One of the best things about the internet is that musty, old, forgotten things can get a second chance at life. Take, for instance, The Illustrated Police News, a tawdry London tabloid that lasted from 1864 to 1938. Its stock-in-trade was printing gruesome, shamelessly sensational illustrations about notorious crimes — a reputation that was cemented in 1888 when a man known by the name Jack the Ripper began his killing spree.
Now sensationalism was nothing new back then. Nor was illustrating the news for a working-class readership. The Illustrated Police News merely copied earlier newspapers, most notably The Illustrated London News and The Newgate Calendar.
What makes The Illustrated Police News interesting is just how over-the-top it was. Not content to simply cover crime, it reveled in the weird, the macabre, the downright disturbing. If, say, you were consumed by rats or killed by a horde of angry cats, the odds were pretty good that you’d end up on the cover of The Illustrated Police News. The same goes if you were a somnambulist who fell to your death during a bout of sleepwalking or were a nun involved in a duel. And if you murdered your father by shooting him, striking him with a hatchet and dousing him with hot coal oil before setting the whole house on fire — as Nettie Aronhalt of Marion, Ohio, did in 1879 — well, you were an Illustrated Police News all-star.
In case you’re wondering, yes, those stories all appeared in The Illustrated Police News. No wonder it was a hit with readers.
And The Illustrated Police News remains a hit today, thanks to its archives being put online a few years back. Since then, purveyors of the weird have had a field day posting some of its most notorious stories on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr. I have seen many, many images from its pulpy pages, some humorous, others disturbing. Most of them, though, are too interesting not to share.
So below, I humbly offer some of my favorite items from The Illustrated Police News. Have a look. You’ll laugh. You’ll be disturbed. But most of all, you’ll get a glimpse into just how wild and woolly journalism was more than a century ago.