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Victorian Poetry 39.2 (2001) 319-339

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"Every Man Who Is Hanged Leaves a Poem":
Criminal Poets in Victorian Street Ballads

Ellen L. O'Brien

The ambiguous existence of these sheets undoubtedly masks the processes of a subterranean battle . . . around two rights, perhaps less heterogeneous than they seem at first sight--the right to kill and be killed and the right to speak and narrate.

--Michel Foucault, I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother... 1

Victorian trial and execution broadsheets included "copies of affecting verses" or "last lamentations," purported to be written by the criminals themselves, which linked the sentimental poet and the violent murderer. 2 Said to be "written from the depths of the condemned cell, with the condemned pen, ink, and paper" and discovered by the guards on the floor of the empty cell shortly before the execution, lamentation ballads sold as records of the convict's overflow of powerful feeling on the eve of death (Hindley, Life, p. 76). The notoriety of this publisher's trick led one Victorian commentator to proclaim, "Every man who is hanged leaves a poem" (cited in Shepard, John Pitts, p. 48). These ballads thus secured the persona of the criminal poet in hundreds of stylized laments by supplying the condemned criminal with sensibility and a poetic voice. As Foucault has argued, last lamentations posit the "lyrical position of the murderous subject"; they "[mark] the place--fictitious, of course--of a subject who both speaks and is murderous" (Foucault, p. 208).

With this lyrical first-person voice, balladeers narrated murderers' lives, crimes, and punishments, lamented their sad deeds, requested pity for their plight, and examined the occasion (execution) which gained their voice a hearing. Like stage tragedies, their stories sought to procure pity and fear as the criminals were "launched into eternity," and their texts often imagined criminals in terms that deflected from conventional [End Page 319] wisdom about the barbarity and horror of their crime and moved toward emotion and sentimentality. At the moment of official and eternal silencing by the state, the murderous subject seized speech, and the persona of the criminal poet and his/her occasional poetry traced connections between transgression and speech.

As with street literature in general, however, critics have doubted the textual sophistication of these lamentations. Their simple rhymes and rhythms, to which syntax is often sacrificed, have been interpreted as symptoms of ideological and intellectual simplicity. In particular, scholars have questioned their capacity for inserting social criticism into songs which sensationalize the violence of murder and execution. A look at their formal qualities, however, in conjunction with their historical, marketing, and performance contexts, reveals their potential for social commentary and textual sophistication. The combined effects of ballad production and marketing, the scaffold audience, the conventions of the criminal voice, and the particulars of specific crimes and executions reveal the range of discourses which the execution ballads deployed and adapted. Taking into account the heteroglossic layers of last lamentations suggests that the sensational violence of murder and execution formed a productive and provocative space for social analysis.

Last lamentations, the most popular and profitable genre of the broadside industry, occupied an important place in the experience of Victorian public execution and flourished until public executions ended in 1868. Their development benefited from legal changes in capital punishment; when the 1836 Parliament removed the provision requiring a condemned criminal to be hanged two days after sentencing, delay between condemnation and death allowed more time for "the Seven Dials poet to cultivate his muse and for the presses to turn out the results." 3 At the same time, continued reductions in capital crimes decreased the number of executions, and after 1837, executions for an offense other than murder became rare. 4 Earlier nineteenth-century balladeers had often accommodated multiple executions with "lamentations and prison groans," which listed the names of criminals to be executed, while reserving detailed criminal subjectivities for the most notorious criminals. In contrast, Victorian ballad writers developed the persona of a single murderous...


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