March 14, 2006

Gallows Literature

Woodcut illustration from Hindley's 'Curiosities of Street Literature,' 1871.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.’

Woodcut illustration from Hindley's 'Curiosities of Street Literature,' 1871.

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…

Detail of a woodcut illustration from Hindley's 'Curiosities of Street Literature,' 1871.

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.

Detail of a woodcut illustration from Hindley's 'Curiosities of Street Literature,' 1871.

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.

Detail of a woodcut illustration from Hindley's 'Curiosities of Street Literature,' 1871.


Posted by misteraitch at March 14, 2006 12:37 PM

Two and a half million copies sold, that’s good business. I am pretty sure that an updated form of this type of entertainment would do equally well today—people’s appetite for the suffering of others has not gone away.

Posted by: Michelangelo on March 14, 2006 08:25 PM

My favorite of eve-ballads has long been this one--

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Chidiock Tichborne, poor fellow. I've always thought that his farewell somehow captured the state we're all in, with our little lives like grass.

Posted by: marlyat2 on March 15, 2006 08:52 PM

Thanks for sharing this with us.I'm sure I'd like to read that book....

I agree with Michelangelo… personally, I don’t know why I get a perverse pleasure out of reading about crimes and the suffering of others, esp. “crimes of passion”. It’s kind of titillating. I don’t like grisly, gory stuff on TV and don’t like to see bloody stuff and all. But I like reading stories about criminals and how they were punished and why they did it. I haven’t sorted out my feelings enough to be able to explain why…

This is one of the websites I like to read:

They have some pretty wild, creepy and utterly fascinating stories there.

Posted by: Fredda on March 16, 2006 12:33 PM

Mr. H:

Recent Gallows Lit is delectable! Off with their heads!

I think T-shirts might be in order. . . . . perhaps mugs and mousepads. . . . or Christmas tree ornaments. . .

Best, JP.

Posted by: Julia P. on March 18, 2006 08:22 PM

You continue to find things that threaten to send me into a prolonged tangent-obsession. As always, keep up the great work!

An interesting subversion of the "appeal of grisly death theme" is the book of photography "Without Sanctuary", which is full of lynching photos from the American South. It is a sickening, driven reminder to all those who would forget America's blood-soaked past.

Not sure exactly why I brought it up, but seeing the images above reminded me of it.

Posted by: Bill @ Orbis Quintus on March 22, 2006 05:36 AM

does anyone know if it is okay to reproduced the image of the woman on the gallows - as long as the url is quoted (in a non fiction book of local history to be published in UK) ...

Posted by: dee gordon on October 10, 2007 02:28 PM
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