Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gallows Literature

“Gallows Literature,” common in England and the United States from about 1730 to the eighteen-eighties, consisted of biographies, “last speeches,” and “dying verses”. They could be found in any country with a printing press, Spain, France, Germany or Russia. When a celebrated burglar or murderer was scheduled to be publicly “turned off,” enterprising street publishers issued “whole-sheet” broadsides, in one or two columns of wretched, aging type, with a woodcut at top, to be sold in shops and hawked at the foot of the gallows.

In Regency England, the two major publishers were Jemmy Catnatch and “Old Mother Pitts,” derided by her rival as “a former bumboat woman.” James Catnatch’s business was founded in 1813, and, in the hands of his successor, lasted until 1883 when the famous Seven Dials establishment was torn down. Its tempting to speculate on what happened to Catnatch's type and woodcut stock, containing many designed and cut by Thomas Bewick.

This late example, a Charles Peace broadside, from the collection of Stewart Evans, was published by George Slater, Snighill, sometime before Peace was executed on 25 February 1879. The last public hanging in England was in 1868 so instead of sales under the gallows broadsides seem to have been sold at newsagents. The only reference to a British publisher named Slater I found was from 1849, One George Slater was publisher of Slater's Shilling Series from 252, Strand.

The bill-sticker cartoon from Punch, below, was published when Jack the Ripper was still active. It seems a little unfair to the bill-stickers, who were probably not paid much by the publishers.

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