in The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) similarly emphasises this fact.[v] Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin’s New Newgate Calendar (1825) focuses in greater detail on the acts of animal cruelty that Harrow committed while he was a youth:

This malefactor may be said to have galloped to his fate over the beaten road. He commenced his career in idleness, the parent [of] vice; then he became dexterous at throwing cocks, and cock-fighting. These cruel and infamous acquirements lead to robberies, adultery, and every other deadly sin. Such is the general course of highwaymen; and their goal – the gallows.[vi]

A footnote which Knapp and Baldwin include here is most interesting:

Kind treatment of animals, made for man’s use, is a sign of a humane and excellent disposition; so cruelty and barbarity to them, shews a wicked and diabolical temper. Do not these creatures, when they are bruised and wounded, shew an equal sense of pain with ourselves? Are not their shrieks and mournful cries, as so many, calls upon their tormentors for pity? And do not their dying pangs, and the painful convulsions of their tortured bodies, cause uneasiness in every human spectator?[vii]

By Knapp and Baldwin’s time, of course, attitudes towards animal cruelty were changing. The episode of animal cruelty was stated rather matter-of-factly by Richard Head in the seventeenth century, and not necessarily condemned. It was later lamented by Hogarth in the 1750s, although he did not offer any solution to the problem of youthful animal cruelty other than to warn them that they would end up at the gallows.

Nevertheless, some groups did take action during this century. As a result of campaigns by evangelicals during the late eighteenth century, a variety of blood sports had actually been outlawed by the nineteenth century and laws were eventually passed which aimed to put a stop to animal cruelty. In the same year that the aforementioned Knapp and Baldwin published their Newgate Calendar, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded (later the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or RSPCA).


[1]      Richard Head, The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (London: H. Marsh, 1665), pp. 16-17.

[i]       For further information on animal cruelty and barbarism in Hogarth’s images see James A. Steintrager, ‘Monstrous Appearances: Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty and the Paradox of Inhumanity’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 42: 1 (2001), 59-82.

[ii]      William Hogarth, The Four Stages of Cruelty: The First Stage of Cruelty (London: [n. pub.], 1751).

[iii]     The Murder Act of 1751 stipulated that condemned felons’ bodies had to be given over to medical science.

[iv]     Anon. Remarkable Trials and Interesting Memoirs of the Most Noted Criminals Who Have Been Convicted at the Assizes, 2 Vols. (London: W. Nicoll, 1765), 2: 349.

[v]      Anon., The Malefactors’ Register; or, The Newgate and Tyburn Calendar, 5 Vols (London: A. Hogg, 1774), 4: 245.

[vi]     Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin, The New Newgate Calendar; Being Interesting Memoirs of Notorious Characters, Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages on The Laws of England During the Seventeenth Century, Brought Down to Present Times, 5 Vols. (London: J. & J. Cundee, [n. d.]), 3: 151.

[vii]     Ibid.


The English Rogue (1665)

My personal copy of Richard Head's The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665)
My personal copy of Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665)

Before the emergence of the novel in the 17th century, there were two popular forms of fiction; the romance, and the picaresque. Both genres originated on the continent. Romances, such as Don Quixote (1605, 1615) usually took as their heroes members of the nobility acting within fantasy settings. The picaresque was altogether more “low brow,” featuring rogues, cheats, and criminals. Its incorporation into the body of English literature was marked with the publication of Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665).

n.b. The picaresque novel (Spanish: “picaresca,” from “pícaro,” for “rogue” or “rascal”) is a genre of prose fiction which depicts the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society.

Richard Head (1637-1686) was born in Ireland, and was a playwright and bookseller. The English Rogue was one of the first English books that was translated into a foreign language.

The preface begins in the following manner:

Beloved Country-men,

Had I not more respect to my Countries good in general, than any private interest of mine own, I should not have introduc’d my Friend upon the common Theatre of the World, to act the part of a Rogue in the Publick view of all. Rogue! Did I call him? I should recal that word, since his Actions were attended more with Witty Conceits, then Life-Destroying Stratagems. It is confest, the whole bent of his mind tended to little else than Exorbitancy; and Necessity frequently compelled him to perpetrate Villainy; And no wonder, since he lived in the most infectious Air of the worst of most Licentious Times.

This novel is to be a moral warning against the dangers of sin and vice; the title page is emblazoned with the words: READ BUT DON’T PRACTICE! Readers were, like readers of the later 18th-century novel, supposed to be both imporved and entertained.

My copy of Richard Head's The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, Vol. 2 (1671).
My copy of Richard Head’s The English Rogue Described in the Life of Meriton Latroon, Vol. 2 (1671).This makes the text is incoherent at times, and is largely a series of accounts of the various criminal exploits which Latroon, the protagonist, gets involved with. It literally is a series of events.

Head’s “novel” (although we shouldn’t really call it this, since the novel didn’t properly emerge until the 18th century) spawned many imitators. But it could only have emerged in England during the 17th century. Hal Gladfelder argues that the proliferation of English rogue fiction in this period was a response to the collapse of feudalism and old social structures in the face of an emerging, capitalist world order.

This the reason why English rogue fiction, across the board, features the following:

  1. A protagonist (and first person narrator) whose social position is marginal and who views events from the position of an outsider.
  2. An episodic structure, usually organised around a succession of journeys and chance encounters;
  3. A satirical presentation of diverse social levels and milieus.
  4. A lingering over scenes of brutality, trickery and humiliation, and the exposure of pretence.
  5. A protagonist struggling to survive.

All of these features are common to English picaresque and rogue fiction. Latroon progresses through the narrative from a professional beggar and a thief into a fraudster, forger, and finally a highwayman.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.

In the eighteenth century, picaresque fiction would give way to the genre of criminal biography, and, later, the English novel; unlike the romance, the novel, like criminal biography and picaresque fiction before it, told stories of real life, and portrayed characters whom readers might recognise in their daily life.

The most obvious successor to Richard Head is Daniel Defoe, who used stories of criminals in his novels, Captain Singleton (1720), Moll Flanders (1722), and Colonel Jack (1722). In time novels became more, to use an 18th-century expression, “polite.” Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s (very dull) Pamela (1740) featured protagonists who were not criminals but merely who were trying to make their way in the world.

Henry Fielding would emulate both the picaresque and polite types of fiction in Joseph Andrews (1742), and The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743)

Thus English picaresque, or rogue fiction, contributed directly to the English novel.

This is not to say, however, that the market for stories of criminals waned as the novel grew to pre-eminence; serials such as The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, Select Trials, and The Newgate Calendar; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches, remained popular throughout the century, along with the trade in Last Dying Speeches.

Later on in the nineteenth century, a series of novels would take Britain by storm, which were given the epithet The Newgate Novel – a distant descendant of Head’s original English Rogue. Among its titles were several which I’ve already written about:

  1. Paul Clifford (1830)
  2. Eugene Aram (1832)
  3. Rookwood (1834)
  4. Oliver Twist (1838)
  5. Jack Sheppard (1839)

This is in addition to the proliferation of penny dreadfuls such as:

  1. The Mysteries of London
  2. The Mysteries of Paris
  3. The New Newgate Calendar
  4. Sweeney Todd
  5. Jack Rann
  6. Charley Wag

Thus Spain, from whence picaresque fiction originated, is responsible for the development of the genre of crime fiction.

Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge UP, 1987).

Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in the Eighteenth Century: Beyond the Law (John Hopkins UP, 2001).