Crime broadsides, those one-page ditties churned out by countless printers for centuries, were huge bestsellers throughout the 19th century especially. Crime stories approaching 100 to 200 years in age are easy to find in the UK and as rare as dandelions in New England, whose citizenry has always loved to read murder stories, sometimes to their detriment.
But I have not encountered many crime broadsides from south of the Mason-Dixon line. In fact until I came across a website that included some Southern broadsides, I wasn't sure any still existed, if they ever did. Now the librarians at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have put some of them online. How dare I doubt the universal taste in true crime?
The very old crime stories that the university has now digitized and put online seem to have a theme, and it reflects on their collector. They're dated 1768, 1790, 1794, 1795, 1797, and 1841.
One broadside concerns a 1794 rape-murder in Massachusetts and the conviction and execution of Edmund Fortis, A Negro Man. Was it bought in New England soon after the hanging? Was it passed down in the family to end up in the South? Or did someone send away for it? I'd love to know where it came from, its provenance.
The second murder broadside in this collection tells the story of Pomp, A Negro Man, executed in 1795 for murdering a captain -- again, in Massachusetts. Others tell of the 1790 hanging of a "Negro man" in New Haven, the 1797 execution in Boston of "Stephen Smith, a Black Man," and the 1768 execution of "a Negro Man" in Worcester for raping and murdering one Deborah Metcalfe.
The newest broadside -- actually it is a multi-page pamphlet -- is a Southern murder - a double murder for which four "Negro men" were legally hanged in Missouri in 1841. Their shocking crime was the midnight robbery of a bank -- and the bloody murders of two banking clerks who lived on the premises.
The tale begins:
MURDER, BURGLARY AND ARSON.
From the Missouri Republican of April 19th, 1841.
We have never before had occasion to record such a complication of crimes in a single transaction, as was presented to our appalled citizens on the night of Saturday last. About one o'clock the alarm of fire was given by the flames bursting out of the windows and various parts of the large stone store on the corner of Pine and Water sts.; the front on Water street occupied by Messrs. Simonds & Morrison, and the rear by Mr. Pettus as a banking house, formerly Collier & Pettus.
At the time of the discovery, it was evident that the building had been fired in several parts, and the flames had made such progress that it was impossible to save either the house or any of its contents. That it was the work of an incendiary was soon apparent.
Several gentlemen who arrived early, after some difficulty forced open the door of the banking house, and through the smoke discovered a body lying on the floor near the stove....
Some other lines in this brief tome are truly striking. My favorite so far:
The character and high standing of the counsel whom the court have assingned [sic] for the criminals, embracing the head of the profession, and all being gentlemen of distinguished worth as citizens, should be to all a sufficient evidence that the accused will have a fair trial and the full benefit of the law.
Amazing to think that in Missouri, in 1841, this sentence would be deemed necessary to this particular work.
And from the closing pages:
Confessions of Charlie Brown.
A Man of Color.
With my trial and its incidents I am fully satisfied. My counsel, Mr. Darby, has my thanks for his exertions in my behalf. I have bid farewell to life and all its hopes and joys. I go to meet my doom in another world.
In leaving this, which I have so deeply injured, I have but one request to make. My wife, I understand, was confined three days after I left her, and delivered of a daughter child. I commit her and my offsping [sic] to the mercies of the world.
I trust I leave her a competency to live upon; but what I would ask of community is, that they shall not impute to her and her child, the offences of the husband and father[.] Let not the brand of infamy or the finger of scorn be pointed at them. They have in no wise offended; and if I had listened to a loving wife's council I would now be free from crime.
God grant that we may all meet in that world where there is no more trouble nor death. Adieu!