Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Newgate Calendar, or, The Malefactors' Bloody Register

by Catherine Curzon
"Genuine and Circumstantial Narrative of the lives and transactions, various exploits and Dying Speeches of the Most Notorious Criminals of both sexes who suffered Death Punishment in Gt. Britain and Ireland for High Treason, Petty Treason, Murder, Piracy, Felony, Thieving, Highway Robberies, Forgery, Rapes, Bigamy, Burglaries, Riots and various other horrid crimes and misdemeanours on a plan entirely new, wherein will be fully displayed the regular progress from virtue to vice interspersed with striking reflexions on the conduct of those unhappy wretches who have fallen a sacrifice to the laws of their country."
An execution at Newgate
An execution at Newgate

The concept of bestsellers, sensation literature and thrillingly sordid tales masquerading as morality pieces is hardly a new one, and one of the most popular of such works came into being in the 18th century, quickly establishing itself as the go-to literature for vice, virtue and villainy. In one form or another, The Newgate Calendar, or, The Malefactors' Bloody Register, had been in monthly publication for many years but, with a collected edition hitting the shelves in 1774, it swiftly became one of the most popular books in Georgian England.

In fact, there was never a single definitive first edition of The Newgate Calendar; instead, the first collected editions were made up of reprinted chapbooks and broadsides of the kind that had been printed for many years beforehand. They were sold at public executions to those who had gathered to watch the spectacle and wanted a little something to remember the event by, let alone a reminder of the crimes that were behind the malefactors on the scaffold. These disposable and scandalous works did were not content to stick to factual reporting and spared no gruesome detail as they recounted some of the most violent and infamous crimes in history.

The Calendar was considered improving literature as it made sure to point out in each case where the criminal's (and often the victim's) moral fibre had been found wanting, lamenting that, with more attention paid to moral purity, these unfortunates might not have found themselves in such a sorry state. The authors often paid little heed to the facts of the case or the veracity, and the biographies of the condemned criminals  were often imaginatively enhanced but the public, fired by sensation, lapped it up. Of course, it did no harm to sales of the Calendar that the cases included therein were the most violent or notorious and soon it was a confirmed bestseller, beaten only by the Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Very few households would have been without a copy of the Calendar, with its ready access to stories of good girls gone bad and gentlemen who should have known better.

A crime broadside of the sort that the Calendar collected together
A crime broadside of the sort that the Calendar collected together

Within the pages of the Newgate Calendar lurk some of the most feared and famous names in the English criminal history, but the starring roles are not reserved for the likes of Dick Turpin or Jack Sheppard. Here you will also find murderous clerks and wanton women, every crime detailed in gruesome, ghoulish language though of course, only for the sake of moral education. I am often lured away from my work by the Calendar and spend many happy hours immersed in it. In fact, in the future I hope to share some of its tales with the readers here, so be prepared for all manner of things!

The Calendar has been reprinted in numerous, heavily edited editions and texts are freely available across the internet so, next time you feel like a little moral outrage, why not delve in and lose yourself in a world of dark deeds? Take care to absorb the morals of the stories though, lest you end up in the Calendar yourself!

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Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

4 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the article. Informative and brief.

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    1. Thank you; I wanted to establish what the Calendar was, since I hope to feature some of its cases later!

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  2. You can find it in ebook form at Project Gutenberg. Amazing to think of it as a souvenir of some execution you'd attend! One thinks of Terry Pratchett's character Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, who'd be there selling the souvenir chapbooks along with his "sausage inna bun". ;-)

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    1. There are also sites devoted to cataloguing it *all*; it's quite a read!

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