Yet their prosperous, middle-class readers were avid for crime stories. Pierce Egan, one of the most famous journalists of the day, claimed to have interviewed Thurtell as he awaited trial. Egan had started as a sporting journalist, writing Boxiana, or, Sketches of ancient and modern pugilism in Imitations and even outright plagiarisms quickly appeared, as well as several stage versions. Weare was one of this number: he was what is termed in the sporting world a dead nail [a crook] , a complete sharper [swindler]. Egan gives a history of incidents where Thurtell had issued challenges, or pretended to, but was not actually willing to fight.
This is all done very delicately, by imputation rather than outright statement.
I will speak to the Superintendent-in-Charge myself. Apart from this, the engine must be economical to run. Also to be taken in custody. Please to carve, Jack, for I can't. It can hardly be wholesome to have the air you breathe strained, as it were, through all that leafage. Let me know what it is at once.
Long before the trial began, The Times printed a stream of vitriolic — and completely unsubstantiated — stories. Nothing daunted, that same day there was another story about Thurtell, saying that in his lodgings the police had found an air-gun in the shape of a walking stick, cunningly painted to look like wood, although nothing more was ever heard of it. Wood was said to have been decoyed into an ambush in a tenement, where he was attacked by Thurtell with a pair of dumbbells.
The Times added, as proof of this remarkable story, that a search of the building had produced a set of dumbbells. For good measure it added that Thurtell and his gang had also attempted to murder Mr Barber Beaumont, the director of the County Fire Office, and had only been foiled because, contrary to habit, on the night of the attempt Mr Beaumont had failed to take his usual seat by a window.
The hysteria infected everyone. Two clergymen are engaged in this scandalous affair. Two clergymen of the Established Church! In the East End of London the rapid development of the docks along the Thames created a vast, and almost entirely working-class, community: from , people in , the population grew to just under a million in , and nearly two million by the end of the century, when it became perhaps the largest working-class community in the world.
To serve its needs, theatres, taverns, saloons and other places of entertainment sprang up: ten new theatres in the quarter-century after These were not small places, either: at mid-century the Standard held 3, people, the Pavilion 3,, the Royal Victoria gallery alone nearly 2, Other new industrial cities had equally large spaces: in Birmingham in , a single theatre gallery held 1, people.
When the cheap seats in the West End, and the sort of places that were too rough or too small even to be considered theatres, are added in, it is clear why working-class tastes predominated.
Playwrights were thus always on the lookout for new murderous material, and with two plays called The Gamblers, a stimulated public immediately made the connection to the story that had been monopolizing the newspapers. Melodrama simplified an increasingly complex world.
It depicted brutal crime and violent death, which were familiar enough in the world its audiences inhabited; but unlike real life, in the world of melodrama justice always triumphed in the last act. What realism rejects as ludicrous coincidence is, to a melodrama audience, the workings of providence: the greater the coincidence, the greater the sense of meaning.
The villains were authority figures squires, landlords, judges or those who served them stewards, lawyers, beadles. Melodrama characters have preordained parts: a villain is a villain, and will not become a hero. Costume was as much an indicator of character as occupation. The heroine wore white; heroes, even those with no connection to the sea, were frequently dressed as sailors the dockyards were the major employers around many minor theatres ; while villains wore the guise of men about town, usually with the addition of a dashing pair of boots.
Each week, therefore, a new drama could draw in the same audiences to watch similar characters in different situations, which were also standard: the last-minute reprieve from the gallows, the overheard conversation, the long-lost foundling child, the secret marriage.
And how I will exult, and how my eyeballs, starting from their sockets, will glare upon him in their convulsive brilliancy! And I will laugh, too … ha, ha, ha! Nor were they intended to be. What do I see on this lonely heath? A Piano?
Who could be lonely with that? The surviving playbill for The Gamblers gives some indication of the furore that the Surrey expected. The play itself was a standard melodrama, telling the tale of a country innocent taking a bloody revenge after being fleeced by big-city gamblers. The horse and gig were easy for the Surrey to get hold of: they had only been hired by the murderers. Other, more personal, items were also available. Probert had owed rent on the cottage, and an auction quickly sold off most ordinary household goods at ordinary household prices. One publication claimed that five hundred people had paid the entrance fee.
Here the grave of Mr. Field, the landlord, being one of the Jury, was therefore fully competent to the task of answering the numerous questions put to him by his customers.
The marks of blood which it bears gave it peculiar interest. Murder tourists came from all walks of life. Private entrepreneurship was one thing. Theatre was another. The management attempted to claim that there was no resemblance at all between the play and the murder of William Weare, but the purchase of the gig and the white-faced horse made this impossible to sustain.
As if to prove his case, his affidavit was immediately reprinted in The Times, despite a judicial ban on its publication, as it contained a compilation of all the worst articles that had appeared. The papers followed every twist and turn of these legal arguments.
Because the press is the great organ of knowledge. The trial was postponed for a month, to January , although the press excitement then was no less. The Chronicle printed a supplementary sheet after the first day, and also doubled its normal four pages to eight for a full report; on the second day it returned to four pages, but devoted three of them, plus a leader, to the trial. The Chronicle calculated that over the two days of the trial there were a hundred horses reserved to carry the reports from Hertford by express, to feed the insatiable demand.
The Observer printed five pictures in its report — a great novelty, as technology was just beginning to permit the use of engravings in newspapers, instead of the clumsier, and slower-to-produce, woodblocks. Pictures could also be purchased separately. At this period, prisoners accused of a felony could have legal counsel, but only for advice and to deal with points of law. How rigorously this was applied varied from circuit to circuit, but the theory was that it was up to the prosecution to prove its case so well that no defence could be mounted.
Then Weare vanished, while the pistol with human remains on it was found just where Thurtell had been seen searching. Items belonging to Weare were in the possession of the three men, and Hunt knew where the body was to be found. Thurtell spoke in his own defence, as the law permitted. He read out a list he had compiled of wrongful convictions throughout history, but one journalist thought it was so long that it was counterproductive: everyone stopped listening. As to the murder itself, Hunt and Probert had done it, he said. The law required that trials were held continuously, unless the jury demanded a break.
Hunt was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to transportation; Thurtell was found guilty of murder, and the only sentence for that was death. This compression was a godsend to the newspapers, the weeklies in particular: they could print the trial, verdict and execution, all in one. The Observer advertised that its execution special would be double its usual length which was only two pages , and would cost 14d.
Many provided updates and trial reports, while others had songs and poetic effusions.
Exemplified in the Murder of Mr. The story of his being fleeced by Weare is rehearsed, and then the unsuspecting gambler heads for Hertfordshire. Then pulling out his murderous knife, As over him he stood, He cut his throat, and, tiger-like, Did drink his reeking blood. This was accompanied by what were claimed to be portraits of Thurtell and Hunt, and eight illustrations. Yet after the verdict was handed down, strangely, Thurtell the monster, Thurtell the drinker of blood, began to disappear, to be replaced by Thurtell the gallant, Thurtell the debonair.
His appearance at that moment was affecting beyond description. In George Borrow drew for his middle-class audience a picture entirely in keeping with this debonair post-trial image. In his novel The Romany Rye, the narrator is in money difficulties. I begged him to tell me how I could requite him for his kindness, whereupon, with the most dreadful oath I ever heard, he bade me come and see him hanged when his time was come. I wrung his hand, and told him I would, and I kept my word.
The night before the day he was hanged at H—, I harnessed a Suffolk Punch to my light gig … and … in eleven hours I drove that Punch one hundred and ten miles. I arrived at H—just in the nick of time.