09 March 2011

Crime & Law Enforcement: The Newgate Calendar

Zoe Archer

Every week, we watch television programs that feature stories "ripped from the headlines," but w hen it comes to schadenfreude, not much can compare with The Newgate Calendar.

First published in the late 18th century, The Newgate Calendar was so named for Newgate Prison, which is where prisoners were held before being taken to the Tyburn Tree gallows. In 1783, the gallows were moved from Tyburn to Newgate, and public executions remained a popular form of entertainment. The Newgate Calendar compiled broadsheets into book form. Broadsheets were cheap publications sold on street corners, fairs and public executions, reporting scandal and tales of lurid crime for a voracious, titillated readership. Readers and listeners eagerly devoured stories of wrongdoing, as well as the consequential punishments--the details of which were lengthily and elaborately reported (often with considerable embellishment, if not outright lies).

The Newgate Calendar and its lurid brethren took these broadsheets and compiled them into books, recounting crimes beginning in the 16th Century up to the date of publication. Some of the criminals whose stories could be found in its pages included Mary Young, alias Jenny Diver, "The Head of a Gang of Thieves of every Description," and executed at Tyburn in 1740. Also described was Jonathan Hawkins, "Who played Cards after committing a Double Murder and Arson" and met justice at the end of a rope in 1732. Thieves, murderers, pirates, smugglers, traitors, body-snatchers, forgers, abductors of maidens. If you did wrong, you might make it into the tawdry pages of The Newgate Calendar.

There were other similar publications, including The Malefactor's Register (1779), Criminal Chronology Newgate Calendar (1824-6) and The New Newgate Calendar (1826), their pages brimming with tales of sex, violence and crime.

All this might not be quite so astonishing if one didn't take into account that The Newgate Calendar was a popular gift...for children. Youngsters were encouraged to read The Newgate Calendar or be read stories from it. The book was seen as a means of educating children about the doomed paths of wicked living. Shown here is the frontispiece of one edition, depicting a mother giving her young son a copy of the book, whilst pointing out the window toward a body hanging on the gallows. It's rather hard to believe that some people think Where the Wild Things Are might be inappropriate for children.

Fortunately for us, much of The Newgate Calendar can be found online. You can read all about these bloody, salacious tales here. You might find the stories cautionary...or inspiring.

Do you enjoy reading and/or watching true crime stories? What is it about true crime that interests you? And what's your favorite story of criminal wrongdoing?

Zoe Archer is the author of the "BLADES OF THE ROSE" (Zebra) paranormal historical adventure romance series, available now. She is also the author of the upcoming COLLISION COURSE (Carina Press), which tackles a whole new unusual historical period: the future. Follow her on Twitter.