A Brief History of (True) Crime

By C.W.S.

It seems like the true crime genre has shot up out of nowhere, with so many people finally admitting their interest and diving headlong into the obsession with these murders, kidnappings, and unsolved disappearances. To those who don’t understand, true crime is an offensive, low-brow genre for depraved people. After all, why would anyone want to study something so awful? Why would anyone let themselves be interested in something like serial killers? But some of the kindest, gentlest, and smartest folks I know are secretly intrigued, even obsessed with these crimes and their investigation. Mothers and daughters watching Investigation Discovery together, grandmothers even. In my family the interest was passed down. We have three generations going strong, and we all love true crime.

Just like in my own family, this genre has roots. History says that we have been fascinated by murder for a long, long time.  

Rewind to 1550s England. The literacy rate was improving, and so common people were starting to view reading as a form of entertainment. Between 1550 and 1700, British authors began reporting on death-penalty crimes in the form of small, unbound books. These little books told of the most horrible crimes of the time and of their trials. Sometimes they did so in the form of poems or lyrics. 

Pamela Burger, in an essay called The Bloody History of the True Crime Genre, had this to say about these leaflets in the 17th century: “Like the contemporary docudrama, the crime pamphlet was not a uniform genre: The tone of these narratives could range from sensationalist to spiritual to didactic, often within a single pamphlet. Some served as state propaganda. Others were moralizing tales, portraying the criminal as a deviant who ultimately faces divine justice. Still, others offered more sympathetic explorations of criminal lives—particularly those of “fallen women”—though the sympathy was often tempered by moral condemnation.”

From the 17th century on, broadsides became very popular. They were of a similar style to crime pamphlets, but were usually only a single page. They often included woodcut prints that served as artist renderings of the more gruesome parts of the story, as well as descriptions of the crime. They were sold in the streets, and people shared them in pubs and talked about the crimes of their day, sharing their opinions and gossip.

Anyone with the means could create broadsides, and so they were prevalent among the lower classes and represent a very early form of citizen journalism. They were often written anonymously, and in some ways resemble the sensationalism of modern tabloids.

Natalie Zarrelli, writing for Atlas Obscura, described one such broadside:

“A 1624 pamphlet titled The Crying Murder reports of a group of four men and women who disemboweled, murdered, and decapitated a man named ‘Mr. Trat.’ The defendants maintained their innocence, and Mr. Trat was reportedly seen alive. While it’s impossible to know whether the four were innocent or not, the murder inspired creative images for the broadside: the artist illustrated strewn body parts to accompany the sensationalist text.”

Other creative forms also touched the true crime genre. Songwriters created murder ballads, and these were also printed on broadsides and in crime pamphlets. Sometimes taking the perspective of the criminal, these particular songs asked the audience to sympathize with the murderer, and could be considered an early exploration into forensic psychology—trying to understand why people commit brutal crimes, very similar to what the true crime genre attempts to do today with more sophisticated means.

These broadsides and ballads sometimes held opinions that differed from court verdicts. Like true crime documentaries of today, it offered an artist's response (and the response of the people) to an event rather than just the response of the authorities. Anyone could put their opinions out there, and these broadsides and pamphlets have been compared to the Facebook posts, tweets, and blog posts of today.

One such ballad was called Frankie and Johnny, and was written about a murder that took place in 1899, in which a woman found her husband having an affair and shot him to death:

Frankie and Johnny were lovers
Oh lordy, how they could love
Swore to be true to each other
Just as true as the stars above
He was her man, but he done her wrong

And then later in the song..

Then Frankie pulled back her kimono
And she pulled out a small .44
And root-e-toot-toot three times she shot
Right through that hardwood door
He was her man, but he done her wrong

Because of the invention of the printing press, crime publications started to circulate more widely. Around this time, authors of high standing also started to contribute to the genre, often critiquing the justice system and means of punishment. Even Charles Dickens wrote an article called A Visit to Newgate. It was written in 1836 and detailed his revulsion at the conditions and experiences of the inmates at the Newgate prison.

First edition of  Studies in Murder

First edition of Studies in Murder

In 1829, the same year that London achieved its first organized police department, a French man named Francois Vidocq, a reformed criminal turned criminal investigator, published a book called Memoirs. This text influenced techniques of criminal investigations and popularized this new way of thinking about crime. As people became more comfortable with these scientific advances, ideas of justice changed from divinely ordained to something that used scientific evidence to decide who was guilty and who was innocent.  

In 1924, author Edmund Pearson published a book series with titles such as Studies in Murder and More Studies in Murder. The first book in the series detailed five high-profile American crimes, and did so with more literary flare, making them read like detective novels rather than news stories. One of the stories included was that of Lizzie Borden, considered the “Trial of the Century,” before the OJ Simpson trial took the title. Lizzie Borden allegedly murdered her parents with an ax, but was found innocent, much to the horror of the masses. Her crimes would go on to become a children's schoolyard rhyme:

Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks;
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

...demonstrating that it's not just adults that have a historical fascination with these sinister figures. 

Though they do not represent the true crime genre necessarily, public hangings were an incredible popular event stretching into the mid 1900s. The last public hangings occurred in England until 1955. The crowds of people who came to watch the executions could number 30,000 at places like Newgate, London. Lancaster Castle (a sight of hangings for over 1,000 years) museum manager Colin Penny stated that the hangings later in the era were “very solemn occasions. Newspapers reported men removing their hats when the person to be hanged was led out to the gallows, and visible shudders passing through the crowd when the trapdoor opened." He also noted that not long before, maybe 80 years prior, these events looked quite different, saying they were “almost like a fair. There would be hawkers of various kinds, people selling pies, jugglers."

And it wasn’t just England either. Not so long ago, people were still hanged publicly in United States. The last public hanging was Rainey Bethea in Kentucky in 1936, and it was estimated that 20,000 people came to watch.

Luckily, I believe that most people’s fascination with true crime has evolved beyond a desire to “see people hang.” We see a huge variety of true crime projects in modern times: 30-minute TV shows that tend toward the sensational and the gruesome, documentaries ranging from bad, exaggerated reenactments to careful and serious pursuits in the name of justice. We have investigative podcasts, books, etc, all very different but all united in an attempt (however crude or serious) at understanding why and how these types of crimes occur.

To understand why this genre has always been so popular is an entirely different exploration. If history tells us anything, it’s that people have always been fascinated by the darkest parts of the human conditions, and who can blame us? True crime can be an important genre, if it is handled correctly. After all, the only way to stop something from happening is to attempt to understand it.