Did this headline get your attention?  It certainly got mine when I opened a fairly battered box to find a pile of papery pamphlets. Oh no, I thought, this is going to be very dull. I couldn’t have been more wrong, however, because on closer inspection the box proved to be full of sensationalist literature. Here were details (fictional and factual) of the acts of murderers, robbers and brigands, of prison escapes, executions, women going mad, and compacts with the devil himself.

The pamphlet entitled Horrid murders!!! (three exclamation marks – the sure sign of a juicy tale or an evil megalomaniac mastermind CCD.7.50.27) gives details of what became known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which took place in Wapping in December 1811. Seven people, one an infant of 3 months, were killed in two separate attacks, both of which took place inside the victims’ own homes and business premises. Most of the victims were killed with the proverbial blunt instrument to the head. A female servant was spared simply because she had gone out to buy oysters. The others were not so lucky and the author takes great pleasure in giving all the bloody details:

The shop-boy … had made more resistance than the rest … for the counter which extends the whole length of the warehouse was found bespattered with blood & brains from one end of it to the other; and the body of the unfortunate youth lay prostrate on the floor, weltering in his gore.

In the second attack the lodger escaped by knotting his sheets into a rope and climbing out of the window to safety (the knotted sheets seem to be a staple in 19th century fiction – nice to see them being used in real life on this occasion, see also further down for another time when they assisted an escape of an altogether different nature).  A perpetrator with connections to the first set of victims was found, but he hanged himself in prison only days after his arrest, so unfortunately, no fully satisfying motive ever came to light. A second man seen at the scenes of these very violent crimes was never found.

The account of the execution of Robert Bignal, a smuggler, poacher, thief, footpad and murderer, who was executed at Horsham Assizes in 1807, makes for a more amusing and slightly less bloodthirsty read. His execution was the talk of the area for many years afterwards, as he very publicly repented all his sins at the eleventh hour by composing a poem that warned against all sin – and foretold damnation for those who did not heed his advice.

The swearer and the liar too, Till they their ways forsake, May sure expect an angry God, Will cast them in the lake.

He recited this poem (doggerel?!) from the scaffold to a large and rapt crowd of spectators, having been taken to the place of execution in a cart where he insisted upon sitting on his own coffin. It was generally agreed to have been one of the most dramatic executions the Horsham Assizes had ever seen. His poem was later published in aid of his family (CCE.7.50.2)

Mary, the maid of the inn (CCE.7.50.13), is the fictional account of a girl whose lover, Richard Jarvis, murders a man for his money. He and his accomplice are discovered by Mary before they can dispose of the body and flee before she can see who they are. However, Mary finds Richard’s hat at the scene of the crime and takes it home as evidence. There she discovers his name inside it, and so is the means of ensuring his conviction and subsequent hanging. In a typical piece of early 19th century melodrama, she goes mad with grief and guilt, and eventually dies, cold and starving, in a snow-drift.

Jack Sheppard, much like Robert Bignal, was a “most notorious housebreaker & footpad” (CCD.7.50.17). He was less well-known for his crimes however, than for his ingenious escapes from several different prisons. To escape one prison, he managed to remove his fetters, detach one iron and one oaken window bar, attach sheets and blankets to the remaining bars (knotted sheets again!) and escape with a female co-prisoner, into the prison yard of the prison next door, where he constructed a scaling ladder to get over the 22 foot prison wall of this second prison. The prison guards admired his extraordinary escape and kept the tools of his escape on display for years thereafter. Sheppard seems to have been quite foolhardy, as he repeatedly sought out his habitual haunts (“[he] returns like a dog to his vomit” as the pamphlet states – charming picture!), in spite of them being known to the authorities. He was arrested (and escaped) numerous times before eventually being executed in 1724, at the age of just 22. Even to the last he hoped to escape – a pen-knife with which he hoped to cut the cord tying his hands was removed from his person just before he was taken to the scaffold, and

[he] had still another project in his head. He earnestly desired some of his acquaintance, that after his body was cut down, they would, as soon as possible, put it into a warm bed, and try to let him blood; for he said, he believed, if such care was taken, they might bring him to life again.

Sadly for this very enterprising character, his body, on being cut down, was most definitely dead.

While Jack Sheppard relied on his ingenuity to make himself immune to reprisals for his criminal acts, the Spanish tale The infernal secret (CCD.7.50.10) tells of a bandit who made himself invulnerable through a pact with the devil. This bandit needs to marry a “spotless Catholic” every century or forfeit life and soul to the devil. Isidora, the virtuous widow of his choice, refuses to marry him once she finds out about his supernatural powers for which he had bartered the flesh of his right arm (though not the bones, which were still attached). Her refusal, in spite of all threats to herself and her infant son, results in his eventual death, as the clock strikes midnight – when else?!  All that remains of him is “the skeleton arm and hand grasping a poniard.” The devil, one presumes, had made off with the rest of him.

The final pamphlet in my small selection of sensationalist literature tells the true (though possibly exaggerated and very dramatic) tale of Jack Mansong, an escaped slave turned robber in Jamaica. Mansong was greatly feared by the slaves who believed him to have magical powers, and by the white landowners, as he made government officials and slave owners the main targets of his robberies and violence.  By all accounts he was an imposing man, being very tall and strong, and having only three fingers on one of his hands. 

Accounts of his life vary considerably, and my (possibly apocryphal) version sees him neary killing a young Englishman called Captain Orford on two occasions when this young man comes too close to Mansong’s secret cave in the mountains. On the second occasion Orford is taken captive and his fiance, Rosa Chapman, in a very Pirates of the Caribbean twist to the plot, disguises herself as a man and goes to search for him. In spite of being captured by the robber, she manages to free Orford and escape with him.

A bounty of £300 was levied on Mansong’s head, and any slave that captured him was promised freedom. Mansong was later pursued in a concerted effort by the authorities to rid the island of this bandit, and was killed by three slaves in a suitably gruesome way. His head and three-fingered hand were taken as proof of his death so that the £300 reward for his death – and freedom for the slaves who killed him – could be claimed. According to the pamphlet the head and hand “are now preserved in spirits for the satisfaction of the curious.”

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