During the s several metropolitan and international news agencies made their debut on the strength of the telegraph and the growing demand for syndicated news.
Whether pub- lished in its original form or reworked by editors, this material enabled provincial newspapers to expand their coverage of events, by carrying na- tional news that otherwise would have exceeded their resources. In this new climate, few newspapers could afford to operate like the small family enterprises they had once been.
Apart from lower prices, a more inviting format, and advances in print- ing technology, another factor in this long revolution in the newspaper industry was the sheer talent of such journalistic giants as George Reynolds, Edward Lloyd, Henry W. Russell of the Times.
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But if we extend the term to include a heavier emphasis on crime, scandal, disaster, and sports along with bolder and more lurid headlines and subheads, then the Sunday and evening press of the s and s deserves most of the credit for this de- velopment. Clearly, it took more than the adoption of subheads or cross- heads to create a racier and more tabloidlike journalism.
What was new about it was the extent to which it evoked comment, invited speculation, and engendered passions. But he should have acknowledged the role of the Sunday press and the illustrated weeklies in fostering the racier journalism of the s. The shrewd Irish nationalist politician and editor T.
Instead of printing long transcripts from a trial in the manner of the Times, the New Journalists preferred to summarize the proceedings and then describe the leading actors in the courtroom. They prefer smart headed paragraphs to able leading articles. The traditional emphasis on royal ceremonies, elite scandals, accidents, natural disasters, battles, domestic murders, and sports continued unabated, and the steady increase in sales convinced most editors that they were serving up the right mix of news to their readers.
Granted, the penny papers had bigger headlines on their front pages; nevertheless, both types of newspaper used much the same vocabulary and sensationalist style. Although the Times remained the paper of choice for the governing class, and retained the respect of most rival editors, it too delivered morsels of horror in stories about violent crimes and disasters.
Moreover, most papers bought copy from one of the news agencies. Journalists were fully aware of what their competitors were producing, and any differences in sensationalism tended to be of degree rather than kind. In addition, editors and reporters often moved from one paper to another during their careers. Few Victorian readers questioned the truth of the articles they read. And there were no other news media such as radio and television to provide an alternative version. In other words, there is more to murder news than descriptions of a dead body, suspects, motives, modes of detection, and the legal procedures attendant upon conviction or acquittal.
In this respect, the sensational aspects of crime news functioned for the prurient reader as so much chocolate coating over the pill of old morality, and editors hoped that readers would prefer their version to that of the competition. Not surprisingly, some late-Victorian men of letters saw little differ- ence between sensationalism and vulgarity. Vulgar or not, news of crime and scandal appealed to the classes as well as the masses, judging from the steady rise in readership after the s and the purchase of several different papers each day or week by those who could afford the price.
In the words of one Daily Telegraph editor, readers who complained loudest about a lurid report of murder often could not wait for the next installment of the story.
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Exteree speciul! But what did the latter word mean? As early as the s, the Perfect Diurnall was publishing short but dramatic accounts of murder and mayhem that boosted sales, and after the Restoration, broad- sides and pamphlets often celebrated the lives and deaths of highwaymen, thieves, and other criminals. In the early s the talk of London was the exploits of Jonathan Wild, the master thief, crime boss, and receiver of stolen goods who in- formed on some of his accomplices and was eventually hanged at Tyburn in A legend in his own time, he too ended up swinging on the gallows, one year before Wild.
Crammed with case histories of thieves, swindlers, mur- derers, and outlaws, this dictionary of roguish biography ranged from ob- scure men like William Hitchin, who stole an exchequer bill, and Joseph Moses, who received the skins of six purloined swans, to John Williams, the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murderer, who executed two families in December , and John Bellingham, who assassinated Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. So popular was this work that many Grub Street writers and printers emulated its style and content—most notably James Catnach, the Rupert Murdoch of Seven Dials, who thrived on stories about ruthless killers.
A small, crude sketch on the cover depicted her frail body suspended by a rope tied to a rafter, while the wicked stepmother beat her with a whip. When her trunk, legs, and head were discovered in different parts of the metropolis, suspicion focused on her lover, and after a two-day trial in May he was sentenced to death, while his paramour-accomplice, Sarah Gale, was transported for life. The prime cul- prit in this much-publicized case, John Thurtell, was the wayward son of a Norwich merchant. Running with an unsavory crowd of gamblers, boxers, hustlers, and ex-convicts, Thurtell had fallen off the plateau of respectabil- ity, and this gave the press a chance to sing the familiar refrain about the wages of sin.
The absence of photographs meant that words alone had to convey the horror of violent death. After the s, of course, weekly magazines like the Illustrated London News, the Graphic launched in at six- pence a copy , and the Penny Illustrated Paper carried images of murderers and their victims without any close-ups of the actual injuries.
While editors of the elite papers kept their eyes peeled for unusual crimes or major disasters, they tried to spare their more sensitive readers the grimmest details of violent death. Never were men and women more irretrievably aban- doned to their doom. Here an eye- catching or tantalizing headline could make all the difference.
Not long after this the authori- ties closed down such freak shows in the East End.
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Then as now, the press indulged in feeding frenzies whenever some lady or gentleman broke the codes of acceptable behavior and ended up in the arms of a policeman, or—worse—in court. The exposure of the sexual transgressions of Sir Charles Dilke and Charles Stewart Parnell in the divorce courts during —86 and —90, re- spectively, showed how heavy a toll such charges could exact. Breach-of- promise cases, moreover, left an indelible stain on any woman who admitted to having been seduced.
During the early s Fleet Street played up these two grands scandales for months on end. Fleet Street assigned scores of reporters to cover the civil trial of the Claimant from May to March and the crimi- nal trial from April through February For some six years, the national press faithfully recorded the Tich- borne trials and editorialized about the moral implications of the case.
But whenever an aggrieved party took an aristocrat to court for some transgression, then this section of the paper carried its own form of sensationalism. Transcend- ing both class and gender, reader prurience created a strong demand for the details of illicit trysts, love letters, illegitimate babies, broken vows, and fraud. Thus the steamy case of Thelwall v.
During the spring of , W. While Stead rejoiced over this proof of his editorial clout, such sordid scandals prompted one erudite critic to deplore this pandering to the most vulgar tastes. Murray survived a gunshot wound, but Roberts died of head injuries several days later. Even so, the Crown refused to indict Murray for either manslaughter or murder, and the public was denied the juicy details that would have poured forth from a trial.
Surely nothing more barbarous ever occurred in the blackest epochs of our social history. Reynolds, author of the best-selling The Mysteries of London. Through these shilling shockers ran the crimson threads of sexually aggressive and mercenary rogues who slew rivals and seduced vulnerable women, in a heady mixture of soft-core pornography and hard- core violence that captivated thousands of readers. His elaborate plots kept readers on edge until the last page and made them long for the next installment. These popular novels featured ladies and gentlemen caught up in all kinds of intrigues or deceptions by wicked friends or kin.
With an unerring eye for distinctions of class and status, writers like Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins wove elaborate plots based on disloyalty and desire masked by polite manners and apparent virtue. Sensation novel- ists like Collins often culled fragments of their plots from newspapers as in the case of the Road murder. Anticipating the classic detective story, the plots of sensation novels often revolved around innocent young women menaced by sinister schem- ers, whose evil designs supplied the necessary spine-tingling effects.
Unlike most real crime scenarios, however, these romances often contained an intelligent policeman or amateur detec- tive capable of cracking the case, whereas the constables and inspectors in murder news remained largely faceless and colorless, not to say dull-witted. Un- like the lower-middle-class police detectives of Scotland Yard, these elite amateurs could use their analytical powers to see through the dark glass of mystery and hypocrisy to the evil that lay behind.
The addiction of early Victorians to sheer horror found fullest expres- sion during the state-orchestrated ritual of execution outside prison walls. Public executions also brought out subversive impulses, as people applauded any sign of bravery by the prisoner. But if he struggled to delay the proceedings, then the crowd might utter cries of disgust.
But not even the fullest stretch of their imaginations could yield a small fraction of the thrills once derived from public hangings. It was found in the spleen, in the kidney, in the stomach, in the liver, in the heart, in the brain, in the blood, and in the rectum. The body was impregnated with it. Subsequently the leaden lid was removed, and the spectacle presented by the body was absolutely frightful. Each limb was also swollen to prodigious proportions, and the sight was revolting in the extreme.
At the heart of sensation-horror lie descriptions of battered, stabbed, strangled, burned, poisoned, and bullet-ridden bodies. We spectators remain safely ensconced in our seats—somewhat agitated by the scary sce- nario, but fully aware of who and where we are and why this predator does not constitute a real threat. Men spoke of it with bated breath, and pale-lipped women shuddered as they read the dreadful details.
People afar off smelled blood, and the superstitious said that the skies were of a deeper red that autumn. But when combined with the clinical details revealed by the police surgeons at each inquest, the resulting catalyst enabled most Fleet Street papers to attain new peaks in circulation. Hyde In what must be deemed a remarkable coincidence, several fringe productions of this com- pelling story opened on the London stage on the eve of the Whitechapel murders.
She paid good money to acquire the clothes in which the killers had died on the gallows.
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Some morbid entrepreneurs carried on the eighteenth-century tradition of anatomical display by assembling wax models of male and female bodies containing both healthy and dis- eased organs. Stead and Shock Journalism Arguably the most astute practitioner of journalistic sensationalism in the late Victorian era was the crusading editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Thomas Stead.
The lurid details of child prostitution revealed in these articles made the paper and its editor the talk of the town. He had bought the child from her willing mother. In other words, the attractions of such topics may have had much less to do with middle-class angst over poverty or fear of class war than with such pleasurable sensations as hair-raising thrills and schadenfreude. Even more than sensation novels, murder news often in- duced what D.
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