During the 18th century there was a thriving trade in the publication of criminal biographies. In 1714 Alexander Smith published A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, which was intended to serve as a warning to readers to avoid leading a vicious and licentious life, in order that he, or she, would not end up on the scaffold like to criminal they were reading about. Similar publications followed, such as Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). Standalone biographies of criminals were also released, such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), whilst novelists such as Henry Fielding (1707-1754) wrote novels such as The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743). Also published during the 17th and 18th centuries were a number of ‘Last Dying Speeches’ broadsides which told of the life, trial and execution of a prisoner before he or she was hanged. The fascination with the lives of criminals mirrored Georgian society’s anxieties over the perceived increase in crime.
Many of these stories and ‘Last Dying Speeches’ were compiled in 1773 and published under the title of The Newgate Calendar; or, the Malefactors Bloody Register – named after London’s notorious prison: Newgate Gaol. It was a moralistic work, evident by the verse which appeared underneath the frontispiece showing a mother handing a copy of the book to her son, whilst pointing to a gibbet outside the window:
The anxious Mother with a Parents Care,
Presents our Labours to her future Heir
“The Wise, the Brave, the temperate and the Just,
Who love their neighbour, and in God who trust
Safe through the Dang’rous paths of Life may Steer,
Nor dread those Evils we exhibit Here”.
The Bible, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and The Newgate Calendar, were the books that were most likely to be found in the middle-class Georgian home. A further collected edition was published in 1824 by two lawyers, Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, under the title of The New Newgate Calendar, and re-issued again in 1826. The moralising theme was present again in these works.
A new, distinct, publication appeared again in 1863: The New Newgate Calendar. This was different to the other Calendars which had come before. The 1863 version was a penny dreadful, published in weekly parts and sold, as the name suggests, for a penny. The accounts of crime in the penny dreadful version of The New Newgate Calendar expanded and revised many of the former accounts of the lives of criminals which had been published in previous Calendars (which were very “legal” in tone) by turning them into prose accounts.
Images were also important in penny dreadfuls; in effect they were the prototypes of the American comic book. Scenes of the most sensational and sexual type were included for publication – torture scenes, nudity, and flagellation – with special editions colourised to appeal more to younger readers. It was their lurid content and images which sparked a moral panic amongst middle-class press commentators, and prosecutors were ever ready to ask juvenile offenders whether they had read penny dreadfuls, and if these publications had spurred them to commit crime. The prosecutors usually got the answers that they wanted; these pieces of ‘pernicious trash’ were partly responsible, they thought, for the rise in juvenile offending.
I have not undertaken a study of every single penny dreadful that was published during the Victorian era, but judging by the content in The New Newgate Calendar, the authorities’ fear of their content seems a little misplaced. Like its 18th-century forebear, The New Newgate Calendar was highly moralistic in tone, being highly critical of both the crime and the criminal, as was the case in its reporting of ‘The Railway Train Tragedy’ in the August 6th 1864 issue:
Certainly, of all the crimes committed within the last few years…none equals in horror the dreadful and mysterious assassination of the unfortunate Thomas Briggs, who, leaving his home well in health and with little thought of his near approach to death, was foully murdered in a railway carriage. Truly, “in the midst of life we are in death.” This is certainly one of the most daring an atrocious crimes ever perpetrated in this country.
There were other continuities with the 18th-century version of the Calendar, such as the insistence on telling the tale of the criminal from birth, early life, descent into crime, and death. The narratives in the 18th century were structured in such a way in order to illustrate that anyone, regardless of social status, could become a criminal. This is why the tales of aristocrats who committed crimes were told in the same manner as those from lower down the social scale; it was sin, and not social class, which determined whether a person became a criminal. All someone had to do to become a criminal in the 18th century was to succumb to temptation; this might start with a petty offence of thieving of apples from an orchard, which then, because sin was viewed as “addictive and progressive” in the 18th century (according to Andrea McKenzie), they were led on to bolder offences; much like our thinking regarding the use of drugs today (as in one “weak” drug leads a person onto “harder” drugs).
This aspect of continuity with the 18th century conceptualisation of the causes of crime makes The New Newgate Calendar penny dreadful unique among other types of crime literature. This is because by the mid-Victorian period the causes of crime had begun to be ascribed to social class rather than original sin. Reformers such as Henry Mayhew spoke of a “criminal class” which existed beneath respectable society and was responsible for the major part of crime.
The account of Henry Boulter in the July 9th 1864 issue is very reminiscent of the accounts of felons’ lives in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ broadsides:
Henry Boulter was a native of Alford, about two or three miles from Box…the commencement of his depredations was on the road to the coal pits, when he picked the pocket of his young master, who was asleep in the cart, of half a guinea…his propensity to evil practices became predominant.
Mr Boulter cannot help himself; he has to commit crime, it is almost as though it were an addiction which gets stronger with every offence he commits.
It’s probably not surprising that these penny dreadfuls should continue to push an 18th-century view of criminality – they were after all emulating the famous 18th-century publication. But it is surprising that it was not adapted during the Victorian period, when other writers such as Dickens, Mayhew, and G. W. M. Reynolds held to a sociological, not theological, view of the causes of crime. In effect, it is the later, Victorian, conceptualisation of crime which we still hold today; crime, most people like to think, is endemic only to “deprived areas” and so-called “sink estates.” But as can be seen, the Georgians, and if The New Newgate Calendar is anything to go by, some Victorians at least, had a more “egalitarian” view of the causes of crime: anyone might become a criminal through bad choices.
The last major edition of The Newgate Calendar came in 1891 with the publication of The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar, by Camden Pelham, Esq. This was a completely revised and edited version of the original 18th century narratives. Again, this publication held to the eighteenth-century view of the causes of crime: sin and temptation. But Pelham had one clear aim in mind: to demonstrate that a useful moral could be taken from reading the accounts of criminals but also to show that the history of crime and punishment in England was essentially one of progress:
The comparison of the offences, and of the punishment of the last century, with those of more recent date, will exhibit a marked distinction between the two periods, both as to the atrocity of the one, and the severity of the other…it cannot be denied that the general aspect of the state of crime in this country is now infinitely less alarming than the former.
– Camden Pelham, Esq. The Chronicles of Crime, or the New Newgate Calendar (1891)
However, by the 1890s, the image of the criminal as a hero – or at least as the focus of the story – had well and truly declined. The reasons for this decline are two-fold; firstly, Pelham felt the need to “edit” the accounts contained in 18th-century criminal narratives to make them “acceptable to readers.”
Secondly, the Victorians still read the popular literature of crime, but the focus had shifted from the criminal to the detective (think Sherlock Holmes stories, etc.). Indeed, this shift can be seen beginning to emerge in The New Newgate Calendar, as in the final months of its print run it ran a series of stories – entirely without precedent in the 18th-century version – entitled ‘The Diary of a Bow Street Runner.’ Bow Street Runners were the detective agency of 18th-century London, founded by Henry and John Fielding in the 1750s. Thus as Lucy Moore says, the focus shifted from the criminal to the man pursuing him, and this is a theme of most modern TV crime dramas. The heroes are now the detectives and the policemen, not the offenders.
Major Published Editions of The Newgate Calendar
William Jackson, ed. The New and Complete Newgate Calendar; or, Villainy Displayed in all its Branches, Vol. 1-5 (London: Alex Hood, 1774).
Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin, eds. The New Newgate Calendar (London: J. Robins, 1824).
Camden Pelham, Esq. ed. The Chronicles of Crime, or the New Newgate Calendar, Vols. I-II (London: T. Miles, 1891).
J. L. Rayner & G. T. Crook, eds. The Complete Newgate Calendar, Vols. 1-5 (London: Navarre Society, 1924).
Norman Birkett, ed. The Newgate Calendar & The New Newgate Calendar, 2 Vols. (London: The Folio Society, 1993)