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1x06 | Penny Dreadfuls

Penny dreadfuls, also called penny horribles, penny awfuls, or penny bloods, were the first form of mass-produced entertainment for kids. At one point, as many as 100 publishers were producing the cheap, sensationalist literature. Societal changes in the 19th century meant penny dreadfuls got more readers as well as more criticism from the upper classes. Penny dreadfuls have been compared to modern video games for the public debate they inspired about violent media and its influence on kids, and they inspired a moral panic in the late 19th century.

My name is Lenore, and I’m the Victorienne.

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The predecessors of penny dreadfuls are the crime broadsheets that were sold at public executions in the 18th and 19th centuries. These broadsheets often had illustrations of the crime, of the criminal, or of the execution. They included text that told the story of the crime, the trial, and sometimes the criminal’s confession. The obsession with true crime that so many people have today is not a modern phenomenon.

Penny dreadfuls were usually serialized publications. Each installment was just eight pages. This chapter-by-chapter publishing style was also common for novels at the time, but those were much more expensive. Penny dreadfuls were named for their cost - just one penny per installment - and this made them more accessible to the lower classes. Because of the industrial revolution, there were more people who could afford this type of cheap entertainment and literacy rates were increasing throughout Britain.

New railway lines and train stations led to a new way of distributing this type of writing. There were library systems where you could check out a book at one station, read it on your trip, and then return the book at the next station.

The first penny dreadful was published in 1836, and was called "Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, and Murderers". Highwaymen were common protagonists in penny dreadfuls, because you could tell exciting stories about them holding up wealthy travelers to rob them and then ride away into the night. One real-life highwayman, Dick Turpin, inspired one popular penny dreadful that went on to have 254 installments.

While adults were the original target audience, publishers found that their sensational tales were popular with the growing numbers of young working-class boys, so they began writing to cater to their interests. Even with their penny price, some working class boys still couldn’t afford to buy their own penny dreadfuls. This led to a new type of book club for sharing the penny dreadfuls and their cost. Entrepreneurial boys would sometimes buy a penny dreadful and then rent it out to their friends. 

Over time, market competition led to increasingly outrageous stories being published. The topics included detective stories, true crime, and supernatural tales of monsters and vampires. American dime novels about the wild west were reprinted in the UK and were very popular there. Some of the penny dreadfuls were full-on plagiarized. The publisher Edward Lloyd took directly from Charles Dickens without permission and published "Oliver Twiss", "Nicholas Nicklebery", and "Martin Guzzlewit". 

The low-cost production that allowed penny dreadfuls to be bought so cheaply was reflected in the stories themselves. The booklets were sloppily created and had continuity errors, like characters being killed off more than once. It’s because of this cheap production that so few penny dreadfuls have survived for archival purposes. Thankfully, we do have records of some of their most famous characters.

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was first seen in a penny dreadful series. There’s also Varney the Vampire, whose stories introduced a lot of the vampire tropes we still use today. A popular character in Britain was the American Buffalo Bill. The very first urban legend, Spring-Heeled Jack, was featured in a number of penny dreadful stories as well as in the press as a reportedly true story. There was also Jack Sheppard, a young thief and four-time prison escapee who inspired the Gentleman Jack series.

These tales of criminals led to a moral panic, because the public believed the young boys reading penny dreadfuls would be inspired to commit crimes themselves. At first, this issue was tackled by the Obscene Publications Act of 1857, which meant newsagents and booksellers could be prosecuted for selling penny dreadfuls. As a result some publishing offices were raided by police. While the upper classes favored this legislation being used against this form of lower-class entertainment, they were not in favor of it being used against their beloved pornography.

The 1870 Elementary Education Act meant all children ages 5-12 could be educated, which led to even more kids who could grow up reading penny dreadfuls. Working class boys who now knew how to read but who were bored by schoolwork and by their industrial jobs found a welcome escape in these adventure stories and gruesome tales.

This, combined with the 1884 expansion of male voting rights, led to the upper classes worrying about the social order crumbling. Not only were the lower classes now more educated and informed, but they had voting rights and could take away the power of the rich. Penny dreadfuls were especially feared because so many of their protagonists were lower-class men who committed crimes because they wanted to have more money and to rise above their station. In some penny dreadfuls, like The Mysteries of London, the stories compared the lives of poor Londoners with the lives of wealthy Londoners, feeding into discontent felt by the lower classes. The British upper classes were afraid the readers of penny dreadfuls would rise up against them.

Penny dreadfuls were used in trials against young offenders said to have been inspired by the criminal characters in the stories. In 1888, there was an official investigation into penny dreadfuls that failed to find a connection between them and juvenile crime, but this didn’t stop people from insisting the publications were dangerous and should be banned. Adding more fuel to the fire, in 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes murdered his mother, and the penny dreadfuls found in his bedroom were blamed for his behavior.

Penny dreadfuls were also said to inspire runaways who wanted to live adventurously like their favorite characters. In 1893, a 15-year-old was caught after stealing money from his boss, intending to use the money to get himself to Australia. My favorite of these stories was from 1892. Two boys ran away from home and were found with a gun, ammunition, and a document that read: "Directions for skedaddle: Steal the money; go to the station, and get to Glasgow. Get boat for America. On arriving there, go to the Black Hills and dig for gold, build huts, and kill buffalo; live there and make a fortune."

Penny dreadfuls did start to decline in the 1890s. Publishers who couldn’t get them banned decided to produce their own morally upstanding stories that they hoped would have a more positive influence on the kids reading them. Alfred Harmsworth published the Halfpenny Marvel, which - you guessed it - cost just half a penny. Another publisher working against the influences of penny dreadfuls was George Newnes, who began publishing what he called "penny delightfuls" in 1896. These new publications were successful in driving the penny dreadfuls out of business, but penny dreadfuls hadn’t been all bad. They did increase literacy rates among their audiences. And, you remember the plagiarist Edward Lloyd whom I mentioned earlier? Well, his intention wasn’t just to rip off Charles Dickens. He wanted to publish stories that the lower classes would find engaging so that they would continue to read and become more educated, which he believed would help them get out of poverty.

I think the greatest legacy of penny dreadfuls is the authors they went on to inspire. JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, and James Joyce, the author of Ulysses, all credited penny dreadfuls with having influenced their literary careers.

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Thanks for listening.


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