Material Murders: "Authenticity" in Early Nineteenth-Century True Crime Murder Melodrama
Steele, Erin Bone
Hildy, Franklin J.
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In the early nineteenth century, London's illegitimate playhouses featured melodramas based on murder accounts. The value of comparing a true-crime drama to its historical antecedent lies in asking how the theatre makes its claim, and what social or political issues jump to the fore. Spectatorship at public hangings is a regular feature of this period, but crowds sought to "see more" and "know more" by attending all sorts of spectacles. The courtroom, scaffold, publishing house, fair, and theatre all proclaimed their goal was to provide a moral lesson. The intent was education as well as profit; the effect for the audience was one of titillation. This study is rooted in archival print material including playscripts, pamphlets, newspapers, and broadsides, and employs theoretical concepts developed by theatre historians to illuminate the ways competing public narratives functioned in the minds of audiences. Four cases are examined in detail: the Ashford/Thornton case and a "trial by battle" courtroom confrontation, the Weare/Thurtell case featuring a sloppy murder amongst gamblers, the Marten/Corder case of murder in a red barn, and the Bradford case following a wrongly-accused innkeeper. The dramas they spawned appeared between 1818 and 1833. Broadly speaking, each play communicates a warning to the working classes beyond simple moral proscriptions. Doomed characters might have no opportunity for redemption but there is a sense that social and political structures could and should be changed, reflecting the lived experience of a period when the legal system was being reformed, cities were being rebuilt, workers' associations were growing, and the police system was being established anew. Dramatizations invariably diverge from news reports, yet melodrama playhouses consistently claim they provide "authentic" experiences and present "true" stories. Material, tangible objects serve many functions, chiefly acting as a concrete link between circulating press accounts of a murder and theatrical representations. In the most extreme instance, the Surrey playhouse acquired property previously owned by accused murderers and used it on stage. More often, playhouses like the Coburg and Pavilion invoked or recreated specific material goods.