Victorian Murder, Execution, And The Criminal Classes

Ellen O’Brien
Ellen O’Brien

Circulating in print and in song, the two central genres of the crime ballad trade, the third-person “astonishing disclosures” of bloody violence and the first-person “last lamentations” of condemned criminals, reported horrific murders and recorded terrible executions in ear-catching rhymes. Marketed in oral performances by ballad singers, and often stamped with visually striking woodcut images or flanked by newsy prose reports, these songs of crime developed a remarkably public poetics, which, merging singsong rhythms, bloody excess, and sentimental rhetoric with case details and topical references, produced unexpectedly complex commentaries on the meanings of murderous transgression and capital punishment. When we remember that these verses were regularly sung and sold in Victorian streets and markets, the horizon of Victorian poetry and poetics broadens considerably. And if we consider, as David Vincent does in ‘Literacy and Popular Culture’ (1993), that they aided the advance of popular literacy — and that the “most striking characteristic of the first phase of the expansion of imaginative literature was the sheer volume and noise which accompanied it” — we can begin to imagine the volume and noise of street balladry as a significant part of Victorian literature and culture.

The poetic and political significance of street balladry, however, has been lost within a long history of critical dismissals. Simply put, crime ballads suffer from bad reputations. On the one hand, they seem to embrace, with morbid enthusiasm, the abject and gory elements of murderous violence. In “Execution of John Gleeson Wilson” (1849), for example, meticulous sketches of terrible wounds (a jellied head and three-inch gashes) join stock phrases of gruesome excess (“weltering in their gore” and “blood did flow profusely”) to produce a portrait of astonishing destruction. When ventriloquizing the voices of condemned murderers, on the other hand, last lamentations fascinated their audience with confessions of sin and professions of remorse. In ‘The Last Moments and Confession of Wm. Sheward’ (1869), the killer remembers his outrageous wife-murder with sentimental regret.

Responding to such representations of crime, many nineteenth-century critics cited the arraying of mutilated bodies as symptoms of working-class bloodlust and the sentimentalisation of condemned murderers as inscriptions of working-class criminality. Packaged in striking — and sometimes amusing — rhymes and accommodating the particulars of historical crimes, the verse-crimes of street literature frequently engaged stark appraisals of specific murder cases and confronted contentious issues in judicial and penal practices. At the very least, their public form and political content — and the image of Victorians singing should inspire new questions about criminal representation in both poetic and political terms.

Yet, because applications of trite maxims, snippets of behavioural advice, and invocations of “feeling Christians” often accompanied such images of bleeding and weltering, murder ballads have more recently been labelled prim narratives of moral danger or simple-minded endorsements of state power. Critics have interpreted the confessing and regretting criminals of execution ballads as conventionally guilty subjects, affirming the terrible necessity of their public deaths and ratifying the retributive authority of the state. In this view, ballad recommendations of religiosity and personal restraint appear to betray the political interests and belie the social experiences of their working-class authors and audiences. Submitting to a ruthless law of genre, crime ballads as a whole become the inadequate and incongruous sum of their stock moral pieties and their stark bloody minutiae, and individual crime ballads are merely the indistinguishable products of a mechanised industry churning out unimaginative and inartistic reiterations of a strict melodramatic mandate. Caught between an uncompromising conservatism and an unabashed bloodlust, they are aesthetically and ethically suspect.

While an overemphasis on the poles of moral melodrama and vulgar gore has consistently diminished our confidence in the street ballad’s capacity for textual complexity and political sophistication, notions about the laws of the genre and the conditions of production join expectations about the nature of authorship to diminish their social status further. Commissioned by enterprising printers, penned by anonymous “hacks,” and hawked in the streets by “the poorest of the poor,” street ballads flout our author-based and class-inflected definitions of literary creation. Lacking names and identities, ballad authors are chronically underestimated, and their verses, seeming to reflect the harried and impoverished existence of their authors, have rarely inspired careful literary analysis. Further incriminated by their association with a presumably delinquent and illiterate class, ballads and balladeers, emanating from and entertaining the “dangerous classes,” acquire a criminal taint.

This chapter seeks to extricate crime ballads from this limited conceptual paradigm by reviewing the analytical methods of ballad studies, the classed epistemologies of criminal discourse, and the cultural conditions of ballad production. Outlining interpretive strategies derived from the generic conventions of crime balladry and the topical details of individual songs, it presents careful readings of specific texts and historical contexts in order to demonstrate the street ballad’s potential for poetic and political variety. When contextualized and individuated, connections between the details of crime ballads and the details of historical crimes become more apparent, allowing us to reconsider the semiotic operations that underpin these ostensibly contradictory assemblages of moral didacticism, bloody abjection, sentimental lamentation, and spectacular death.

This approach also recognises the usually unacknowledged distinction between first-person and third-person voices in ballad narratives, which organised criminal representations around the notions of astonished witnesses and lamenting criminals. Generalizing about the genre of “gallows literature,” commentators have rarely distinguished the rhetorical significance and political relevance of these two distinct voices, but in many cases, ballad writers leveraged these fundamental differences in poetic voice and narrative perspective for both generic development and political argument. Indeed, a glimpse at even a relative few of the hundreds and hundreds of crime ballads preserved in library collections reveals that the anonymous poets of the ballad industry regularly applied the poetic tools of their trade to influence the generic evolution of the crime ballad and to intervene in public discussions of criminal trials, laws, and theories.

For this reason, the generic regularity and formal simplicity of street verses can be read as a verbal technology, which, as Harrison explains — via Purvis and Hunt’s idea of a “social semiotics” that “convey[s] social experience” while “constituting social subjects” — performs “cultural work.” In this way, the lowly verses of the street, neither exploitative spectacles of gruesome misfortune nor smug recitations of a moral law, generated a multiplicity of formal strategies, aesthetic meanings, and political engagements and disseminated them in the streets and amongst the crowds of Victorian England. Viewed in this context, the apparent vulgarity of their art — the sensationalism of their themes, the expediency of their rhymes, the simplicity of their rhythms — serves a performative function in Slinn’s sense of the word: “both linking and distinguishing poetry from its contexts,” the ballad industry could pit its scrappy poetics of the street against the erudition of high literary culture and the authority of a disciplinary state.

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