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date: 26 February 2021

Historical Representations of Crime and the Criminalfree

  • Eamonn CarrabineEamonn CarrabineDepartment of Sociology, University of Essex


The enduring popular fascination with crime and criminality suggests that history matters. In the most obvious sense, current representations of crime in the media bear traces of earlier codes and practices. Recognizing this past enables a more sophisticated understanding of the present—especially since many current controversies have much longer histories than is usually acknowledged. This is not to suggest a long line of steady continuity stretching back to the earliest forms of oral, face-to-face storytelling from the latest mediated technology that encompasses the lives of millions around the world. Instead, the argument is that understanding changing forms of representation requires attention to how developments in communication media are themselves integral to the formation of modern societies. For example, it has been argued that the blurring of fact, fiction and entertainment is indicative of a postmodern “hyperreality,” where the boundary separating reality from its representation has “imploded” to such an extent that there are now no real-world referents (Baudrillard, 1988). However, the boundaries between fact and fiction have always been fairly fluid. For instance, during the 16th and 17th centuries, both novels and news reports were seen as neither entirely factual nor as clearly fictional (Davis, 1980, 1983). Moreover, what we now regard as a “news story” would have to have been cast in the form of fiction for it to appear in the press during the 18th century. None of this is to suggest that people are incapable of distinguishing between the real and the imaginary, but to insist that understandings of crime in everyday life are continually informed by representations of crime in popular culture.

The importance of bringing to bear a historical perspective is emphasized throughout, as is the sheer range of material. The tendency to refer to “the media” in the singular obscures the diversity of media forms (film, television, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, books, and so on) that surround us. The word “media” is the plural of “medium,” which was initially used to refer to the materials used for communication (Briggs & Burke, 2005, p. 5). From the papyrus, clay, and stone of the ancient world to the plastic, metal, and wire of modern media, it is clear that the technologies of communication have an immense influence, ranging from the most inner dimensions of personal experience to the global organization of power. In a time of fast-paced media developments and rapid information delivery, a thorough understanding of media history and changing forms of representation is needed more than ever.

Representations of crime and criminality have dominated popular culture across virtually all media forms. Inevitably, this essay can only scratch the surface of what is a vast area and begins by describing the impact of the print revolution on representations of crime from 1500 to 1800. Historians would describe the period as “early modern” and distinguish it from the medieval era that preceded it in many ways. Amongst the most important were the declining power of the Church and corresponding growth in the rationalizing authority of law, science, and the state. The advent of printing and spread of individualization associated with these developments revolutionized social life. Yet it is important to recognize the complexity of the cultural mix here, where oral, literary, and visual forms of communication intermingled and coexisted. In this period, English society was neither purely oral (that had disappeared some time ago) nor yet fully literate (teaching the masses to read would only happen late into the 19th century) while the visual (religious iconography in particular) was already powerful. During this time there was an explosion in print culture, and this essay will offer a glimpse of the diverse range and sheer invention of crime writing, where criminals are cast as popular heroes and their executions great festive spectacles sustaining an extensive gallows literature.

Although this essay will present a chronology and mapping of different genres, it is important to recognize that the genres borrow from each other and offer an often bewildering blend of fact and fantasy that defies neat categorization or even clear distinction. It begins with a broad account of popular culture in the oral tradition and emphasizes the importance of carnivalesque rituals in pre-modern worlds. Then it charts the origins of early modern crime reporting and the rich assortment of narratives that came rolling off the printing presses during this period. At the same time the novel gradually emerges, enabling new ways of representing the human experience by assimilating other modes of writing and transforming these earlier genres by concentrating on wayward characters. The celebration of individualism found in the novel is closely associated with the rise of the public sphere and Enlightenment philosophy that would fundamentally change political power and pave the way for our modern sensibilities. The essay then proceeds through the 19th century and the emergence of what was then described as the “New Journalism,” which was defined through its attention to crime, sexual violence, and human interest stories and thus laid the foundation for modern news reporting. The essay concludes with a discussion of how photography became a crucial element in the construction of the modern criminal subject—most famously in mug shots—but also in the boom in portraiture, which encouraged the respectable citizen to measure themselves against the criminal body and visualize social difference in fresh ways.

The Oral Tradition and the Carnivalesque

It is hard now to comprehend the importance of oral communication from antiquity to the Middle Ages. One of the key differences between oral and literate cultures is that we “are no longer linked to our past by an oral tradition which implies direct contact with others (storytellers, priest, wise men, or elders), but by books amassed in libraries, books from which we endeavor—with extreme difficulty—to form a picture of their authors” (Lévi-Strauss, 1950/1968, p. 366).

In the oral tradition, this was never an issue because songs, stories, and poems were designed to be performed and came in dynamic rather than rigid form, where singers and storytellers collectively borrowed, circulated, and reworked each other’s tales, themes, and tunes (Briggs & Burke, 2005, p. 6). The texts often used rhyming schemes and standard metaphors to help performers initially memorize and then flamboyantly improvise stories before their audiences. Indeed, what is now called medieval literature was produced to be heard, not read (Chaytor, 1945). Much recent scholarship has emphasized the complexities of oral cultures, which had all too often been dismissed as “simple” or “illiterate.”

The rise of literate culture began slowly and unevenly in the 12th and 13th centuries, but significantly evolved from around 1450 with the invention of movable metal type and the birth of a printing press in Western Europe. The print revolution, along with gunpowder and the compass, was genuinely epoch-making. It established literacy as an essential quality of the refined, preserved knowledge and undermined religious authority by making conflicting views on topics more widely available (Eisenstein, 1979). It is important to note that up until the middle of the 19th century most poor Europeans remained illiterate or semi-literate, and most Europeans were poor. Moreover, the prospect of literate masses provoked considerable alarm well into the 19th century: it “was feared that should ‘the million’ be able to read, the natural order of society would be irremediably upset, existing economic and political systems would collapse, and civilization itself would be threatened” (Leps, 1992, p. 71). In England, universal elementary education was only introduced in the 1870s, so as to enable the “lower orders” to read the Bible or penny newspapers, instill morality, and promote patriotism—the thought that education could provide enlightenment or social mobility would have been regarded as totally objectionable. The emergence of a national press and universal state education crucially enabled the formation of a shared sense of unifying interests, thus laying the foundation of “nation” consciousness in “imagined communities” (Anderson, 1991).

Images played highly significant roles in pre-modern worlds. In particular, religious iconography provided both information and indoctrination. Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540–640) is said to have “described images as doing for those who could not read, the great majority, what writing did for those who could” (Briggs & Burke, 2005, p. 7). The images in medieval cathedrals and churches, from wood carvings and stone gargoyles through to the stained glass windows, formed an elaborate system of visual communication to instruct the many who could not understand the Latin used by priests during Mass. From the Middle Ages to the present day, much of the traffic has been in the long process of secularization, where religious art and forms are appropriated and adapted for worldly purposes. The display of images of rulers in public became increasingly frequent from then onwards, and appears to have been inspired by the cult of images of saints. For example, portraits of Elizabeth I as the Virgin Queen, mass-produced with the aid of stencils in the later 16th century, replaced portraits of the Virgin Mary and may well have performed similar functions in Reformation England (Burke, 2001, p. 59). Religious worship, festivals, and ceremonies also played an important ritual role that has remained significant.

Another significant ritual occasion for pre-industrial societies was the carnival. Here the established customs, rigid hierarchies, and social rules were temporarily overturned at fairs, feasts, processions, wakes, and other forms of popular festivity that often accompanied the formal religious feasts. The significance of the carnivalesque was initially recognized by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin and has become a crucial “cultural analytic” to grasp the forbidden pleasures of transgression (Stallybrass & White, 1986). For Bahktin (1984) the carnivalesque is a metaphor for the temporary, licensed suspension and reversal of order—when the world is turned upside down and inside out, when the low becomes high and the high turns low, as kings become fools, criminals make laws, donkeys give masses, men dress as women—all for a brief period of time. It is on these occasions that transgressive desires can be temporarily enjoyed, strict hierarchies reversed, and vulgar excess indulged. Bahktin’s crucial point is that in the Middle Ages the carnival played a major role in the life of ordinary people, who inhabited a dual world of existence: one serious, governed by the authority of the church, the feudal system of work, and official state ceremonies, the other unofficial, characterized by reversal, excess, parody, and laughter. Although the practice of carnival diminished in Europe, largely as a result of Church persecution and subsequent Puritanism, its symbolic significance is now sustained in “places on the margin” (Shields, 1991), bohemian lifestyles (Featherstone, 1992), and numerous cultural representations, as discussed in what follows.

Crime Reporting

The origins of crime journalism lie firmly in the oral tradition. In fact, descriptions of outcast criminal underworlds flourished during the break up of feudalism while providing major sources of popular entertainment and social criticism. It has been argued that broadside ballads, which told a story through song, worked as “a kind of musical journalism, the forerunner of the popular prose newspapers and a continuation of the folk tradition of minstrelsy” (Shepherd, 1972, p. 21). The most familiar to us now will be the Robin Hood ballad cycle, but many others—like the mid-14th century Tale of Gamelyn (see McCall, 2004, pp. 100–101)—revolve around a noble band of robbers. Famously, they steal from the undeserving rich to give to the dispossessed poor, while highlighting the malign presence of corrupt officialdom and an overfed, tyrannical clergy. Carnivalesque themes permeate even the earliest ballads of Robin Hood:

He transgresses spatial boundaries, trespassing upon the king’s forests; he inverts social hierarchy, preying upon the dominant classes; he degrades the sacred, humiliating the clergy; he replaces the fast of peasant poverty with the feast of poached deer. But the outlaw owes the perpetuation of his legends and his widespread fame less to the ballads than to his incorporation into the carnivalesque festivities of the May-games, with their plays, pageants, and morris dances.

(Stallybrass, 1989, p. 47)

Although these were idealized champions of the peasantry, there was a clear political vision at work in the songs and myths built on these bandits merrily redistributing wealth, righting wrongs and fighting injustice. As Eric Hobsbawm (1969/2001, p. 47) suggests, while in “real life most Robin Hoods were far from noble,” the legend itself represents an important symbol of justice and a primitive form of social protest. Thus “social bandit” mythology is ultimately concerned with upholding the traditional order of things by having the protagonists rise up and fight those who abuse authority or rule unjustly (Faller, 1987, p. 121). Crucially, they do not demand revolutionary change but the restoration of fair rule—in the case of Robin Hood he stands against the usurping Prince John and awaits the rightful king to return. They do not seek to do away with feudal oppression or establish a free and equal society, but they nonetheless “do prove that justice is possible, that poor men need not be humble, helpless, and meek” (Hobsbawm, 1969/2001, p. 61). Indeed, the “cult of the robber” has been traced as a recurring theme in English literature from the Middle Ages to the 19th century, which celebrated the idea that English robbers were of a special breed and even took pride in the belief that there were more robbers in England than anywhere else in Europe (Spraggs, 2001).

These bandit ballads and mythologies belong to a critical tradition of crime reporting that has never been that pronounced in written form. The main reason is that printed crime reports, from their immediate inception, were subjected to state intervention and vigorous censorship. Gradually, printed pamphlets or broadsides, which presented news narratives in the form of prose or rhyming ballads, began to replace handwritten newsletters by the start of the 16th century. Amongst these diverse publications were the cony-catching pamphlets—“cony” meant “victim” in the jargon of the pickpockets, dice-cheats, confidence tricksters, and assorted villains that populated Tudor London. Mary McIntosh (1971, p. 101) contends that not only did these “craft thieves” have their own slang (cant), neighborhoods (sanctuaries), and meeting places, but there were in fact two “distinct criminal underworlds at this period: that of the wayfaring rogues and vagabonds who lived by stealing and begging—often under false pretenses; and that of the London-based thieves and tricksters.” The first group was defined by their rootlessness and lived on the road, wandering from place to place, while the latter were more professional criminals plying their own distinctive craft and drawing on an extensive network of enablers and supporters, where dealers in stolen goods were central to the emergent forms of criminal collaboration that would later became a more familiar feature of the urban landscape (Sharpe, 1999).

An example of a cony-catching pamphlet is Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566), which describes 23 kinds of vagabond and the dangers posed to the country by this “rascal rabblement.” Harman was a judge from Kent and interviewed travelers to produce one of the first sociologies of crime (Barrett & Harrison, 1999). His pamphlet also included a glossary of canting language (the distinctive slang vocabulary used in the underworlds), a form that would influence the popular canting dictionaries of subsequent centuries. These dictionaries and glossaries gave a sense of the highly skilled specialisms of professional criminals while representing them as a disturbing alien presence. A torrent of measures designed to control the publishing trade by licensing or suppression were introduced, which included in 1557 the granting to the Guild of Stationers almost total control over printing and the power to search for illegal presses and destroy their publications. Censorship was a major preoccupation of early modern European states and churches, both the newly Protestant and Catholic alike, where the prime targets were heresy, sedition, and immorality. The Catholic Church, for example, established an Index libororum prohibitorum in 1559 that was continuously revised and updated over the next 400 years. In principle, pamphlets were meant to be subjected to the same strict censorship rules as books and plays, but there is evidence that many “lewd and scandalous” tracts avoided censorship and made it to the streets (Picard, 2003, p. 240). Printers found numerous ways of evading religious and political censorship: material banned in one city or region would frequently be printed in another, thus encouraging a lucrative and dynamic trade in forbidden literature.

The reporting of rebellions and treason rarely challenged the state’s version of events. Such loyalty should not be surprising. Much of it was published by the royal printers and written by state officials, often going to considerable lengths to disguise its indoctrinating form, source, and content—one strategy was to present the propaganda as a letter from a gentleman to a doubting friend (Chibnall, 1980, p. 181). The fact that such pamphlets still exist suggests that they were responses to “underground” accounts that have not survived (Shaaber, 1922, p. 46). It also points to the persistence of a much stronger oral culture, publicly discussing ideas, rumors, and gossip in the inns, playhouses, and street markets that were part of the fabric of everyday life. Thus it is important to “look not at print alone but at the media system as a whole” as “only a minority of the population could read, let alone write, it follows that oral communication must have continued to predominate in the so-called age of the printing-press” (Briggs & Burke, 2005, p. 64). The overall point is that oral, print, and visual media have coexisted and interacted from the 16th century onwards, but that the oral tradition belongs “to an ‘other history’ of histories, pantomime, and song” that is often neglected or disregarded (Linebaugh, 2003, p. 8). Aside from sedition, the other staples of Tudor and Stuart crime reporting were murder and witchcraft. Although the tone of the many broadsides, chapbooks, and pamphlets detailing the exploits of criminals and witches was overtly moral and warned of the temptations of sin, this approach was accompanied by a sensationalism that relishes in the telling of the “terrible” events, “bloody” atrocities, “strange and inhuman murders,” and so forth encountered in the pages. Peter Lake (1993, p. 259) quotes from a typical pamphlet from 1606 describing how a female robber turned into a “tragical midwife” by ripping open the belly of a pregnant woman with a knife and butchering the child’s tongue. Accounts of witchcraft thrived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and, like the murder tracts, called on readers to beware of the danger that surrounded them.

Yet much historiography has shown that accusations of witchcraft often resulted from disputes between village neighbors, with persecution only one of the many methods used for coping with suspects (Briggs, 1996; Clark, 1997). Likewise, contemporary scholarship on the ways Tudor and Stuart England managed cultural difficulties (ranging from monstrous births, bestial intercourse, cross-dressing, serial infanticide, clergy mocking, sexual debauchery, and irregular burials) has revealed a society that “preferred to accommodate rather than eliminate difference” (Cressey, 2000, p. 282). The broadsheets and pamphlets that sensationally reported these events had both commercial and evangelical aims, seeking to exploit a metropolitan appetite for news of perplexing phenomena, while lacing their accounts with spiritual warnings and religious guidance to avoid censorship and keep to a didactic form. A recent collection of “true crime” stories from early modern England makes the point that the vast majority of those published dealt with serious and violent crime for similar reasons:

Retelling tales of murder, infanticide, rape, sodomy, robbery, arson, and witchcraft, for example—which encompass nearly all these texts—ensured a wide popular audience for this literature and provided the best opportunities for the authors, printers, and booksellers to earn profit and offer religious and moral commentary, which were the two principal purposes of this literature.

(MacMillan, 2015, p. 16)

Although the meanings of “murder” and “witchcraft” from these printed sources were fairly clear in the 17th century other, more ambiguous, narratives of crime and criminality came to the fore as the century progressed and the boundaries of tolerance were stretched. The century was characterized by political, economic, social, and religious upheaval that included civil war, the loss of ancient customary rights, a compromised Restoration, two separate Protestant solutions to succession crises and the introduction of the “bloody code” of criminal statutes as the new political order sought to establish its power through the terror of the gallows. Hal Gladfelder’s (2001, p. 10) invaluable analysis of the main genres of criminal narrative helps us to grasp the incredible assortment of publications that came pouring off the presses during this turbulent era. The main forms of publication up to the beginning of the 18th century were what he defines as “criminal anatomies” as well as picaresque and providential fictions, news reports, executions and gallows literature, trial reports, and a flourishing trade in criminal biography, each of which are now briefly outlined.

Criminal Narratives

Criminal anatomies included the cony-catching pamphlets, canting dictionaries, and moralizing tracts on deviance, described above, which constructed the criminal as an alien other—the Irish in particular were persistently held to be criminal. In stark contrast, the comic picaresque and tragic providential fictions of the period offer greater uncertainty and more psychological complexity in their tales of episodic coincidence and bloody revenge. The picaresque form of narrative emerged in 16th century Spain as an account of a rogue’s adventures (the Spanish word for rogue is picaro), who by living on his wits survives through a series of journeys, satirizing and exposing the pretenses of the diverse social worlds he finds himself in. The genre quickly spread across Europe, with Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler (1594), one of the earliest English representatives, while the publication of The English Rogue Described by Richard Head in 1665 marked the full realization of this narrative form. This genre of writing has become known as “rogue literature” and while we need to be wary of reading these narratives as faithful and authentic accounts of early subcultural life, it is clear that they do articulate how the illicit and outlawed were being imaginatively positioned in the metropolis. The fears and fantasies driving these elite interpretations of how the poor and outcast lived helped furnish the idea of “a vast criminal underground of organized guilds, complete with their own internally coherent barter economy, master-apprentice relations, secret languages, and patrons” (Dionne, 2004, p. 33). The figures of the rogue and vagabond also persist into the 17th and 18th centuries, chiming with images of prostitution, where each is understood to migrate to particular parts of the city and are innately drawn to a dissolute life of vice (Gelder, 2007, pp. 8–10). The rogue’s “excessive” lifestyle of brothel-cruising, deception, and extravagance would be later mirrored in his aristocratic Restoration counterpart: the rake, where both refuse to “accept conventional social restraints” as they pursue financial gain and insatiable sexual desires (Weber, 1984, p. 15).

The picaresque has been understood as a response to the crisis of status inconsistency that occurred following the demise of feudalism (McKeon, 1987, p. 238) and the accompanying rise of a wandering, pauperized population with no station in life (Linebaugh, 2003, p. 120). Providential fictions are unambiguous and are self-consciously tales of divine retribution and moral polemic, as exemplified in the 30 stories collected in the 1621 compilation, The Triumph of God’s Revenge, against the Crying, and Execrable Sinne of Murther. These tales were not about contemporary English crime, but took the form of dramatic tragedy set in the past and on the continent. Characteristically, they demonstrated how “the messy business of revenge, adultery, and murder is structured through the discourses of retributive religion so that Providence intervenes to ensure that God’s justice prevails” (Biressi, 2001, p. 47). While these anatomies and fictions drew on an earlier culture and diverse literary styles, crime reports and gallows literature grew out of the new printing technologies and improved means of distribution into and out of Restoration London. The lapse in government censorship in 1695 is regarded as a “watershed in the history of the English press which allowed for greater scope and ambition among printers and publishers” (Ward, 2014, p. 3). Print culture further diversified in form as well as increased in scale, so that new genres like novels, periodicals, and pictorial prints joined older forms including chapbooks, pamphlets, sermons, and ballads. Taken together, these developments enabled news of disturbing crimes and exemplary hangings to be bought in some form of printed material shortly after their occurrence to exploit topical interest as quickly as possible.

There is much evidence to suggest that crime reports dominated coverage of nearly all the available newspapers at this time (Black, 1987, pp. 80–81). As historians have emphasized, these accounts brought an immediacy that profoundly altered perceptions of the world (Eisenstein, 1979). By closing the distance between readers and the represented, they drew “the threat of criminality into social spaces” that might otherwise have been thought safe from harm (Gladfelder, 2001, p. 11). Immediacy was also the key to the gallows journalism that claimed to record the “last dying speeches” of those condemned to hang. These execution reports were formulaic, beginning with a confession of guilt, a cataloging of crimes, and a final repentance. They were also immensely popular. The long-running, periodically-printed pamphlet entitled The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behavior, Confession, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn is one of the most famous examples.

Tyburn, Newgate, and the Old Bailey were significant places in the cultural landscape and class structure of 18th century London. At the Old Bailey, trials for small-property holders met “to hear and determine” offenses, and from the large number of petty criminals paraded before them they selected a handful to hang every six weeks in what Dr. Johnson described as the “legal massacre” at Tyburn (Linebaugh, 2003, p. 74). Newgate Prison, situated next to the Old Bailey, was where the condemned were confined before their execution at Tyburn. The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account began in 1684 and its popularity lasted until well into the middle of the 18th century. It provided personal details of the lives of the condemned, describing their sometimes penitent, other times defiant, conduct while awaiting execution. The commercial success of this gallows literature is confirmed by the fierce competition between publications, with rival titles striving to get their work out first while claiming that the Ordinary was inauthentic and driven by mercenary principles (Rawlings, 1992, pp. 5–6).

Like the gallows speeches of the condemned, criminal trial reports grew directly out of legal ritual and reflected the increasing importance of the law over religion as the main ideological force from the end of the 17th century (Sharpe, 1984, 1987). The publication of detailed reports of Old Bailey trial sessions opened up considerable commercial possibilities, and by the 1680s they had become an officially protected monopoly (Langbein, 1983). Much like the criminal anatomies, the trial reports detailed the transgressive underworlds and shadowy practices of deviant metropolitan subcultures in ways that were both fascinating and repulsive to the middling sort who avidly consumed them. Gladfelder (2001, pp. 21–23) gives the example of an antisodomite campaign orchestrated by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, which led to a series of widely reported Old Bailey trials in the 1720s, to illustrate the way in which homoeroticism was inscribed with alien otherness. One witness, a constable working for the reforming societies, described what he observed at Mother Clap’s molly house (one of the popular taverns where gay men met) in the following fashion:

I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call’d it. Sometimes they would sit on one another’s Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then they would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women … Then they’d hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on same Floor, to be marry’d, as they call’d it.

(cited in Norton, 1992, p. 55)

The passage gives a sense of how the lingering detail, typical of these trial reports, overwhelms whatever juridical interest there might have been in the case. The very accumulation of detail and presentation of conflicting witness accounts in trial reports suggested that the link between crime and the gallows was less certain and more imprecise than many of the other narrative genres allowed, however.

It is this ambiguity that lay at the heart of criminal biography, a genre that did much to individualize deviance and grant celebrity to notorious lawbreakers. It has been estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 biographies have survived from the 18th century, which gives an indication of their popularity. The plot structures often bear striking similarities and echo the redemptive patterns of the dying speeches (Rawlings, 1998, pp. 6–7), but through the narrating of a highwayman’s adventures, gentleman thief’s memoirs, or master criminal’s exploits they were raised “above the sordid and brutalizing petty deviance of the regular Tyburn procession” (Chibnall, 1980, p. 185). Perhaps the most enduring heroic figure from this literature is the highwayman. Amongst the most celebrated include Captain James Hind, who was hanged, quartered, and disemboweled in 1652, with some 13 separate works on him surviving in the British Library (Faller, 1987, p. 12). Claude Du Vall was equally infamous, executed in 1670 and prompting a glut of life-and-crimes biographies which include the Memoires of Monsieur Du Vall, described as “a hit-or-miss collection of ironic reflections and asides, mostly directed against the French and against women who are sexually drawn to handsome robbers” (Gladfelder, 2001, p. 85). By the 1720s, the characteristic features of criminal biography had taken shape, so that when Dick Turpin was hanged in York for horse-stealing in 1739, the media machinery for transforming him into a mythical figure was already well established.

Casting the highwayman as epic hero was attractive to the early 18th century press for a number of reasons. There were clear continuities with the earlier outlaw ballad tradition, but the fact that most highwaymen were footpads possessing few of the genteel graces of the well-armed horseman in the popular literature, meant that the highwayman’s allure was heightened in comparison with the reality of street crime. The pedestrian footpad used brutal methods to rob passers-by in the heart of the city in contrast to the heath (the wasteland beyond the suburbs) where the highwayman worked at “a tolerable distance … from the usual realms of human activity” (Faller, 1987, pp. 179–180). By concentrating on a few notorious individuals, the press of this period ambiguously hovered between celebration and condemnation. The denunciations acquired greater force from the late 17th century onwards in a series of royal proclamations, biographies, moral tracts, and popular ballads, which “characterized the highwayman as epitomizing deviant forms of masculinity” and “cowardly conduct in not confronting his victims on equal terms” (Shoemaker, 2006, p. 383).

The printed press ultimately steered “a middle course,” accepting “the rules of the crime game—the framework of law, justice, the justice (of inevitable) punishment—but they were awarding the prize of celebrity status to those who played attractively and gave the authorities a good run for their money” (Chibnall, 1980, p. 186). Yet this double-sided status of the criminal clearly posed problems, by upsetting social categories with the mass of words, songs, and images circulating around. The gallows did not simply present the condemned as an example to be avoided and feared, but as one to be admired and desired. Similar tensions would also reveal themselves with the advent of the novel.

Authorship and the Novel

In his influential account of The Rise of the Novel, Ian Watt (1957/1972, p. 15) maintains that writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton recycled traditional plots as the feudal world view held that there could be nothing new, “since Nature is essentially complete and unchanging, its records, whether scriptural, legendary, or historical, constitute a definitive repertoire of human experience.” Then the novel arrived. Now regarded as one of the pinnacle forms of Western civilization, Watt argues that the novel was born out of the growth of middle-class individualism in the 18th century. He claims that it fundamentally challenged feudal beliefs by thoroughly subordinating “plot to the pattern of the autobiographical (and this) is as defiant an assertion of the primacy of individual experience in the novel as ‘cogito ergo sum’ was in philosophy” (1957/1972, p. 15). Nevertheless, what we now regard as literature only begins to take shape in the early 19th century during the Romantic era, when poets like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelley advanced an understanding of human creativity that was fundamentally opposed to the grim realities of existence appearing in the newly industrializing England. Before then, the distinctions now made between fact and fiction were understood differently and it took much effort to defend the view that while “fiction was not the truth of history it was nevertheless truth in some other, more profound sense” (Nelson, 1973, p. 8).

Although there are problems with understanding the novel as an exclusively middle-class form, the close relationship between individualism and transgression is central to its development. As recent scholarship has demonstrated, the 18th-century novel is saturated with criminal narratives, and is no longer on the mythic scale of Elizabethan tragedy, but was everywhere and an inescapable part of urban life. Lennard Davis (1983, p. 125) has gone so far as to suggest that “without the appearance of the whore, the rogue, the cutpurse, the cheat, the thief, or the outsider it would be impossible to imagine the genre of the novel.” This representation of criminality served competing functions and was immediately perceived to be dangerous. As Gladfelder (2001, p. 7) explains, commentators were

unsettled from the outset by the genre’s concentration on the experience of a range of socially disruptive figures familiar from the network of criminal narrative: socially climbing servants (as in Pamela), illegitimate and outcast children (as in Tom Jones), runaway and fortune-hunting adventurers (as in Robinson Crusoe).

Authors like Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Daniel Defoe were so troubled by their own fictional preoccupations with unruly characters that they criticized each other and their readers for being fascinated with the lowly and perverse. Fielding had even corrosively parodied Richardson’s virtuous heroine in Shamela (1741), by portraying her as a devious upstart and in doing so began his own career as a novelist.

It is also important to recognize that these early authors were drawing on, and in some cases transcending, already existing literary forms by introducing fresh arenas of complexity to their novel characterizations. Daniel Defoe is the archetype who deployed his skills as journalist, pamphleteer, spy, historian, and biographer in the fiction he would produce toward the end of his life and for which he is now famous for. With the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, the feigned autobiography of a shipwrecked mariner, Defoe created a text open to many different readings, which include spiritual rebirth, adventure story, economic allegory, and distillation of colonial attitudes to name a few. It was also the first of the fictional autobiographies that he went on to write in the 1720s, including Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and Roxanna. If Robinson exemplifies an indebtedness to the formal, Puritan procedures of spiritual autobiography—telling a tale from sinful youth through to repentant conversion and divine deliverance—then the later writing draws on the criminal biographies, gallows speeches, and picaresque conventions to provide a detailed picture of the chaotic uncertainty of human existence and the struggles over power, status, and property in a world where the old certainties were beginning to unravel.

Moll Flanders takes the form of a gallows confessional and includes a spiritual rebirth in Newgate at the depths of her misfortune. So the story is ostensibly about a woman who ultimately makes the right choice by repenting and is rewarded with a happier life on earth. Yet, the story is riven with duplicity. She often pretends to be someone else and manages to deceive other characters, readers, and mostly herself. The split between the old penitent Moll narrating the tale and the young protagonist blind to her fate brings a comic irony to the plot. This ironic structure is further enlivened by the many layers of hypocrisy and deception revealed in the various episodes encountered in the text, including Moll unwittingly marrying her brother, becoming an adept thief and finally realizing that she “had been no less than a Whore and an Adulteress all this while” (Defoe, 1722/1989, p. 177). It has been convincingly argued that the book, like others from this period, exhibits a “categorical instability” since the novel as a literary institution was yet to take a coherent form and these works signal a “change in attitudes about how truth and virtue are most authentically signified” (McKeon, 1987, p. 20).

Although Defoe uses the technique of spiritual autobiography to frame the narrative, he also subverts it. So Moll’s conversion does not lead to any divine deliverance, but to material wealth. Her crimes make her rich, and her penitence enables her to enjoy a prosperous life in Virginia. It is this heavily ironic structure that enlivens the text, but behind all the adventures rests the looming presence of Newgate Prison, where Moll was born to a woman sentenced to death for shoplifting and to where she inevitably returns. Like that other great picaresque novel from the 18th century, Tom Jones who was “born to be hanged” (Fielding, 1749/1975, p. 118), the shadow of the gallows hangs over the central protagonist and the prison occupies a pivotal role in the narrative. Indeed, it is only when the reckless but good natured hero ends up in the Gatehouse following a series of amorous encounters and comic adventures that the dramatic crisis is reached, as a result of his half-brother Blifil’s treachery (who has Tom framed for robbery and sentenced to death). It is just at the darkest hour, when all seems lost, that Tom’s true parentage is revealed and the natural order is restored, enabling him to marry his childhood sweetheart—the daughter of a neighboring country squire—and thereby creating one vast landed estate for the happy couple to enjoy.

Fielding’s fiction is much more tightly plotted than Defoe’s and his other contemporaries, yet he also continually draws attention to the fictionality of his writing (in ways that other authors of the time try to avoid). In doing so he exposes the distance between how things really are and how they ought to be. As Eagleton (2005, p. 59) points out in the real world Tom would have ended up hanged and the villainous Blifil may well have become prime minister. Fielding had explored this irony earlier in his Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), where the notorious thief-taker becomes synonymous with Walpole’s leadership of Parliament, and he satirically drew the barbed comparison between Wild’s criminal organization and Walpole’s manipulative control of government. There is a crucial opposition between what actually happens in a Fielding novel, which suggests that the world is quite a bleak place, and the formal structuring of those events, which imply pleasant symmetries, poetic justice, and harmonic resolution (Eagleton, 2005, p. 61). It is as if Fielding’s earlier career as a successful comic playwright and later years spent as a harsh London magistrate combine in his writing to produce work that is both obsessed with preserving traditional forms of authority, yet fascinated by the disruptive energy of the outcast.

Another key paradox is that for what we would now regard as a news story to appear in print during the 18th century would frequently have to be presented in the form of fiction. For instance, when Dr. Johnson wrote accounts of the English parliamentary sessions for The Gentleman’s Magazine he used satirical allegory to say that he was chronicling the debates of the “Senate of Liliput” and used the anagram of Walelop to stand for Walpole (cited in Davis, 1980, pp. 133–134). In many respects, this use of fiction was a strategy designed to avoid the seditious libel laws set up to regulate the press. Many literary and visual sources drew attention to the failings of the legal system and relished the opportunity to mock the rituals of punishment, while portrayals of criminality oscillated between admiration and condemnation. In doing so, they conveyed multiple and contradictory images of deviance.

An excellent example exposing the absurdities of the execution ceremonies is Jonathan Swift’s (1726/7) poem “Clever Tom Clinch Going to be Hanged” that delights in the comic spectacle of the drunken Clinch making his “stately” procession to the gallows and ultimately pointless defiance as “he hung like a hero, and never would flinch.” In an earlier pamphlet, The Last Speech and Dying Words of Ebenezor Elliston, who was Executed the Second Day of May, 1722 Swift further parodied the lucrative trade in “dying speeches” by ridiculing their inflated sense of importance. Swift’s satire of the genre underlines the way these criminal narratives are drenched in moral confusion and he writes that Elliston’s last words before he hangs are: “GOOD People fare ye well; bad as I am, I leave many worse behind me.” This final flourish announces not only “a disconcerting recognition of the virulence and unmanageability of crime,” but also carries “the suggestion that the greatest rogues never appear before the courts” (Bell, 1992, p. 79). Although Swift was a Tory, he was a radical Anglo-Irish one. Ambiguously caught between the colonizer and colonized, his writing mercilessly exposed the ideological gap between the noble ideal and grim reality. The most damning example of this technique is his A Modest Proposal (1729), a pamphlet calmly advocating that the Irish poor should eat their children in order to solve Ireland’s economic troubles. Satire, as we shall shortly see, was an important force in the emancipation movement led by the middle class against the absolutist state and dissolute aristocracy in the formation of a critical public sphere. Swift made no secret of his contempt for the newly emerging narrative form of the novel, the modern, egocentric subjectivity it encouraged and its unbridled celebration of British civilization, which he sends up in Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Hence, Gulliver begins his travels as a self-confident giant of a man and ends his odyssey finding the human species so abhorrent that he prefers the company of horses.

It took some time for this “categorical instability” to solidify and marked “a major cultural transition in attitudes towards how to tell the truth in narrative” (McKeon, 1987, p. 20). Even after the revision of the Stamp Act in 1724, which sought to separate news (that was now taxable) from fiction (which was not), there remained considerable confusion over how to exactly differentiate news from novels for at least the next quarter of a century. Yet by the end of the 18th century the characteristic features of the novel are in place, for authors and readers alike. It is therefore important to recognize that the novel emerges from a voracious fusion of specific practices (including letter writing, diary keeping, and trial reporting), multiple types of writing (broadsheets, political pamphlets, as well as conduct guides, travel narratives, and criminal biographies), and institutional sites (like libraries, coffee-houses, and other meeting places) that made possible this new, imaginative way of representing human experience. To understand this cultural transformation, there is a need to grasp the social forces prompting such changes in aesthetic, moral, and political judgements. Critical explanations have tended to concentrate on the formation of a “public sphere” where the expanding bourgeois and urban professional classes could meet and establish their views during this most seemingly polite of centuries.

The Public Sphere

Throughout the 18th century the cultural and ideological importance of the law ensured that it remained at the forefront of public debate. These discussions took many forms, sometimes overlapping, sometimes conflicting, yet always providing commentary—ranging from the burgeoning newspapers, satirical journals, and political pamphlets through to other literary sources like poems, novels, and plays. As seen in the English context such sources could deliver quite damning critiques of government and justice through stories of crime and punishment. This literature is important as it is closely allied to the rise of the liberal public sphere from the early 18th century. The “public sphere” was much more than a purely discursive realm but was grounded in a network of social spaces and institutions that regulated manners and promoted urbane conduct. These included new, refined sites where conversation could flourish in meeting places like coffee-houses, tea gardens, assembly rooms, salons, spas and resorts, debating societies, and learned associations—all of which had relatively low entry costs and were in principle open to everyone.

It was the energy unleashed by the emerging capitalist markets that stimulated the growth of these public sphere institutions and enabled Enlightenment philosophy to take cultural expression. In the early 18th century English periodicals like Tatler and Spectator were “animated by moral correction and satiric ridicule of a licentious, socially regressive aristocracy.” Their key consensual influence, however, lay in consolidating new class relationships, which codified “the practices whereby the English bourgeoisie may negotiate an historic alliance with its social superiors” (Eagleton, 1984, p. 10). Satire enabled a form of political opposition that highlighted the cultural tensions between the civilized and barbaric in metropolitan life, so that accompanying the development of a refined public sphere were numerous attempts at “social hygiene” seeking to regulate the unruly and the vulgar. Many of these “cleansing” processes are detailed in Stallybrass and White’s (1986) analysis of how a distinctively bourgeois, sanitized conception of self gradually emerged in post-Renaissance Europe. For Habermas (1962/1989) the public sphere develops earlier in England than on the Continent because the English gentry and aristocracy shared the same economic interests with the expanding mercantile class—though these ideas would later spread across Europe and America—and involved the virtues of sobriety and profit to be tellingly combined in the Protestant work ethic.

An important element in Habermas’s argument is that for the first time, particular groups and individuals could shape public opinion and influence political practice free from manipulation. Yet by the 19th century, according to Habermas, the public sphere becomes contaminated and weakened—“refeudalized”—in that advertising, public relations, and other techniques of information management have returned the public sphere to trivial spectacle and subordinate to selective commercial interests. Extending this argument to the early 21st century, we can see how political spin doctors, global media corporations, and tabloid celebrity marketing have replaced monarchs, church, and nobility as the patrons and sponsors of much mass communication. Of course, critics have disputed the appropriateness of the feudal analogy to contemporary media, whereas others claim that he has idealized the bourgeois public sphere. In practice, many were excluded from these forums of rational debate and they were dominated by rich, white men in periwigs seeking to protect their interests by only selectively adopting Enlightenment principles. Habermas’s (1985) response to these criticisms is an acknowledgement that social interests shape communication, but he insists the Enlightenment remains an unfinished project as the possibilities of communicative rationality have yet to be realized.

Crucial to the American and French Revolutions was the right to freedom of speech and the press, which had been anticipated in the “Wilkes and Liberty” movement of the 1760s in England. John Wilkes was a radical politician who successfully mobilized popular support through the media—including his newspaper The North Briton, political demonstrations, and handbills—for the right of the people to have a free press and full knowledge of state activity. Consequently, it is important to recognize that the loosening of government control over the press resulted from struggles between political groups, lobbying by economic interests, as well as the strategic positioning by particular publications, rather than the noble accomplishment of policy decisions on freedom of speech (Leps, 1992, p. 73). As we will now see, successive governments had attempted to curb press freedom through the law courts, but the authorities came to realize that taxation was a far more effective way of silencing the radical titles (Curran, 2003, p. 7). At the same time, much of the popular literature documented in this essay gradually disappeared and a whole new aesthetic developed that came to glorify crime and its detection by representing criminality as one of the fine arts. By the 20th century the dominant fictional figure is not the criminal, but the figure pursuing him—most famously Sherlock Holmes and the many urbane amateur sleuths who followed in his wake. Since the 1950s it has been the police who have been the focus of much narrative attention, especially in film and television. In what follows, the focus is on the newspaper press and how it develops into a recognizably modern form and the place of crime in this profound transformation.

The “New Journalism” and “Jack the Ripper”

The tensions between informing, educating, and entertaining the public have figured extensively in debates over the functions of a mass-produced press. Indeed, it is only with the arrival of a weekly “pauper press” in the early decades of the 19th century does some notion of a national-consensual “public interest” emerge. By attracting a largely working class readership, these radical titles stood in contrast to the “respectable press” and fought hard campaigns against stamp duty—a tax largely designed to eliminate them. The mainstream newspapers were scarcely respectable, however. There is clear evidence of heavy and direct bribery of journalists, with official advertising “steered to papers favorable to Government opinion” (Williams, 1978, p. 46). Meanwhile, the editors and distributors of the radical pauper press faced imprisonment for dealing in unstamped newspapers as well as ongoing persecutions for seditious and blasphemous libel. Arguably, far from heralding a new era of press freedom and liberty, this period witnessed a far more effective system of press censorship in the form of market forces. Advertisers were reluctant to become associated with controversial, illegal unstamped publications and thus placed their advertisements with the “respectable” press, whose propertied readership could afford the products advertised (Allan, 2004, p. 13). This lack of investment meant that the radical press struggled to find the capital necessary to keep up with the quickly improving print and distribution technologies.

According to James Curran (2003, p. 9), the main “rivals to the radical press within the working class (of whom well over half literate or semi-literate by the 1830s) were almanacs, printed ballads, gallowsheets, and chapbooks.” The popular literature on crime also continued to be diverse, as explained in the following passage:

The 19th century had inherited from the 18th a tradition of crime-writing broad enough to suit all pocketbooks and degrees of literacy: for the masses, criminal biographies, dying speeches, ballads, and news posters in single sheets (broadsides) on the streets; for those who had the time, skills, and money, Sessions Papers or reports of recent crime in newspapers; for the literate lower classes, fuller reports and chaplains’ accounts in pamphlets or chap-books (cheap, miniature books); for the “respectable” reader, the leisured student of crime, historical compilations in books. All of these genres circulated news of sensational crimes—indeed, made sensationalism possible—in the nineteenth century as literacy increased.

(Knelman, 1998, p. 25)

Accompanying this popular literature was a whole new visual culture centered on the diffusion of printed images in illustrated magazines (Anderson, 1991) and the publication of statistical forms of representation that enabled yet another picture of criminality to be formed. Crime surveys were debated in Parliament, reported in the press, and provided a stark contrast to the melodramatic grandeur of Gothic fiction—then an immensely popular genre emerging out of the broader Romantic movement against modern forms of rationalism that fetishized fact and the Enlightenment project itself. It has even been suggested that criminal statistics “were as influential in the 19th-century as television pictures of isolated incidents are in the 20th century in creating an image of that unseen but threatening world that surrounds every individual” (Sindall, 1990, p. 26).

The standard accounts of the British press emphasize the importance of advertising revenue and legal emancipation as the forces delivering press freedom by the middle of the 19th century. It is from this period that the notion that the press constitute an independent “fourth estate” gains currency, as a means of monitoring the activities of the state executive and shaping public debate. The term deliberately invokes the medieval concept of estate—of aristocracy, clergy, and commoners—to establish the democratic role played by the press in scrutinizing the government on behalf of the people. Following the abolition of the “taxes on knowledge” in the 1850s, newspapers expanded rapidly in the second half of the century. It was from then that the “New Journalism,” defined through its “attention to crime, sexual violence, and human oddities” came to prominence in contrast to the dry political commentary of earlier times (Williams, 1961, p. 195). The New Journalism sought to democratize reporting and make it more attuned to daily life. Thus “human interest” stories were introduced to expose the secrets of the rich and prompt sympathy for the poor. The New Journalism and what is also referred to as the “Northcliffe Revolution”—in which powerful “press barons” (again, note the feudal connotation) come to set the public agenda—laid the foundations of modern news reporting.

Yet much of what was termed “new” and revolutionary was really an extension of the styles and techniques pioneered in the Sunday newspapers like The News of the World, Reynolds’s Newspaper, and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper in the 1840s. As Judith Walkowitz (1992, p. 84) explains, the “Sundays had already reshaped the staid format of news reporting of respectable dailies by incorporating narrative codes of popular literature, organized around themes of sex and crime.” By adapting these techniques to a more elite readership, the New Journalists hoped to construct a “Government by Journalism” that would help expand critical public opinion in the 1880s. Editors and proprietors sought a wider audience by deliberately moving away from the ponderous self-importance of the older, “obsolete journalism” toward a more sensational mode of address:

This was particularly the case with the reporting of crime which drew on the colorful layout, profuse illustrations, and the sensational “human interest” type of story of publications like the “Illustrated Police News.” In placing crime second only to war in his hierarchy of selling values, Northcliffe was only following the lead of the popular Sunday papers of an earlier generation. Northcliffe was certainly not the first to discover that, in the words of Kinglsey Martin, “in times of peace a first class sex murder is the best tonic for a tired sub-editor on a dull evening”; but the editor of the “Evening News” was still excited to discover that he was able to calculate with reasonable accuracy the increase in circulation that a really messy murder would secure.

(Chibnall, 1980, p. 206)

The unsolved “Whitechapel Murders” of autumn 1888 have become part of collective memory partly due to the mystery surrounding the identity of “Jack the Ripper,” but also the distinctive cultural elements drawn on to make sense of the sadistic brutality involved have ensured the continuing exploitation of Ripper mythology by the media. It has been argued that the saturation “coverage given to the Ripper murders clearly illustrates how the press could use crime reports to produce a consensual position supportive of established power relations, while increasing circulation and taking on the role of champion of truth, and of the just cause” (Leps, 1992, p. 116).

It is significant that the murders from the outset were confined to Whitechapel, a decaying district in the East End of London synonymous with squalor, sex, and crime. To contemporary, “respectable” observers it had become known as “the abyss”—an alien, dangerous, and ungovernable place full of immorality, menace, and disease (Stedman Jones, 1971). Newspaper coverage of the murders frequently contrasted this illicit landscape with descriptions of the grinding poverty in which many of the inhabitants lived. It was portrayed as “a magnet not only for a ‘vast floating population—the waifs and strays of our thoroughfares’—but also for young West End bloods and for scores of respectable ‘slummers’ who visited and even settled in the area” (Walkowitz, 1992, p. 196). The fact that the murders could go on happening, followed the same pattern, and involved anatomically precise acts of sexual mutilation, lent a supernatural quality to the violence. Very early on, Gothic fiction provided a lens and framework to understand the grotesque butchery of female bodies. In particular, Robert Louis Stevenson’s the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) presented the most popular form of explanation, steeped as it is in multiple personality theory and Lombrosian criminal anthropology, it helped to “furnish the idea that the Ripper might be ‘respectable’ and therefore untraceable” (Biressi, 2001, p. 66). Published just two years before the Ripper murders, Stevenson’s “shilling shocker” not only presented a schizophrenic personality in the final throes of sadistic, apelike degeneracy and mental collapse, but also brought the primitive, debauched, and monstrous into civilized, metropolitan life.

Speculation about a mad, upper-class doctor dementedly punishing working-class prostitutes also played on widespread fears of the medical profession, which had already been subject to a series of scandals that “cast a dark shadow over medical research into the ‘mysteries’ of the female sex” (Walkowitz, 1992, p. 210). For instance, until the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886, the authorities could medically examine any woman suspected of being a prostitute and therefore a disease risk. If tensions in class and gender relations were revealed in these explanations, then race was to the fore in other competing accounts. It was supposed that the ritualistic elements of the murders pointed to religious fanaticism and the large Jewish immigrant population of Whitechapel were immediately put under suspicion. These very different responses to the murders exposed the extent of social antagonism in late Victorian London and eventually justified measures—like slum clearance, ending child prostitution, and other social hygiene reforms—that sought to contain the disorder unleashed by the Ripper.

Criminal Identification

Photography was a vital element in the construction of the modern criminal subject. This section examines how the dynamics of celebrity, criminality, desire, fame, trauma, and voyeurism continue to shape social practices in significant and often disruptive ways. Alongside identifying criminals, photographs are used to establish evidence, construct crime scenes, and as techniques of state surveillance. Yet before the medium became an integral element of regimes of power, there was a closely related boom in “social and celebrity portraiture amongst the newly emergent urban middle classes” (Hargreaves, 2001, p. 17). Both developments reveal a deep-seated, cultural preoccupation with the human face and what it might signify. From its invention in 1839, the status of photography as a medium drew from both its ability to authentically record the truth and to present a radically new way of seeing the world. Within thirty years of its invention all the major uses of photography had become firmly established:

police filing, war reporting, military reconnaissance, pornography, encyclopaedic documentation, family albums, postcards, anthropological records (often, as with the Indians in the United States, accompanied by genocide), sentimental moralizing, inquisitive probing (the wrongly named “candid camera”): aesthetic effects, news reporting, and formal portraiture.

(Berger, 1978/1980, p. 52)

These many uses suggest that each has a distinct, if occasionally shared, mode of address and that these multiple origin points of photography undermine simplistic, linear narratives of how the medium has developed. Generic codes established in one area are borrowed in another, so that scientific depictions of the human face and body (as in phrenology and physiognomy) inform middle class studio portraiture, “as well as approaches to the anthropology of subject races, the diagnosis of mental disease, or the identification of criminals” (Hamilton, 2001, p. 62). Photography offered new ways of representing both individuals and social groups, and in doing so revealed some of the concerns and issues animating the era.

In an influential essay, Allan Sekula (1981) challenged approaches to photography that ignored the social and political functions of images, and exposed their ideological interplay in wider systems of classification, control, and order. Similar themes are also explored in John Tagg’s The Burden of Representation (1988), where he discusses the rise of photographic portraiture, the development of photography as a form of “evidence,” in legal, medical, and police practices, as well as its potential as a vehicle for social reform. Importantly, he argues against any single history of the medium, preferring instead to see photography “flickering across a field of institutional spaces” (Tagg, 1988, p. 118). Photography was not only used in the management of problem populations (criminals, orphans, the mad, and so on), but was also becoming an integral way of honoring the lives of celebrities and an expanding middle class.

Law enforcement agencies were quick to grasp the photograph’s potential to document criminals. As early as 1841 the French police began taking daguerreotypes of prisoners (Finn, 2009, p. 6); in Britain, the newly established police forces started to employ civilian photographers from the 1840s onwards (Tagg, 1988, p. 74); while in the United States the San Francisco Police Department was among the first to daguerreotype prisoners in 1854 (Phillips, 1997, p. 19). Other departments across the country followed quickly, with the resulting “rogues’ galleries” eventually becoming a feature of metropolitan policing around the world by the last decades of the century. As technology developed, the images collected by the police proliferated, paralleling the increasing crime rates accompanying industrialization and urbanization. By the end of the century the collections grew in size from the hundreds to the thousands, with filing cabinets replacing leather-bound albums and the resulting archives requiring full-time attendants.

Ironically, as the collections expanded, their utility for many departments declined. The result was a vast and chaotic mass of portraits unevenly and inconsistently collected by the authorities. Two distinctive solutions would eventually present themselves. One is to be found in the method of “composite portraiture” invented by the infamous English scientist Francis Galton, the other systematic approach was pioneered by the French bureaucrat Alphonse Bertillon. Both set forth the conditions for the bureaucratic taming of visual documents. This was to be achieved either by sampling an archive’s collection for a typical example, or by devising a clerical apparatus that could locate the specific instance among the vast quantity of images.

Despite much enthusiasm for Galton’s composite images, the method did not find any significant practical use among law enforcement agencies. Instead, the method devised in 1882 by Alphonse Bertillon, a Paris police clerk, solved the problem of how to identify unique individuals among vast collections of photographs. His anthropometric technique involved recording measurements specific to each body on a standardized form, which was combined with two photographs of the person’s face and in profile. These formalized images became what we know as mug shots, which Bertillon called “speaking likenesses.” Alongside them he also took pictures of various parts of the face and head (e.g., ears, chin, forehead, eyes, mouth) that made plain the physiognomic principles informing his system. Reducing physical appearance into small, standardized measurements enabled unskilled clerks to file and retrieve visual and written data. Within a year the system was officially adopted by the Paris police, and was soon used widely across the world. By the early 20th century, anthropometry was replaced by fingerprinting, a more efficient and accurate way of identifying previously arrested criminals.

Although charting the path from Victorian mug shot to contemporary surveillance society will not be attempted here, it is clear that today there are a plethora of new tools (including biometrics, DNA analysis, digital imagery, and computer databases) that have provided new ways of representing and watching criminals and suspects. Jonathan Finn (2009) has described how the development of police photography in the 19th century laid the foundations for contemporary identification practices, including several that have been established after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Contemporary law enforcement agencies, he argues, position the body as potentially criminal in his analysis of the use of visual representation in police practices. The collection and archiving of identification data—which now consists of much more than photographs or fingerprints—reflects a fundamental reconceptualization of the body itself.

Phil Carney (2010, p. 27) has also examined how artists have played with the relationship between “celebrity and desire in the criminal identification photograph,” from Andy Warhol’s 13 Most Wanted Men series of silk screens in 1964, to Marcus Harvey’s enormous painting of Myra Hindley’s infamous mug shot initially shown at the Sensations exhibition in 1997, to the more recent work of Neil Hepburn and Russell Young that superimposes the faces of model Kate Moss and musician Pete Doherty on the mug shots of the child killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady to comment on contemporary tabloid culture. In Rachel Hall’s (2009, p. 6) history of the wanted poster in American culture she explores the “practice of putting outlaws and the interactive modes of spectatorship that this practice elicits” across a broad spectrum of images: from execution broadsides, through runaway slave notices, to FBI posters, and more recent depictions of key figures in the “War on Terror.” The key theme is the transformation of a person into property and in the United States “the image of the slave, born the property of a planter, haunts the image of the outlaw, whose punishment is to become the property of the state” (Hall, 2009, p. 12). While we tend to think of the wanted poster as a sober police text, her analysis reveals a visual tradition that is steeped in a more explicitly violent form of communication.

It is also important to note that photography has a long and troubled history in western journalism and Karin Becker (1990/2003) has charted some of these dynamics across distinct types of publication. She highlights how it was in the tabloid newspapers of the 1920s that large, eye-catching photographs of crime, violence, disaster, and society scandals came to prominence—telling stories quickly, through sensational pictures and short captions. Press historians see this as a nadir for journalism and the “abundant use of pictorial material” was regarded “as conclusive proof both of declining literary standards and a nefarious plan to exploit hopelessly naïve and illiterate people” (Carlebach, 1997, p. 145). If the tabloid press undermined the credibility of the photograph as a medium for serious news, then it was the simultaneous rise of picture magazines that established the genre of the photo essay—where images and text could be spread out as running narratives across several pages.

Assignments from these publications were especially coveted and the magazines became a global phenomenon. With their distinctive styles and expert photography they underlined the importance of the “camera as witness,” where the photojournalist takes pictures to fulfill an editorial requirement and “answer the essential journalistic questions: who, what, where, when, and why” (Gefter, 2009, p. 123). By the 1970s their popularity had fallen, partly as a result of the rise of television and changes in press ownership, while new kinds of color newspaper supplements appeared, which were mainly led by advertising and lifestyle features. As the business of journalism has changed so photojournalists have had to adapt to new constraints and find fresh outlets to pursue their practice. Indeed, socially conscious photojournalism has flourished independently of the print media for decades now, where the pictures are more likely to be seen on the walls of galleries, museum exhibitions, and elegant books than in newspapers and magazines.

Alongside socially concerned photography, which is dedicated to bearing witness and political critique, there remained a mass market for sensationalized images of working-class life and the urban condition. Indeed, the picturing of “news” was absolutely central to the development of a global visual economy and one that shows no sign of diminishing in today’s digital age. Among the most infamous photographers exploiting this appetite was Arthur Fellig, more well known by his nickname “Weegee,” who in graphic black-and-white photography captured the gruesome details of gang executions, car crashes, and tenement fires that he then sold to the New York City tabloid editors. Such brutal pictures became the staple images of the mass circulation press in the 1930s and effectively changed journalistic practices overnight (Lee & Meyer, 2008). His bestselling book Naked City (1945/2002) was the first collection of his tabloid photography and was published in the same year that the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition of his work. It has been noted how his images “may appear as realistic representations of the underside of New York urban life” but they also “convey complex ideas of guilt and voyeurism” (Blinder, 2009, p. 9).

In a nuanced essay, Carney (2010, p. 26) situates Weegee in a broader account, exploring the relationships between photographic spectacle, predation, and paparazzi, suggesting he was “the first photographer to stalk and ensnare his prey with stealth and speed,” establishing practices that would become increasingly popular as a market devoted to publishing candid images of celebrities’ unguarded moments came to prominence. These “stolen images” undermined what a “good” photograph should look like, with their “awkward composition, harsh contrasts, and uncertain focus” (Becker, 1990/2003, p. 301) and are now an integral feature of tabloid celebrity culture. Weegee provided an important bridge from the conventional topics of documentary photography into the new directions taken in the post-war period, when the “new” documentarists began exploring more “subjective” approaches to image making, which reopened important questions about photography’s complex relationship with reality (Carrabine, 2012). Yet it is important to note that crime photographers are rarely able to capture the criminal act itself and represent the act by focusing on its “after-effects and constituent parts” so that “weapons, suspects, victims, locations, accomplices, and bloody crime sites are usually photographed separately, often at some remove in time and space from the crime itself” (Straw, 2015, p. 139). The resulting visual coverage then is fragmented, and overlaps to an extent with official forensic photography. At the same time, it tends to draw from a fairly stable repertoire of disparate images with varying degrees of documentary credibility and journalistic value.

It also chimes with the “forensic turn” that is particularly pronounced in U.S. popular culture (Steenberg, 2013) and has clear affinities with the rise of the pathological public sphere, or wound culture, as it has also been defined by Seltzer (1997). In Habermas’s influential account the public sphere arose in the 18th century as an arena of rational debate that was an alternative to despotic state violence. Today, however, there is “a radical mutation and relocation of the public sphere,” which Seltzer (1997, p. 4) maintains on the “shared and reproducible spectacles of pathological public violence.” In his analysis of contemporary “wound culture” Seltzer (1997, p. 3) seeks to demonstrate how there has been a fundamental reconfiguration of individual and collective understandings of suffering, trauma, and witnessing, which “takes the form of a fascination with the shock of contact between bodies and technologies.” This is especially the case with the enormously successful CSI franchise, which has been at the forefront of developing an aesthetic focused on the victimized human body and has been compared to pornography’s “money shot”:

As with the money-shot, which is the proof of sexual pleasure/desire/closure, the CSI shot is the crime genre’s way of establishing proof of the violence visited on the victim’s body. This is one of the many ways in which violence is substituted for sex in the forensic sub-genre and in which the corpse, filmed using pornographic syntax, is sexualized … the aesthetic of the autopsy provides a central spectacle and truth generator and … becomes a focal point for a suspicious fascination with the female body.

(Steenberg, 2013, p. 5)

The use of visual evidence as a tool for criminal conviction was established not long after the invention of photography, where the new study of criminology was developing as a parallel phenomenon, but forensic images have become a defining feature of contemporary culture and the implications of this macabre turn have yet to be fully understood.

Review of the Literature and Primary Sources

In this essay, I have drawn on material from my Crime, Culture and the Media (2008), which situates representations of crime and criminality in their historical, commercial, and cultural contexts. A key influence on that book, and this essay, is Hal Gladfelder’s Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England (2001), in which he ties the explosion of printed literature about crime in this period to the birth of the novel. It chimes with approaches then developing in cultural history, such as Malcolm Gaskill’s Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (2000), to give fresh insights into changing sensibilities surrounding crime and transgression. A more recent treatment of these issues can be found in Richard Ward’s Print Culture, Crime and Justice in 18th Century London (2014), while Philip Rawlings’s 1992 edited collection of some of the original sources in Drunks, Whores and Idle Apprentices is indispensable, as is his introductory essay, as it provides a nuanced discussion of the biographical genre. Another excellent source book is Ken MacMillan’s Stories of True Crime in Tudor and Stuart England (2015) that gathers together a wide range of primary sources and gives a sense of the diversity of this popular literature during that earlier period.

Steve Chibnall’s Law and Order News (1977) is rightly regarded as one of the foundational texts of media criminology, and his sophisticated combination of theoretical insight and empirical detail is further developed in an essay on “Chronicles of the Gallows” (Chibnall, 1980), charting the history of crime reporting that remains essential reading for understanding why it is that certain crime stories come to public prominence. His account can now be complemented by Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson, and Samantha Pegg’s Crime News in Modern Britain (2013), which also operates on a broad historical canvas from the late 18th century up to the early 21st century. The significance of the carnivalesque was initially recognized by the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin and his ideas have been influentially developed by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in their The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986). The book explores the persistent hierarchical mappings of “high” and “low” culture in Europe and the antagonisms between them in ways that have had a considerable impact in cultural studies.

Visual representations of the criminal body have a long history, but gained considerable traction with the invention of photography in the 19th century. Allan Sekula (1981) and John Tagg (1988) have both written forceful Foucauldian accounts of the institutional power at work in police and prison photography, and their work was pivotal in illustrating the camera’s diverse roles as a panoptic technology used in the surveillance of troubling populations (criminals, orphans, the mad, and so on), but they also highlighted how photography became an integral way of honoring the lives of celebrities and an expanding middle class. Indeed, the mug shot has its origins in the conventions of photographic portraiture then taking shape and Jonathan Finn (2009) has innovatively traced how the act of representing—and watching—has become central to contemporary law enforcement practices. These are themes I also explore in a chapter on “Doing Visual Criminology: Learning from Documentary, Journalism and Sociology” (Carrabine, 2017) where I address the “forensic turn” and the camera’s role as an eyewitness, while Lindsay Steenberg’s Forensic Science in Contemporary American Popular Culture (2013) discusses how forensic procedurals do not just dominate television schedules, but how the forensic theme also appears in art galleries, museums, toy stores, talk shows, and even cookbooks.

Further Reading

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