Update:

We have resumed some on-campus services, including book pickup, virtual consultations, and fulfilling scanning/digitization requests. Many library materials are available online, but our buildings remain closed until further notice.

English Crime and Execution Broadsides

This collection of nearly 600 broadsides highlights crime and capital punishment, primarily in England, as seen through the popular press in the 18th and 19th century.
A crime broadside about the execution of six men and one woman, 1833. View Details.
Harvard Law School Library Historical & Special Collections

Between 1735 and 1868 in England and Wales, more than 9,300 people convicted of capital crimes were publicly executed.

Before reforms of 1830s there were over 200 capital crimes. These included:

A printed broadside wit the headline Execution of M. Atkinson at Durham. Includes illustration of execution.
Execution of M. Atkinson at Druham, circa 1864. View Details.
Harvard Law School Library Historical & Special Collections
  • arson
  • assault
  • burglary
  • counterfeiting
  • forgery
  • highway robbery
  • house breaking
  • larceny
  • murder
  • piracy
  • rape
  • sodomy
  • theft of cows, horses, or sheep
  • treason

By the first decade of the 19th century a thriving business in crime and execution broadsides had developed in England. These single sheet and frequently sensational publications were often sold at the execution itself.

A printed crime broadside with the headline The Epsom Murder.
The Epsom Murder, circa 1834. View Details.
Harvard Law School Library Historical & Special Collections

Crime broadsides were also distributed across England and Wales by itinerant peddlers, far from the courts and gallows of the major cities and towns. They are one of the earliest examples of mass street literature. 

In addition to sometimes lurid descriptions of the crime and trials, many execution broadsides featured the "dying speeches" or confessions and last words of convicts on the scaffold, sometimes in the form of poetry. Often there were warnings to would-be criminals. Increasingly, broadsides were illustrated with wood engravings, showing the execution scene or vignettes of the crime scene.

The Harvard Law School Library's collection of crime and execution broadsides continues to grow and offers a glimpse into crime, punishment, and popular culture.

Accessing These Materials

  • The broadsides in this collection are available online
  • Because most of the broadsides have been digitized, the Harvard Law School Library's Historical & Special Collections generally does not allow access to the originals.

Contact

Harvard Law School Library Historical & Special Collections