Quote Du Jour: From Pulp Fiction to Sober Reporting

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

The Old Bailey Session Papers [the law reports for London’s main criminal court] originated close to an earlier genre of popular literature, the sensation-mongering chapbooks, which were pamphlet crime reports that date back to Elizabethan times. The chapbooks were produced for sale to the general public. Each pamphlet recounted the detail of a recent crime, together with (typically) the ensuing investigation, trial, conviction, and execution. The earliest exemplars of the Old Bailey Session Papers survive from the 1670s. The pamphlets were quite selective, recounting only a few cases likely to have the most popular interest. The early Session Papers also exhibit a moralizing tone that was characteristic of chapbooks.

From these beginnings the Session Papers were published in a substantially continuous series for nearly two and a half centuries. The series underwent incessant change in size, format, content, and function. From their origins as episodic chapbooks they became a periodical, published immediately after each of the eight annual sessions of the court, and sold separately for a few pence. In the 1680s the pamphlets became semi-official, under license from the City of London; by the later eighteenth century, the City was subsidizing the publication. Instead of limiting themselves to a selection of higher-profile cases, the Session Papers began to report increasing numbers of mundane property crimes that comprised the bulk of the court’s caseload. Crude sensation-mongering died out from the title pages, and moral instruction disappeared from the accounts. The series came to operate under an obligation of completeness; at least the outcome of every trial held at the particular sessions was noted. As the eighteenth century wore on, the Session Papers lost interest in street-corner sales and became a stodgy, quasi-official crime calendar, published under license of, and ultimately with financial support from, the City of London.

John Langbein, The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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