1708: Thomas Ellis and Mary Goddard 1685: Thomas Fallowfield at Leicester Square and numerous others at Tyburn

Themed Set: The Ordinary of Newgate

March 3rd, 2017 Headsman

The Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts occupy an extra-ordinary place in the development of English crime literature, and although Executed Today has often enough crossed paths with these bulletins we have not yet burdened them with their own categorical spotlight.

The Ordinary was the chaplain at London’s Newgate Prison, a post held by a succession of different men into the 19th century. Broadly, the Ordinary’s job description was to care for the souls of prisoners, and he naturally took special interest in the salvation of the many souls destined for the Tyburn Tree.

But by the early 18th century, the Ordinary’s real racket — from a cash flow standpoint — was publishing. The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Ordinary from 1700 and a great innovator of the Accounts, notoriously left an estate of £5,000 at his death in 1719 … on an annual salary of £35.*

Beginning in the 1670s, an Ordinary named Samuel Smith began publishing short, broadside-scale accounts of the condemned prisoners in his charge. These accounts had and always retained a didactic purpose for their audience that can read quite heavy-handed and repetitive; while not every malefactor succumbed to Ordinary’s pitch, so many did so and with such formulaic consistency that wags like Defoe would laugh that Lorrain was forever “mak[ing] a Sheep-stealer a saint.” Nevertheless, their influence was considerable, and they’d form one of the core sources for the Newgate Calendar.

And as it turned out, the Ordinary’s Accounts also tapped what proved to be a bottomless public appetite for crime stories.

The Ordinaries, Lorrain especially, soon found they could leverage their unique dungeon access to notorious criminals into fantastic sales. Ordinary’s Accounts grew by the 1710s to lengthy pamphlets, containing the Ordinary’s own sermons, summaries of the offenses, and reports of the behavior of the condemned at the gallows; and, the public profile thereby obtained positioned the Ordinary like so many scrabbling bloggers to market books deriving from his ephemera. As copy moved, these ministers of salvation did not shrink from selling their column-inches for advertising, padding some Ordinary’s Accounts installments out to 50 pages long.

This greater bulk was also a reply, as was a race towards the earliest publication hour possible, to the competition of rival catchpennies aggressively cranked out by commercial pamphleteers in the burgeoning industry of print, and bidding to capitalize upon the same spectacle in the same fashion.

Whatever his flaws and foibles and no matter the contradiction with his ministerial role, the Ordinary stands as the tallest figure in this formative bustle but even as this dungeon minister shaped the burgeoning city’s cacophony he in time became eclipsed by it. In its earliest form the Ordinary speaks the penitential tones of a receding era, striving for reconciliation, forgiveness, fellow-feeling among the prisoners and the community that had condemned them, part of a cosmology where sheep-stealers and saints really could clasp hands. Ordinary’s Accounts ceased in 1772, not long before Tyburn itself closed down, and by then London was the ascendant global capital of a bourgeois order with a markedly different conception of crime and criminal.

For the next few days, we’ll visit a few of these Ordinary’s ccounts; though we have often excerpted them in these pages with a natural focus to the bits about the actual crime or execution, here we’ll enjoy them in their entirety — sermonizing, advertisements, and all.

* Lincoln Faller, “In Contrast to Defoe: The Rev. Paul Lorrain, Historian of Crime”, Huntington Library Quarterly, Nov. 1976

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