Leps’ Argument on Criminal Reports within the Context of Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century New York City

Marie-Christine Leps identifies three main formats that were used for the reporting of criminal activity in late nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers and discusses how each of them contributed to the public’s understanding of “the criminal.”[1] Although Leps’ argument focuses on newspapers that were published in European cities (primarily Paris and London), evidence found in newspapers demonstrates that it also applies to those published during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century in New York City.

Police Columns 

The first newspaper format discussed was terse, objective reporting, which was used in police columns to cover common crimes.[2] The press utilized this format to distinguish the common criminals from the serious criminals. The following report from a copy of The New York Times,’ published on June 5, 1872, is an example of this style of reporting:

“Patrick Carey, a ruffian, residing in Baxter-street, got on car No. 98 of the Fourth-avenue line, yesterday, in Centre-street, and, refusing to pay his fare, assaulted the conductor and passengers. He was arrested, and committed by Justice Hogan at the Tombs.” [3]

This one-sentence report is included in a column titled “New-York and Suburban News,” along with other reports of lower, common crimes and deaths such as:

“Matilda Schackleton employed as waitress in the Oriental Concert Saloon in Chatham Street, was arrested and held for trial by Justice Hogan, at the Tombs yesterday for having stolen $90 from Aaron Bauman, of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.”

“At the Court of Special Sessions, yesterday, Andrew Baldwin was sent to the Penitentiary for six months, for attempting to pick a lady’s pocket in a Third-avenue car.”[4]

The format of the report matches the “pattern” identified by Leps as the typical style in which common crimes were presented (the defendant; his/her info; the names of the court; the charges; the ruling), and allows the facts to speak for themselves. By reporting this crime in a concise and neutral manner, the press conveys to the public that it was not important enough for further details or commentary. The following police report,

“Additional evidence was taken yesterday in the case of John Moon, a post-office inspector, charged with opening money letters,” 

appeared in the same column, titled “Local News Brief: New York,” as this report on a national baseball game:

“The Boston Red Stockings defeated the Eckfords, yesterday, by 8 to 6.”[5]

As Leps states, by providing crime the same space as a national baseball game, The New York Times “report has the triple advantage of reducing the importance of a threat to social order, avoiding commentary on a sensitive issue, and giving the readers the lovely feeling of belonging to a solid, stable, winning nation.”[6] The press conveys to the reader that, just as the final score of a baseball game is a fact of life, common crimes such as the one committed by John Moon are “facts of life”-nothing more than a part of the social order. As you can see, although Leps originally discusses this format of criminal reporting within the context of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Paris and London, it can also be applied to criminal reporting in late nineteenth/early twentieth century New York City.

The Detailed Narrative 

The second format of criminal reporting was the short narrative, which was used to report more serious crimes. These reports included more detailed accounts of crimes, as well as supplementary description that worked to shape the public’s notion of “the criminal.” One way it did this was by pointing to disparity. On May 15th, 1884, for example, The New York Times published a short article titled ‘On Trial for Murder,’ which reported the following:

“On the late 14th February last a valentine ball was given by the Clinch Fire Company at their engine-house. Among those present were Edward B. Philpot and Charles Greer, two highly respected young men. While enjoying a waltz with their partners they came into collision, and this brought on words, which resulted in a withdrawal to the yard, where blows were resorted to. During the struggle Greer stabbed Philpot to death. The trial of Greer has been in progress here since Monday.”[7]

The author could have omitted the description in bold- it would not have detracted from the reader’s understanding of the event at all. However, in deciding to include it, the author suggests to the reader that it is uncommon to find respectable men in such circumstances and, consequently, manipulates them to believe that criminals are not respectable. In another example from the June 23, 1859 issue of The New York Times, an article initially describes Adam Rettig, a farmer from Wisconsin who killed his wife and himself, as “respectable” and “well-to-do.”[8] The article then points out that, a couple of years before committing the murder and suicide, Rettig became more “eccentric” than “respectable.” Including this change in Rettig’s character is the press’ way of conveying to the reader that respectable people don’t commit crimes. The article plain and simply states: “He was insane.” This is also an example of how commentary and description was used by newspapers to highlight deviance in criminals. While insanity is an observable behavior rather than a physical feature, it is still uncommon to find in most people. By emphasizing Rettig’s insanity while at the same time emphasizing his criminality, the report subtly manipulates the reader to associate deviance with criminality. In an excerpt from an article published in The New York Times on December 31, 1900 titled ‘A Blackmailer Trapped,’ which covered the story of a suspected gang member who demanded $15,000 from a man whose daughter he knew a secret about, reads:

“In the Ewen Street Police Court yesterday morning, Hanna, who is very tall and who has a boyish face, again admitted having written the letter.”[9]

The article continues to reveal that Hanna, the daughter of the man who was being blackmailed, was involved in the crime all along, exposing her as a criminal. The manner in which the author of the article decided to describe her highlights her deviance from “the norm.” Since the “normal” woman displays her femininity through her petite figure, the press described Hanna as “boyish” and “very tall” to perpetuate the idea that deviance is characteristic of criminals. The presence of criminal reports formatted as detailed narratives in several copies of The New York Times shows us that Leps’ argument can be applied to New York City newspapers.

Full-Coverage Stories

Lastly, there were reports offering full coverage of criminal cases, which were used to tell the stories of extraordinary crimes. This style of writing, with its dramatization and fabrication, often transformed criminals into “larger than life heroes.”[10] Describing them as “daring,” an example of which can be seen in the following New York Times article:

“James Simpson, the perpetrator of numerous daring burglaries at the private dwellings in the Nineteenth Ward…,”[11]

inspired young boys who dreamed of being considered daring to follow in these  criminals’ footsteps. Another New York Times article published on August 7, 1884 described a group of gamblers as “disciples of chance,” whose quiet game of “Vingt-et-un” was interrupted by the “un-welcomed entrance” of four police officers.[12] While the word disciple technically identifies a follower or a student of a leader, for many it possesses a positive connotation since it is most commonly used as a reference to a follower of Jesus. In addition to turning criminals into praiseworthy figures, this excessive and exclamatory style of reporting turned criminal cases into forms of entertainment for the public. An example of this can be seen in the coverage of Danny Driscoll’s trial. Driscoll was a member of the ‘Whyo’ gang in New York City who was convicted for murder in 1887. Leading up to Driscoll’s execution, newspapers provided the public with daily detailed reports of his life, including “the erection of the gallows in the Tombs courtyard, the names of daily visitors, Driscoll’s diet, notes between the defendant and his lawyers, the condemned’s reaction to certain messages, his final letter to his wife, interviews with guards on the death watch, hour-by-hour account of his final day alive, [and] his last mass in the Tombs chapel.”[13]

“At 1 o’clock he was awakened by the clanging of the Franklin street door-bell. 

At 3 o’clock he sat up, and forty minutes later he dressed himself and walked about his cell. 

He remained awake until 2. 

At 5:45 Father Gelinas read mass and administered sacrament to the doomed man. 

Driscoll showed no change and was immovable.

6.19 a.m.- Joe Atkinson, the hangman, arrived, dressed in black, and hurried through the empty corridors to the gallows. 

6.22 a.m.- Driscoll, in an answer to a question from one of the deputy sheriffs, said: 

‘Yes, I think I will take a little something to eat. I don’t want much.’” [14]

This article, titled “How Beezy Garrity’s Murderer Spent His Last Hours,” along with others titled “His Last Day on Earth,” “Old Times on the River,” “Beezy Garrity’s Murder,” “Driscoll’s Criminal Career,” “Portrait of a Ruffian,” and “The Who Gang” took up the entire first page of the January 23, 1888 issue of The Evening World.

The article continues to provide details about what Driscoll at for breakfast that morning, what time he finished eating, his answer to a question he was asked, and more.[15]Coverage of Driscoll’s case included reports of him committing acts of kindness, and even quoted him whispering to a priest, “Please ask Warden Walsh to forgive me for what I have done and said to him.”[16] By providing daily, detailed coverage of his life, newspapers gave the public something to follow and, consequently, something to root for, turning Driscoll into a hero and a martyr.

After examining the manner in which criminals were depicted in New York City newspaper articles published during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we may infer how the image of the criminal was created for the public, and what it was. It was the image of a person who was born differently than the rest of the members of society in both his/her behavioral and physical attributes. He/she was neither a good nor a respectable member of a society, but could be considered praiseworthy by the public based on the way in which he/she was colored in the newspaper. The criminal was the result of a mistake in biology- someone not normal, while the occurrence of petty, minor crimes was a fact of life. Sometimes good people just did bad things. The newspaper articles examined in this essay not only allow us to understand the public’s image of “the criminal,” they show us that Leps’ argument is not confined to the setting she works with, but rather can be applied and understood within the context of late nineteenth/early twentieth century New York City as well.


[1] Marjory Collins. New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. Sept, 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Library of Congress, LOT 0242.

[2] “New-York and Suburban News,” New York Times (New York, NY), June 5,1872. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1872/06/05/issue.html>

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Local News Brief,” New York Times (New York, NY), Oct. 11, 1871. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1871/10/11/82020388.html?pageNumber=5>

[6] Marie-Christine Leps, Apprehending the Criminal: The Production of Deviance in Nineteenth-century Discourse (Durham: Duke UP, 1992), 103.

[7] “On Trial for Murder,” New York Times (New York, NY), May 5, 1884. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1884/05/15/issue.html>

[8] “Dreadful Tragedy- Murder and Suicide,” New York Times (New York, NY), June 23, 1859. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1859/06/23/issue.html>

[9] “A Blackmailer Trapped,” New York Time (New York, NY), Dec. 31, 1900. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1900/12/31/issue.html>

[10] Leps 108

[11] “Local News Brief,” New York Times (New York, NY), Oct. 11, 1871. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1871/10/11/82020388.html?pageNumber=5>

[12] “A Gambling Game Broken Up,” New York Times (New York, NY), Aug. 7, 1884. <http://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1884/08/07/issue.html>

[13] Timothy J Gilfoyle, A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-century New York (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 192.

[14] “How Beezy Garrity’s Murderer Spent His Last Hours,” Evening world (New York, NY), Jan. 23, 1888. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1888-01-23/ed-1/seq-1/>

[15] Ibid.

[16] Gilfoyle, 192-193.

[17] Stanley Kubrick. Life and Love on the New York City Subway. Passengers reading in a subway car. 1946. Museum of the City of New York. X2011.4.10292.30D