This 1891 article refers back to the moral panic caused by the Ratcliff Highway murders 80 years earlier

A couple of people on my Twitter timeline posted this earlier today – it’s an article on The Daily Beast about an app, Citizen, that is designed to highlight the crimes currently underway in your neighbourhood, and to enable individuals to discuss it (you can also receive alerts ‘every time a significant incident or emergency happens near you’, according to the app’s promo statement).

It sounds, at first glance, to be an app serving the public interest. You can avoid places where trouble is underway; if you’re brave (or foolhardy), you can intervene; or you can talk about it with others in your vicinity, perhaps reassuring each other about it.

But, as writer Taylor Lorenz states in the Daily Beast article,

“Do I need to know about every carjacking in sight of my office to remain personally safe? Probably not. Using Citizen, in fact, made me more paranoid and probably stoked a lot of my latent irrational fears about violent crime and axe murderers.”

In this, Taylor is no different to newspaper readers in the 18th and 19th centuries, who were both terrified of crime, yet drawn to stories of crime at the same time. Newspapers fed into their fears by increasingly publishing crime stories, drawn from court cases, gossip, and imagination. Reading the Victorian newspapers on the British Newspaper Archive, it’s hard to miss the reams of murders, assaults, thefts, and more bizarre or unusual crimes with their dramatic headlines and breathless tones.

The Whitechapel Murders created huge panic, not just in 1888, but for years afterwards (and perhaps even today). This example is from the Illustrated Police News in 1905.

These stories often used what appears to modern eyes to be a standard narrative – in many cases, the perpetrator of the crime is male, working-class, from a poor or slum area. He may be a drunkard; he may be Irish (many crimes were associated with Irish immigrants, with drink, or with class, betraying Victorian xenophobia and class-consciousness, as well as later efforts by temperance advocates to associate drink with criminality).

Moral panics were created or fed by these newspapers; an isolated case, or a couple of unrelated offences, might be seized upon and magnified, a link being made between disparate offences in order to create the impression of a crime wave. A particular group within society might then be associated with this offence, or group of offences, with the press and/or legislators then seeking to make an example of this group.

This ‘deviancy amplification spiral’, as criminologists and sociologists have termed it (1), could either make it appear more serious an offence than it was; or have the unintended result of readers, the public, then romanticising the criminal and his actions, making a folk-hero of him if he wasn’t feared instead. There were, then, two possible over-reactions – fear, or the adoption of a romantic narrative that may not have reflected the crime or the criminal (see the romanticisation of highwaymen in some quarters).

Elements of the press had some consciousness of what was happening here; in 1874, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph noted that:

‘happiness and goodness, because they are common-place conditions of life, do not make anything like the same impression on men’s minds that is made by the exceptional instances of vice and misery. We hear of a horrid murder… of some pitiable scene of domestic discord or moarital violence, and compare men with brutes…and are tempted to despair of human nature.’ (2)

The paper argued that such crime stories attracted public attention (and that of the press) because of their relative rarity – that is why they were newsworthy. Its comment also suggested that an aspect of human nature was – and is – inclined to use such relatively isolated cases to think about wider philosophical issues about life and death. Yet it failed to acknowledge its own role in magnifying these ‘rare’ offences and to create a panic amongst the public that crime was more prevalent than it really was.

Moral panics, of course, have never gone away, as the prevalence of books discussing contemporary examples show (3). The Citizen app suggests that there are simply more ways today to disseminate crime news and to create a moral panic; it originally started as an app that was deemed to encourage vigilante action, and so hastily rebranded and relaunched – but now, it appears that it serves a more voyeuristic than useful purpose, thus highlighting its similarity to crime reporting throughout the last few centuries.

SOURCES:

  1. Leslie T Wilkins, Social Deviance (Tavistock, 1964); Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 2002); Tim Newburn, Criminology (2017)
  2. Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1874, p.2
  3. See, for example, Julian Pettley (ed), Moral Panics in the Contemporary World (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016); Erich Goode, Moral Panics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 2nd ed); Chas Critcher, Moral Panics and the Media (OUP, 2003). All discuss modern examples of moral panics. In terms of work on earlier moral panics, David Lemming and Claire Walker (eds), Moral Panics, the Media and the Law in Early Modern England (2009) is highly recommended.
  4. The two newspaper excerpts used as illustrations in this post come from the Homeward Mail of 16 March 1891, and the Illustrated Police News of 23 December 1905, both via the British Newspaper Archive.