Publishing courtroom drama for the masses, 1820-1855

Crone, Rosalind (2012). Publishing courtroom drama for the masses, 1820-1855. In: Lemmings, David ed. Courtrooms and the Public Sphere in Britain, 1730-1840. Farnham, United Kingdom: Ashgate, pp. 193–216.


[From the introduction].
Rosalind Crone’s chapter also considers popular crime and justice literature in the early and mid-nineteenth century, but concentrates on some different types of publications: broadsides and mass-circulation newspapers, especially the Sunday papers. As she points out, paradoxically, the amelioration of capital punishment in this period tended to result in a further and more radical selection of violent crime for public consumption, since execution broadsides now sold in the millions, rather than hundreds or thousands, and each case attracted serial sheets covering the crime, the trial and the hanging. Crone also observes that the images and verses included in the broadsides tended to emphasise the importance of the judge and other lawyers, while at the same time the courtroom audience and jury were represented as mere spectators. Indeed, by contrast with the Select Trials, and with the Old Bailey Sessions Papers in their later more liberal phases, the broadside literature represented trials as one-sided unproblematic events, which clearly – and dramatically – demonstrated the guilt of the defendant as charged.
Crone’s research on newspaper accounts of court proceedings focuses on one of the new mass-circulation Sunday weeklies founded in the 1840s, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. This paper devoted around 10 per cent of its space to accounts of trials, including regular reports of proceedings in the London police courts and at the Old Bailey. It is somewhat unsurprising that, like many of the other species of crime and justice reporting analysed here, the overall coverage of Old Bailey proceedings in Lloyd’s Weekly showed a clear if relatively moderate bias towards crimes of violence, and sensational murder trials received unusually comprehensive attention, including substantial reportage of the barristers’ speeches and the presiding judges’ summations of the evidence. Crone argues that even these more extensive and lawyerised reports provided little opportunity for critical engagement with the justice process, however, and the ‘neat packaging’ of the regular summary trial accounts certainly made verdicts appear quite unproblematic. On the contrary, convicted murderers were simplistically caricatured as mad or indubitably morally defective, and the selective reporting of evidence only reinforced their guilt. Indeed, she concludes that, rather than serving to educate ordinary people about the application of criminal law, highly commercial papers like Lloyd’s Weekly packaged trials for their entertainment value, while also ensuring that that they provided an image of the justice system as a reassuring symbol of stability at a time of great social change.

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