By Cassie Watson; posted 23 March 2019.
Nothing makes for a better news story than murder, a fact that the sensationalist Victorian penny press was well placed to exploit. The details of crimes, victims and killers intrigued readers, who found both entertainment and reassurance in narratives engagingly bound up with elements of danger and the unexpected. Crime challenged the boundaries of human conduct; crime reporting informed the public and helped to instil confidence in the criminal justice system. Therefore, as Rowbotham, Stevenson and Pegg point out, questions about the “priorities, narratives, style and content” of newspaper crime coverage abound. One of the most interesting of these considers the portrayals of victims, witnesses and the accused.
For historians of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century crime, such ‘portrayals’ are generally no more than can be deduced from the written accounts of witnesses or the opinions of journalists, except in the relatively sporadic cases of individuals who gained exceptional contemporary notoriety because of their sex, extraordinary crimes or general bravado — thereby attracting the attention of a skilled artist. For most criminals of the past we have no portrayal whatever, let alone a confirmed likeness. Physical descriptions were an important means of tracking down suspects, but were more like pen portraits than artistic renderings. Impending execution drew attention to a criminal’s demeanour, but ‘scaffold sheets’ were intent on promulgating a moral message — the justice of punishment — and were less interested in physical appearance than the convict’s state of mind and preparedness for death.
This focus did not change with the development of newspaper printing and reporting techniques, but the presentation did: the late Victorian “popular press experimented with layout, typography and visual imagery to widen circulation and appeal”, employing court reporters, sketch artists and photographers. This presented a new way to satisfy the public appetite for crime news, by offering increasingly accurate depictions of criminals and their victims. While this may not seem particularly exciting to historians of twentieth-century crime, for those of us who research earlier periods the visible change in newspaper content and layout represents a noticeably novel point of access to the past. For the first time, we can see what the historical actors that we study really looked like, albeit through a lens created by sketch artists of indeterminate talent. This allows us to put faces to names.
George Thomas and David Rees, 1894
Executions remained a keen source of interest, particularly as they became increasingly infrequent; and they were never particularly frequent in Wales. In 1894 one of these unlucky few went to the gallows in Carmarthen for the murder of his sweetheart: George Thomas, a 25-year-old ex-soldier, cut the throat of 15-year-old Mary Jane Jones (“naturally vivacious and considered good-looking”) when she rejected him. He had confessed immediately afterward, and an insanity plea failed when Dr Pringle, the medical superintendent of the Bridgend Lunatic Asylum, found no evidence of mental illness. Thomas himself told the prison medical officer that he thought he was sane.
The Evening Express, a daily newspaper published in Cardiff, reported the trial in detail but adopted a decidedly human-interest focus in its reportage, which was liberally illustrated with sketches of the victim, perpetrator, scene of crime, weapon (a razor), and various witnesses. It did not record the testimony word-for-word, as was common in earlier decades, but summarised the proceedings under snappy yet informative sub-headings like “Prisoner’s Confession” and “How the Crime was Committed”.
The occasion of Thomas’s execution was an obvious opportunity to re-publish images of the killer and his victim, and provided the newspaper with a new story, resulting in a nearly full-page spread (eight columns out of nine) devoted to murder and execution in the county. Reflecting on the past, a secondary narrative listed all the executions known to have occurred in Carmarthen since the sixteenth century. These factual details may well prove useful to historians, though it is not certain that they are all correct: forger William Baines (about whom more is likely to appear in a future blog post!) was hanged in 1818, not 1817.
The account of Carmarthen executions focused on a direct comparison between George Thomas and the previous man executed in the town, David Rees, who was also 25 and had been condemned in 1888 for murdering a man during a robbery. Where Thomas seemed indifferent to his fate and attracted little public sympathy, Rees cried bitterly until — perhaps fortified by repeated prayers (in Welsh), rallying somewhat before the final drop. One gets a sense, confirmed by a report published in March 1888, that there was far more empathy for Rees, who also confessed but refused to give up the name of his accomplice. Images of the two executed men suggest this differing portrayal of their moral integrity, Thomas “remarkably callous” but Rees a more pitiable figure. Mary Jane Jones was at least remembered as “the murdered girl”; Rees’s victim (Thomas Davies) was not named at all.
Finally, in another reflection of public disinterest, the crowd outside the prison, two-thirds of whom were allegedly schoolboys, seemed to be smaller at Thomas’s execution than at Rees’s. The newspaper published an image of the raising of the black flag, but the crowd included only men, a substantial proportion of whom, judging by the hats, must have been middle class. There was not a schoolboy in sight, except perhaps for the figure atop the telegraph pole.
Late Victorian press attention settled more firmly on courtroom legal proceedings than on the more fleeting, private and rare scaffold scenes that ensued; and reportage may well have reflected what was newsworthy to those who made the news rather than to those who consumed it. Nonetheless, digitised provincial newspapers provide a rich source of illustrated crime news, and the illustrations introduce a new way to think about criminals and their crimes. Detailed reports such as those on George Thomas and David Rees supersede the restricted coverage of broadsheets like The Times, add a level of human interest that legal sources typically do not provide, give the historian a sense of the legal system at work, and help to reinstate some of the individual characteristics of long dead personalities.
Scene outside Carmarthen Gaol following the execution of George Thomas, 13 February 1894. Evening Express (fifth edition), 13 February 1894, 3. [National Library of Wales, unknown copyright]
Sketches of George Thomas and Mary Jane Jones, Evening Express (fifth edition), 22 January 1894, 3. [National Library of Wales, unknown copyright]
Sketches of David Rees, Mary Jane Jones and George Thomas, Evening Express (fifth edition), 13 February 1894, 3. [National Library of Wales, unknown copyright]
 Anna Gekoski, Jacqueline M. Gray and Joanna R. Adler, “What Makes a Homicide Newsworthy? UK National Tabloid Newspaper Journalists Tell All,” British Journal of Criminology 52 (2012): 1228.
 Judith Rowbotham, Kim Stevenson and Samantha Pegg, Crime News in Modern Britain: Press Reporting and Responsibility, 1820–2010 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 9-10.
 J. M. Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750–1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 60-64.
 V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 156-183.
 Rowbotham et al, Crime News in Modern Britain, 87.
 Steve Fielding lists 13 in the period 1868–1899: The Hangman’s Record, Volume One 1868–1899 (Beckenham, Kent: Chancery House Press, 1994), xxxv.
 Evening Express, 22 January 1894, 3.
 The Cambrian, 4 April 1818, 3.
 South Wales Daily News, 24 February 1888, 2.
 Evening Express, 13 February 1894, 3.
 South Wales Echo, 13 March 1888, 3.
 Rowbotham et al, Crime News in Modern Britain, 23, 60-83.
 Gekoski et al, “What Makes a Homicide Newsworthy?”, 1228.
 The Times reported both trials briefly: 25 February 1888, 12 and 23 January 1894, 8.
 The case files for Thomas and Rees are not in The National Archives series of assize depositions, ASSI 72.