The Broadside of Life

Why Society Broke Down to Extreme State Punishment and How Society Knew

Pictured: Murderer James French

The term Capital Punishment has been given an illustrious title to cover the morally ambiguous decision for a state power to take the life of a criminal. In modern day society, we think of US states such as Texas and South Carolina harbouring the electric chair or the lethal injection. The last words of many convicts have often left an impression to those who hear it. One could think to the dark humour of James D. French who, after murdering his cell mate, gave the headline ‘French Fries!’.

During the mid-eighteenth century, however, the amount of state executions in the UK was actually decreased with most convicts being shipped to the US.

By 1750 it had embraced instead a range of penal policy options within which the death penalty was no longer “an unquestionable expression of sovereign power” ’. (King, Ward, Pages 15).

When the Civil War broke out in America, however, the number of convicts being transported decreased rapidly and so state executions rose once again as well as the rise of the middle class owning more property and buying more luxurious goods such as tea from India. along with the rise in capital indictments, was to create the large rise in execution rates for property crime

This in turn required an increase of stricter, Draconian laws to act as a deterrent, with possession becoming the majority of crimes being committed. In fact, in 1815, there was 225 Capital offences committed with crowds of up to 100,000 people in London gathering to see the executions in public. This increase in public executions for crimes underserving of death soon became known as the Bloody Code.

A paper delivered at Pernicious Trash? Victorian Popular Fiction, c.1830-c.1880, Leeds Trinity University 12 September 2016

Before their executions, convicts were allowed to usher their last words. ‘the execution of criminals could be a far more richly nuanced affair. Nowhere else was it expected they should play an essential role in the social drama staged to exploit their dreadful ends’ (Faller, Crime and Defoe, p. 9). Quite often prisoners would try and petition for their lives, confessing their sins in order to save their lives. However, their words would be carried by the Broadsides; single sheets of paper (often illustrated) talking about the convicts’ crimes and being a forerunner for the popular press. The danger of this though was being wary of which voices are truly belonging to those in prison. There were no Senior Editors to double check facts or solicitors to insure their clients were not defamed. Deciding whether the person was a voice of the court, the condemned, or a priest was down to the writers of the broadsides as a form of crime reporting to sell newspapers often being highly formulaic and partially a product of the writers’ imagination.

Evidence of the success of Broadsides can be seen in Mayhew’s ‘Of the “Gallows” Literature of the Streets’ (1861-2). “Of Rush…” the Broadside of famous murderer James Rush had sold 2.5 million copies. ‘it was not very uncommon for two poor families to club for 1d. to purchase an execution broadsheet! (Mayhew, 280-1). Having these broadsides provided a sense of real-life drama for many people both due to the nature of its content and how the reader would be drawn into this early form of crude, elaborate style of reporting.

Broadside of ‘The Epsom Murder’, 1818
Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007076646

Bibliography:

(King, Ward, Past & Present, Volume 228, Issue 1, August 2015, Pages 15).

Mayhew, H., ‘London labour and the London poor‘. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1895

Murano, Grace, ’10 Notorious Last Word from Prisoners on Death Row’, October 11th 2013 (Site Accessed 17th October 2019), https://www.oddee.com/item_98739.aspx

Photos curtesy of:

Basdeo, Stephen, ‘Last Dying Speeches, Trials, and Executions: The Changing Format and Function of Crime Broadsides, c.1800 – c.1840’, 11th September 2016, (Site Accessed 24th October 2019), ‘A paper delivered at Pernicious Trash? Victorian Popular Fiction, c.1830-c.1880, Leeds Trinity University 12 September 2016′ & Broadside of ‘The Epsom Murder’, 1818, Courtesy of Harvard Library School of Law HOLLIS ID: 007076646://gesteofrobinhood.com/2016/09/11/last-dying-speeches-trials-and-executions-the-changing-format-and-function-of-crime-broadsides-c-1800-c-1840/

Murano, Grace, ’10 Notorious Last Word from Prisoners on Death Row’, October 11th 2013 (Site Accessed 17th October 2019), (James French) https://www.oddee.com/item_98739.aspx

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