Some Thoughts on . . .

Criminal Biographies


In eighteenth-century Britain, memoirs of criminals were very popular among the lower classes (which of course is relevant to the rise of the novel in the hands of Defoe and Smollett etc.). These thieves' lives (and rakes' lives and prostitutes' lives etc.) are usually classed as "criminal biography" but many of them are substantially autobiographical, and were written by the criminals concerned with the help of hacks or editorial assistants. There are two lives of the robber James Dalton which I think really were "taken from his own mouth", at two different stages in his career (relating to two trials), with minimum editorial intervention. On the other hand, a substantial number of such works are almost entirely written by a hack rather than by the criminal, for example the "Memoirs of the Right Villainous John Hall, The Late Famous and Notorious Robber. Penn'd from his own Mouth sometime before his Death". This contains phrases such as "Newgate may be said to be his countrey-house [sic], where he frequently lives so many months in the year" – a sentiment which seems to be too clever for John Hall (though perhaps I underestimate him). The Ordinary of Newgate's Accounts of the Last Dying Confessions of felons about to be hanged usually contain verbatim confessions and dying speeches which seem to be quite genuine.

Many criminals' lives contain letters written by them in prison and sent to their relatives and executors; most of these letters in my judgement are genuine. Joshua Kidden, who was hanged in 1754 on completely false charges of committing an assault and robbery, wrote a remarkable series of pathetic letters which I am sure are quite genuine, describing his final wretched days in Newgate prison, for example:

"I beg that you would be so good as to come and see me, for God's sake; for I am very sick and weak; and this night we are all to be double-iron'd, and to-morrow morning we go down to the Old Baily; which is almost ready to break my heart, when I think on it. . . . I should be very thankful to you, if you would send me a small matter; for I have borrowed some to pay for some purl, for to nourish me; for there is not a bit of fire to sit down by, and my hips are black and sore, with lying on the boards so many hours. Therefore, I beg you would excuse my sending to you; for I know not what I shall do with myself, I am so terrified with the place. . . . There is two poor unhappy wretches along with me, locked up in darkness; never a bit of candle, but what we are obliged to buy (as they all do) at one peny a-piece. Therefore, I beg you would not let me want a small trifle to get me necessaries to comfort me. We have nothing in the place to put a little water or beer in; therefore, I beg you would send a pitcher that will hold three or four quarts, and a book to read in, and a blanket to put over me a nights, which will be of great service to me in my affliction. The Keeper tells me, we shall be let out on Sunday for an hour or two, and our friends may come in, and see us then; therefore, I beg for God Almighty's sake, you would come and see me then. . . . I received the things which you sent me to-day very safe, and am very thankful to you for them, and especially for the books, which, I hope with God's blessing, will be of great service to me, and the two poor sufferers along with me. . . . "

One of the lives of James Maclean (the highwayman who nearly killed Horace Walpole when his gun went off accidentally) also contains a series of interesting letters written from prison, winding up his affairs and distributing his goods among friends before he was hanged in 1750:

"My dear, dear Mr. H. has got two books, an inkhorn, therein a seal, which, with my last blessing, I beg you'll carry to my good old landlaldy at Chelsea. And, my dear friend, I beg you'll get the little Bible I spoke to you about from Mr. S. and after you tear the leaf out, present it to which of Dr. Allen's family you please, with my affectionate blessing to them all. – My sleeve-buttons you are to give to poor N. B. with my last blessing to her. . . . My mother-in-law was here this evening, who begs my shoe-buckles, to keep for my poor dear child; which I think unnecessary; but, as she has no other token from me, I would indulge her in it. – The stock and knee-buckles I desire you'll keep, and wear for my sake. And I would have you convert all my linen stock you get from my washerwoman into cash, and would have you give my poor mother-in-law two or three guineas to buy some coals for the winter, and any little necessary the poor child may want. Write to my poor afflicted sister."

Maclean, like all highwayman of any notoriety, knew that his Life would be written up, and he took steps to ensure that it was written accurately and with benefit either to his heirs or his place in posterity. Maclean writes to his executor: "Have my Life done as soon as you can, to prevent any body else doing it after I am no more: And let it be done in a modest penitent manner. I would desire you, if there are any profits arising from it, to let my poor orphan be a sharer."

James Dalton had read the autobiographical Life of the robber Martin Bellamy (his "rival" in notoriety) prior to arranging for his own autobiographical Life to be published. In sum: it is not only the upper classes who consciously wrote in a tradition of memoirs, but the lower classes as well. And, further, it's quite useful to take criminal autobiographies into consideration when analyzing the problems of historical truth, self-perception, memory, status-projection, etc. that are raised by memoirs as a whole.

Who read these criminal biographies? There is no "statistical" evidence (i.e. enough anecdotal data to justify statistical analysis) to prove that any sort of "popular literature" was actually read by "the people". There is statistical evidence about high print runs and sales figures, but not about who actually bought or read the pamphlets. Arguments about popular readership are largely deductive and circumstantial rather than "hard".

The intended audience of criminal biographies is often deduced from internal evidence in the texts, but not everyone reaches the same conclusion. Philip Rawlings (in his book Drunks, Whorers and Idle Apprentices: Criminal biographies of the eighteenth century, 1992) argues that they were read not by the labouring classes but by "the tradespeople, lawyers, clergy, doctors and so forth who composed the middling classes". But Gillian Spraggs (in her book Outlaws & Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, 2001 [a scholarly literary history that I highly recommend]) suggests that thieves' lives were aimed at a readership of "runaway butcher's apprentices" who dreamt of an easier life. She points out that their descriptions of Gentleman Highwaymen betray the poor man's fantasy of what constitutes a gentleman, and it seems to me that a polite readership would just guffaw at the content of many of these pamphlets.

It also seems clear from internal evidence that many are aimed at young men, and I don't quite understand why Rawlings thinks they were read by masters rather than by their apprentices. Some give advice about how to avoid theft from shops, presumably aimed at shopkeepers; but many warn of the dangers of idleness, presumably aimed at apprentices. Also, I wonder if Rawlings literally believes they were read by "doctors", or if he carelessly tossed that into the mix of his list of middling occupations.

We do know that some criminal biographies were read by the elite. James Boswell and Horace Walpole are always mentioned to support this, but I think that is the extent of the anecdotal evidence for that class. William Beckford owned a couple of criminal lives, but he wasn't a regular reader of them. Edmund Burke is sometimes mentioned as a reader of chapbooks (romances, etc.), but not specifically criminal biographies, and in any case his comments (and that of others) show that the polite classes regarded them as vulgar productions.

The physical circumstances of cheap production suggest that these chapbooks and pamphlets were marketed to a poorish readership. Although only the middling and upper classes could have afforded to buy the large expensively bound collections of trials which became popular from the 1730s, most of the contents derive from pamphlets and broadside ballads that were much less expensive. Ballads, songs and dying speeches cost only twopence, 16-page Lives cost sixpence, and most of the criminals' Lives (averaging about 48 pages) cost one shilling. It seems to me that apprentices (who earned 10 to 20 shillings a week) could have afforded that, as an occasional treat, though not anything more expensive.

The point of sale also suggests a labouring-class readership: the main distributors were hawkers, who sold them at Tyburn hangings, and at Fairs (especially Bartholomew Fair etc.) and at markets. The polite classes bought from booksellers, who indeed also stocked such pamphlets, but not in the quantities sold by hawkers (to judge by a few biographical anecdotes about publishers). The lower classes seem to have been in the majority at hangings at Tyburn, where such pamphlets and ballads were sold as souvenirs, though it's hard to establish a statistical ratio. If it is true that 200,000 people witnessed the hanging of Jack Shepherd (whose adventures generated many pamphlets, frequently reprinted), there wouldn't have been enough upper class people in London to have made a significant proportion of the crowd, or as the purchasers of this literature.

We do know that criminal biographies were produced in high numbers (several thousands per print-run), that they were often reprinted several times during the period from trial to execution, sometimes in pirated editions, and that they often went into 10, 15, sometimes more than 20 editions. So it is at least clear that they appealed to a "mass market", and the balance of probability is that this mass market was more plebeian than polite. It seems that perhaps 3,000 criminal biographies are extant for this period. A lot of the shorter ballads etc. are presumed not to have survived. Some of the earlier collections certainly preserve items that have not survived in separate format, from the late 17th century.

Some surviving copies bear ownership marks of coffee-houses, so we have evidence of some market for gentlemen readers. We also know, on the other hand, that in some public houses which harboured thieves it was a not uncommon pastime to recount the lives and adventures of legenday outlaws; sometimes this derived from personal knowledge, but some thieves were noted for retailing long narratives about the glory days of Claude Duval etc., so they must have built up their repertoire of stories by reading criminal biographies. Here we get into a corollary problem: Who actually sang "popular" songs? It seems to me there is evidence that they were sung in lower-class public houses, but is this statistically "hard" evidence or "anecdotal" evidence?

The robber James Dalton, who I mentioned earlier as having read the criminal biography of one of his predecessors, also claimed to have gone to a performance of The Beggar's Opera in 1728, together with a colleague appropriately nicknamed Hulks. I think this is true from a variety of circumstances, and is not a fabrication of his publisher. Rowdy and drunk, Dalton and Hulks might have been rather conspicuous in the crowd at Lincoln's Inn Fields or the Haymarket, but it's quite possible that they saw the opera when it was performed at the George Inn, Smithfield, during Bartholomew Fair that year. The opera was performed at various lower-class venues during Bartholomew Fair during 1728–1730: Mr Penkethman's great Theatrical Booth, Harper's Theatrical Booth, and by Rayner and Pullen's Company of Comedians at the Black-Boy, on the Paved Stones, near Hosier Lane, Smithfield in 1730. So there was a lower-class and criminal audience even for sophisticated Thieves' Operas aimed at a middle-class audience.


Copyright © 2002, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments were prompted by a discussion on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List many years ago, during May 2002.


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