Crime and Punishment Was Early English Popular Literature

face of a prisoner

Crime and punishment were central in the development of popular English literature. Just as in colonial New England, sermons delivered at hangings became popular printed works in early modern England. For example, Thomas Savage killed a fellow servant. More sensationally, he was “twice executed.” A Murderer Punished and Pardoned: Or a True Relation of the Wicked Life, and Shameful-Happy Death of Thomas Savage appeared shortly after Savage’s execution in London in 1668. It included accounts from persons who claimed to have visited him when he was imprisoned in Newgate, as well as the sermon preached at his funeral. This forty-eight-page pamphlet was issued as a thirteenth edition by 1671. A related pamphlet was issued as a twenty-second edition in 1710. Publishers sometimes falsified edition counts because popularity was self-reenforcing. Nonetheless, that A Murderer Punished and Pardoned was popular is reasonably certain.

Perhaps in recognition of the popular success of works like A Murderer Punished and Pardoned, the chaplain of Newgate, known as the Ordinary, got into the business of execution literature. In 1676, the Ordinary of Newgate began regularly publishing the confession, biographical facts, and last dying speeches of persons executed at Tyburn. These publications continued from about 1676 through 1772. Their average size increased from one page to up to forty pages from the late seventeenth century through the 1730s. The price for each account in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries was 1¼ to 2 pence. The price rose to 6 pence with the account’s increasing size through the 1730s.^ The accounts thus became many times more expensive than penny broadsides. They also provided a longer, more sophisticated narrative. By 1729, each account earned the Ordinary about £25; “run off in printings of thousands, they enjoyed one of the widest markets that printed prose narratives could obtain in the eighteenth century.”^ ^

Competition to get biographies, confessions, and last dying speeches from persons to be executed was intense. Some stories were sold to rival publishers and included explicit disavowals of any account the Ordinary might fabricate. Some persons refused to provide material for publications despite intense efforts to get material from them. One prisoner in 1708 declared that he refused to provide material for publication because:

he had not a Mind to be the Sport and Ridicule of vain, idle Fellows in Coffee-Houses, who only laugh at unfortunate dying Men, who are frighted into a confession of their private sins ^

Jonathan Swift mocked “last dying speeches” in his pamphlet, The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezer Elliston (1722). His poem, Clever Tom Clinch Going to be Hanged (1727) includes the couplet “And when his last speech the hawkers did cry, / He swore from the cart, it was all a damned lie.”

More expensive publications concerning crime and punishment were also highly successful in attracting attention in eighteenth-century England. In 1714, a book with a title that started from the classical genre of great-man biography went off in a propitious direction: The history of the lives of the most noted highway-men, foot-pads, house-breakers, shop-lifts, and cheats, of both sexes, in and about London, and other places of Great-Britain, for above fifty years last past: wherein their most secret and barbarous murders, unparallel’d robberies, notorious thefts, and unheard of cheats are expos’d to the publick. Its nominal author was Captain Alexander Smith. The book was 288 pages long, but it was printed in the relatively cheap and portable duodecimo format. That same year the same printer brought out a second volume under that title, and then a second edition of both volumes. A third edition followed in 1715, and another edition, labeled the fifth, in 1719. A third volume for the title was printed in 1720. This work undoubtedly succeeded in attracting public attention and generating profitable printing business.

Similar works also enjoyed great success. A General History of the Robberies and Murders Of the most notorious Pyrates, and also their Policies, Discipline, and Government from their first Rise and Settlement in 1717 to the present year, with the Adventures of the two Female Pyrates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny first appeared in 1724. It was an octavo volume selling for 4 shillings. A second edition of this work came out in the same year, and additional additions in 1725, 1726, and 1727. The book’s nominal author was Captain Charles Johnson. Emphasizing his textual competition with Captain Alexander Smith, Captain Johnson in 1734 nominally authored the book A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers &c. That book was an even more direct competitor to Smith’s The history of the lives of the most noted highway-men, which was published about two decades earlier. Textual competition in narrating the history of sensational crime was intense and enduring.

Other works focused on a particular character. A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard: giving an exact description of the manner of his wonderful escape from the Castle in Newgate was issued in eight editions in 1724. This book about Sheppard, “written by himself,” was printed by John Applebee. Applebee at this time also printed the execution accounts of the Ordinary of Newgate and other criminal biographies. A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard was a forty-six page book, with four illustrations. It sold for one shilling. Another single-character work, The Discoveries of John Poulter, alias Baxter, who was apprehended for robbing Dr. Hancock, appeared in at least seventeen editions from 1753 to 1779.^ The early editions were octavo volumes of forty-four pages. The printer declared in a newspaper notice:

The Press has been kept almost continually going, on the above Work for several Weeks past, yet Orders for great Numbers of them from different Parts of the Country could not be supplied, but as a very large Number is now printed off, and the Press kept still going on it, the Publick may depend on a proper supply for the future.^

The anonymously authored book Memoirs of a social monster; or, The history of Charles Price: otherwise Bolingbroke, otherwise Johnson, otherwise Parks, otherwise Wigmore, otherwise Brank, otherwise Wilmott, otherwise Williams, otherwise Schutz, otherwise Trevors, otherwise Polton, otherwise Taylor, otherwise Powel, &c. &c. &c. and commonly called Old Patch.; Containing an accurate account of astonishing fraud and ingenious forgeries attracted massive attention in 1786. A newspaper complained:

little else has been read or talked of. There have been several thousands already sold, and as many more are now printing! This fact is stated as proof, that the contemplation of the baseness of human nature is become a more pleasing subject than its virtues. If the life of that excellent man, Dr. Jebb, which would form an admirable contrast to that of Price, was published, in all probability the sale would not amount to the expence of advertising it!!!^

If competition were for public acclaim, then Dr. Jebb may well have been victorious. But competition was for public attention, not for public acclaim. Horace Walpole complained in 1750 of the “ridiculous rage” for buying criminals’ biographies. About 2000-3000 printed eighteenth-century criminal biographies have survived to the present.^

Shrewd writers understood the difference between competition for public acclaim and competition for public attention. A work entitled Memoirs of the Right Villanous John Hall, the Late Famous and Notorious Robber was published in London in 1708. The title transforms “Right Reverend” into “Right Villanous” and connects “famous” and “notorious.” The preface to the reader declares:

If a name, (as the Time goes) has that general Influence on the Opinion of the World, to raise their Expectations of something Valuable, the following Sheets have a very promising Foundation, since they are built upon the Merit of a Person (in this Way) that has outdone the Age he lived in, and has left his Memory in great Reputation for the Excellency of his Talent… . There is doubtless as much Skill in pourtraying a Dunghil, as in describing the finest Palace, since the Excellence of Things lyes in the Performance; and Art as well as Nature must have some extraordinary Shape or Quality, if it come up to the Pitch of Humane Fancy, especially to please this fickle and uncertain Age.

A “good name,” merit, excellence, and a “great Reputation” are thus associated with a robber who, through his penal execution, attracted great public attention. A similar conflation of good and bad structures Daniel Defoe’s relatively well-known book The Fortunes & 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 dies a Penitent (1722). Its preface to the reader provides a moralizing gloss about the “Famous Moll Flanders” and declares:

In a word, as the whole relation is carefully garbled of all the levity and looseness that was in it, so is all applied, and with the utmost care, to virtuous and religious uses. None can, without being guilty of manifest injustice, cast any reproach upon it, or upon our design in publishing it.^

The font-sizes of the title page promote the words Fortunes, Misfortunes, and Newgate. The concluding title phrase, “grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and dies a Penitent,” is only tenuously related to the claims to virtue and godliness. Defoe’s Moll Flanders skirts both reproach and acclaim to compete for attention.

Competition for attention apparently pushed the Ordinary of Newgate to shift to producing more luxurious execution works. Accounts of the Ordinary of Newgate, each of which covered an individual hanging day, ceased in the 1770s. Printers who had more flexibility to create and promote cheap execution broadsides probably overtook the Ordinary’s business. Replacing the Ordinary’s Accounts was a new publication: The Newgate Calendar or MALEFACTORS’ BLOODY REGISTER containing: Genuine and Circumstantial Narrative of the lives and transactions, various exploits and Dying Speeches of the Most Notorious Criminals of both sexes who suffered Death Punishment in Gt. Britain and Ireland for High Treason Petty Treason Murder Piracy Felony Thieving Highway Robberies Forgery Rapes Bigamy Burglaries Riots and various other horrid crimes and misdemeanours on a plan entirely new, wherein will be fully displayed the regular progress from virtue to vice interspersed with striking reflexions on the conduct of those unhappy wretches who have fallen a sacrifice to the laws of their country. These and subsequent related works (“New Newgate Calendar”) were large, expensive works that often included fine engravings.^ ^ They moved the Ordinary’s Accounts into a more exclusive, and probably less competitive, market.

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