If books could kill: The brutal history behind using popular entertainment as a scapegoat for heinous acts

If books could kill: The brutal history behind using popular entertainment as a scapegoat for heinous acts
We’re all familiar with popular entertainment being blamed for crimes, especially those perpetrated by young people. Violent video games, especially “first-person shooters,” are popular targets today. For example, an addiction to Doom was blamed for why Columbine High School students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 12 of their classmates in April 1999, and an obsession with the Call of Duty franchise was thought to be the reason Adam Lanza killed 27 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

TV predated video games. One infamous incident was Edmonton-based aspiring filmmaker Mark Twitchell who, in 2011, lured a man to his home and dismembered him. Twitchell said he had been inspired by fictional forensic analyst Dexter Morgan, who led a double life as a serial killer in the series Dexter. In 1977, a 15-year-old who murdered his elderly next-door-neighbour, argued that his daily six to eight hours of TV viewing meant he couldn’t tell right from wrong, and investigators noted that the crime resembled one on gritty series Kojack, the boy’s favourite show.

Michael C. Hall as Dexter. Randy Tepper/Showtime.

Comic books have been singled out for corrupting youth since the medium took off in popularity in the late 1930s (with the publication of Superman in Action Comics #1). In 1948, a 16-year-old committed eight armed robberies and murdered a man because, according to news reports, he “read comic books and listened to gangster stories on the radio all the time when he was at home.” In the mid-1950s, U.S. Senate hearings into juvenile delinquency led to a Comics Code Authority, forcing publishers to self-police the contents of comics.

Comic books have been singled out for corrupting youth since the medium took off in popularity in the late 1930s.

And where do you begin with music? Killers have said they drew inspiration from artists ranging from Tupac Shakur, Eminem, Metallica and Marilyn Manson to Madonna and The Beatles. Today, knifings among young black men in London are blamed on “U.K. drill,” a regional subgenre of trap music, which Sam Knight in The New Yorker described as “a pared-down, slang-ridden form of London hip-hop.”

Books, too, have been connected to real-life crimes. Mark David Chapman was carrying a copy of J. D. Salinger’s 1951 coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye, when he assassinated John Lennon. (He described his actions as the book’s 27th chapter.) Leonard Lake and Charles Ng, who tortured and killed nearly 30 women at a remote cabin in California, were inspired by John Fowles’ 1963 novel, The Collector. At four separate times, young men committed murder while crediting Stephen King’s 1977 novel Rage, and in 2007, 14-year-old Michael Hernandez stabbed a classmate to death and later said he was imitating the protagonist in Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho.

And it’s to literature where we can trace the origins of entertainment being blamed for inspiring violence in young people.

By early 1840, throughout Britain, technology had made printing cheaper and the demand for books was growing among a newly literate working class, many of them immigrants, which was also agitating for more political representation. (In some cases, mass rallies demanding universal suffrage had turned into bloody riots.) The price of books had dropped to about 20 shillings. Although this was still beyond the spending power of most of the working class, new titles were sold to circulating libraries where a year’s subscription was about the cost of a single book. Suddenly, the latest fiction was being discussed not just by the chattering classes, as one newspaper put it, but in “low smoking rooms, the common barbers’ shops, the cheap reading places, the private booksellers’ and the minor theatres.” One critic called it “the literature of rascaldom.”

Technology had made printing cheaper and the demand for books was growing among a newly literate working class.

Not surprisingly, the most popular titles among this new mass audience were the most sensational: A genre of criminal romances known as “Newgate novels.” Named after the brutal prison in the centre of London, they were tales of both fictional and real criminals, mostly based in the previous century, that glorified the cunning exploits of criminal anti-heroes. Notable examples were Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford (the book that begins, “It was a dark and stormy night…”), Charles Whitehead’s Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates and Robbers, and a young Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. (In later editions, Dickens dialed down the sensationalism.) But at this time, the most popular of them all was Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth. It was a semi-fictionalized account of a notorious criminal who escaped from prison four times before being re-arrested and executed in 1724.

It was truly pulp fiction. In addition to official books, one could easily find cheap pirated editions on the streets and attend any of the half dozen theatrical productions on stages around London. Ainsworth himself underscored the quality of the books when he gave his friend, Dickens, this advice: “The truth is, to write for the mob, we must not write too well.”

Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix. Warner Bros. Pictures

In Claire Harman’s Murder By the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’ London (published last October in the UK and last month in North America), Harman, a biographer of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen, shows how the “Newgate novels,” and Jack Sheppard in particular, spawned a debate among Britain’s cultural commentators, police and politicians about whether reading can influence character, whether the “Newgate novels” were corrupting impressionable young people and inciting them to commit crimes.

Indeed, children, teenagers, and young men who committed crimes were called “a young Jack Sheppard,” or “Juvenile Jack Sheppards.” Harman quotes one vocal critic, William Makepeace Thackeray who, at the time, was eight years away from writing his best-known work, Vanity Fair. He believed “Newgate novels” romanticized crime in an “absurd and unreal” way, and that the public was inexplicably entranced by “a set of ruffians whose occupations are thievery, murder and prostitution.”
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