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Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library

Dying Speeches & Bloody Murders

Gallows scene before prison walls, prior to execution, with cleric and one female prisoner.

Harvard Law School Library
Caspersen Room
October 1, 2007 — January 18, 2008
Monday — Friday, 9:00am — 5:00pm

Broadside: A sheet of paper printed on one side only or containing one large page without columns. The term is applied to such works as copies of a “last dying speech” of some celebrated criminal, and other similar street literature.
—Walter Thomas. A Manual of Bibliography… (1891), p. 188.

Just as programs are sold at sporting events today, broadsides, styled at the time as “Last Dying Speeches” or “Bloody Murders,” were sold to the audience that gathered to witness public executions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. These ephemeral publications were intended for the middle or lower classes, and most sold for a penny or less. Published in British towns and cities mainly by printers who specialized in this type of street literature, a typical example features an illustration (usually of the criminal, the crime scene, or the execution); an account of the crime and (sometimes) the trial; and the purported confessions of the criminal, often cautioning the reader in doggerel verse to avoid the fate awaiting the perpetrator.

The Library’s collection of more than 500 broadsides is one of the largest recorded and the first to be digitized in its entirety. The examples digitized here span the years 1707 to 1891 and include accounts of such crimes as arson, assault, counterfeiting, horse stealing, murder, rape, robbery, and treason.

Conservation and digitization of the broadsides was made possible by a generous grant from the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, a charitable endowment for the support of genealogical, local history, and other museum and library collections.

This exhibition offers a broad selection of a type of popular legal literature that the Library has been collecting for more than a century.

Eight persons murdered! [London] : J. Catnach, Printer, [between 1836 and 1841] (detail).