The Price of Crimes and Misdemeanors

Included in the exhibit are a few items from Historical & Special Collections, such as the broadside to the left, that provide a glimpse of criminal justice in nineteenth century England and reveal some aspects of prison life—and death.

Broadsides were sold on the street for a penny or less, and were mainly intended for the middle or lower classes. The Assize calendar (1815) lists prisoners charged with crimes and awaiting their trials in prisons in Durham, Newcastle, and Morpeth. The Crown calendar for the Lincolnshire Summer Assizes (1822) lists prisoners with their crimes and sentences. Both documents demonstrate the breadth of crimes that landed prisoners in these gaols—from stealing chickens to murder—and the Crown calendar illustrates how many crimes were punishable by death. Execution broadsides were sold to audiences that gathered to witness public executions in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Some broadsides— such as the one here featuring verses on the life and death of murderer M. Percy Lefroy in his prison cell—were published as warnings to readers to avoid the temptations of crime. All these ephemeral publications demonstrate the fascination the public had with crime and public executions.

The Harvard Law School Library’s collection of more than 500 broadsides spans the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is one of the largest recorded. The collection is digitized and may be viewed at: http://broadsides.law.harvard.edu.