Morbid Fascination: The Birth of the True Crime Genre
For many true crime junkies, podcasts are the way to go to get your next fix. But before podcasts and streaming documentaries, what did people do to get their true crime docs? When did true crime really take off as a genre for lovers of all things morbid?
Believe it or not, the history of true crime consumption can be traced all the way back to the early 1500s, with the birth of the printing press. It evolved quickly after that, leading to the genre we know, and many love, today. Below, we’ll take a look at how the true crime genre has changed throughout the last several centuries and how we got to where we are today.
“The Triumphes of Gods Revenge Agaynst The Cryinge, & Execrable Sinne, of Willfull, & Premeditate Murther” was a compilation of true crime stories by John Reynolds created in the early 1600s. (The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
True Crime Started with the Printing Press
Humans have always been fascinated by the macabre. Before written true crime became a widespread concept, dark stories and sensational crimes were typically passed around in the form of ballads. One such ballad is “The Gosport Tragedy or the Perjured Ship-Carpenter,” which was written in the 1560s. In this gruesome tale, a carpenter gets a woman pregnant, spends an evening digging her grave, then murders her under the guise of a meeting to plan their wedding. Her ghost then haunts him in order to get justice for her death.
Beyond these ballads, the birth of written true crime correlates with the birth of the printing press, which was first developed in Germany and eventually spread throughout Europe and England. At these early stages, however, true crime was typically reserved for the wealthy. Since literacy rates were so low amongst the lower classes, only those who were rich enough to have learned to read were able to enjoy the written word.
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In the early 1600s, pamphlets began being printed in England containing the details of gruesome local crimes. These pamphlets were created in response to an evolving justice system in England and were often motivated by religious reasons. The writers of these pamphlets would use these real-life stories to communicate to readers that moral sin led to earthly punishment.
They also discussed how God’s mercy had limits when it came to the perpetrators of such horrid, immoral crimes. According to these authors, each written crime pamphlet needed to provide a lesson for the reader so that they could avoid such a fate as either the perpetrator or the victim of these types of crimes.
One primary example of these types of pamphlets is John Reynold’s published pamphlet compilations from the early 1600s. Between 1621 and 1635, Reynolds took his true crime stories and compiled them into six different books, each of which was titled The Triumph of God’s Revenge Against the Crying and Execrable Sinne of Murther. Reynold’s published books only discussed cases that he determined were “willful and premeditated” murder, allowing for no ambiguity in his stories.
Several execution sermons were written during the time of the Salem witch trials which took place between 1692 and 1693. Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, was inspired by the Salem trials. (Public domain)
Execution sermons also found their place amongst early written true crime records. Popular amongst Puritans, execution sermons were composed to be delivered before the execution of a criminal. Those who attended the execution would hear the sermon and learn in great detail the circumstances which led the guilty party to this fate, and how they could have acted differently to avoid execution. Preachers placed emphasis on the guilty party’s active choice to engage in the crime that was now resulting in their execution.
Though these sermons were common for all executions between the 1600s and 1800s, they became especially popular for their role in witch executions. Individuals accused of being witches or engaging in witchcraft would often be condemned to die, resulting in a large collection of execution sermons dedicated to these so-called witches. Cotton Mather and Increase Mather, New England Puritans during the time of the Salem witch trials, wrote several execution sermons, some of which were for condemned witches. Their thoughts are recorded in their book from 1692, The Wonders of the Invisible World.
Black Bess or The Knight of the Road, was a penny dreadful, a cheap and early version of true crime, telling crime stories or violent adventures. (Public domain)
Elementary, My Dear Watson: From Penny Dreadfuls to Detective Stores
In the 1800s, true crime started to shift away from execution sermons and macabre religious pamphlets, and headed towards penny dreadfuls, essays, and detective stories. Penny dreadfuls often exaggerated local crime stories, sensationalizing them to keep the masses entertained from week to week. They were a quick way to get juicy true crime drama without having to bore yourself reading a religious pamphlet or spend several hours reading a full novel.
Penny dreadfuls were typically somewhere between 8 to 16 pages long, and stories often took over 40 weeks to be completed. Because of the decreasing costs of paper in the printing press, penny dreadfuls cost just that - a penny. This made them affordable forms of literature for working-class individuals with increasing rates of literacy in the 1800s.
Authors such as Charles Dickens wrote essays describing their own experiences with criminals and criminal cases. “A Visit to Newgate,” written in 1836, details Dickens’ visit to the notorious London Prison, where he met with different incarcerated individuals and contemplated being a man sentenced to execution. William Thackeray wrote his own essay in 1840, titled, “Going To See A Man Hanged,” which described his experience visiting the public execution of a man accused of murdering his boss. Publications like these not only served to entertain the public, but also served as political statements that encouraged readers to reflect on their own justice system.
The invention of full detective stories transformed true crime from local information into its own official genre. Authors began publishing these novels around the early to mid-19th century, after the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. This act implemented England’s first official police force, which led to more thorough criminal investigations. That same year, Francois Vidocq, a famous investigator known for his criminal past, published his famous book of memoirs. His memoirs influenced real-life police work, as new officers saw value in understanding the mind of a prior criminal to determine potential behaviors in future criminals.
Watson on the left and Sherlock Holmes on the right in The Adventure of Silver Blaze from 1892. (Public domain)
Vidocq’s work, both as a writer and as an investigator, inspired writers like Victor Hugo and Edgar Allen Poe to write about their famous inspectors Javert and Dupin, respectively. Poe’s character Dupin, in fact, later influenced Arthur Conan Doyle to create the famous Sherlock Holmes, a timeless character in crime fiction.
In the 20th century, true crime continued to take the world by storm as technology advanced. Science began to trump speculation when it came to evidence, generating greater interest in consumers curious about forensics. The case of Lizzie Borden, which happened just a few years short of the 20th century, sparked this interest as investigators used forensics to analyze evidence from the case. Examples of this evidence included testing the stomachs of the deceased for poison and using external analysis to determine time of death.
Cases like Lizzie Borden’s inspired newspapers to move beyond local reporting to take on regional and even national cases. While some newspapers, like the The New York Times, focused on the cut-and-dry facts of the case, other papers focused more on the sensationalism of the case. The Boston Globe, for example, often used graphic terminology to describe brutal cases, like “bloody,” “maimed,” and “slaughtered.”
While penny dreadfuls, crime novels, and regional news stories certainly sought to entertain the masses, they also unexpectedly evolved the discourse around the justice system. Cases in which seemingly guilty parties would be acquitted of crimes, while others accused with little to no evidence would be indicted, stirred strong discontent within society, the same as it does today. These situations became a source of inspiration to fight against injustice and make the judicial system.
The Elm City Tragedy, a murder pamphlet about the murder of Jennie Cramer in 1881. (Yale Law Library / CC BY 2.0)
A Sea of Endless True Crime Docuseries
Nowadays, after the popularity of pamphlets and penny dreadfuls, true crime has taken on a new form. Though true crime books are still published and read, most true crime consumption is now through television, streaming, and podcasts. In an ever-busy society, many individuals no longer have time to read a full novel, but instead enjoy the convenience of listening to a podcast on the way to work.
Since the creation of Serial in 2014, the first mainstream true crime podcast, other true crime lovers have started their own podcasts and sources of sensational true crime information, such as Morbid in 2018. For those who prefer videos to podcasts, YouTubers such as Kendall Rae and Danelle Hallan have used their platforms to both entertain true crime enthusiasts and provide support for the victims of several cases.
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Beyond the internet, mainstream studios have only increased production of true crime documentaries and docuseries in the last few decades, with productions such as Making a Murderer, The Staircase, and The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story raking in massive views. Only Murders in the Building, a 2021 original Hulu series, even makes its plot from three individuals’ passion for a popular true crime podcast. Plus, none of these individual series even begin to touch on the number of true crime-specific television channels such as Oxygen, Investigation Discovery (ID), and the True Crime Network.
It’s fascinating to see not only how true crime has evolved in its publication throughout the years, but also how mainstream the genre has become in the modern era. The advancement from true crime being published in religious pamphlets for the rich and literate to its popularity today within multiple platforms is incredible to observe. Whether you’re a true crime junkie or not, one thing is clear: If the passion behind the true crime craze is anything to go by, the magnetic pull between humans and the macabre will only grow stronger in the future.
Top image: The history of true crime consumption can be traced all the way back to the early 1500s. Source: Sved Oliver/ Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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