In pitch dark I go walking in your landscape
Broken branches trip me as I speak
Just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there
Just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there
Radiohead: There There.
One of the recurrent themes I have come across in my study of late c18th and early C19th public execution and crime, is perceived threats. Perceived, in the sense that they were widely believed, but bore little reality to the truth when checked against empirical facts.
There are many reasons given for why these perceived threats arose, but the main one is the rapid growth of the daily, provincial and penny press and its increasingly sensationalist style of reporting. A phenomenon that arguably is still very much with us, as has been only too apparent this week in the reports of the ‘Demon Barber’ in Newcastle, a story that I will return to later.
Let me first, just briefly summarise some of the more popularly perceived threats in the period.
1). ‘The Growing Crime Myth’ A widely held belief, across all classes, that crime was exponentially on the increase in the C19th – despite the regular publication of official statistics to the contrary.
2). ‘The Garrotting Panic of 1862’ Following the robbery of an MP, which included a garrotting, a widespread panic begun about the rise in this practice by criminals and what appeared to be an increasingly prevalent practice. This resulted in some great satirical cartoons by Punch (see below) detailing protective spiked neckwear for the safety conscious male – probably more useful for the S&M conscious man today, by the look of it.
3). ‘Penny Dreadfuls causing Juvenile Crime’ A widespread belief that the increase in cheap sensationalist literature (derogatorily labelled as ‘penny dreadfuls’) was responsible for an increase in juvenile crime. A particularly flimsy assumption, not least because juvenile crime was largely decreasing in the period.
In the case of a perceived growth in crime, it has been widely shown that the perception arose not from a genuine rise in crime, but from a rise in the reporting of it, giving it undue prominence in the collective minds of the public.
The misplaced belief in the inexorable increase of crime – particularly violent crime and murder – was the result of an increased access to tales of crime in all forms of the printed media.
Christopher A. Casey., Common Misperceptions: The Press and Victorian Views of Crime. (Winter, 2011) p.368
Similarly the garrotting panic was fuelled by the press, but as Christopher Casey points out, it arose not from a recorded increase in garrotting but in a wider fear of a new type of criminal. The ‘ticket-or-leave’ man. The ‘ticket or leave’ system was the first incidence of allowing criminals probation based on good behaviour and was originally established in the colonies for prisoners who had been transported (a common practice for criminals, often used instead of the death penalty). The criminal responsible for the robbery of the MP was a ‘ticket or leave’ man and the press, having already been stating their fears of the system for years, reported it voraciously causing an almost entirely unfounded panic in the period.
This panic, however real, had a big impact and was responsible for increased police surveillance, and two the hastily passed bills in Parliament – namely, the Garroting and Security from Violence Acts.
Luckily that sort of panicked reactionary response to a perceived threat is now a thing of the past, just another ‘curious’ feature of our forebears unenlightened ways. Hmmm.
For an example of how little has changed in our collective reactions to crime it is worth referring you to the incident of the escaped ‘skullcracker’ a few months ago. A man whose absconsion while on temporary release caused a widespread panic that turned into a debate in the newspapers about the strength of the existing law, which in turn led to a promise by the incumbent government that their next manifesto will tighten up the laws on prisoner release.
This brings me to the final perceived threat and a more real incident that happened in Newcastle this week. Due to a hugely increased population, massive technological advances in the production and delivery of papers and a removing or decreasing of the taxes on them, there was an explosion of printed media in the period I am covering. None more contentious than what was to be derogatorily labelled the ‘penny dreadful’. ‘Penny’ because of the cost and ‘Dreadful’ because of the perception that it was full of pernicious content glorifying crime.
The cheapness of the publications and salacious content meant that their predominant audience was an increasingly literate, working class youth. To the middle and established ruling classes, this was a recipe for disaster – as they believed that books on highwaymen and crime would create a new criminal underclass. In his study of perceptions of the Penny Dreadful A.L.Beier shows that this fear was often so prevalent that ownership of these publications were often used as proof in trials of the criminal nature of the boys charged. The reality, like so many things, is less exciting than the myth. Studies show from contemporaries and modern historians that these publications rarely if ever glorified crime, more often than not the narrative structure actually sees the criminal undone.¹
In short all of these perceived threats, however ‘illusory’, had very real effects for ‘for those at the sharp end of punishment.’² Panic led to pressure which led to rushed punishment and legislation. All of which brings me to the case this week of the so called ‘Demon Barber’ of Newcastle. At this stage I should state, that I do not know the barber in question, but know people who do as both a friend and a hairdresser (that is not by anyway to state my opinion is clouded, far from it, but I want to make it clear that I am not an entirely neutral observer).
This week an incident occurred at Jacks Barbers in Newcastle Upon Tyne, wherein a man walked out of the building with what is reported to be a cut throat. So far what appears to be the case is that the proprietor, Lloyd Dobrodumow, has been charged with ‘wounding with intent to commit grievous bodily harm’. Apart from that there is very little known about what happened and it is at best unclear, District Judge Stephen Earl stated merely that he had been left with ‘a bizarre set of circumstances.’ Given this and the previous examples in this articles, it is sad to see how the case has been so salaciously reported.
All of the reports, and there are many, have labelled the accused as ‘The Demon Barber’ (his twitter handle), a name so redolent with throat cutting that any further comment on the case is unduly coloured already. The presentation of the story is playing to the same prurient fascinations that the supposed ‘press of old’ did and it will no doubt play a part in the presentation of the story as it unfolds.
It is not my intention to judge either side of this case or any others, i will leave it to the professionals – but i would say that neither is it the place of the press to play judge, jury and executioner in the interests of selling copy. It would be nice if for once the facts took precedence over the more fantastical fiction. But, as Stewart Lee found out in his famous discussion with a Glasgow Taxi Driver,
Yeah Well, you can prove anything with facts can’t you.
1. A.L.Beier 'Criminal Identity', p.502