Look at a criminal broadside from the 19th century. There are the drawings – generic depictions of people hanging, of gaols, of crowds, together with more personalised portraits of the murderer, or the victim.
There is the text – the melodramatic, overly detailed, story of the crime, the penitence of the murderer before he or she is dropped into oblivion.
These are the forerunner of the tabloid newspaper; designed to be bought, read, thrown away.
But now they are in museums, sold in auctions, a historical artefact. The individuals that are written about in these broadsides are somehow lost to us in the present. They are abstract, viewed from a historical distance, fictionalised by their broadside-producing contemporaries.
I own a broadside – and admit to being fascinated by the stories they tell and how they tell them. But can I build a picture of real people, living ordinary lives, from the dramatised story presented on this sheet of paper?
My broadside is from 1841. It relates to the execution of Robert Blakesley after being found guilty of the murder of James Burdon in the City of London.
It’s not the only broadside produced about Blakesley; the British Library has written about one it holds, which was produced prior to Blakesley’s trial, at his first committal hearing. That broadside assumed his guilty even though he had not yet been tried.
Blakesley was found guilty of stabbing James Burdon, landlord of the King’s Head in Eastcheap. He was depicted as mentally ill, a man who regularly abused and assaulted his wife.
The British Library states that Blakesley had tried to stab his wife; when challenged by Burdon, his brother-in-law, after “months of marital strife”, he stabbed him. Burdon died; Sarah Blakesley miscarried her baby, it was said, and died some time later.
Blakesley had been arrested in September 1841, was tried at the Old Bailey on 25 October 1841 and executed on 15 November.
Yet on the night of 6 June 1841, when the census was taken, a more domestic, peaceful scene was suggested.
At Eastcheap, James Burdon, aged 35, was listed as the head of his household. He was living with his wife Eliza, and their four-year-old son James. Also with the Burdons were Eliza’s widowed mother, Ann Adkins, and her sister Sarah, still unmarried and aged 25.
Also at the premises was Robert Blakesley, listed as a 25-year-old cattle dealer (he was actually 27, the 1841 census often rounding up or down to the nearest five years).
Robert was accepted as part of the Adkins family, and he married Sarah exactly three weeks after the census was taken – at St Stephen Walbrook church on 27 June 1841. Their witnesses were James and Eliza Burdon.
Robert and Sarah were only married for three months before the murder occurred.
Eliza Burdon gave evidence at Blakesley’s trial. She painted a similarly domestic scene to the census; on the evening of 21 September 1841, a Tuesday, she had been in the King’s Head bar with her sister Sarah. James Burdon was fast asleep at the end of the bar, his back against the window.
At 10.05pm, Blakesley walked in, “sprang” at Sarah and stabbed her in her right side, saying, “My wife or her life”, before turning around and stabbing James to death while he slept*.
The cosy domestic scene in the family pub was subverted by this sudden, unexpected, act of violence committed by one who had only recently been welcomed into this family environment.
Worse still, he had killed a man who was sleeping peacefully at the end of a long day working to maintain that family.
Blakesley’s own family were called on to testify at his trial. His father James, a respectable cloth factor based in the City, and a member of the Blackwell Hall, stated that his son had been brought up in his “establishment”, but that after a serious illness when aged about five, he had suffered from fits and been anti-social, struggling to make friends and interact with people.
Robert was sent away to school at the age of eight. The saddest part of his father’s testimony was his description of going to watch his son at school, through a blind in the schoolmaster’s room:
“I was sent for by the schoolmaster, to see how my son would stand by the wall when the other children were at play. I looked through the blind, and I saw him stand there for, I think, half an hour, while the children were all frolicsome and at play together.”
It conjures up an image of a lonely boy, different from others his age, and unable to connect with them.
His father removed him from school at the age of 13, to come and work for him; but Robert disappeared frequently, and when he returned seemed not to know where he had been, or what he had done.
His father explained:
“I have seen him agitated, some scores of times, his eyes starting and his lips quivering, and I have said, ‘Halloo, Robert! What are you about?’ He has looked and said, ‘Oh papa! Nothing particular.'”
This was a man whose older brother, on whose the family’s hopes rested, had died at the age of 20. He had the pressure of his parents now on him, and seems unable to cope with it. Yet his father clearly loved him very much, and refused to get him sent to an asylum because he did not think his son was “vicious”.
His sudden attack on his wife and his brother-in-law were an extension of his disappearances and fits of insensibility at home. Somewhere in there was still the lonely boy wondering how to fit in and always remaining on the outside.
He destroyed the family who had let him join them, and destroyed the hopes of his loving father in the process.
Yet the criminal broadsides produced after his death, and the carrying out of the death sentence, do not let the 21st century reader picture Robert as a three-dimensional man – the 27-year-old with a long history of emotional problems who, another witness said, was “on terms of the greatest affection with every member” of his family.
For a bit of insight into Robert’s complex character, other historical sources have to be studied and compared. His father’s shocked, but loving, testimony at his son’s trial, and the domesticity presented in the census return, conjures up a real man, rather than a criminal caricature.
* The British Library refers to Sarah dying of her wounds several weeks after James Burdon’s death. Although the Old Bailey states that she was stabbed in her side, and she did not appear as a witness, neither can I find evidence for her death.