Robert Blakesley was arrested in September 1841 for the murder of James Burdon, the landlord of the King’s Head public house in Eastcheap in the City of London. Burdon was married to Blakesley’s wife’s sister, and had intervened when Blakesley attempted to stab his wife following months of marital strife, receiving a mortal wound in the process. Blakesley also stabbed his sister-in-law Sarah during this fit of fury, who later miscarried a child and herself died from her injuries some weeks later. The blood-thirsty brutality of the crime drew widespread public outrage and horror, testified by the huge crowds that visited the crime scene in the days and weeks that followed. Despite some evidence that Blakesley was mentally ill (one report described how ‘his reasoning faculties appeared at times gone’) he was nevertheless sentenced to death. Blakesley was executed outside the Old Bailey on 15 November 1841 in front of a large and angry crowd.
This broadside was published at the time of Blakesley’s initial committal hearing at the Mansion House before the Lord Mayor, and illustrates the lurid details that were regularly conveyed in such publications. Note the crude but explicit images illustrating the stabbings. Also of interest is the assumption of Blakesley’s guilt within the text before his trial had even taken place.
During the 19th century, gruesome murders and public executions were often reported in printed sheets such as the one displayed here. Known as ‘broadsides’ or ‘street literature’, they were sold by street peddlers, and purchased to paste on to walls or to read (or sing) aloud to others. Execution broadsides were produced on cheap paper and illustrated with crude woodcuts. They typically included an account of the crime committed, the conviction and punishment of the criminal, an illustration of the hanged offender and, often, a ballad or moralising hymn. Images of the gallows were frequently re-used, the printers filling in the appropriate number of dangling bodies depending on the number of criminals hanged. These macabre sources are a reminder of the sensationalism surrounding crime in this period. Public executions were still seen as a form of entertainment, often attracting crowds of thousands.
- Article by:
- Philip Horne
- The novel 1832–1880, Crime and crime fiction, London
Dickens's Oliver Twist depicts the excitement as well as the danger surrounding the criminal underworld. Here Professor Philip Horne examines how Dickens’s portrayal of crime was influenced by public executions, contemporary criminal slang and other sensational literary works.