By Stephen Basdeo, a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. His research interests include the history of crime in Britain as well as the study of Victorian popular literature.
New York, the United States’ most famous city in the nineteenth century, was at that time much like London. Factories were springing up in the centre of the city and workers from other parts of the states, and other parts of the world, made their way to this city to find work. Once there, many of the poorest of the poor found shelter in rickety slums and tenements. For many others, the streets were their home.
Of course, crime flourishes when many poor and desperate people are herded together and policing is lax. For many, a life of crime was more tolerable than one spent toiling in a factory on poverty wages. Robbery, murder, rape, and fraud—these crimes were committed in abundance in the dark alleyways of the New York slums.
New York’s levels of crime left its mark on American popular culture during the nineteenth century, a process mirrored in heavily urbanised Britain and industrialising France. Just as London and Paris with their respective alley-ways and courts provided the perfect settings for George W. M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48) and Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842), so the New York author Ned Buntline imagined it as the perfect place to set his own crime novel: The Miseries and Mysteries of New York (1848–49).
At a time when Henry Mayhew ventured like an explorer into the ‘darkest’ parts of London to publish London Labour and the London Poor (1851), social investigators such as Jacob A. Riis and Helen Campbell did the same for New York city. And just as French policemen such as Vidocqu published their recollections of their time in the police—a book which inspired the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables—so too did one Scottish-American detective, named George McWatters, publish his memoir of policing.
McWatters’s book, which details a thirty-year career, was titled Knots Untied: or, Ways and Byways of the Hidden Life of American Detectives (1871). It was not a particularly ground-breaking book and was hardly unique in the overall American literary market for true crime. Indeed, there was what we might call a transatlantic market in these books: books about crime in New York were just as popular in England as the more traditional Lives of the Highwaymen. Conversely, American readers lapped up the latest Mysteries of London and Paris. What was special about McWatter’s book was the illustrations—produced by people whose names are now lost in time—which depicted several of the book’s most dramatic scenes.
This was melodrama—but in print.
Below is all of the illustrations from McWatters’s book, which you can read here, and which can be reused freely (though some credit might be nice as it takes a while to scan these images in).
Categories: crime, Crime History, detective, George McWatters, New York, United States, USA