Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

IA Book of the Week: Death Warrant

Date posted: Tue, Jul. 14, 2020

Every Monday, we feature an Internet Archive Book of the Week, which will highlight an item from the 25,000 or so Fisher items that are freely available on the Internet Archive. This week, Samantha Summers takes a look at the Victorian era's fascination with death and darkness. 

Have you ever heard the term “penny dreadful”? Penny dreadfuls are fictional novels published in parts, each of which costs just one penny. They were popular during the nineteenth century in the United Kingdom, where interest in the dark and macabre was flourishing at the time. Spiritualism, or the belief in the existence of spirits and the human ability to communicate with them, was all the rage. Gothic horror, while on the decline, was still a popular genre in Victorian England (it became popular in the eighteenth century). Death photography, which involved positioning and dressing corpses as if they were still alive and taking portraits of them, was considered downright normal. With this as their cultural backdrop, it’s no surprise that these popular penny dreadful serials were usually concerned with themes of murder and mystery, and often followed the pursuits of daring detectives while they tracked and caught violent criminals. 

Penny dreadfuls were wildly popular, but even as popular as they were they were unable to sate the public’s thirst for the macabre. Enter: Death Warrant, or, Guide to Life. This short-lived periodical was published in 1844, and contained (purportedly) true stories of the dark and dangerous. While Death Warrant itself claimed to be “a reprinted record of facts—compiled from authentic sources,” some of its stories do seem a bit dubious. It’s self-proclaimed mission was to, "achieve for the People a Grand Moral Lesson… strike Terror into the Hearts and Mind of Thousands, and bring back to their Memories the too often forgotten but solemn admonition, “In the midst of life we are in death” (p. 65). Clearly, it was of vital importance to the editors and writers of Death Warrant that their readers have a healthy respect for and fear of death. 

This edition of Death Warrant was published on Saturday, March 16, 1844, and was the ninth instalment of the periodical. It contained news of fatal accidents, a weekly instalment of an article titled “Memoirs of Mrs. Robinson,” and a weekly instalment of The Death of Lord Nelson, a book written by “the late Dr. Southey.” This issue also includes two illustrations. One is of an Irish wake, which accompanies the front-page article describing the events of a wake. The other is of an Irish funeral on Lough Erne, the details of which (the editor notes) had to be deferred until the following issue in order to include necessary excerpts of The Death of Lord Nelson in this issue. Other articles discuss a pirate attack on a ship (p. 68); the final confession of murderer John Williams, who was convicted of murdering an elderly woman (p. 70); and the increasing weight gain men tend to experience as they age (p. 71). 

While the Victorian interest in death and the macabre may seem unsettling to us today, the fact is that we are almost just as fascinated by it. From TV shows about detectives, murders, and deaths to the rise of “dark tourism,” people today are interested in these things just like Victorians were. What modern media can you think of which explores themes similar to those explored in Death Warrant? Let us know, and let us know what other dreary work you can find in the Fisher’s Internet Archive.

-Samantha Summers, Fisher TALInt Student