Perceptions And Reality In Eighteenth Century Popular Press

1713 words - 7 pages

Popular culture is arguably obsessed with crime in all forms of entertainment. Hardly a movie is produced, or a television program aired that does not in some way incorporate violence. Print media sources publish articles that do not feature some form of crime. For some reason human beings are intrigued by others suffering, and perhaps to some extent, the thrill, adrenalin rush, and emotions conveyed by these events. This concepts is not, however, a product of the modern age. Writers have long portrayed this idea in a variety of texts ranging from histories, to plays, to daily news publications. Two texts serve to highlight this concept as it was practiced in eighteenth century England, The Newgate Calendar, and The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard. Each recounts a separate tales of criminal acts during this period. While each account paints a picture of extensive habitual crime interwoven into the very fabric of society, historical analysis of data, as presented by Clive Emsley in the work Crime and Society in England, suggests that this perception is not perfectly accurate. In reality most criminal activity of the day was not of the cold calculating nature that each text portrays, and the popular media falsely isolated the entire working class as the soul proprietors of criminal activity.
The preface of the Newgate Calendar, a multi volume set of stories depicting “ancient robber outlaws and…highway men” asserts that some of the tales within its pages seem “hardly credible,” however the story of Jonathan Wild has basis in fact (Newgate Calender). An apprentice to a buckle maker, and later jailed as a debtor, Wild eventually rose to control an extensive network of organized crime throughout the greater London area. Beginning his carrier as a receiver of stolen goods, Wild quickly established himself as an overpowering force in the London underworld. Through a carefully constructed system of constraints Wild was able to control those that served him to such an extent that “the thieves…seldom dared to conceal anything from him.” Eventually with an intricate crime network established, illicit trade in stolen goods was even conducted with “Holland and Flanders” (ibid). The good times could not last, however, and Wild was eventually fingered by one of his own and sentenced to death. Emerging from a self induced laudanum stupor; he met his fate as a mob of angry Londoners cried for his blood.
An engaging account can be found in a text by Daniel Defoe entitled The Remarkable Life of John Sheppard, which depicts an account of a most notable thief and escape artist of the eighteenth century. The tale is preceded by a section addressed to the inhabitants of London and Westminster, and produces a stirring feeling. Opening with the statement that “Crimes ever were, and ever must be unavoidably frequent” the introduction asserts to readers that their “very Lives are every way struck at” by outlaws (Dafoe). One criminal...

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