Crymes and Rhymes: The Broadside Ballad and the Celebrity Criminal

Early modern London received its daily news from the broadside ballad. Broadside ballads were produced cheaply in large quantities and sold by the thousand on the streets. Traveling peddlers often sang events aloud. At a time when newspapers might cost sevenpence or more, the broadside, a single sheet of paper printed on one side, could be purchased for just a penny.

These ballads recorded every scandalous event (sometimes even inventing them), and a sensational crime was guaranteed to sell well. Rhyming tales of robbery, murder, and confession were a large part of the ballad business. So much so that the balladeers specializing in these stories became known as “death hunters.” Ballads often appeared on the streets just a few hours after a trial or execution.

The modern person may be familiar with a famous ballad of the time:

Lizzie Borden took an axe / gave her father 40 whacks /
when she saw what she had done / she gave her mother 41.”

Jack Sheppard at Newgate Castle from A general history of the lives and adventures of the most famous highwaymen, murderers, street-robbers

This brand of journalism helped elevate many of London’s criminals to celebrities. One such man was the infamous housebreaker Jack Sheppard. Tales of Sheppard took hold of the public imagination after four near-miraculous prison breaks. The weeks following his last two escapes consisted of a “great noise and idleness” as balladeers crowed of Sheppard’s cleverness. The excitement remained well after his eventual recapture and execution. 

In England, the heyday of the ballad itself lasted until the late 19th century and was eventually replaced by the music-hall song.


The Chrymes and Rhymes was originally a physical exhibit on display at the Rare Book & Manuscipt Library from March 8th to September 8th, 2023. It was curated by Nora Davies.

Goodman, Jonathan. Bloody Versicles : the Rhymes of Crime. Kent State University Press, 1993. Pollard, Michael. Ballads and Broadsides. Pergamon Press, 1969.

Skirboll, Aaron. The Thief-Taker Hangings : How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal. Lyons Press, an Imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 2014.

Slade, Paul. “The Death Hunters: British Broadsides.” Planet Slade, 2013,