History Told through “Most Horrible and Shocking Murders” Web Site

Elm City Tragedy Murder PamphletHundreds of years before television crime shows and Agatha Christie murder mysteries, people got their thrills from “true crime” tales told in murder pamphlets.

A new National Library of Medicine Web site, “Most Horrible and Shocking Murders,” provides a unique look at these pamphlets, which have been a rich source for crime novelists, historians of medicine, and cultural historians.

Michael Sappol, PhD, a historian in the NLM History of Medicine Division says the public has had an appetite for true crime ever since the invention of movable type in the mid-1400s. Murder pamphlets have been hawked on street corners, town squares, taverns, coffee houses, newsstands and book shops for more than five centuries.

NLM has several hundred murder pamphlets in its collection. Sappol culled nearly 30 pamphlets from the late 1600s to the late 1800s for “Most Horrible and Shocking Murders.” Here’s a sampling.

  • There’s Jenny Cramer, the beautiful victim of the Elm City tragedy. She was a society girl who was believed to have committed suicide by drowning. But wait, no fluid was found in her lungs.
  • There’s the mysterious case of Elizabeth Fenning. She was a 20-year-old maid who cooked some strange-looking dumplings for the family she served.
  • There’s the trial of Professor John W. Webster, which was covered intensively in daily newspapers. He was a chemistry professor at Harvard University charged with murder. His story includes an inquiring janitor and a furnace.

While the murder pamphlets may have been the subject of intrigue and entertainment when they were published, they serve a different purpose today. For historians, the pamphlets shed light on society and the history of class, gender, race, the law, crime and religion, to name a few topics. The murder pamphlets in the NLM collection address cases involving forensic medicine and many cases in which doctors were either the victim or defendant.

The Web site “Most Horrible and Shocking Murders” is based on a 2008 exhibition in the History of Medicine Division that Sappol curated.