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date: 21 March 2018

True Crime Reporting in Early Modern England

Summary and Keywords

True crime reporting was extremely popular in early modern England (ca. 1550–1800). Depending on when this literature was written, and the audience it was intended to attract, the sub-genres of true crime writing took the form of small pamphlets, broadsides, rhyming ballads designed to be sung to a familiar tune, ministers’ accounts of criminals and repentance, collections of trials, newspapers, and biographies of professional criminals. In addition to being inherently shocking and entertaining, this literature served as cautionary, religious, and morality tales that reflected on serious crime as one of the signs that English society had become ignorant, irreligious, and immoral. These tales of true crime could be used to remind a wide readership of the wages of sin, and of the role of the community, church, and state in bringing about justice for criminals and their victims. In a society that placed significant restraints on sexual, personal, and religious freedoms, and exhorted obedience, deference, hard work, sexual restraint, and abstinence from all forms of vice, true crime literature could help to restore order and balance to society. To accomplish these various goals, the authors of true crime literature were not very faithful reporters, often embellishing criminal deeds, publishing small portions of much lengthier cases, or fabricating facts as needed to fill in unknown details or to improve readers’ fear of and education about the criminal element that surrounded them. As this literature developed in the 18th century, its authors became famous for reporting about infamous criminals in semi-biographical novels, thus merging true crime literature with fiction and giving rise to another genre of crime literature by about 1800.

Keywords: broadsides, criminal biography, Newgate Calendar, Ordinary’s Accounts, Old Bailey Proceedings, pamphlets, true crime


True crime literature proliferated in early modern England and was immensely popular among both semi-literate commoners and middle-class readers. Scholars of this genre of literature, primarily historians but also literary specialists, have focused on its interrelated forms, functions, and audiences. The various sub-genres of this literature will be examined to investigate these issues and to consider another preoccupation of scholars, the reliability of allegedly “true crime” literature in reporting accounts of criminal activity. To accomplish the various goals of this literature, its authors were not very faithful reporters, and this lack of reliable reporting has forced scholars to approach these sources with caution. Although true crime literature is often useful in helping to explain early modern mentalities toward crime and society, and when examined together helpful in elucidating several key characteristics of the criminal justice system in the 17th and 18th centuries, certain scholars, especially historians, have found it necessary to reconcile them with other extant sources, such as depositions, evidence from indictment slips, and trial transcripts, which are generally seen as more reliable sources of information. By contrast, literature scholars tend to examine these sources for their literary quality and audience, rather than their historical accuracy or context.

True Crime Literature in Late-Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England

The earliest form of true crime literature in England was produced as pamphlets, broadsides, and ballads. Pamphlets, also known as “chapbooks,” typically contained 8–16 quarto-sized pages (about the size of a trade paperback page today). Broadsides, on which ballads were also printed, were folio-sized sheets (about twice the size of a regular sheet of paper today), usually printed on one side only and occasionally on both. Also known as “cony-catchers,” “murder pamphlets,” and “rogue literature,” this literature began to be published in the 1560s, became prolific throughout the 17th century, and then slowly declined as other forms of true crime reporting became more common in the late 17th and 18th centuries. As Joad Raymond has argued, before the 1580s, England did not possess the literacy level, commercial printing infrastructure, or sufficient capacity in the English language—which was strengthened by the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on the vernacular and the development of humanist education—to mass-produce printed literature.1 Thus, very little of this literature can be traced to the period before Elizabeth I (1558–1603), and there was a dramatic increase in its availability after about 1580.

This early true crime literature was hastily written by, frequently, anonymous authors, based on sketchy knowledge of the cases. Although some authors of this literature are known, and reveal themselves on the title pages of their works, the vast majority maintained either anonymity or pseudonymity, or used only their initials, with some of their identities being revealed only in the modern era. A case in point is Henry Goodcole, who was a prison minister (or “ordinary”) in the 1620s and 1630s, and who likely wrote at least a dozen pamphlets devoted to crime and criminals, either anonymously or under the initials “H. G.”2 The reasons why authors preferred to remain unknown were many. Some wished to avoid persecution should their tales later be revealed as fabrications or libels, or if the work was not deemed fit for public consumption because it challenged the politics or morality of the day. Others wanted to give the texts independent authority by rendering their names irrelevant, or, if they were famous, a woman, or a person of status, to avoid the stigma associated with writing popular literature. There was also a certain advantage to the author, like his disorderly subject, being an unknown “everyman.” Because of the moral and religious commentary in these texts, the reader would more easily identity with the everyman than with a known person, whose own imperfect life, or whose reputation as a frequent author of sensational literature, might corrupt the moral purposes of the pamphlet or ballad.3

The author would usually sell the text to a printer, who then assumed the costs and risks associated with printing the work and getting it to market.4 The finished product was vented either in fixed shops located in London’s book-selling district north of the Thames near St. Paul’s churchyard, or by traveling peddlers, chapmen, balladmen, and others, who purchased copies at wholesale prices from the printers or sellers and sold them for a small profit, typically in town squares during market days or in taverns. The cost of this popular literature ranged from a halfpenny to sixpence, and averaged two to three pence, at a time when the average commoner earned about 12 pence per day. The poor quality and low prices of popular crime literature often defined its primary audience: semi-literate common men and less often women. These readers, whose literary skills were usually limited to the English language, also read these stories or sang broadside ballads aloud to illiterate audiences, in pubs during an evening of drinking, or among gathers in country cottages and village markets. This oral consumption thus ensured a wider audience than merely literate readers.5 Although commoners were the main audience for this literature, it has been demonstrated that elite audiences also sometimes consumed it. In fact, certain pamphlets were clearly targeted toward audiences of a higher social quality, as demonstrated by the use of Latin phrases and classical and scientific references beyond the knowledge of most commoners.

Pamphlets and broadsides nearly always recounted stories of serious criminal offenses, or capital felonies. These included instances of murder, infanticide, rape, arson, robbery (especially highway robbery), and witchcraft. These were all crimes that were committed with mens rea (criminal intent) and vi et armis (by force of arms, meaning the victim was in fear for his life), and were considered to be an affront to God and the monarch, and a major breach of social boundaries of behavior. By contrast to lesser felonies, which could be mitigated through pardon or the rite of “benefit of clergy” (whereby a convict recited a biblical psalm and received remission from death), these more serious felonies nearly always resulted in the death of the perpetrators, either through hanging, burning, or being pressed to death on refusal to plead at trial. Through the death of these perpetrators, victims and the community at large were no longer in fear for their lives, were deterred from committing similar offenses, and were assured that order was restored. There were, however, enough pamphlets that did not end in justice for the victims to remind readers that God’s will was not always known and that their world, though in theory perfectly orderly, was also a world turned upside down.

Church and State Authority

As scholars such as Malcolm Gaskill and Peter Lake have shown, this large body of literature served a number of key purposes for contemporary authors, publishers, and audiences.6 One of these purposes was to reinforce the authority of the English church, state, and monarch. When this literature began to be printed in the early Elizabethan period, the Church of England was a relatively new creation and was facing challenges from both radical Protestants, later known as Puritans, and especially from Catholics. These challenges included the Northern Rebellion of 1569, Elizabeth’s excommunication by the pope in 1570, the Ridolfi Plot in 1572, the arrival of Jesuits into England throughout the 1570s, and the various conspiracies engineered by Mary, Queen of Scots. Authors often tapped into these fears of Catholic insurrection in their pamphlets in order to emphasize the dangers of Catholicism and the rightness of Anglicanism. In one murder pamphlet from 1581, for example, the author recounted an unexceptional, financially motivated case of murder but attributed these actions to the bloodthirsty nature of the Catholics involved. When the murderer was at the gallows, he beseeched all Roman Catholics to pray for him, to which the crowd angrily responded “Hang him, hang him, there be none heere of his profession!” The pamphlet then ends with a plea that Queen Elizabeth protect the Church of England by creating stricter laws against Catholics.7 In fact, these stricter laws were created over the ensuing decade, with the result that it became illegal to practice as a Catholic in England. This anti-Catholic sentiment continued throughout the 17th century as well, as shown in the story of one woman whose Catholicism caused her to murder two of her children, and another whose Jesuit sympathies encouraged her to set fire to her employers’ house.8 Using Catholics as a foil, these authors reinforced the creation of the Anglican Church in particular and the supremacy of Protestantism in general.

A number of pamphlets and broadsides also supported the idea that the criminal justice system was indeed just, that the state’s legal officials were honest and fair, and that the monarch had the right to punish criminals and also to show mercy. In one pamphlet published in 1606, for example, the author emphasizes the judicious work of Sir Henry Butler, whose determination enabled him to bring the murderers of a young boy to justice four years after the fact.9 Other tales demonstrate the good judgement of the royally appointed judges of the criminal assizes, who pursued justice by acting as legal counsel for defendants and ensuring that proper procedure was followed and that the authority of the court to try and punish was respected.10 Similarly, several tales show how the state stepped in when justices of the peace (JPs) or other officials proved to be too casual or too zealous in their duties. In one pamphlet, the Privy Council chastised a JP for granting bail to a murder suspect, ultimately removing this incompetent official from the Commission of the Peace, which annually named JPs, the following year. In a broadside, a man was sent by a JP to the assizes for stealing a magpie, a petty offense that normally would have been handled at a lesser court. The judge showed great sympathy toward the accused, who as a result of being sent to the assizes was forced to spend several weeks in jail, calling the JP a “foolish man” and averring that he should be imprisoned for his incompetence.11 In another pamphlet, a gardener was about to be hanged for buggery when his alleged victim recanted his testimony. This caused a priest to send a bailiff to Whitehall, where the king immediately issued an order stopping the execution, providing proof to the reader of the king’s mercy and his ultimate authority in criminal matters.12

Sometimes, the king’s role as the ultimate arbiter of justice was made explicit. In one rather famous case in 1616, John Barterham publicly murdered Sir John Tindall, a master (judge) of the Court of Chancery, after Tindall—who might have been corrupt—ruled against Barterham. The pamphlet produced in 1617, possibly penned or commissioned by Attorney General Sir Francis Bacon, devoted a great deal of space to emphasizing the king’s role as the fount of justice:

Was there not a King to complaine to? A King wise in judgement, upright in justice, pittifull in releeving the compassionable wronges of his poorest Subject? A King that abhorres Bribery, hates Cruelty, loves Mercy, and cares not for the Proud and Wicked, but can throw them downe, bee they never so high exalted. Was there not a [privy] Councell Table to flye unto as a Sanctuary? … The Law is a dumbe King; the King a speaking Law.13

In taking the law into his own hands, instead of seeking recourse to the king, his council, and his courts, Barterham perverted the course of justice, and did so again when he committed suicide rather than face the king’s judges to answer for his actions. In this pamphlet, Barterham’s deeds are subordinated to the author’s desire to emphasize the authority of the king to judge, and of the state to punish.

God and the Devil

In addition to this literature reinforcing the authority of the English church and state, true crime stories also emphasized the fact that England was a Christian society that was governed by the laws and words of God, as well as those of man. Most serious crime was seen as an affront to God, particularly that which was explicitly forbidden in the Bible (rape, murder, and sodomy, for example). Many pamphlets and broadsides, therefore, open with biblical quotations and analogies, often explicitly reciting verse and indicating its scriptural origins. In most cases, these were fairly standard verses that most readers would have had some familiarity with, either through sermons or, following the production of the King James Bible in 1611, through their own vernacular scriptural reading. One early text, for example, uses passages from the books of Daniel, Ecclesiastes, 1 John, and Psalms, the latter citing the common verse “I do knowe mine owne wickednes, and my sinne is ever against me.”14 Additionally, because these preamble sections were often used in several pamphlets without revisions, they rarely focused on specific analogies between the Bible and the crimes described in the texts. Instead, the authors resorted to common Christian themes, such as God’s omniscience and power to punish, Cain’s killing of his brother Abel, Pilate’s judgement against Jesus Christ, the exhortation to be good to one’s neighbors, and the importance of gaining entry into heaven.

God features prominently both in these preambles and throughout the texts. He is described variously as the benevolent agent who providentially stopped a criminal before he completed his deed; the reason why a criminal was discovered and brought to justice; or—because his will was unknown and mysterious—why a criminal continued to elude the best efforts of the authorities to bring him to justice. A good example will be found in the story of young Elizabeth James, whose parents and brother were murdered and whose tongue was cut out before she was placed into a hollow tree, where she was expected to die. Not only was the girl rescued by a stranger, who was guided in his actions by “he that preserved Daniel in the Lions den, and made the blinde to see, the lame to goe, and the dumbe to speake,” God also restored the girl’s speech using the same messenger, a rooster, that reminded the Apostle Peter of his obligation to Christ. Thus rescued and able to speak by God’s providence, the girl accused her brother’s murderers and brought them to justice.15 Common readers in early modern England would have had little difficulty accepting the providence of God in these affairs, which was taught in basic Protestant theology,16 but, just in case, the author made God’s limitless powers clear:

But now (Gentle Reader) let mee intreate thee as thou readest, not onelye to admyre and wonder, but to prayse and magnifie the mightie maker and preserver of us all, for his great mercy and might shewed to this poore childe, … which if wee looke into but with the eyes of naturall reason and humane sence, it will be thought incredible and impossible. But with God nothing is impossible, & this ought not to be thought incredible.17

In this story, the author emphasizes that it was God’s just judgement that brought about the miracles necessary to bring two murderers to justice, although two other individuals involved in this crime were still unknown, which was also “the will of the Almightie.”

God’s providence was closely linked to other supernatural phenomena in crime pamphlets and broadsides, which early-Protestant readers would also have little difficulty accepting as true. One example is the practice of cruentation, or corpse-touching, whereby the suspected murderer is brought in close proximity to his victim, causing the victim to accuse his killer. This usually involved the victim opening his eyes and staring at his killer, or the corpse regaining its color and bleeding from its wounds. In the case of a father who was accused of arranging the murder of his three children, although the victims had been dead eight days, when their father was brought before them, “the woundes began to bleede afresh” and “received their former coulour of bloude.” These acts, the author confirmed, were “the miraculous worke of the Lord,” which caused the father to confess his crimes.18 Another example of supernatural revelation will be found in the many animals, such as dogs and birds, which help discover a murderer either by finding the corpse or pestering the killer until his guilt overwhelms him. In one text, several crows followed a murderer and two ravens tormented another, until their guilt finally forced them to confess.19 Even in cases that were solved using traditional investigatory techniques, such as the murder of Master Page, three omens pointed to the culprits: a bear with eyes of fire, a raven that hanged itself on a ship’s mast, and a wreck that turned stem to stern.20 Gaskill has shown how, in addition to cruentation and portents, true crime literature also relied on ghosts and dreams to help reveal those who committed “secret murders.”21

Perhaps not surprisingly, the authors of this literature often turned to the usual religious explanations, heretics, and scapegoats—the Devil, Catholics, witches, and man’s inherent sinfulness—to explain why men and women were so susceptible to evil and temptation, and why they turned on their family and their neighbors. The greatest enemy and tempter of mankind, the Devil, in his various physical and spiritual forms, was seen as the driving force behind most criminality. The Devil appears in nearly every true crime pamphlet and broadside, disguised as Catholics, animals that served as witches’ familiars, and as an unseen but eminently real and providential force that infused itself into the minds of malefactors as they formulated and carried out their criminal designs.22 The most obvious example of the Devil’s role in encouraging crime will be found in the many texts devoted to witchcraft. Although witchcraft in fact represented only a very small portion of crime in early modern England, it was disproportionately represented in true crime literature. One long pamphlet describes the acts of witchcraft committed by Mother Sutton and her daughter Mary, who were accused of consorting with the Devil in order to torment Master Enger. Employing maleficium (malevolent sorcery) they killed his horses and pigs, damaged his property, placed his servant into a trance, and brought languor, perplexity, and death upon Enger’s seven-year-old son. These acts were accomplished by their transformation into a sow and a beetle, and with the assistance of their evil spirits, Dick and Jude. The two women were eventually subjected to a trial by water, tried at the criminal assizes, convicted, and executed.23

Shock, Titillation, and Inversion

While demonstrating the authority of the church and state and the providence of God and the Devil in early modern English society were key aspects of this literature, these lessons could not be instilled had the pamphlets and broadsides not been simultaneously shocking and titillating. Although some pamphlets were straightforward accounts of serious crimes, most, to quote Lake, “concentrate on particularly bizarre, bloody and grotesque killings.”24 One story, for instance, contained multiple murders, including those of a pregnant woman and her four-year-old son, and the mutilation of his older sister by the removal of her tongue, all committed by a gang of thieves whose leader was a woman. Readers were sure to feel excitement and fear when confronted with such cruelty and evil, not to mention the socially perverse fact that a “bloody tigress” was the main perpetrator.25 Another pamphlet describes the gory murder of an Anglican minister by one of his flock. In a fight for his life, the minister received two stab wounds through his skull, had three fingers and a leg chopped off, suffered a smashed femur, and was gashed on both thighs, ultimately languishing in great pain for nearly a week before succumbing to his horrific injuries.26 More shocking to the readers of these two stories, perhaps, was the fact that the female leader was never found, and the minister’s murderer made his way to the continent and was never tried.

Depicting inversion of the social order was another technique in early true crime reporting.27 Early modern England was fundamentally rooted in the idea of order and stability, that there was a natural hierarchy, and that there were boundaries to be observed within this hierarchy. True crime stories of criminals who stepped outside of these boundaries therefore became cautionary tales that reinforced the social order by demonstrating the wages of sin and vice. In some cases, the author’s purpose was to instill fear in the law-abiding populace about the criminal elements that constantly surrounded them and threatened their families and property. One story, for example, told the tale of a widow who was murdered while house-sitting for her employer. She admitted into her master’s home his former butler, believing him to be a friend and offering him refreshment. After dinner, the guest murdered the widow, stole his former master’s money and plate, and fled, only to be discovered as the murderer and thief when, a few days later, he returned to the same street in order to collect some razors he had left for sharpening.28 In another story, a widow requested repayment of a 10-shilling loan from a young man and he promised to meet her at her house with the money. When she returned home, the man accosted her, cut her throat, and stabbed her in the heart, all in order to avoid repaying a small loan. The same pamphlet reports the story of a shopkeeper’s wife who was raped and murdered by strangers during her customary evening walk.29 It was stories such as these—the murder of kind and honest women by avaricious and rapacious villains—that proved English society was, indeed, a “world turned upside down.” Yet it was also the case that the vast majority of criminal activity in early modern England was deeply personal, typically involving family members, friends, or neighbors.30 Very few impersonal crimes such as those just described actually occurred, despite this literature occasionally suggesting otherwise.

Sexual depravity was also a common inversion in this literature. England was a society that placed significant restraints on sexual activity, and exhorted men and women to practice procreative sexual activities within the bounds of marriage. Thus, crime tales in which criminals acted outside of these sexual boundaries of behavior could prove both instructive about proper conduct and titillating to readers who might themselves be more sexually restrained. One pamphlet describes how a member of England’s beggar class murdered his female companion, with whom he had been having regular sexual relations, merely because she was pressuring him to get married.31 Another well-known story is the trial of Margaret Fernseede for murdering her husband. Although there was virtually no evidence proving that Fernseede actually committed this deed, her debauched life as the owner and operator of a brothel, where she tempted many women to turn to prostitution, constituted the main reason for her conviction.32 Other pamphlets focus on more serious criminal sexual behavior, such as rape, sodomy (broadly defined as non-procreative sexual acts), and pederasty (pedophilia).33 An audience might perceive this wide range of sexual deviance in many ways. Some might be shocked, repulsed, and disgusted, while others might be thrilled and excited, the texts therefore becoming vehicles for vicarious wish fulfillment by harmlessly allowing the reader to become party to these sexual transgressions without having to face the same legal consequences.

One of the best examples of the theme of inversion is to be found in many stories of criminal violence within the household, which was supposed to be a “microcosm of the state,” and thus its most ordered and stable unit. As one author put it, this vision of an inverted social order was pervasive:

The sonne desiring his fathers living, and to be great before his time, murdereth him: the friend, his deerest frend: the wife the husband, and the husband the wife: brother against sister, and sister the brother.… If hee have money, he feareth to reveale it to his wife, his servants, his children, his friend, or anie, doubting lest the knowledge thereof shall abridge his dayes. If he have a wife which as himself he loveth, although he see with his owne eyes her chast[ity] late given over to a lechor, and another injoy that, onely proper to himself: yet with harts griefe, is he faine to smother so vyle, and most odious abuse, doubting the revealing thereof whould work his shame in the world, and his life thereby dangered. If his children neglect their dueties, he is forced to beare with their enormities, least it happen to them as to many fathers, who have lost their lives, in seeking to correct such head-strong youth. Is there not the like in servants, whose credit with their maysters hath been admirable, that in the end have enriched themselves and beggared their masters?34

There are several dozen if not hundreds of examples of familial crime in the pamphlets and broadsides.35 These crimes, especially the common resort to murder, were clear inversions of the patriarchal-deferential model in society, whereby social superiors had a moral and legal obligation to protect their inferiors, and inferiors had the obligation to be submissive.36 In fact, killing a social superior was considered “petty treason,” and those convicted were not merely executed but also drawn and quartered (men) or burned (women), making these stories all the more instructive and interesting.

Perhaps the most unnatural inversion of the social order was to be found in the killing of children. One pamphlet describes the case of a father who hired his servant to kill three of his children, because he was having difficulty finding a new wife willing to raise them.37 Another describes a woman who murdered four foster children and then borrowed children from her neighbors several times per year so that she could present them to parish officials and get her quarterly entitlement for raising the orphans.38 Still worse, in the eyes of early modern readers and the state, were the mothers who murdered their own children. Infanticide was a relatively commonplace crime in early modern England, usually occasioned by a woman getting pregnant out of wedlock, which would bring shame on her family and possibly render her incapable of getting married. Although a number of these types of infanticide were reported in crime pamphlets and broadsides,39 it was more common for authors to describe unusual cases of infanticide, probably because they would be seen as atypical, and thus more horrific. In one story, the author took great pains to emphasize that the mother was known to be a sober, civil, witty, and educated gentlewoman who was married to a good and prosperous man. Nevertheless, one day when her husband was away, she strangled her infant and toddler with a garter belt, crimes for which she was “now deserving no name of gentlewoman.”40 Another happily married, wealthy woman drowned her infant in a pail of water, the author giving no reason for her actions except to suggest that she was of unsound mind, a reason that did not, however, save her from the noose.41

Value for Modern Scholars

For modern scholars, the value of this true crime literature rests partly on its reliability in reporting criminal behavior. Although nearly every story was grounded in historical events, which can be confirmed by looking at extant depositions (located in county archives) and indictment slips (located in the National Archives of the United Kingdom), nonetheless it is evident that, as Gaskill has put it, “objectivity was subordinated to embellishment and dramatization.”42 Many of the authors indicated that their accounts were “true relations,” but because the purposes of this literature were to reinforce the authority of church and state, emphasize the providence of God and the Devil, and shock and titillate audiences while showing social inversion, it was often necessary for authors to fabricate parts of their stories.43 This was also because certain facts were unknown at the time work was written, gaps that required filling in order to make the story more complete. To take one example cited earlier, in 1606 two pamphlets were published on the same crimes, the murder of a young boy and the mutilation of his sister. The publication of two pamphlets about the same events was rare and provides an opportunity for comparison. In one version, George Dell murdered a three-year-old boy, Anthony James, at the behest of his mother, Agnes, who then cut out four-year-old Elizabeth James’s tongue before George placed her into a tree trunk to die. This version is roughly in accordance with the extant indictment slip, which accused the Dells of Anthony’s murder. In the second version, the woman leader of a gang of thieves murdered the boy and mutilated the girl, while the Dells helped to dispose of the boy’s body. In essence, in the first version the Dells were principals in the crimes and in the second merely accessories, which in the eyes of the law were quite different. A large number of other differences can also be found within the two versions, including the ages of the boy and girl (respectively seven and eight in the second version) and the role of various members of the community who ultimately brought about the Dells’ conviction.44 As this example demonstrates, 17th-century true crime literature was not particularly reliable reporting and, as others have warned, needs to be used with caution by scholars seeking to understand the specifics of crime and criminal justice in late-16th- and 17th-century England.45

Despite its unreliability in accurately reporting early modern crime, this literature is, nonetheless, valuable for a wide range of scholars. In the first place, as has been demonstrated, by focusing on certain types of crimes and conforming to specific purposes, it has allowed historians to better understand the mentalities and beliefs systems of the people who consumed this literature. This was a God-fearing society that believed strongly in the providence of God and the Devil, the importance of social order, and the dangers that accrued when disorder arose. This literature, thus, served as an instrument of social control by reinforcing boundaries of behavior, and reminds modern scholars that this was a society obsessed with orderliness.46 In addition, when examined together, this body of literature demonstrates a number of key characteristics generally recognized in 16th- and 17th-century English crime historiography. For example, it confirms that the criminal justice system was participatory and discretionary, involving a wide swath of the community usually employing communal judgement and local norms to help restore order, occasionally causing participants to eschew the “rule of law” when it was deemed too lenient or too harsh given a particular crime or criminal. This literature also demonstrates that the vast majority of serious crimes were opportunistic and personal, rather than professionally planned and executed by a criminal underclass of anonymous miscreants. Most crime was committed on the spur of the moment by and against individuals personally known to the victim and perpetrator.47 In many ways, it was the demonstration of these central characteristics that distinguished pamphlets and broadsides from their 18th-century counterparts, in which participation, discretion, opportunism, and the personal nature of crime tend to be replaced by the rule of law, professionalism (of both court officials and criminals), anonymity in an increasingly urbanizing setting, and the perception that a criminal class operated among an otherwise law-abiding populace.

True Crime Literature in the Long Eighteenth Century

The long 18th century (ca. 1675–1800) saw the development of several sub-genres of true crime writings. These sub-genres both competed with and complemented each other and were often consumed by different types of audiences, both rich and poor, urban and rural. Taken together, true crime literature of this period reveals that quite a lot of changes occurred in the criminal justice system and also in societal approaches to crime, changes that have been examined in detail by modern scholars. These include, for example, the rise of the “bloody code,” which saw the dramatic increase in the number of crimes for which an individual could receive the death penalty.48 These sources also describe the rise of criminal lawyers, which consequently saw the development of a number of modern criminal theories, such as rights of the accused, the adversary criminal trial, evidentiary rules, and the role of judges as mediators and juries as fact-finders.49 Finally, supporting the contemporary work of individuals such as Henry Fielding, William Hogarth, and others, this literature described the phenomenon known to modern scholars as the “urban crime wave,” equally engineered by large numbers of idle, drunken, and dissolute lower orders, and the rise of professional criminals who often worked in gangs and lived off the proceeds of their crimes, the beginnings of a “criminal class.”50 Despite their value in describing these characteristics of the criminal justice system especially in the metropolis, like their earlier counterparts, 18th-century sub-genres of crime reporting were, for various reasons, likely to be unreliable—or, to use Hal Gladfelder’s term, unstable—descriptions of the range and nature of crimes that occurred in this increasingly urbanized setting.51

The Ordinary’s Account

The first of these sub-genres was The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession and Dying Words of the Condemned Criminals Executed at Tyburn. The original purpose of the Ordinary’s Account was to record the last few days in the lives of criminals executed in London, including their behavior in prison, the sermon they were preached before death, whether or not they showed repentance, and the most important feature of this genre, their “last dying speeches” at the gallows before they were hanged. All of this was recorded by the ordinary of Newgate, the minister hired by the City of London to preach at its largest prison and to prepare the condemned for their death at Tyburn Tree, London’s central location for public executions until 1783.52 Depending on the availability of information, and the compliance of the condemned, the ordinary also commonly included some description of the criminals and their crimes, such that his accounts retained some of the characteristics of earlier, anonymous pamphlets. As described by Peter Linebaugh and Andrea McKenzie, the accounts were typically published after each execution day (about eight times per year), with about 450 distinct Accounts extant, which record the death of roughly 2,500 men and, much less often, women, between 1676 and 1772. They were originally printed as broadsides (until 1712), then as short pamphlets of 4 or 8 pages, which were enlarged in 1734 to fill 16 or 28 quarto pages. From these Accounts, the ordinary earned a good supplementary income, estimated at a respectable £200 per year by the early 18th century.53

The Accounts served several of the same purposes as the older true crime literature, including reinforcing the authority of the church and state, sermonizing about man’s sinful tendencies and the dangers of backsliding, emphasizing the continuing cultural references to God and the Devil into the 18th century, and providing instruction and cautionary tales about the lives of fallen men and women who succumbed to temptation.54 This was particularly demonstrated in the last dying speeches, because they offered, as McKenzie has written, “compelling truth claims,” because it was assumed that the dying did not lie and that their words of confession and repentance were, therefore, the absolute truth. In fact, the ordinary often explicitly stated that the text was an accurate and unedited report, although the Accounts were often maligned for their tendency toward fabrication, especially when the ordinary occasionally sold his accounts before the condemned had been executed. In the very first Account, one condemned man allegedly gave a speech in which he offered a “warning [to] Youth not to misspend their time in Idleness, or Disobedience to Parents or Masters; and to have a care of being seduced and drawn away by lewd women, affirming that such courses and their Temptations, and to satisfie their Luxury, had been original the cause of his destruction.”55 Though entirely consistent with the purposes of this literature to warn audiences about the wages of sin, it is doubtful that this speech was so perfectly admonitory. Instead, last dying speeches became “normative and scripted,” rather than a verbatim record of the condemned’s last few minutes before death.56

At least for their first several decades of publication, the Accounts were extremely popular and sold in large numbers, suggesting that contemporaries found them both socially and culturally relevant. For modern scholars, however, the Accounts are less satisfying than their earlier counterparts. Unlike the older pamphlets and broadsides, which offered details of crimes committed throughout the English countryside as well as London, the Accounts tended to focus exclusively on London’s criminals, because they were written based only on the lives of Newgate’s condemned, most of whom lived and died in the metropolis. In addition, they focused only on those individuals actually executed at Tyburn, which means that they did not address crimes that went unsolved, those in which the convict might have been reprieved, or on entertaining, titillating, or instructive crimes that did not result in capital punishment. In these regards, the Account was much more limited, formulaic, and redundant in content than earlier true crime literature.

Beginning in the 1740s, the Account began its decline, and by the early 1770s it was no longer published. Its demise was caused by a combination of the poor quality of the writing, the ordinary’s own morality being questioned (explaining, in part, why anonymity and pseudonymity were earlier preferred), and because other works, such as trial proceedings, newspapers, and criminal biographies (all to be discussed) competed with these accounts and were usually considered to be more accurate and instructive and of generally higher quality.57 Another reason for the decline of the Accounts, and also of the earlier form of pamphlets and broadsides, was that the “everyman” criminal was no longer of much interest to the reading public by the mid-18th century, and thus the publications were no longer useful cautionary tales. Whereas Tudor and Stuart society generally acknowledged that criminality was based on environment and opportunity and believed that everyone was a sinner, increasingly the Georgian middling sort—imbued with Enlightenment ideals and “rational” religion—came to believe that a criminal subclass, which innately lacked both intelligence and moral capacity, operated professionally among an otherwise law-abiding populace. Confessionals about the wages of sin by common miscreants no longer resonated when most readers denied that they themselves could succumb to the same kinds of criminality.58

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey

The Ordinary’s Account appeared at roughly the same time as its sister publication, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, which began to appear in 1674 and was published regularly until 1913. The Old Bailey was (and remains) the central criminal court in the City of London that also heard felony indictments for Middlesex County, by far the largest population of which resided in London and Westminster. Like the Account, the Proceedings appeared about eight times per year, after each court session, but at twice the cost of the Account, they were clearly targeted toward a wealthier audience, which in part helped to determine their content. Also like the Account, as Robert Shoemaker has demonstrated, the Proceedings were not complete descriptions of trials, and in the choice of which cases to include or exclude, and occasionally distorting what was reported, “the Proceedings presented a partial account of crime and criminal justice to their readers.”59 For example, reports on cases that resulted in acquittal were often much shorter than those that resulted in conviction, and in some cases they did not report on any acquittals at all. As well, when testimony was included, it was weighted heavily toward prosecution evidence, rather than that of the accused and his character witnesses, in part because defense witnesses did not testify under oath and were thus deemed to be less reliable.60

These editorial decisions were also made because the Proceedings were published in pamphlets of 12 to 24 quarto pages, and thus were heavily abbreviated. They often contain only a few lines about a criminal trial that might have taken an hour or more in the courtroom. In the first issue of the Proceedings, from April 1674, for example, one case was described as follows:

There was a French Man also tryed for a Rape; pretended to be Committed on his Maid-Servant, upon the Tryal she gave Evidence that she was one Morning about her business, and her Master arose and as she said took her Virginity from her, being askt what she meant by that, she answered her Maidenhead; but it appearing to the Court, that she had not acquainted any one of it till three days after it was pretended to be done, nor had not accused her Master for it till above three weeks after, he was found not Guilty, and so acquitted.61

This was clearly a summary of the trial rather than a transcript of it, and omitted a number of details that would otherwise be extremely useful to scholars of early modern crime. However, given the sexual nature of cases such as these, and because the Proceedings were usually expected to be less sensational than earlier forms of true crime literature, this level of description might have been deemed enough for most readers. It was only in 1778 that the publishers of the Proceedings were required to provide a “true, fair, and perfect narrative” of the cases; thereafter they became much longer and more detailed, though they were still heavily edited for content. This extract also shows that the Proceedings contained many more cases than the Accounts, because they also included individuals who were acquitted and criminals who received lesser sentences, such as benefit of clergy, imprisonment, and, after the Transportation Act of 1718, transportation to the Americas and (by the 1780s) Australia. Whereas the Accounts nearly always focused on criminals who were convicted and executed, and thus addressed serious crimes such as murder and rape, the Proceedings often described lesser felonies, such as grand larceny, which rarely resulted in death.

Despite their shortcomings because of the high level of editorial intervention, the Proceedings have been the form of true crime literature most commonly used by early modern crime scholars, especially since they have appeared in their entirety online. The online database contains records of nearly 200,000 criminal trials from 1674–1913 and is an accessible and searchable resource of exceptional value.62 One individual who appears regularly in the Proceedings, for example, is the illustrious early criminal lawyer William Garrow, who practiced at the Old Bailey from 1783 to 1793, during which time he served as counsel in no fewer than 900 trials.63 Garrow became well known for his aggressive methods of questioning witnesses, often getting them to change their stories or admit that their prosecution was false and malicious. The Proceedings also evidence the London crime wave, especially in the cases associated with “thief-taker general” Jonathan Wild. Individuals such as Wild caught thieves and brought about their conviction in exchange for a finder’s fee. The Proceedings report on dozens of Wild’s cases between 1716 and 1725, such as his role in bringing about the conviction and execution of Jack Sheppard and Joseph Blake in 1724.64 It was later discovered that Wild ran a large gang of thieves and removed his competition, like Sheppard and Blake, by turning them in and testifying against them in court. Eventually, Wild’s criminal activities were discovered and he was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey, and executed at Tyburn (with Fielding in the crowd), in May 1725.65 It was the Old Bailey exploits of individuals such as Garrow and Wild that made the Proceedings so interesting especially to middle-class readers, who were both interested in the process and reforms of the criminal justice system and the dangers of the criminal elements that surrounded them.


Although they continued to be printed until the early 20th century, the Proceedings were increasingly in competition with other sources of news. For example, several volumes of the Select Trials at the Sessions-House in the Old Bailey and The Tyburn Chronicle were published in the 1740s and 1750s that compiled some of the more interesting Old Bailey trials since the beginning of the century.66 Much more significant was the competition from daily, twice- and thrice-weekly, and weekly newspapers, which, as Simon Devereaux has argued, “provided accounts of the most sensational trials more quickly than the [Proceedings] could.”67 Unlike the publishers of the Proceedings, who were obliged to clear their content with the City of London before they could provide details to the public, newspaper publishers had no such obligation and could report on serious crimes both before and immediately after a trial. This was especially the case for newspapers that sometimes published both morning and evening editions, which meant that criminal acts and trials were sometimes reported literally within hours of their occurrence.68 As scholars have suggested, although newspaper accounts were often “brief and fragmentary,” “these accounts brought an immediacy that profoundly altered perceptions of the world” because they drew “the threat of criminality into social spaces” and emphasized, once again, the ongoing urban crime wave.69

In contrast to the earlier sub-genres discussed, newspapers were sold largely on a subscription basis, which meant that there was a large middle- and upper-class audience who had already paid for the medium, thereby guaranteeing a predictable audience. Newspapers also contained other content than merely criminal trials, such as local politics, foreign affairs, humor, and poetry. This means that, unlike the Account and Proceedings, which were purchased by audiences who clearly wished to learn more about London crime, readers consumed newspapers with somewhat different expectations. That is, they sometimes gained knowledge of crime, whose reportage occupied 20% to 30% of a newspaper’s contents, incidentally to their main purpose of reading the newspaper. Like modern newspapers, 18th-century ones tended to report on the same crime or crimes numerous times, taking the reader through the entire criminal process. Along the way, the reporters often commented on moral and legal issues raised by the case, providing specific advice about how the state could prevent reoccurrence, and how readers could protect themselves from falling victim to the same crimes. They also reported on a lot of unsolved crimes, which likely created a certain anxiety among their readership, whereas reporting on arrests, trials, and punishment likely provided more closure and reassurance.

As Esther Snell and Peter King have suggested, by the late 18th century newspapers became the most significant means by which readers became acquainted with crime, in London and beyond.70 There were at least two dozen newspapers being published regularly in London and by the end of the century hundreds were being published in the counties. This had the advantage of spreading London’s crime news deeper into the peripheries and featured reportage of rural criminal activities as well, which was not generally true of the other sub-genres of 18th-century crime literature. This dramatic increase in news reporting saw the rise of professional journalists, who, purportedly, had undertaken closer investigation into the criminal acts they described, which suggests that their accounts were dispassionate and reliable. However, like other forms of true crime literature, there were several factors that dictated content and, therefore, contributed to the unstableness of this literature. The newspapers, like the Proceedings, were very selective about what crimes they reported; deviant women, murderers, highway robbers, and burglars were more likely to be reported than more mundane cases of, for instance, fraud, larceny, and pickpocketing. Although reporters were generally unsympathetic to criminals, there was nonetheless a tendency to glamorize the exploits of certain criminal elements, such as highway robbers, pickpockets, and even pirates and murderers, who were treated like more like honorable Robin Hoods than members of a deviant criminal subclass.71 In addition, newspapers were profit-driven enterprises that catered to their readers, which means that, as Esther Snell has argued, “printers were … sensitive to their readers’ desires.”72 Thus, the content of newspapers was determined, at least in part, by their audiences’ mentalities and sensibilities, rather than, for example, those of the church and state. It also means that newspapers were attuned to the issue of “victimization” and tended therefore to focus on the experiences of the victims rather than on the exploits of the criminals, which represents a significant shift in early modern crime literature.

Criminal Biographies

The final major sub-genre of true crime literature in early modern England was the rise of the criminal biography, which also began to appear in the late 17th century. Criminal biographies quickly came to follow a fairly standard literary trope involving inexorable backsliding and ultimate repentance. This occurred when an individual, typically one who had a good childhood and good future prospects, entered a life of minor vices, such as drinking or gambling, leading to a fall from innocence and the commission of increasingly serious crimes often leading to execution, but not before the miscreant has shown public repentance for his or her sinful life. This literature was, thus, intended to be a cautionary tale for readers. One of the earliest and best known examples of these cautionary tales is the story of Thomas Savage, first published in 1668. Savage was born to honest parents and was apprenticed to a vintner, both of which should have set him up for a good, law-abiding life. Then he stopped going to church and began to partake in “sensual pleasures,” including seeking the company of prostitutes. In order to protect himself from scandal and get enough money to pursue his vices, Savage murdered a fellow servant at his master’s home, stole a bag of money, and fled. He was quickly brought to justice, afterwards strongly repenting of his behavior, and uttering a speech at his execution that “drew many tears from the beholders’ eyes.” He was hanged at the age of sixteen.73 In many respects, the story of Savage is a model of the criminal biography sub-genre. After showing the reader an inverted world by describing heinous and perverse crimes in detail, the tale ends by showing both the justness of the outcome and the restoration of social order. It warns readers about the dangers of entertaining even small vices, for fear that this would lead to greater and greater forms of temptation and the ultimate punishment.

One of the leading writers of criminal biography in the early 18th century was Daniel Defoe. Particularly active in the 1720s, Defoe entered this genre with the novel Moll Flanders (1722). When it was first published, Defoe was not known to be the author, and audiences assumed that the book was, in fact, an authentic autobiography of a late-17th-century woman. The plot revolves around Moll, who is raised by a good foster mother, later enters into service and consorts with the younger men of the household, and eventually enters a life of thievery and confidence schemes, often involving dressing above her station so that she could steal from London’s elite. After she is caught and sentenced to death, Moll is sent to Newgate, where she shows sufficient repentance that the ordinary intercedes on her behalf and arranges her transportation to America in lieu of death. Defoe later wrote biographies of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, both of which involved significant revisionism in order to make the stories more entertaining and to respond to contemporary issues. Readers of Jonathan Wild (1725), for example, would have recognized that Defoe used his protagonist as a tool to criticize Robert Walpole, the British prime minister, for his role in the famous South Sea Bubble crisis of 1720.74

Like Defoe’s literary treatment of Wild, and certain contemporary newspapers, a number of 18th-century criminal biographies also tended to focus on “celebrity criminals,” especially “gentlemen” highwaymen and infamous murderers.75 In 1714, Alexander Smith wrote History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, and in 1735 Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals appeared, which included entries on Sheppard and Wild, in addition to some of London’s best-known murderers, pirates, and thieves. A book from 1724, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, contains biographies of many famous Golden Age English pirates, including “Black Bart” Roberts, “Calico Jack” Rackham, “Blackbeard” Teach, and “Black Sam” Bellamy. This contemporary bestseller—which glamorized pirates in ways that makes them common figures in popular culture today—was written by “Captain Charles Johnson,” a name that scholars generally agree was a pseudonym used by Defoe. As these various titles and their focus on celebrity criminals suggest, the authors of this literature became increasingly interested in providing entertainment and titillation rather than lessons about morality. This was probably for the same reason previously discussed: middle-class readers, who were the most likely to consume these writings, increasingly saw themselves as morally superior and did not believe that they could benefit from instruction based on the biographies of criminals who were part of an innate and distinct class.

The Newgate Calendar, which began to be published in 1774, was yet another form of criminal biography. Like the other biographical literature, the Calendar reported on the lives and deaths of notorious criminals and was written in lively and lurid prose designed to entertain. But in its purpose to serve as “reforming literature,” it also shared some characteristics with the Ordinary’s Account and in many ways became its closest literary successor. Like the Account, the Calendar was priced cheaply to attract a more common audience and was regularly derided by wealthier segments of society as trashy. Ultimately, the editors hoped that the Calendar would serve the purpose of “guarding the minds of youth against the approaches of vice; and, in consequence, of advancing the happiness of the community.”76 Indeed, in the preface to the first collected edition of 1780, the editors, clearly members of the emerging middle class, made recommendations to the king, George III, about the criminal justice system. They recommended that he “let the law operate in its full force” in order to serve as great deterrence; that similar weight be put behind “the punishment of women convicts”; that defrauding offenses be raised to capital crimes; that forgery be punished with galley service (essentially life indenture, virtual slavery); and that convicted highwaymen be committed to chain gangs, laboring on the highways where they committed their crimes. They also lamented that murderers could receive no more serious punishment than was currently in place, which by the terms of the 1752 Murder Act involved hanging followed by either anatomization or gibbeting. These recommendations reflect the ongoing concerns about the effectiveness of the bloody code and the perception of a London crime wave, and possibly served as an attempt to attract a wealthier audience that shared these beliefs. Unsurprisingly, based on the preface just described, highwaymen (such as the famous Dick Turpin),77 felonious women (such as Alice Arden, the inspiration for the Elizabethan play Arden of Faversham), forgers, murderers, and gamers receive pride of place, and the usual suspects reappear, such as detailed biographies of Wild and Sheppard. Given the significant amount of detail often provided about these criminals, extending as far back as the 12th century, it is clear that, similar to the pamphlets of the 17th century, there was at least as much fiction as fact in many of the Calendar’s biographies.


The sub-genres of true crime literature in early modern England had different forms, functions, and audiences, which often dictated their tone, length, format, and content. Whereas 17th-century pamphlets and broadsides were brief and inexpensive and were intended for a semi-literate or even illiterate audience, by the 18th century trial proceedings, newspapers, and full-length criminal biographies, priced for and targeted to a middle-class market, came to be desirable among the more literate and wealthier segments of society. Whereas the earlier literature tended to focus on instructing readers on the authority of God, the church, and the state, and the fear of social inversion caused by serious criminal activity, all of which was intended to preach caution and the wages of sin and bring about reform and deterrence among readers, much of the later literature eschewed these tendencies. By about 1750, elite audiences came to accept the idea that the vast majority of crime was committed by individuals with an innate tendency toward criminality, and thus moral instruction, cautionary tales, and deterrence were less valued, and were replaced by emphasis on the importance of middle-class reform of the criminal justice system. In addition, as historians have clearly demonstrated, the early modern period was demarcated by significant changes in the ideas of God’s and the Devil’s providence, church and royal authority, the operationalization of the criminal justice system (especially as regards urban and rural milieus), and the application of enlightened reason, all of which dictated differences between, roughly, pre- and post-1700 true crime literature.

There were, however, several characteristics that unite these various sub-genres into a distinct genre of true crime literature. Firstly, nearly all of it was intended to entertain audiences, whether or not this entertainment was accompanied by moral instruction. The prose was frequently lively and titillating, and the crimes often selected purely for their entertainment value. Secondly, this literature almost exclusively focused on serious crimes such as murder, robbery, and rape, among others. These crimes were generally more interesting to readers and more upsetting to their sensibilities, and could instill fear and emphasize deterrence and social inversion and correction much more effectively than minor crimes. Thirdly, this literature reflected a number of key characteristics of crime and criminal justice at the time it was written, allowing scholars to learn a great deal about early modern mentalities toward crime and society. Lastly, all of this literature ostensibly reported on actual criminal behavior. Rather than inventing stereotypical characters and crimes that could serve core purposes of entertainment and instruction (though, unbeknownst to contemporary audiences, Defoe did this in Moll Flanders), the various authors—whether anonymous, pseudonymous, or otherwise—drew on real-life crimes and criminals. This required a great deal of straying from the truth, in part because the mundane nature of most true crime did not serve the fundamental purposes of this genre, and because various facts could not be determined, without which the stories would be incomplete, and thus unsatisfying for readers. It is primarily because of their evident lack of accuracy that historians, in particular, tend also to rely on depositions from county archives, records from assizes sessions, and trial transcripts.78 These sources allow scholars to reconcile actual events with the selectivity and unstableness that characterized much of this literature, while simultaneously recognizing the value that early modern crime literature served for its readers, authors, and religious, secular, and social institutions.

Further Reading

Clark, S. (2003). Women and crime in the street literature of early modern England. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Devereaux, S. (1996). The city and the Sessions Papers: “Public justice” in London, 1770–1800. Journal of British Studies, 35, 466–503.Find this resource:

Dolan, F. E. (2013). True relations: Reading, literature, and evidence in seventeenth-century England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Find this resource:

Faller, L. B. (2008). Crime and Defoe: A new kind of writing. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Gaskill, M. (1998). Reporting murder: Fiction in the archives in early modern England. Social History, 23, 1–30.Find this resource:

Gladfelder, H. (2001). Criminality and narrative in eighteenth-century England: Beyond the law. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Find this resource:

King, P. (2007). Newspaper reporting and attitudes to crime and justice in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century London. Continuity and Change, 22, 73–112.Find this resource:

Lake, P. (1993). Deeds against nature: Cheap print, Protestantism and murder in early seventeenth-century England. In K. Sharpe & P. Lake (Eds.), Culture and politics in early Stuart England (pp. 257–283). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Find this resource:

Linebaugh, P. (1977). The ordinary of Newgate and his account. In J. S. Cockburn (Ed.), Crime in England, 1550–1800 (pp. 246–269). London: Methuen and Company.Find this resource:

MacMillan, K. (2015). Stories of true crime in Tudor and Stuart England. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

McKenzie, A. (2005). From true confessions to true reporting: The decline and fall of the ordinary’s Account. London Journal, 30, 55–70.Find this resource:

McKenzie, A. (2007). Tyburn’s martyrs: Execution in England, 1675–1775. London: Hambledon Continuum.Find this resource:

McMahon, V. (2004). Murder in Shakespeare’s England. London: Hambledon Continuum.Find this resource:

Raymond, J. (2003). Pamphlets and pamphleteering in early modern Britain. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Shoemaker, R. B. (2008). The Old Bailey Proceedings and the representation of crime and criminal justice in eighteenth-century London. Journal of British Studies, 47, 559–580.Find this resource:

Spufford, M. (1981). Small books and pleasant histories: Popular fiction and its readership in seventeenth-century England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Weatherford, J. W. (2001). Crime and punishment in the England of Shakespeare and Milton. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.Find this resource:


(1.) J. Raymond (2003). Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (pp. 11–12), (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

(2.) R. Martin (2005). Henry Goodcole, Visitor of Newgate: Crime, Conversion, and Patronage, The Seventeenth Century, 20, 153–184.

(3.) Raymond, Pamphlets, pp. 64–65; and K. MacMillan (2015). Stories of True Crime in Tudor and Stuart England (p. 16), (London: Routledge). On the “everyman,” see especially A. McKenzie (2007). Tyburn’s Martyrs: Executions in England, 1675–1775 (London: Hambledon Continuum).

(4.) Raymond, Pamphlets, chapters 3–4; and MacMillan, Stories of True Crime, pp. 2–4.

(5.) A. Fox (2000). Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500–1700 (chapters 6–7) (Oxford: Oxford University Press); and A. Walsham (2002). Reformed folklore? Cautionary tales and oral tradition in early modern England, in A. Fox & D. Woolf (Eds.), The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500–1850 (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press).

(6.) P. Lake (1993). Deeds against nature: Cheap print, Protestantism and murder in early seventeenth-century England, in K. Sharpe & P. Lake (Eds.), Culture and Politics in Early Stuart England (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press); and M. Gaskill (1998). Reporting Murder: Fiction in the Archives in Early Modern England, Social History, 23, 1–30.

(7.) A true report of the late horrible murther, committed by William Sherwood, prisoner in the Queenes Bench, for the profession of popery (1581), (London).

(8.) A pittilesse mother, that most unnaturally at one time, murthered two of her children (London, 1616); and The Jesuites firing-plot revived: or, a warning to house-keepers (1680), (London).

(9.) The horrible murther of a young boy, of three years of age (1606), (London).

(10.) E.g., The arraignment and acquittal of Sir Edward Mosely, baronet, indicted at the King’s Bench bar for a rape (1647), (London).

(11.) The tryal of John Foster, for stealing a magpye (1693), (London).

(12.) The gardner at the gallows: for buggerie (1667), (London).

(13.) A true relation of a most desperate murder, committed upon the body of Sir John Tindall (1617), (Sigs. B2r–B3v), (London).

(14.) A briefe discourse of two most cruell and bloudie murthers (1583), (Sig. A3r), (London).

(15.) The horrible murther of a young boy; and Lake, Deeds against nature, p. 270.

(16.) Lake, Deeds against nature, pp. 269–274; Gaskill, Reporting Murder; and A. Walsham (1999). Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

(17.) The horrible murther of a young boy, p. 7.

(18.) Sundrye strange and inhumain murthers (1591), (Sig. A4), (London).

(19.) A true relation of the most horrid and barbarous murders, committed by Agibail Hill (1658), (London).

(20.) Sundrye strange and inhumain murthers.

(21.) Gaskill, Reporting Murder, pp. 14–16.

(22.) For examples of the ubiquity of the Devil in these tales, see the index entry on the Devil in MacMillan, Stories of True Crime, p. 229.

(23.) Witches apprehended, examined and executed (1613), (London).

(24.) Lake, Deeds against nature, p. 259.

(25.) Most cruell and bloody murther.

(26.) The manner of the cruel, outrageous murther of William Storre (1603), (London).

(27.) The term “inversion” is drawn from Lake, Deeds against nature, pp. 262–268.

(28.) The full discovery of the late horrid murder and robbery in Holbourn (1674), (London).

(29.) The mirrour of cruelty (1683), (London).

(30.) MacMillan, Stories of True Crime, p. 15.

(31.) Deeds against nature, and monsters by kinde (1614), (London).

(32.) The araignement and burning of Margaret Fernseede for the murther of late husband (1608). (London).

(33.) E.g., Innocency reprieved; Sad and lamentable news from Romford (1674), (London); and The confession and execution of the two prisoners, that suffered at Tyburn (1678), (London).

(34.) A most horrible & detestable murther committee by a bloudie minded man upon his owne wife (1595), (Sig. A2), (London).

(35.) A number of examples will be found in MacMillan, Stories of True Crime. See also F. Dolan (1994). Representations of Domestic Crime in England, 1550–1700 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

(36.) K. Wrightson (1982). English Society, 1580–1680 (London: Hutchison).

(37.) Sundry strange and inhumane murders, lately committed (1591), (London).

(38.) A true relation of the most horrid and barbarous murders committed by Abigail Hill (1658), (London).

(39.) E.g., the story of Martha Scambler in Deeds against nature.

(40.) A pittilesse mother.

(41.) A true and perfect relation, of a most horrid and bloody murder committed by one Philmore’s wife (1686), (London).

(42.) Gaskill, Reporting Murder, p. 5.

(43.) See F. Dolan (2013). True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England (introduction and chapter 2) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press).

(44.) The horrible murther of a young boy, of three years of age; The most cruell and bloody murther committed by an Inkeepers wife (1606), (London). The indictment slip will be found at The National Archives ASSI 35/48/2, m. 11.

(45.) Gaskill, Reporting Murder; Lake, Deeds against nature.

(46.) See, e.g., A. Fletcher & J. Stevenson (Eds.). (1987). Order and Disorder in Early Modern England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

(47.) MacMillan, Stories of True Crime, pp. 13–16. See also M. Gaskill (2000). Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press); C. Herrup (1987). The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press); Herrup (1985). Law and Morality in Seventeenth-Century England, Past and Present, 106, 102–123; and K. Wrightson (1980). Two concepts of order: Justices, constables and jurymen in seventeenth-century England, in J. Brewer & J. Styles (Eds.), An Ungovernable People: The English and Their Law in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (pp. 22–46) (London: Hutchinson).

(48.) See, especially, D. Hay, et al. (1975). Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century London (London: Allen Lane); E. P. Thompson (1993). Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (chaps. 1–4) (New York: New Press); and E. P. Thompson (1977). Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (New York: Penguin). See also P. King (1984). Decision-Makers and Decision-Making in the English Criminal Law, 1750–1800, The Historical Journal, 27, 25–58.

(49.) J. M. Beattie (1991). Scales of Justice: Defense Counsel and the English Criminal Trial in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Law and History Review, 9, 221–267; J. Langbein (2005). The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial (Oxford: Oxford University Press); A. N. May (2003). The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750–1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press).

(50.) See, e.g., H. Shore (2015). London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720–1930: A Social and Cultural History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

(51.) H. Gladfelder (2001). Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (p. 229), (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

(52.) On Tyburn and its decline, see S. Devereaux (2009). Recasting the Theatre of Executions: The Abolition of the Tyburn Ritual, Past & Present, 202, 127–174; and McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs.

(53.) C. Emsley, T. Hitchcock, & R. Shoemaker. Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts. Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

(54.) On the continued relevance of the Devil’s providence into the 18th century, see O. Davies (2007). Talk of the Devil: Crime and Satanic Inspiration in Eighteenth-Century England. available at

(55.) Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts (1676, May 17). Old Bailey Proceedings Online, OA16760517.

(56.) A. McKenzie (2005). From True Confessions to True Reporting: The Decline and Fall of the Ordinary’s Account, London Journal, 30, 55–70; and McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs.

(57.) McKenzie, From True Confessions; P. Linebaugh (1977). The Ordinary of Newgate and his account, in J. S. Cockburn (Ed.), Crime in England, 1550–1800 (London: Methuen).

(58.) McKenzie, From True Confessions, pp. 59–64.

(59.) R. B. Shoemaker (2008). The Old Bailey Proceedings and the Representation of Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century London, Journal of British Studies, 47, 560–561. See also S. Devereaux (1996). The City and the Sessions Papers: “Public Justice” in London, 1770–1800, Journal of British Studies, 35, 466–503.

(60.) Shoemaker, Old Bailey Proceedings; C. Emsley, T. Hitchcock, & R. Shoemaker. The Value of the Proceedings as a Historical Source. Old Bailey Proceedings Online.

(61.) Old Bailey Proceedings Online (1674, April 29), t16740429-4.

(63.) Beattie, Scales of Justice, pp. 236–247; and May, Bar and the Old Bailey, chap. 4.

(64.) Old Bailey Proceedings Online (1724, August 12), t17240812-52; Old Bailey Proceedings Online (1724, October 15), t17241014-43.

(65.) A. Skirboll (2014). The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal (Guilford, CT: Lyons Press).

(66.) Select Trials at the Sessions-House in the Old-Bailey, for Murder, Robberies, Rapes, Sodomy, Coning, Frauds, Bigamy, and other Offences, 4 vols. (1742–1743). (London: J. Applebee).

(67.) Devereaux, The City and the Sessions Paper, p. 468.

(68.) On the development of the English newspaper and its readership, see J. Black (2001). The English Press, 1621–1861 (Phoenix Mill, U.K.: Sutton); and J. Sutherland (1986). The Restoration Newspapers and its Development (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

(69.) E. Carribine (2008). Crime, Culture and the Media (p. 87) (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity); L. B. Faller (1987). Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (p. x) (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press); and Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p. 11.

(70.) P. King (2007). Newspaper Reporting and Attitudes to Crime and Justice in Late-Eighteenth- and Early-Nineteenth-Century London, Continuity and Change, 22, 73–112; and E. Snell (2007). Discourses of Criminality in the Eighteenth-Century Press: The Representation of Crime in The Kentish Post, 1717–1768, Continuity and Change, 22, 13–47.

(71.) Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p. 49; and Black, English Press, p. 57.

(72.) Snell, Discourses of Criminality, p. 17.

(73.) God’s justice against murther, or the bloody apprentice executed (1668), (London); and The wicked life and penitent death of Tho. Savage (1680), (London).

(74.) L. B. Faller (2008). Crime and Defoe: A New King of Writing (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).

(75.) For a fuller discussion, see Fuller, Turned to Account.

(77.) J. Sharpe (2005). Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwaymen (London: Profile).

(78.) Good examples include Beattie, Policing and Punishment in London; Herrup, The Common Peace; and J. Sharpe (1993). Crime in Seventeenth Century England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press).