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Crime and Murder in the 19th Century :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Crime and Murder in the 19th Century


An example of a broadside from a hanging. Broadsides were a part of the gallows culture and obsession with murder and violence in popular culture.

Murder and violence may have decreased somewhat in prevalence of occurrence in the 19th century. However they became subjects of obsession in popular culture. Crime newspapers covered murders and other violent incidents in detail, updating their readers on every conceivable aspect of the crimes. Consumers purchased broadsides, poster-like sheets with sometimes fictionalized descriptions and large images of the crimes, victims and criminals, and other souvenirs from public hangings which were popular social events for the lower and sometimes middle classes. In the world of gallows entertainment, broadsides and souvenirs from executions as well as newspaper reporting that followed the crime from discovery to trial tended to sensationalize the details of the crime (Crone). Newspapers focused on particularly violent and fascinating crime and heaped attention on the criminal. Both fictional crime stories and the crime reporting that was based in reality depicted crime as intriguing and entertaining (Christensen).** It was during the 19th century that detective fiction became a popular genre. Crime and murder were ubiquitous in the popular culture of the 19th century. However, it was not just popular culture that was obsessed with crime, officials, scientists, and pseudo-scientists all became absorbed in criminology and theories of crime and criminality abounded.

Various ideas of criminality were developed by scientists in the 19th century. Some colored popular opinion on murder while others remained confined to the sphere of criminologists. Many were used in the discourse about the crimes and personas of the serial killer of the 19th century. One idea of criminality developed in the 19th century was that of the “natural-born killer”. According to the “Italian School”  theories of the born criminal certain people were born with specific criminal tendencies. In combination with the pseudo-sciences of phrenology and physiognomy that were popular at the time, these ideas of born criminal often translated into proscribing a particular physical type to categories of criminals (Cole 25-28).These physical conceptions about criminal types as motivated by ideas about born criminals were discussed by social scientist and utilized by law enforcement systems and officers in preventing and ‘solving’ crimes.** Others saw criminals as degenerate and reflective of civilization’s decline (Downing 73). Those who looked with horror on the new crime and anonymity of the city sometimes thought that society or certain segments of it were devolving, going back to a more basic state, instead of progressing. Often this perception characterized the criminal as an “atavistic creature suffering from homicidal mania”.  In fact one Viennese professor reportedly had a theory that the brains of criminals resembled those of beasts (Fisher 204). Other crime theories claimed that killers had minds of the “low type” (Fisher 203). All of these theories were interesting in combination with the serial killer, an individual that generally fit well into the pattern of everyday life, and sometimes, as in the case of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, even intermixed with the upper crust of society, while at the same time venting murderous tendencies. These criminals did not fit with the idea of a degenerate or criminal type that would stand out among society, but rather murdered in the course of otherwise normal and productive daily lives. However the criminal passion, seemingly irrational, also fit with the idea of the born criminal. After all what else but a born tendency could lead respectable men to repeated murder? In the 19th century, popular and professional theories about the nature of crime and criminals abounded, all used to analyze the instances of crime and evidence themselves of the cultural obsession with it.

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