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date: 14 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

True crime reporting was extremely popular in early modern England (ca. 1550–1800). Depending on when this literature was written, and the audience it was intended to attract, the sub-genres of true crime writing took the form of small pamphlets, broadsides, rhyming ballads designed to be sung to a familiar tune, ministers’ accounts of criminals and repentance, collections of trials, newspapers, and biographies of professional criminals. In addition to being inherently shocking and entertaining, this literature served as cautionary, religious, and morality tales that reflected on serious crime as one of the signs that English society had become ignorant, irreligious, and immoral. These tales of true crime could be used to remind a wide readership of the wages of sin, and of the role of the community, church, and state in bringing about justice for criminals and their victims. In a society that placed significant restraints on sexual, personal, and religious freedoms, and exhorted obedience, deference, hard work, sexual restraint, and abstinence from all forms of vice, true crime literature could help to restore order and balance to society. To accomplish these various goals, the authors of true crime literature were not very faithful reporters, often embellishing criminal deeds, publishing small portions of much lengthier cases, or fabricating facts as needed to fill in unknown details or to improve readers’ fear of and education about the criminal element that surrounded them. As this literature developed in the 18th century, its authors became famous for reporting about infamous criminals in semi-biographical novels, thus merging true crime literature with fiction and giving rise to another genre of crime literature by about 1800.

Keywords: broadsides, criminal biography, Newgate Calendar, Ordinary’s Accounts, Old Bailey Proceedings, pamphlets, true crime

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