Even without a public execution offering ‘closure’ on a tale of murder and mayhem, the public’s fascination with felonious crimes nevertheless remained high during the Victorian period. This broadside from 1842, for example, details the horrific case of George Lucas, who murdered his three children, aged 10, seven and four, before committing suicide himself.
Lucas was a warehouseman resident in Aldermanbury in the City of London, and had been unemployed for six months. Though described as a ‘very sober and well-conducted man… much attached to his family’ Lucas’s lack of work threw him into a state of deep depression, through ‘his family being driven to want’. On the morning of Sunday 13 March 1842 Lucas rose as normal and began preparing his family for their weekly departure to church. At some point he then climbed the stairs to his children’s bedrooms and (in spite of their terrified struggles) cut their throats one by one with a razor. Lucas then proceeded to commit suicide by ‘nearly severing his head from his body’.
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.