"Villainy Detected!" Crime and Consequences in Britain and America in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Crime in Literature

Crime, Literature, and Culture

Rosemary Mundhenk
Professor of English
Lehigh University

Attorneys at Law Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin in their 1824 "Preface" to The Newgate Calendar, comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters who have been Convicted of Outrages on the Laws of England since the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century. . . ," argue that their collection of short biographies of infamous18th and 19th century criminals will inspire those readers who are "unhappily moved with the sordid passion of acquiring wealth by violence, or stimulated by the heinous sin of revenge to shed the blood of a fellow-creature," to see "before them a picture of the torment of mind and bodily sufferings of such offenders." Crime, in short, will end in punishment: "[The] most artful secrecy could not screen the offenders from detection, nor the utmost ingenuity shield them from the strong arm of impartial justice." The representation of crime, at least of crimes that have been detected and punished, the editors argue, is an antidote to crime. The example of crime and its punishment will awaken readers to the social message that crime does not pay in the temporal world, but also to the moral and perhaps eternal repercussions of sin.

Yet, as the extended title of the 1824 Newgate Calendar suggests, with its promise of "occasional anecdotes and observations, speeches, confessions, and last exclamations of sufferers,"the volumes will also entertain. And indeed they do. The history of John Thurtell, whose 1824 murder trial is known as the first "trial by newspaper," combines its portrayal of "cold-blooded villainy" with grotesque farce: Thurtell initially attempts to shoot William Weare with cheap pistols "no better than pop-guns," and, once the murder is accomplished by driving the gun's barrel into the victim's brains, the blundering Thurtell and his accomplice Joseph Hunt ineptly attempt to dispose of the body, first finding it too heavy to move, then trying to sink it in an acquaintance's pond where the dead man's feet protrude about the water, and finally transporting it to another pond, leaving a trail of blood, bits of brain, and various weapons. The biography of the celebrated schoolteacher-turned-murderer Eugene Aram (1704-1759) invites readers not only to applaud his guilt-ridden last days and pre-execution confession, but also to marvel at his ingenuous, erudite courtroom defense of his innocence.

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