Richard Ward has been awarded the Herman Diederiks Prize 2011 for his article “Print Culture, Moral Panic, and the Administration of the Law: The London Crime Wave of 1744” which will appear in Crime, Histoire & Sociétés/Crime, History & Societies, 2012/1. He has accepted to answer a few questions regarding his carreer and work.
What prompted you to explore the topic of the article that was submitted for the prize?
I completed my PhD in History at the University of Sheffield in January 2011, under the supervision of Professor Robert Shoemaker. My thesis on ‘Print Culture and Responses to Crime in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London’ addressed the neglected topic of the impact of print upon the making and administration of the law, through a case-study of the London crime wave of 1747-1755. In conducting the research for that project I became aware of the earlier crime wave of 1744. Although my thesis demonstrated that print had a powerful impact upon perceptions of, and responses to crime, I had not recognised that this impact was in large part due to the dynamic of moral panic. The case of 1744 offered an opportunity to explore the issue in more detail, and it quickly became evident that the events closely fitted the model of moral panic first set out by Stanley Cohen and historically applied by Peter King. What appeared most striking in both the crime waves of 1744 and 1747-1755 was the power of the press and of ‘public opinion’. The introduction of newspapers revolutionised the rhythm of crime news. And contemporary discussions of crime and justice were regularly inflected by the discourse of the ‘public’. Yet little work had been done on the interaction between the growth of print culture, the transformation of the bourgeois public sphere, and the administration of the law in the eighteenth century. The case of the 1744 crime wave as I saw it provided an initial indication of what impact the development of the press and the public sphere had on the administration of the law, and the necessity of further research on the subject.
What you are doing now? How it follows on from the previous work?
I am currently working as a research fellow at the University of Leicester on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse’, investigating the relationship between the criminal justice system and the criminal body in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. The punishment of the criminal corpse by dissection or hanging in chains was a central means by which the state attempted to enforce conformity with the law, yet previous research has all too often stopped at the point of death. By bringing together scholars from a range of disciplines – including archaeology, folklore, literature, philosophy, and history – this project will explore the meanings attached to the criminal corpse and the many ways in which that power could be (and still is) exploited. (For further details of the project, see www.le.ac.uk/criminal-bodies). My previous work closely feeds into this current research: print culture and moral panic for instance clearly had a central role to play in the introduction of the 1752 Murder Act which established systematic punishments of dissection or hanging in chains for convicted murderers.
What your career has been to date, where you are now and what you plan for the future?
In the long term I intended to conduct a major research project on the subject of moral panic. Countless criminological studies have established how important media-driven moral panics are in shaping criminal justice policy, and how remarkably similar in pattern they can be. But no historical investigation has yet been attempted of the origins of this pattern of moral panic. Through a comparative analysis of four major panics about crime across eighteenth-century London (namely the 1690s, 1720s, 1750s and 1780s), my project aims to understand how the emergence of the mass media and the growing power of ‘public opinion’ in eighteenth-century London provided the ‘necessary ingredients’ for the origins of moral panic in its modern form, and the power of such panics in promoting criminal justice reform. Ultimately, my intention is to extend my range of publications and teaching experience to develop a career in academia.