Criminal Biography

During the eighteenth century, many executions would be accompanied by the selling of the criminal's biography, which would usually, in fact, be more a tale of repentance intended to invoke both fear and penitence in the watching crowd. Criminals sentenced to death would be visited by the minister of Newgate whose remit was to prepare the prisoner for execution and attempt to persuade them towards salvation. If the sentenced prisoner showed penitence, or claimed to repent, their stories could be told, providing the crowd at the execution both with a chilling warning about the ends met by such criminals, and edification: if even a sentenced criminal can confess and repents, surely we all can. The lurid aspect of reading about the crimes of a person about to die for them is also reasonably close to the rogue fiction of the picaresque and the romances of contemporary writers. It is clear that, as well as being the supposed memoirs of an elderly woman, Moll Flanders owes a great deal to the criminal biography, both in terms of following its format, with the notable exception of the ending (i.e. Moll is not executed) and in terms of mocking the easy repentance within such publications. Defoe's opinion of Paul Lorrain, the Newgate ordinary is shown in Moll's refusal to confess to the Newgate ordinary, "...all his Divinity run upon Confessing my Crime, as he call'd it, (tho' he knew not what I was in for)...without which he told me God would never forgive me... I had no manner of Consolation from him; and then to observe the poor Creature preaching Confession and Repentance to me in the Morning, and find him drunk with Brandy and Spirits by Noon..., I desir'd him to trouble me no more"; it is a sympathetic minister sent by the governess who arrives later that persuades Moll to confess and repent, "He backed his Discourses with proper Quotations of Scripture, encouraging the greatest Sinner to Repent...". Themes: "Repentance" has a more detailed discussion of the issue in Moll Flanders.

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