Dying Speeches Broadsides – New Thoughts about their Uses

William Harrison Ainsworth Author of Rookwood (1834) and Jack Sheppard (1839)

The trade in broadsides recounting the ‘Last Dying Speech’ of felons before they were hanged thrived during eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These broadsides are a fascinating area of research for those interested in the study of crime and criminality in the Victorian period. The historians Vic Gatrell and Rosalind Crone have both undertaken research into the functions that these publications served to their readers. For Gatrell, these broadsides were ‘totemic artefacts […] mementoes of events whose psychic significance was somehow worth reifying’. According to Crone, later and more sophisticated broadsides carrying elaborate images of crimes being perpetrated, were a chance for contemporaries to indulge in violent entertainment.

It is not my intention here to rehash the excellent research conducted by Vic Gatrell and Rosaline Crone, but to bring to your attention one possible use to which broadsides were put that as far as I can ascertain has not been considered by anyone so far. When I was completing my MA at Leeds Beckett University under the supervision of Doctor Heather Shore, my thesis focused upon three genres of crime literature: ‘Last Dying Speeches,’ Newgate novels, and penny dreadfuls. In my second chapter I focused upon the Newgate novel entitled Jack Sheppard (1839) – a Victorian novel about the eighteenth-century highwayman of the same name – by William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882). The novel commences in the ‘sorry lodging’ of Jack’s mother, whose husband, Tom, has recently been hanged, and I was struck by the following passage:

Over the chimney-piece was pasted a handbill, purporting to be The Last Dying Speech and Confession of Tom Sheppard, the Notorious House-breaker, who suffered at Tyburn on the 25th February 1703. This placard was adorned with a rude wood-cut, representing the unhappy malefactor at the place of execution.

I believe, as intimated by John Tosh, that novels can illuminate the contemporary thoughts and practices of people in bygone eras, some of which may seem alien to us today – the past, after all, is a foreign country. I first wondered why on earth someone would keep such an item in their lodging. Then I got thinking even further: could broadsides have been kept in such a way by the families of those executed? Would a broadside, hung on the wall of the ‘sorry lodgings’ of the condemned person’s families, however, macabre it may seem to us today, have given families some comfort?

Title Page to Jack Sheppard (1839) by William Harrison Ainsworth [Source: Project Gutenberg].

Title Page to Jack Sheppard (1839) by William Harrison Ainsworth [Source: Project Gutenberg].

A broadside might have been the only memento that the condemned person’s families had of  them, especially if they were poor. Ainsworth was writing before photography had taken off, and until 1809 the bodies of malefactors, in particular murderers, were given over to the surgeons in London for dissection – a practice that was instituted by the Murder Act of 1752, preventing felons having a Christian burial. Whilst the Anatomy Act of 1832 tried to redress the situation, and stamp out the trade in body-snatching, it still allowed unclaimed bodies to be given over to the surgeons. If a family was indeed denied access to their loved one’s body after death, for whatever reason, it is reasonable to suppose that a handbill containing their ‘Last Dying Speech’ may have provided them with some comfort.

Of course, much of the above is conjecture, and likely would remain so. The possibility of uncovering any testimony detailing the use of broadsides in such a way would be difficult, almost impossible in fact, to find, and Ainsworth, again as far as I am aware, is the only novelist who shows them being used in such a way. It is interesting, however, that Ainsworth showed broadsides being put to such a use – perhaps he had seen this done with his own eyes? Novelists often draw on things that they have seen or heard in their own lives. At the very least we know from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1861) that broadsides in the Victorian period were purchased chiefly by the poorer classes, as he remarked of ‘how very extensive a portion of the reading of the poor is supplied by the “Sorrowful Lamentations” and “Last Dying Speech, Confession, and Execution” of criminals’.

‘Jack Sheppard’ by G. Cruikshank (1838) [Source: Graphic Arts Collection]

Nevertheless, highlighting this passage has shown, I hope, that a re-examination of a novel which has been studied countless times before by both historians and literary critics can continue to yield fresh and interesting results, as well as raising more questions about contemporary practices relating to the paraphernalia connected to the history of crime and criminality.

Further Reading

  • Gatrell, V.A.C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); 175.
  • Crone, R. Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012); 107.
  • Ainsworth, W.H. Jack Sheppard: A Romance (London: Chapman & Hall, 1839: 1930); 9.
  • Tosh, J. The Pursuit of History (Harlow: Pearson, 2006); 67.
  • Mayhew, H. London Labour and the London Poor: A Selected Edition. Douglas-Fairhurst, R. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1861: 2010); 93.

Categories: History

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