Narrative pottery telling the story of recent sensational murders was popular as a mantelpiece ornament in the 19th Century, and both Rush and Manning's cases received this treatment. Stoke Museums' Pugh Collection has figures of both James Rush and Emily Sandford from a wider set based on the case.
“Portraits were produced of the main characters,” the collection's website says. “Rush, Sandford and (it is believed) Eliza Chestney. In addition, models of the houses involved in the murder were produced - Potash Farm, Stanfield Hall and Norwich Castle. Hence the purchaser could obtain all or part of a series which built up into an account of the Rush murders.”
Fascination with the case had hardly dimmed a century later, when Stewart Granger starred in the 1948 melodrama Blanche Fury. All the names have been changed, but Granger's Philip Thorn and Valerie Hobson's Blanche are really just stand-ins for Rush and Sandford. Like his real-life counterpart, Granger hangs in the end.
For all the cavalier attitude the ballad-writers sometimes displayed, we shouldn't run away with the idea that their accounts could never be relied on. Each phase of the publication cycle had its own character, and some stages produced a far more truthful account that others.
As soon as a suitable murder appeared, the first step was to produce a handbill-sized sheet with an initial report of the crime, followed by a larger version as soon as a few more details had emerged. Both of these would draw heavily on newspaper accounts of the case, and stick pretty closely to those facts. Once someone had been arrested, Catnach and the rest could print a confession - real or imagined - and follow that up in due course with a straightforward account of the trial.
That trial document would have a few sections lifted out later, leaving room for a stock account of the execution to be inserted, and perhaps a set of verses telling the killer's story. Sometimes, the execution sheet would also include a solemn sermon delivered to the man before his death, but these again were often taken from stock. Slap on an appropriate woodcut illustration from the collection you kept on hand, and you were ready to start the presses.
Using stock descriptions of the execution and sermon in this way let the ballad-printers prepare the sheet in advance, and get it out on sale to crowds watching the hanging itself. Judging by the execution accounts and sermons he'd seen, Mayhew notes, “both subjects are marvellously similar on all occasions”. Looking at one particular sermon, supposedly delivered to a man called Hewson as he prepared to hang, he adds: “It will be seen that it is of a character to fit any condemned sermon whatsoever.”
Mayhew doesn't give any examples of the standing text he has in mind, but these are not hard to find. On January 5, 1846, for example, a Borough printer called Sharp had two broadsides on sale for that day's hangings, one covering the execution of Martha Browning at Newgate and the other Samuel Quennell at Horsemonger Lane. Here's how he begins his account of Browning's death:
“At an early hour this morning, the Rev. Chaplain visited the wretched woman, and remained with her till the last moments of her earthly career. Precisely at ten minutes before 8 o'clock the prison bell commenced to toll. At that time, the whole of the vacant ground in the front of the gaol and near to it was literally studded with human beings, many of whom had been waiting many hours to witness the awful scene.
“About 8 o'clock, the mournful procession reached the top of the gallows, lead by the Chaplain, who read in a most impressive manner the burial service. The wretched woman Browning followed with her eyes turned heavenwards, but we were unable to hear whether or not she responded to the prayers.”
Meanwhile, Quennell's spectators across the river were reading this:
“At an early hour this morning, the Rev. Chaplain visited the wretched man, and remained with him till the last moments of his earthly career. Precisely at ten minutes before 10 o'clock the prison bell commenced to toll. At that time, the whole of the vacant ground in the front of the gaol and near to it was literally studded with human beings, many of whom had been waiting many hours to witness the awful scene.
“About 10 o'clock, the mournful procession reached the top of the gallows, lead by the Chaplain, who read in a most impressive manner the burial service. The wretched man Quennell followed with his eyes turned heavenwards, but we were unable to hear whether or not he responded to the prayers.”
It continues in this vein for another 42 words, changing the pronoun's gender as necessary, but otherwise producing an identical account. Whatever really happened at a particular execution, it seems, Sharp's report would always insist that the bells started on time, the chaplain performed well and the condemned man never stared at his shoes. I particularly like the bit about Sharp's reporter being “unable to hear whether or not he responded to prayers”. How do you disprove that?
Far from the dignified scene which Sharp implies, public executions were a noisy, chaotic affair, as Charles Dickens discovered when he went along to watch Maria and Frederick Manning hanged at Horsemonger Lane in 1849. The crowd this husband and wife team attracted is estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people, and the ballad-sellers there would have mingled with other vendors supplying food and drink. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, was one of those watching, and wrote in his journal that it had been “a most wonderful, horrible and unspeakable scene”.