Producing and Marketing Broadsides on Public Executions

face of a prisoner

Recounting acts of tribal-political violence, such as imprisoning Prometheus and martyring early Christians, is probably as ancient as humanity itself. Yet many sensational accounts of crimes and public punishments are not plausibly related to fundamental challenges to the political order. Sensational crime stories produced and marketed in broadsides and ballads reflect the development of competition for attention and the popular press.

Sensational stories of mundane crimes are as old as popular media. Crime stories are co-extensive with mass-market news reporting:

Ever since the popular press had been established in England, much of its output has been devoted to crime, its major concern being the sensational and newsworthy case^

Sensational meant newsworthy. Broadside ballads probably were produced in London in 1551 in association with Alice Arden’s execution for murdering her husband. In 1592, that crime was produced as the play “the lamentable and true tragedie of M. Arden of Feversham. ” In 1591, a ballad described the public execution of George Strangwidge and Mrs. Page for the murder of her husband Master Page.^ Crude woodcut depictions of hangings were used repeatedly on broadsides.^ In Germanic lands, cheap print describing crimes and punishments dates back at least to the early seventeenth century.^

A print industry producing and marketing execution broadsides was well-developed in early nineteenth-century England. In 1676, the chaplain (Ordinary) of London’s Newgate Prison got into the business of regularly publishing confessions, biographical facts, and last dying speeches of persons executed at Tyburn. These were an important public resource for the execution broadside industry until the Ordinary’s accounts were discontinued in 1772. A historian has declared:

though their voices might be different, they spoke from the same text. That which the street-seller hawked the Ordinary wrote for each hanging.^

That historical account under-estimates the development of the execution broadside industry. Street-hawkers chanted verses offered on execution broadsides. Many of the Ordinary’s accounts didn’t include verses to be chanted. Moreover, there was considerable competition among broadside printers who drew on a variety of sources to produce quickly cheap, attractive texts.

Street-hawkers of execution broadsides were a large, independent workforce. On execution days in London in the 1780s, “every ragged man, woman, and child bawld {the ‘death-verses’}.”^ In-time print capacity was a limiting factor for the industry:

The York printer Thomas Gent wrote that in 1722 when he was printing the dying speech of Christopher Layer, who had been hanged for treason, he was so besieged by hawkers anxious for the publication that he was unable to step outside his office until he had finished the work ^

In London in the 1840s, there were about 80-100 “running patterers” (also called “flying stationers”) who sold broadsides, including crime and punishment broadsides, about the streets of London. Selling broadsides were also standing patterers and chaunters (sellers who sung ballads). Standing patterers numbered “at least 20.” Running patterers sometimes worked with chaunters, while 50 running patterers regularly did their own chaunting. Selling broadsides at executions was regarded as the easiest sort of selling.^

By the early nineteenth century, a large and success print industry served the execution broadside market. In Bristol in 1837, four printers each marketed a different series of broadsides for Mary Burdock’s trial, dying speech, confession, and execution.^ From the 1830s through the early 1850s, five to ten London printers sold broadsides wholesale. James ‘Jemmie’ Catnach and John Pitts were the most successful. Fulfilling the eternal hopes of business competitors, competition apparently expanded the market rather than eliminated business profits. Both Catnach and Pitts were said to have earned several thousand pounds printing broadsides related to the trial of Queen Caroline in 1820. Catnach reportedly amassed more than £10,000 pounds working in the business.^ ^ ^ Aggressive marketing of execution broadsides and ballads continued at least into the 1860s.^

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