In 1871, a London bookseller named Charles Hindley published a ‘large and curious assortment’ of ‘“Cocks,” or “Catchpennies,”’ in other words, miscellaneous ‘Street-Drolleries, Squibs, Histories, Comic Tales in Prose and Verse, Broadsides on the Royal Family, Political Litanies, Dialogues, Cathechisms, Acts of Parliament, Street Political Papers, a Variety of “Ballads on a Subject,” Dying Speeches and Confessions,’ etc., etc. All these he collectively entitled Curiosities of Street Literature. Hadley’s book was issued in a limited edition of fewer than 500 copies, but it has since been reprinted, and, courtesy of the Etext Center at the University of Virginia Library, it has, in part, been published on-line. Only one of the book’s four ‘divisions’ has been posted so far, that concerned with ‘the “Gallows” Literature of the Streets.’ These accounts of Public Executions, Dying Speeches, and Confessions, range from ‘the Execution of Sir John Oldcastle in 1417, to the Trial and Execution of F. Hinson, who suffered the extreme penalty of the law, at the Old Bailey; Monday December 13th, 1869, for the wilful murder of Maria Death.’ Hindley writes that ‘Executian Ballads’ for notable murders could command ‘a most enormous sale,’ the reports of two 1849 cases achieved estimated sales of some two and a half million. The present images are snipped from Hindley’s reproductions of these publications: some of the crude and generic woodcuts, such as the one immediately below, were used to illustrate accounts of several different executions. The image above left is more specific, and represents Alice Holt, who was hanged in Chester in 1863 for having poisoned her own mother: ‘The drop fell, and the culprit was launched into eternity before a great many people, particularly women-folks.’
The image above was used to illustrate the trial, confession and execution of Joseph Richards (in 1786), for ‘the cruel and wicked murder of Walter Horseman,’ a milkman of Kentish Town: the 19-year-old Richards had administered such a severe beating to Horseman that he died ‘a shocking spectacle’ a few days later. The same woodcut adorns the account of the 1797 execution of Martin Clinch and Samuel Mackley: Clinch had shot a man to rob him of his watch, and some money. The woodcut was used again in the case of John Gleeson Wilson, who murdered four people (two of them young children) in the course of a robbery in 1849…
The image above is a detail from another woodcut that was used at least twice: once to illustrate the grisly account of the ‘Barbarous execution and burning of Phœbe Harris,’ in 1786: Harris had been found guilty of ‘coining silver.’ We see the same image again used to complement some ‘Verses on Daniel Good,’ a gentleman’s coachman who had slain his pregnant lover Jane Jones with a hatchet, in 1842.
The woodcut above is unusual among those collected by Hindley in that it illustrates a crime rather than its punishment. It depicts an unnamed ‘Italian boy’ being attacked by one of either John Bishop or Thomas Williams, the ‘Burkers of 1831.’ Burkers, so called after William Burke, of Burke & Hare notoriety, were ‘resurrection men’ who obtained cadavers for anatomists by the simple expedient of murdering people. Aptly, at their sentencing, the judge directed that Bishop’s and Williams’s bodies ‘be delivered over for dissection and anatomization.’ Lastly, the illustration below shows the triple execution of Allen, Gould and Larkin, three Irishmen who swung for treason, and for the murder of a Sergeant Brett, in 1871.