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British broadsides: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

That evening, Dickens sat down and wrote a letter to The Times describing what he'd seen:

“When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching and laughing and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutes of 'Mrs Manning' for 'Susannah' and the like, were added to these.
“When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment.
“When the sun rose brightly - as it did - it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world.” (12)

You'd never guess at an atmosphere like that from the ballad-printers' stock accounts. These give the impression that public executions were a dignified and solemn affair, with church bells tolling over a silent crowd, the condemned man mounting the platform with a firm step and great decorum all round. Given how willing they are to use sensational copy everywhere else, it seems a shame the broadsides were so sedate in this one area, but speed of production was evidently so important that this one section of bland copy was thought a price worth paying.

Ballad-printers chose illustrations with what Ashton calls 'a charming impartiality'

Sharp cheerfully illustrates both Browning and Quennell's ballads with a woodcut of Newgate, easily identifiable by the fact that St Sepulchre's church is visible. But this too was standard practice. Ballad-printers selected their illustrations with what John Ashton's Modern Street Ballads calls “a charming impartiality”. I'm sure they did their best to find an appropriate illustration from whatever blocks they had available, but the results are sometimes comic. (13)
The collection of street ballads I've seen at the British Library include a portrait of a despairing man in the condemned cell which JV Quick uses to represent both Henry Williams in 1836 and John Pegsworth a year later. There's also a courtroom scene from Paul's store which serves to illustrate the trials of both Mary Arnold in about 1840 and Michael Steyton in 1843, with the same mutton-chopped witness giving evidence both times. Sharp's woodcut of the gallows at Newgate seemed to serve every printer in the Dials, requiring only the number of hanging men to be amended before it could be dragged out again. Horsemonger Lane Gaol had its own stock portrait too.
Mayhew noticed something particularly odd about the woodcut used The Trial of Mr and Mrs Manning for the Murder of Mr Patrick O'Connor. “A portrait of Mr Patrick O'Connor heads the middle column,” he notes. “From the presence of a fur collar to the coat or cloak, and of what is evidently an order with its insignia round the neck, I have little doubt that the portrait of Mr O'Connor was originally that of King William IV.”
Of all the cheek exhibited by ballad-printers of the Victorian era, I think this example may be the best. Using the portrait of an English king just 12 years dead to represent a common murder victim while his famously stern niece was still on the throne must have been a very risky business - particularly when the document carrying that portrait had your name and address at the bottom. Mayhew doesn't tell us which printer took a chance on that particular venture, but it's a miracle the offender didn't end up writing a gallows ballad for himself.

(1) The Annals of London, edited by John Richardson (Cassell & Co, 2000).
(2) Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens (Penguin Classics, 2006).
(3) Dickens' Dictionary of London 1888, by Charles Dickens Jr (Old House Books, 1993).
(4) Bloody Versicles: The Rhymes of Crime, by Jonathan Goodman (Kent State University Press, 1993).
(5) London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew (Wordsworth Classics, 2008).
(6) The History of the Catnach Press, by Charles Hindley (Charles Hindley, 1886).
(7) Mary Arnold, The Female Monster, by John Morgan.
(8) The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry (Arrow Books, 2007).
(9) Title unknown. Quoted in Mayhew.
(10) Title unknown. Quoted in Hindley.
(11) Weekly Dispatch, January 3, 1819.
(12) Letter to The Times, November 13, 1849.
(13) Modern Street Ballads, by John Ashton (publisher unknown, 1888).
(14) Capital Punishment in the 18th & 19th Centuries, compiled by Richard Clark (

Murder by the numbers: Men versus Women

Just as it is with tabloid journalism today, it sometimes seems that women can't win where gallows ballads are concerned.
    Any male-on-female murder is deemed newsworthy because it offers the prospect of a gentle, helpless victim struck down by her far stronger assailant.
    And yet, when it's a woman who kills a man, that makes even bigger headlines simply because of its comparative rarity. If by any chance that woman has harmed a child - as Mary Arnold did - then she can be presented as an unnatural monster and promoted to the front page.
    Let's step back for a moment and see how these factors play themselves out in practice. I've got copies of 60 execution ballads from the British Library's collection in front of me, some with men and women working together to commit the crime, sometimes with multiple victims, and sometimes involving infants whose gender is never specified. There's 64 killers in all, and 82 victims.
    Of these, 51 of the killers were men - about 80% - and the remaining 13 were women (20%). Among the victims, there were 30 men (37%), 40 women (49%) and 12 infants (14%).
    The figures for murderers actually hanged in England and Wales' between 1800 and 1850 present a rather different picture. Among all the killers punished in this way, 523 were male (94%) and just 35 female (6%). The victims were split into 256 men (50%), 218 women (42%) and 40 infants (8%). (14)
    The comparison suggests that ballad makers tended to over-represent cases involving a woman as either the killer or the victim. Cases with an infant victim are over-represented too, but both male killers and male victims are under-represented.
    I can't pretend it's a remotely scientific survey - for one thing, I've left out the unidentified adult victims from the hanging stats - but these results do seem to make sense. They suggest that, like news editors today, ballad-printers preferred a case where a woman or child was slaughtered, because they knew that would make better copy. A woman who killed was even better.
    The majority of workaday murders - those committed by one man on another man - could not compete unless they offered some extra little twist like Rush's comical disguise or Thurtell's particular brutality.