Our relationship to True Crime is an enduring one

Our relationship to true crime is an enduring one.

We know this for a fact because culture gets recorded in various media, and it is the work of some professionals to examine media from the past for what it tells us about us, our pasts, and — importantly — sometimes about our present.*

I brought up the work of Joy Wiltenburg, a historian, in my earlier post about what the “true crime” genre is. I want to look more at the things Joy Wiltenburg found in her examination of crime representations in Early Modern Europe, especially as she discusses it in her 2012 book on German culture from this historical period (roughly 1500s and 1600s). She points out that during this period, when there is a cultural shift or evolution in different forms of authority and organization of social order, that religion served as an important source of both authority and culture:

“Crime, as an extreme form of sin, always had religious associations. Violation of [social] law was a human analogue to the sinner’s violation of God’s law. The state was God’s lieutenant on earth, distantly mirroring divine retribution. At the same time, punishment could purge the community of egregious sin and thus avert divine wrath. In the violent deeds that dominated discourses of crime, the influence of the Devil could seem practically palpable. Naturally, the religious of all persuasions were horrified by criminal violence, but Protestants were especially active in mining it for religious meaning. Both a sign of human depravity and a field for the redemptive power of grace, crime could serve as a “living sermon.” In the atmosphere of demonic threat and apocalyptic expectation of the late sixteenth century, crime could confirm both fears and hopes.” (6).

These cultural roots of true crime in religious-authoritative circulation makes sense, and offers us a kind of evolutionary “link” between crime fiction and horror or fantastical fiction, as well. If crime is assigned to supernatural sources — like the devil, witches, ghosts, etc., and crime was assigned to these! — then depiction of those “ghost stories” is also a kind of circulation of crime discourse.

(You can fight me on this point, bc you might retort: but isn’t this a slippery slope? What use is it to talk about “crime discourse” if you suggest that all culture is crime discourse? And to that I would say: by jove, I think you’ve got it! What if culture is so entwined with “crime discourse” that it’s hard to separate it? What is culture, anyway, but a medium for working out what humans are, under different circumstances? And isn’t “violation” the thing that culture keeps coming back to? Uh oh, chicken-egg situation coming: which comes first, the violation, or the affirmation of what a human is: is a human defined in terms of (against or with) violation? How does each serve the other?)

But another thing that happened during this period is: the printing press. So much about Western Modern culture depends on the invention and use of the printing press, from politics to class relations to education and, of course, true crime circulation!

“By the early sixteenth century, printers were applying their modern technology to the production of the ancestors of modern news media in the form of broadsides and pamphlets. Although religious works dominated the subject matter of sixteenth-century printing, especially with the flood of polemics unleashed by the Reformation, news production grew rapidly.” (Wiltenburg 9).

And what makes good news? You got it: crime.

“Where did the printers get the texts that they reproduced in crime publications? In some cases, the texts were not much more than captions to broadside pictures, but usually they required authorship of some kind. Some were based closely on the official confession publicized by authorities; printers may have managed to obtain a copy or had someone take down the confession as it was read in public. This saved the trouble of employing an author. Most crime texts were published anonymously, but there were notable exceptions. The occasional author known for other popular works moved into the recounting of crime, as in the case of Kunz Haß of Nuremberg in the early sixteenth century and Daniel Holtzman, the self-styled “German poet of Augsburg,” in the second half of the century. A remarkable number of Protestant clerics wrote crime accounts during the sixteenth century [. . .]. Among them were the best known of early crime authors, Philip Melanchthon of theological fame and Burkard Waldis, familiar to scholars of German literature for his plays and fables. For the most part, authors were likely from the same strata of literate urbanites as the authors of news reports more broadly, though perhaps with more pastors and fewer merchants.” (14).

So that’s something you probably weren’t expecting: clerics were the first popular true crime writers!

But this makes sense when you think again about the transition from manuscripts — those hand-written texts that monks labored over in order to spread religious teachings — to the printing press. Who were the professionals who were already in the publishing business? The religious professionals!

Image of illustrated manuscript, book open to a two-page spread with illustrations and text. Bright blue and red colors.
Image caption from Boston Public Library blog: BPL MS q Med. 172, a Dutch book of hours, ca. 1470, with illuminated miniatures attributed to the Masters of the Zwolle Bible.


Image of an example broadside ballad. Long page with two wooduct images that each show an illustration of a man. Underneath the images are two columns of the ballad text.
“A Jest; or, Master Constable.” Published: 1623–61, London. British Library. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/broadside-ballad-on-the-master-constable#

This example “broadside ballad” is from Early Modern Britain and on display at the British Library. This was one way “true crime” was circulated: image accompanied by a caption, or, as in this case, the text of a ballad. The ballad could be sung and therefore circulate crime-as-culture.

Here’s what the British Library has to say about this early genre:

Broadside ballads are lively narrative verses or songs, often illustrated with woodcuts, which circulated widely as a kind of tabloid press in early modern Britain. They respond to current events and heap praise or blame on well-known public figures. These ballads were recited and sung to familiar tunes in ale-houses and public places. They appear on broadsides, which are cheaply-produced single sheets of paper, printed only on one side and designed to be pasted on walls or thrown away after reading.”

You can read more about the farcical “crime” story depicted in the ballad pictured above (and read a transcript of the text) on this page.

Here’s what Wiltenburg has to say about the economy of this early form of crime discourse:

“Because their producers were often beholden to authorities and because these pieces uniformly condemn lawbreaking, it is perhaps tempting to view them as propaganda pure and simple, as tools of the state apparatus. Certainly, they could play a role similar to that of the rituals of execution in seeking to present examples of punishment that would deter potential criminals. The dutiful recounting of the details of executions drives home the point in one publication after another. But this straightforward political motivation was overlaid with others, probably largely commercial on the part of publishers and more complex on the part of authors. The commercial aim helped shape the modes of presentation that made for sensationalism, as well as the selection of cases, the elements of emphasis, and the adoption of conventional patterns that tended to recur.” (16)

Ooh, ok, so this last part seems important: the various factors involved in making these representations and circulating them probably affected what was represented. Like political interests and also the need for printing something that would be popular (and not get the publisher in trouble, I assume). Let’s remember that bit. But I also think the bit about “conventional patterns” is important as well. It sounds like the genre of true crime is taking shape here — the genre that we are familiar with today.

Let’s see what else is shaping up in terms of true crime as a genre:

“The topical crime accounts that flowed from early presses were not fiction. Although some sloppily borrowed language from accounts of similar crimes elsewhere, very few seem to have been wholly invented. Even accounts of imaginary crimes, such as witchcraft and the ritual murder of Christian children by Jew[ish people], were normally based on real cases. Nevertheless, like modern true news accounts, they both mirrored and altered the picture of actual crime and its relationship to social surroundings. Partly by selection and partly by their modes of representation, they reshaped events to reflect cultural conceptions. This process did not necessarily require conscious manipulation; rather, it flowed naturally from the selection of, and reaction to, the crimes considered most worthy of public attention.” (21)

Ok, yeah, that’s probably important to remember for this blog. That may be an assumption (or hypothesis) I already had about crime discourse, but it sounds like this is backed up by analysis of very early true crime representation, as well. That is: true crime discourse has a specific relationship with both “crime” and “culture” that is more like a two-way journey or process than a simple cause-effect or truth/lie relationship.

I think that’s a good place to end this romp down memory lane to early examples of True Crime. But don’t worry, we’ll probably return to these early examples to learn more about how true crime and crime discourse have evolved and stayed the same.

And shout out to scholars like Wiltenburg who use their language, archival, and history disciplinary skills to teach us more about the history of true crime.

I think I’ll leave you with this juicy true crime ballad broadside from 1619, thanks to the English Broadside Ballad Archive:

image of Broadside Ballad, two pages, with ballad text in columns and two woodcut illustrations.
“Damnable Practises Of three Lincolne-shire Witches, Joane Flower, and her two Daughters, Margret and Phillip Flower, against Henry Lord Rosse, with others the Children of the Right Honourable the Earle of Rutland, at Beaver Castle, who for the same were executed at Lincolne the 11. of March last. To the tune of the Ladies fall.”

This is a true crime tale about a “woman scorned” who, with her sister and her mother, exacted revenge on the household she was turned out from. According to the case, she and her accomplices cast spells which caused various members of the household to waste away in some unknown sickness. (Note: 3 women = 3 witches!) They “confessed” and were executed for their crime. There is a twist at the end, however. The mother denies she had anything to do with the murders/spells and says that God may strike her down if she is guilty. After which, of course, she immediately falls to the ground, dead.

Here is the conclusion to the ballad from the transcript provided with the archive:

For greatly here the hand of God,
did worke in justice cause:,
When he for these their practises
them all in question drawes.
And so before the Magistrates,
when as the youngest came,
Who being guilty of the fact
confest and tould the same.

How that her mother and her selfe,
and sister gave consent:
To give the Countesse and her Lord,
occasions to repent
That ere they turned her out of dores,
in such vile disgrace:
For which, or them or theirs should be
brought into heavy case.

And how her sister found a time,
Lord Rosses glove to take:
Who gave it to her mothers hand
consuming spels to make.
The which she prickt all full of holes,
and layd it deepe in ground:
Whereas it rotted, so should he,
be quite away consum’d.

All which her elder sister did,
acknowledge to be true:
And how that she in boyling blood,
did oft the same imbrew,
And hereupon the yong Lord Rosse,
such torments did abide:

That strangely he consum’d away,
untill the houre he died.

And likewise she confest how they,
together all agreed:
Against the children of this Earle,
to practise and proceed.
Not leaving them a child alive,
and never to have more:
If witchcraft so could doe, because,
they turnd them out of dore.

The mother as the daughters told,
could hardly this deny:
For which they were attached all,
by Justice speedily.
And unto Lincolne Citty borne,
therein to lye in Jayle:
Untill the Judging Sizes came,
that death might be their bayle.

But there this hatefull mother witch,
these speeches did recall:
And said that in Lord Rosses death,
she had no hand at all.
Whereon she bread and butter tooke,
God let this same (quoth she)
If I be guilty of his death,
passe never thorough me.

So mumbling it within her mouth,
she never spake more words:
But fell downe dead, a judgment just
and wonder of the Lords.
Her Daughters two their tryalls had,
of which being guilty found,
They dyed in shame, by strangling twist,
and layd by shame in the ground.

Have mercy Heaven, on sinners all,
and grant that never like
Be in this Nation knowne or done,
but Lord in vengeance strike:
Or else convert their wicked lives
which in bad wayes are spent:
The feares of God and love of heaven,
such courses will prevent.


* I should point out that the “us” here is subjective and not static. Many professional cultural theorists and social scientists have been irresponsible with the use of words like “us,” assuming that “us” includes everyone (when it can’t), or assuming that “us” always means individuals just like them (white, educated, men). In many ways, the word “us” is always problematic like that. And it’s tricky here in this blog, too. I want to use “us” to refer widely to all human culture, as it exists today, but also more narrowly to the specific readers of this blog. This means that I am talking about 21st century human culture(s) as it has been affected (and continues to be affected) by various cultural influences from the past, especially what is termed Western Modern culture, which spread throughout the globe in economic and military waves beginning in the 15th century. This spread of culture was not evenly distributed, was generally hostile and exploitative, and has ongoing influence on local and global networks of culture. And readers of this blog, I assume, have different relationships to that history of Western culture. But I also assume that something connects us (readers), and being affected by a culture of crime discourse may be that thing.


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