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The Pre-Tabloid Art of 19th-Century Crime

Sebastiana del Castillo
Image from “Sebastiana del Castillo” (from between 1815-1854) (via Cambridge University Library)

People have always loved a good lurid story, the more complicated by family twists and accented by violence the better. Back in the 19th century, thousands of chapbooks were printed in Spain and England that chronicled grisly crimes and romantic intrigue for the public, and since a large part of the population was illiterate, there were always great images to catch the curious eye.

Wrongdoing
Page from “Horrible crimen : un padre que mata a su hija” (between 1942-1944), a story on a “horrible crime: a father who murders his daughter” (via Cambridge University Library)

Read all about it! Wrongdoing in Spain and England in the Long Nineteenth Century at Cambridge University Library is currently showing some selections from their large collection of the chapbooks, and you can see a small library of the Spanish ones digitized online. The chapbooks from 19th century Spain are especially great for a glimpse into the perception at the time of wrongdoing and morality, from the glamorous bandits to family drama. The digitizing is also part of the ongoing Wrongdoing in Spain, 1800-1936 project, because apparently what people do wrong is a limitless source of examination.

For example, there are sequences on the virtues and vice of criminals, that almost always end with consequences of destitution and early death, sometimes in a “danse macabre” with the skeletal grim reaper himself. There are also notorious ladies-turned-bad like a chapbook of stanzas on Margarita Cisneros who killed her husband after being forced into an arranged marriage, Sebastiana del Castillo who killed her father, mother, and two brothers after they locked her away from her lover, and Angela de Valladares y Carrascosa who murdered her sister after she’d fallen in love with her brother-in-law, all after she’d killed the wife of a man she’d had an affair with. There are also characters like “Francisquillo the Tailor” who is shown holding a giant pair of scissors as his devious weapon, and Lorenzo de Texado who was driven by the devil to cut off his wife and four children’s heads.

Naturally, this is all illustrated with high drama, and lots of knives flying into flesh and bullets cut across the page. Here are just a few selections of the sinister 19th century wrongdoing from the pre-tabloid days:

Romance nuevo é historia tragica y verdadera de doña Angela de Valladares y Carrascosa
Image from “Romance nuevo é historia tragica y verdadera de doña Angela de Valladares y Carrascosa” (from between 1700-1850) (via Cambridge University Library)
Atrocidades de Margarita Cisneros
Image from “Atrocidades de Margarita Cisneros” (around 1810-50) (via Cambridge University Library)
Wrongdoing
Images from “Vida del hombre, obrando bien y obrando mal” (around 1850-88), a sequence on the virtues and vice of men (via Cambridge University Library)
El vicio y la virtud : auquilla para niños
Images from a sequence in “El vicio y la virtud : auquilla para niños” (around 1850-88) (via Cambridge University Library)
La sogra y la nora : primera part : ilusions de bon viure y projectes de felicitat
Image from “La sogra y la nora : primera part : ilusions de bon viure y projectes de felicitat” (around 1810-50), a fight between a mother and daughter-in-law (via Cambridge University Library)
Wrongdoing
Image from “Nueva relacion de los desafios, hazañas y valentias del mas jaque de los hombres : Francisquillo El sastre” (1867-1874), a story on “Francisquillo the Tailor” (via Cambridge University Library)
Image from "La heroina malvina"
Image from “La heroina malvina,” a woman who took to the seas in men’s clothing (via Cambridge University Library)
Image from "Sebastiana del Castillo" (via Cambridge University Library)
Image from “Sebastiana del Castillo” (via Cambridge University Library)
Dansa macabra
Images from “Dansa macabra” (from between 1750-1850), a sequence on the “dance of death” (via Cambridge University Library)

Read all about it! Wrongdoing in Spain and England in the Long Nineteenth Century is at Cambridge University Library (Milstein Exhibition Centre, Cambridge, England) through December 23.

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