Early Depictions and Accounts of Fake News

“The Suicide of Alice Blanche Oswald” (from The Illustrated Police News, 21 September 1872).

During Queen Victoria’s British reign there was an increase in reporting sensational news stories which whet the general public’s appetite for more.  Many of these stories were accompanied by  crudely sketched pictures featured in publications such as The Illustrated Police News; adding sensationalist imagery to reports like “The Suicide of Alice Blanche Oswald” in 1872.

This kind of reporting is often referred to as “Penny Dreadfuls” which specialised in the genre of sin and sensation where the standard of illustration and tone gained a reputation during the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. The content of The Illustrated Police News was similar to that of The Newgate Calendar and various contemporaries.

Most of the dreadful true happenings recounted in the papers were ‘news’ although some  must have been invented. Headlines were a specialty and sometimes a wonder to behold. For example:

A Sanctimonious Scoundrel Murders His Own Child
Suicide of Two Girls
A Living Woman Measured for Her Coffin
A Child Stolen by a Monkey
An Encounter With a Mad Dog at a Post Office
Death from Swallowing a Mouse
Throwing a Wife Out of a Window

The Illustrated Police News was never salacious, although it sometimes noted other matters rather than murder, such as:

  • Robbing Schoolgirls of Their Wearing Apparel” – is a headline of more promise than the supporting story provides.
  • A Girl Seized by a Gorilla” sounds even better, but it isn’t.
  • Extraordinary Science at a Wedding” tells a tale as old as bigamy.

There are also grisly executions, a side glance at sport (killed by a cricket ball); some distressing signs of sectarianism (horrible treatment of a nun); and a regrettable cessation with mutilating, flogging and cannibalism.

Clearly the fiction of the Victorian age was often far from nice and undoubtedly reported ‘Fake News’.

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