Wednesday, 14 June 2017

New Addition: Biographies of Famous Outlaws!

Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Robbers and Murderers, of All Nations, Drawn From the Most Authentic Sources and Brought Down to the Present Time. (Undated, c. 1850) Silas Andrus & Son: Hartford. Cloth-bound Sextodecimo, 287 pp. Inscribed "Thos. England / Lowell / [?????] / 18?9" & stamped "Thomas England".

Since time immemorial, people who have disenfranchised from their dominant culture economically, culturally, or intellectually have enjoyed tales of outlaws, robbers, pirates, and other criminals outwitting the avatars of power; examples include the cunning thievery of Odysseus, the voyages of Sinbad, the adventures of Robin Hood, the exploits of privateers and pirates, Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, gangster rap, and on and on.

As literacy spread over the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries, popular outlets for this folklore took the form of lurid pamphlets reporting the details of sensationalised murder, banditry and piracy trials; these spawned hundreds of chapbooks presenting embroidered biographies of famous criminals, collected in books such as Defoe's influential General History of the Pyrates, and eventually evolved into the famous Victorian "penny dreadfuls".

This anthology of biographies of famous British outlaws is a testament of this tradition, complete with the rather rough wood-cuts that adorned the ephemeral press of the day. It also highlights the strange mass-psychology through which this pride in the a-moral underdog becomes enmeshed with a sense of nationalist superiority: though the title proudly announces as its subject the most noted criminals "of All Nations" and all time, in fact all but one entry describe English criminals of the prevous century or two, and the  opening of the one french criminal includes an apology to the reader for seeming to imply that a single one of the greatest criminals in history might not be English, then goes onto "claim" him for the English since most of his crimes were committed in the British Isles. Though unsigned, a pencil annotation in the copy in the University of California Library (linked to above) attributes the text to the writer Charles Whitehead.

Appropriately enough, this book was itself an illegal pirate edition printed in the US from a British (obviously) original; in fact the publisher, Silas Andrus, began as a bookbinder but built his career on pirated European literature. The copy belonged to Thomas England of Lowell, Massachusetts, about whom little is known except that he served as a Sergeant in the 30th Massachusetts Infantry during the entire span of the Civil War and died in New Hampshire.

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