Newspaper Reveals Community Mores

Master’s research looked at crime reporting in 19th-century Scotland

Emily Pauw

Emily Pauw

When Emily Pauw worked at U of G’s library, she often read crime stories in the newspaper during her lunch break. When she couldn’t find enough current crimes to read about, she turned to archival newspapers from the mid-1800s and became interested in how crimes were reported back then.

“I’ve always been interested in reading about crime,” says the 2014 master’s graduate in history. And since working in the library, she developed an interest in old newspapers.

Pauw focused her master’s research on Scotland’s Aberdeen Journal between 1845 and 1850 because of the many social and legal developments happening in the country at that time. She says reading the Aberdeen Journal gave her a better understanding of Scottish society than reading court records. Some trials became more sensational than others, depending on how they were reported.

The 1849 rape and murder trial of James Robb, for example, was held in private. “The court records contained a great deal of information that was not available in the newspapers,” Pauw explains. As a result, the case was not extensively publicized, she says, adding that the trial was most likely kept quiet because the crime involved rape. “There were so many horrible details to it that if it was publicized, I think, there would have been much more public outcry.”

By contrast, James Burnett was a servant accused of poisoning his wife in 1849 and having a relationship with another servant who worked in the same household. The public trial and subsequent execution of Burnett received extensive coverage in the Aberdeen Journal, including letters to the editor and a published sermon about him. The trial received the most coverage and public response than any of the other crime stories Pauw studied.

“The difference between these two cases really shows that if you’re just looking at court records, a lot of the community response isn’t seen,” she says. “Looking at these newspaper reports, you get to see the reaction afterwards. By comparing these two cases, it was clear that the response from the community was quite different.”

Although law enforcement was improving at the time, she says it’s impossible to know how many crimes went unreported. “There’s always a ‘dark figure’ to crime – we don’t know which crimes were not reported.” She says increased crime rates would be expected in a city such as Aberdeen, which was undergoing rapid urbanization at the time, but that may have been mitigated by improved policing.

Pauw studied digitized copies of the Aberdeen Journal available from the British Library. Her research involved reading about 100 weekly newspapers cover-to-cover. She says conducting a keyword search would not have been as effective because of the different ways that crimes were defined back then.

Pauw analyzed how much space was allocated for each crime story as well as its prominence in the newspaper. “Regardless of what other events were happening, space was always given to the reporting of crimes,” she says. Crimes against people, such as assault and murder, received more coverage. Stories about property crimes were shorter but more plentiful because they were reported more often. Theft was the most commonly reported crime in the newspaper, followed by murder.

Although murder was rare in Aberdeen, stories about murder trials were popular among readers. The newspaper responded to reader demand by publishing murder trials and sensational crime reports from other countries when there weren’t enough in Scotland. “Crime certainly did sell, and it was the sensational crimes that were being taken in from abroad,” says Pauw. “I would say that was an intentional decision by the editors.”

A youth justice system was non-existent at the time, and juvenile offenders as young as nine were identified by name in crime stories. Children living in poverty were often forced to beg on the streets and were arrested for committing petty crimes such as theft, adds Pauw.

Industrial schools were established to keep children off the streets, providing them with free meals and some educational training in exchange for a half-day of work. Pauw says police were given the authority to place begging children in industrial schools.

Adult criminals were identified by name, age, occupation and previous convictions. Women were not accused or convicted of crimes as often as men. As a result, crimes committed by women were not as frequently reported in the newspaper, says Pauw, unless their crimes were considered to “fall outside hegemonic notions of gender.”

She says she found the crime stories fascinating to read. “I was really taken in by them. I was surprised by how much information I could get about the community by reading the newspaper.”