Catchpenny Dreadfuls! 24 broadsides given by Bruce Willsie, Class of 1986
by Hannah Lemonick, Class of 2010, University of Chicago, and student assistant in the Rare Book Division, Princeton University Library, 2008
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street first appeared in London plays and urban legends dating back to the 1800s. He did not spring fully formed from the head of film director Tim Burton or composer Stephen Sondheim. The recent gift to the Library of a set of broadsides — single-sheet sensationalist press pieces detailing murders and violent crimes which actually occurred during this time period — is a fascinating illustration of just how much of the Sweeney Todd legend was based in a genuinely terrifying world, and how believable the original urban myth must have been.
The universal constant in these examples of street literature is the firm and absolute judgment they pass on their unfortunate objects. There is no ambiguity; in all cases a terrible crime has been committed, and justice has rightly struck down the perpetrator. The broadside Blackburn Tragedy is especially telling in that it details how an innocent vagrant was nearly hanged for the murder of Emily Holland, a seven year old girl, before a local man volunteered the use of his dogs and allowed the police to discover parts of her body and skull in the home of William Fish. It is perfectly clear – indeed, the text admits – that although there can have been little evidence against the other man, “Yet people have been hanged for less, and Robert Taylor probably escaped a similar doom by the narrowest chances.”
The genre combines absolute, unwavering judgment with unbelievable rapidity — most execution broadsheets were being sold within moments of a hanging, and were often written the night before the hanging even took place, even while purporting to contain the last words of the deceased. Then again, the courts seem to have acted with only slightly more deliberation than the printers; men were hanged within days of being apprehended, and in many cases, for crimes that we would consider mild, like breaking and entering. If life in London’s underbelly in the 1800s was violent and dangerous, so were the courts and the popular press.
The broadsides provide evidence of the need for ordinary people to make sense of a world in which such things happened — where children were starved and beaten by their parents and women were literally torn limb from limb. It was certain that crime was punished without hesitation — an understanding contrasting strongly to today’s concern regarding due process and fair trial.
Illustration: Detail from Particular Account of a most Barbarous and Inhuman Murder Committed by John Holloway upon the body of his Wife by Cutting off her Head, Legs, and Arms, with his Confession[London]: J. Catnach, n.d. Large tiff image of complete broadside.
List of the gift
• An Account of Matthew Clydesdale and Simon Ross, who were executed in front of the Prison, at Glasgow, on Wednesday the 4th of Nov. 1818, for the crimes of Murder and Housebreaking. [London]: T. Duncan, 1818. [Download file]
• Apprehension and Committal of Mrs. Sloane. London: E. Hodges, n.d.
• Cruel & Inhuman Murder of a little Boy, by his Father. London: H. Disley, n.d.
• Dreadful Cruelty to a Servant. [London]: n.d.
• Dreadful Tragedy at Kingston. London: Taylor’s Song Mart, n.d.
• Horrid Murder and Mutilation of a Woman, and recovery of different parts of the body from various places on the banks of the River Thames. London: Disley, n.d.
• Horrid Murder. [London]: E. Hodges, n.d.
• Inhuman Treatment of Two Children by their Father. London: Taylor, n.d.
• Lamentable Lines, on the Death of Joseph M’Mahon who was Shot in Dorset-street, On the 28th March, ‘82. [London]: 1882.
• Mournful Copy of Verses, concerning John Fawcett, who Shot his own Son, And will take his Trial in a few Days. [London]: Catnach, n.d.
• Murder of a Carrier, at Barrow-on-Soar, and the Committal of the Murderer for Trial. London: Disley, n.d.
• Particular Account of a most Barbarous and Inhuman Murder Committed by John Holloway upon the body of his Wife by Cutting off her Head, Legs, and Arms, —with his Confession. [London]: J. Catnach, n.d. Large tiff image
• Particulars of the Riot at Dover, Which took place on Friday last, May 26, 1820, in which the Gaol was nearly all pulled down, and the Prisoners set at liberty. [London]: Statesman Newspaper, 1820.
• Sentence of William Fish, the Blackburn Murderer. London: H.P. Such, n.d.
• Shocking Case of Cruelty and Starvation, In Cannon Street Road. London: Taylor, n.d.
• The [Sorr]owful Lamentations and Last Farewell to the World of James Fitzwilliams, Henry Wilkins, William Bull, for Burglary, and John Caffan, a Black Man, for a Rape upon a Child Ten Years of Age. [London]: Catnach, n.d.
• The Leeds Tragedy: Or, The Bloody Brother. [England]: [c. 1790].
• The Trial and Execution of Richard Smith, aged 45, for feloniously assaulting and ravishing Mary Green, executed this Morning, March 30th, 1836, at the new drop. [London]: Robinson, 1836.
• The Trial and Sentence of Frederick Peter Finnigan, for the willful Murder of his infant daughter, and who is Ordered for Execution on Monday next, at Horsemonger Lane Gaol. [London]: Smeeton, n.d.
• Trial and Sentence of G. Bentley, For the murder of John Pool, at Eccleshall, on Wednesday, the 10th of January last. London: H. Disley, n.d.
• A Warning Cry from the Cells of Nottingham! Or, Sorrowful Lamentation of Geo. Needham and Wm. Manderville, the two unfortunate Men who now lie under Sentence of Death in Nottingham County Gaol for Housebreaking. Nottingham: Ordoyno, n.d.
• What do you think of Billy Roupell. London: H. Disley, n.d.
• White, John.Blackburn Tragedy. Liverpool: White, 1876.
• White, John. Thebais Winner of the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks, and Ten other Prizes. Liverpool: J. White, n.d.