The Wages of True Crime

Tantalizing! Sensational! Lurid! True Crime always seems to come with an implicit exclamation point. It is a genre that documents the not normal and emphasizes the extreme. Are people drawn to the dark details of the depraved? Or to the otherness of those who dwell in this mostly hidden underworld? Or are people just relieved that they themselves have avoided these nefarious situations?

Whatever the reasons, True Crime is a popular genre and one with strong connection to content at the National Law Enforcement Museum. It’s a nuanced connection though. Law enforcement officers clearly are a primary source of information for crime stories, but when crime is ratcheted up to True Crime, law enforcement tends to get uncomfortable. Crime as seen by officers, or the lower-case true crime, is a far more shocking combination of the horrible and the mundane. Any potential titillation is replaced by the unflinching reality of it all.

The fact of the matter is that crime sells. One good historic example of this principle is a publication titled, The National Police Gazette. When first published in New York City in 1845, the Gazette was “devoted to the interests of criminal police [detectives].” Here’s the statement of purpose from the fourth issue:

“Our city and indeed the whole country swarms with hordes of English and other thieves, burglars, pick-pockets and swindlers whose daily and nightly exploits give continual employment to our officers, and whose tours through the land, whatever direction they may take, may be traced by their depredations. These offenders, though known to our most experienced members of the police, are entirely protected from the community at large; and the natural result is that the unconscious public are in continual contact with miscreants who date their last stationary residence from the walls of Newgate, the shores of Botany Bay , or who have but recently left the confines of our own State Prison.”

To that end, the early Gazette published descriptions of felons along with their last known whereabouts, warnings about scams, and threw some shade at police departments not in New York City. It was particularly scathing towards the Philadelphia and Boston police. Very quickly, the Gazette began to use more and more illustrations of crimes in progress, and the tone moved from professional police magazine to True Crime scandal sheet.

By the 1870s, the Gazette featured the powerful combination of crime, sex and sports, which was popular enough to keep it on the market until the early 1900s. The images had gotten larger and featured what at the time constituted provocative drawings of women doing unconventional deeds. Crime, or more correctly True Crime, was still an element, but from the perspective of an historian today the Gazette became more useful for analyzing social mores and the sexual peccadilloes of late 19th century men than it was for understanding policing and detective work.

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