Marie Christine Leps on Crime Depicted in Late Nineteenth Century Newspapers

Breakthroughs in technology during the nineteenth century, predominantly the replacement of mechanical presses by steam-powered presses, combined with the rise of the middle class and mass literacy, allowed for the growth of a more popular and inclusive press that favored human-interest stories.[2] The steam-powered printing press was able to churn out newspapers more quickly and more easily, but they were very expensive. Publishers needed to pay off the debt they accumulated after buying a press, which required them to reach a larger audience and sell more copies. The way they did this was by printing what the public wanted to read about. Crime, in particular, was a very popular subject. However, besides capturing the interest of paying customers, the discourse on crime in late nineteenth and early twentieth century newspapers influenced society in another way: it shaped the public’s notion of who “the criminal” was.

Marie Christine Leps states that, in Europe, specifically London and Paris, there were three main formats utilized by newspaper authors to report criminal activity during this time period, each of which influenced the public’s perception of “the criminal” in their own way.[4]

Leps first discusses the common crimes of the lowers orders, such as petty thefts and assaults, which were reported in a concise and objective manner and placed in police columns. This terse style of reporting was used consistently throughout dailies as a way to maintain the newspaper’s role as a “neutral conduit between the world and the reader.”[5] The author allowed the facts to speak for themselves and included only the names of the court, the defendant, his/her info, followed by the charges and ruling. By merely presenting crimes for what they were, reporters allowed the crimes became facts themselves-facts of life. Writers wanted the public to consider these crimes as nothing but common occurrences-“ordinary and insignificant.”[6] Therefore, they presented them in a way- omitting comments-that suggested to the reader that these crimes were not unique enough for elaboration. Reporting crimes in this manner was also the press’ way of distinguishing the common criminals-members of the lower order of society-from the professional criminals. Although the press utilized a style of reporting that was meant to create the illusion of neutrality, descriptions were occasionally thrown in to convey certain messages and to indicate what was considered ordinary/criminal, which will be analyzed below.

The short narrative was used in newspapers to describe the more daring and successful crimes. Although this style of reporting was also meant to maintain a sense of objectivity, it involved an author’s use of additional comments or descriptions. In some instance, these comments and descriptions were used to point to disparity, “the appearance of the unexpected in otherwise predictable proceedings.”[8] For example, writers would intentionally describe people who committed crimes as “respectable” or “a good person” to make a point. By highlighting the fact that an offender was “respectable,” the author suggests to the reader that it is uncommon to find such a man involved in criminal activity, and it was therefore necessary to include the description. Readers were manipulated to believe that, while respectable and good people were sometimes involved in criminal activity, they were not representative of the criminal type. The subtle inclusion of comments and descriptions, however, was also a way to create the criminal type. These descriptions reiterated “hegemonic realities” about the criminal and implied what was considered ordinary. An example of such a truth is the idea that “homeless laborers constantly appear before magistrates for stealing, drunkenness and assault.”[9]

In this way, the press implied the criminality of the “lower orders” of society. Newspaper reports also emphasized the criminality of deviance. They did this by including descriptions of criminals in a way that highlighted their abnormalities. In reading these sorts of descriptions, the public was influenced to associate criminals with deviant characteristics, thus a creating a criminal type in the eye’s of the public. Adding these extra descriptions and comments allowed newspaper articles to shape the public’s idea of the criminal.

Finally, Leps discusses those reports offering full coverage of criminal cases, which were used to tell the stories of extraordinary crimes. The most popular approach to covering crime stories involved presenting them as “daring exploits of master criminals.”[11] The exclamatory, excessive style used to write these stories, paired with catchy titles to capture the reader’s interest, turned criminal reports into a form of entertainment for the public and transformed criminals into “larger than life heroes, much closer to fiction than to fact.”[12] The tendency to dramatize and fictionalize criminal reports, in addition to the description of these criminals as “cunning,” “original” and “bold,” caused youths to praise these delinquents. “Daring” was an especially dangerous word to use, for it romanticized crime. It turned criminals into inspirations for young boys who dreamt of being thought of as daring, motivating them to imitate these “heroic” criminals and commit crimes.[13] In 1909, a judge from Detroit, Michigan persuaded the editors of four newspapers to cut out completely, or simply tone down, crime stories that involved juveniles. As a result, delinquency was reduced so much that some courts went out of business.[14] While this study applies to Detroit, Michigan, it clearly demonstrates the effect that the presence of criminal stories in newspapers had on readers. The tendency of newspapers to sensationalize when covering the more serious and extraordinary crimes shaped the public’s view of the criminal in a way that glorified and incited further crime.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, newspaper writers utilized certain formats of writing to report crime, which manipulated the public’s conception of “the criminal.” Different writing styles and formats contributed to the shaping of the criminal’s image in their own ways. While reporting in a very concise and neutral manner conveyed to the public which crimes were considered ordinary, long, story-like reports full of dramatization and fabrications transformed crime into a form of entertainment, which incited public glorification and imitation of criminals. It is clear from analyzing these formats that they were meant to make an impression on the reader- one that shaped his or her attitude and perception of “the criminal” and consequently created the criminal type.

[1] The illustrated exhibitor … comprising sketches … of the principal exhibits of the Great Exhibition of … 1851. London, 1851. Alexander Robertson, University of Glasgow, Level 12 Special Collections.

[2] Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin, and Bettina Fabos. Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015), 274.

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

[4] Ibid., 99.

[5] Ibid., 99.

[6] Ibid., 101.

[7] Men crowd round to buy newspapers to read about the rising of 1848 in Paris which forced the abdication of Louis-Philippe. January 1, 1848. Hulton Archive, Getty Images.

[8] Ibid., 101.

[9] Ibid.,102.

[10] Pierdon, A scene of poverty in the slum area around St Giles’s in the City of London. January 1, 1840. Hulton Archives, Getty Images, Original Publication: Illustrated London News – A Scene In St Giles’s.

[11] Ibid,.107.

[12] Ibid.,108.

[13] John Newton Baker, “The Press and Crime,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951) 33, no. 6 (1943) : 464-465.

[14] Ibid., 465.