Read all About it! Wrongdoing in Spain and England in the Long Nineteenth Century

By Culture24 Reporter | 29 April 2013

Exhibition preview: Read all About it! Wrongdoing in Spain and England in the Long Nineteenth Century, Cambridge University Library, Cambridge, until December 2013

An image of an illustration of a man pouring poison into a jar
© Cambridge University Library
If he might not have been a man you yearned to encounter on the average highway, the banditry of Dick Turbin seems positively gentle compared to Francisquillo el Sastre (Frankie the Tailor) who, according to his boasts, wielded a gigantic pair of scissors to cut up the bodies of his victims.

Sebastiana, meanwhile, takes it a gruesome step further: killing both her parents, this distinctly brutal murderess then removed their hearts and fried them up.

With a vast collection of material from 19th century England and Spain to choose from, Cambridge University Library is in a uniquely well-stocked position to revile gentle souls with morbid stories of viciousness and wickedness.

There’s a scratch-the-itch compulsion to read these stories. When they first appeared, illiterate Spanish peasants would, apparently, consume them as hungrily as the middle classes in Blighty, where court reports were reproduced verbatim in The Times.

“Victorian Britain had a huge crime problem,” says Vanessa Lacey, who’s curated the English material here.

“That is absolutely reflected in the popular literature of the time – bar brawls that turned into stabbings in the street are common.

“The scourge of alcohol is a recurring feature in the heinous crimes depicted.

“There is a serious social history element to the collections. They show how society was divided and how poverty could lead to crime.

“The streets could be incredibly dangerous. We also have posters advertising or reporting from executions, which could be attended by 30 to 50 thousand people at a time.

“These aren’t just Dickensian characters. These are real people, real lives.”

Books, broadsides, penny dreadfuls and “cheap, mass-produced” ephemera all build up the disquieting picture, and the themes – don’t lock up your daughters, the glamour of bandits and monstrous criminals among them – look pretty salacious.

Lacey points to Florence Maybrick, an American whose death sentence for poisoning her husband was reduced to life imprisonment amid public outcry. Released after 15 years, she released a book recounting horrendous prison conditions, sparking clamour for penal reform.

There’s a subplot of feminism in the fascination both countries had with women they saw as “unnatural”, regarding their macabre deeds as the antithesis of femininity.

“This is literature that was sold in the streets,” says Professor Alison Sinclair, a co-curator currently embarking on a three-year research investigation into abominable goings-on in Spain.

“It took people into a world populated by bandits, sordid criminals and terrible women.”

Sinclair says many of the tales are cautionary, but also observes a “strange celebration of wrongdoing”.

“The stories tell us not just about day-to-day life in the street, but about the fantasies people had to distract them from that life,” she suggests.

“The items on show in the exhibition are a window onto 19th century life and the things people read and looked at to entertain them.

“It’s also a timeline of the beginnings of criminology, psychiatry, phrenology and theories of heredity. These are incredibly important collections.”

Only around one in five Spaniards are thought to have been able to read at the time, leading to a markedly more image-heavy look to the Spanish material.

A virtual exhibition, containing all of the Spanish material and selected English exhibits, has also been created via the Cambridge Digital Library.

  • Open 9am-6pm (4.30pm Saturday, closed Sunday). Admission free. Follow the library on Twiter @theul.

More pictures:

A black and white illustration of a 19th century man trying to attack his wife
© Cambridge University Library
A black and white illustration of a bandit riding through the countryside on horseback
© Cambridge University Library
An image of a 19th century report of a murder on the front of the times newspaper
© Cambridge University Library
An image of the colourful front page of a book called the book of bosh
© Cambridge University Library
An image of the front of a newspaper mentioning a trial and execution in black ink
© Cambridge University Library
An image of an illustration in colour paintings and black ink of a girl dancing with cats
© Cambridge University Library
An image of a black ink illustration of a Spanish man being publicly hung
© Cambridge University Library
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