I love history and I love research: always have done, to a degree other people find – well, let’s just say ‘unusual’. To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take you back to the summer of 1982, and the last term of my first year at university. Now, first years at most Cambridge colleges sit their Prelims in that term – that’s preliminary exams, the sort that don’t count towards your degree but do count when it comes to ruining one’s summer. By sheer dumb luck, however, I had gone up to Peterhouse, the oldest and most eccentric of colleges, and Peterhouse scorned Prelims. This meant that I spent the eight weeks of that term with a lot of spare time on my hands; most of my friends, the ones at other colleges, were feverishly revising, and there wasn’t a great deal going on. My fellow Petreans took advantage of this freedom to do a lot of drinking, punting, and garden partying, but even aged 18, I have to say, my idea of a good time was more to head to the University Library and read.
I wasn’t quite swot enough, in truth, to spend the time reading stuff that might have helped me academically. What I actually did was to retreat to the dusty pastures of North Front 6, where it was always cool and dark and the smell of ancient books was overpowering. Nobody ever seemed to go North Front 6, which had tiny windows and no natural light, and was, and probably still is, a sort of elephants’ graveyard where old, moribund and essentially useless periodicals went to die. It was paradise for me, though, and it was up there, that term, that I first chanced upon a run of one of the magazines that I want to talk about today.
It was called The Mirror of Literature, Art and Amusement, published in London in the 1820s and the 1830s, and it was filled with an extensive selection of eye-opening stories of the sort that nowadays appear in Fortean Times. These I carefully noted and had photocopied (the not-drinking business meant that there was money for this), and the photocopies I took home for the holidays, and sat at the kitchen table and typed out – there were no scanners and no laptops then. When I finished I had a pile of stories about three inches high, full of cases of spontaneous human combustion, earth-eaters and other prodigies, and that pile, to my considerable surprise, changed my life. I’d already started sending newspaper clippings to FT (another portion of the student grant was paying for my sub, so thank you, British taxpayer, for that), but when my parcel of material from the Mirror reached the magazine, the resident Gang of Fort realised that they were dealing with the sort of mild obsessive that they could relate to. The result was an invitation to join the staff; 28 years later, here I am.
The Mirror – though I didn’t know it at the time – was a late example of a genre of periodical that was popular at the time: what one might call, for convenience, the ‘wonderful magazines’. These publications specialised in marvels, everything from extraordinary adventures (such things happened quite a lot back then) to human prodigies and strange events. I remember that the Mirror contained quite a long article about a Swiss boy who could count the seconds in his head so accurately that he was as reliable as a good clock – that was fairly typical of the mag’s contents. Some of this material was probably quite reliable, but one would be unwise to take such things on faith. What the Wonderfuls were really good at was shining light into an area of human experience that’s not generally chronicled – not so much what was supposed to be actually happening ‘out there’, but what people then believed, and thought was credible. I’ve always been of the opinion that the chief value of FT is to gather and set down a mass of broadly unrelated matter that would otherwise go uncollected, and be lost, and to preserve it for posterity; well, the Wonderfuls performed the same function back in the early 1800s, and it’s largely thanks to them that the likes of Daniel Lambert, the Leicester fat man, or Thomas O’Brien, the Irish giant, are still fairly well-remembered now.
The earliest of the Wonderfuls date back to the 1760s, though the genre has a clear precursor in the various broadsides and ballads published from the first half of the seventeenth century that regaled their readers with ‘strange and wonderful news’. [The folklorist Michael Goss has written in detail on these pamphlets in Fortean Studies 1 (1994) pp.182-97.] Although nowadays they exist pretty much exclusively as bound volumes, the Wonderfuls were not first issued in that form; they were, rather, published in weekly parts, and the publisher would occasionally print up an index or list of contents, together with instructions to a binder for assembling the parts; many, perhaps all, such magazines were however also repackaged and reissued, bound, by the publisher. This practice made the Wonderfuls the forerunners of the modern partwork, but it also indicates that such magazines were aimed squarely at the middle classes, who alone possessed the resources to have their copies bound; there was a clear dividing line between ‘wonderful magazines’ and the penny dreadfuls that emerged a few years later and eventually killed them off. Sensational though the contents of their publications often were, therefore, the writers and properietors of wonderful magazines sought to gild them with at least a veneer of education and gentility.
The various wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines that appeared during this period have never formally been catalogued – to my knowledge at least – though the contemporary Chalcographimania, or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle contains valuable information (and, inter alia, on of the most hilarious indexes I’ve encountered, full of literal renditions of the bowdlerised references to notables so common in books at this time – check out the sample page to the right). More recently, the crude beginnings of one bibliographic study may be found here, the American end of this publishing phenomenon is discussed in Pitcher and Hartigan’s Sensationalist Literature and Popular Culture in the Early American Republic (2000), and James Gregory wrote on ‘Eccentric biography and the Victorians’ in Biography v30n3 (2007).
This is, perhaps, not surprising. Actually performing the task of cataloguing thoroughly would be a tricky job, requiring a professional librarian; the various series were endlessly reissued, sometimes under slightly different titles, mostly including nothing new but a title page, but occasionally incorporating scatterings of new material – another practice that has continued to the present day, as anyone who recalls the impressive variety of ways that Orbis found to reissue its 1980s partwork The Unexplained in magazine and book form will recall. Plagiarism was also a significant problem, as it was for most publishers in the years before the law on copyright was strengthened and enforced, and the leading case of Hogg v. Kirby (8 Ves. Jun. 215, 223; 1803) involved teh Wonderful writer Alexander Hogg’s attempts to prosecute a rival, Kirby, for passing off his own Wonderful Magazine as a “new series improved” version of Hogg’s. The lack of scruple, outright disregard for copyright, and bizarre early nineteenth century publishing practices evident in cases of this sort can be seen in Hogg’s outraged accusation that the first number of Kirby’s work (which purported to be the fifth of Hogg’s) actually began in the middle of a sentence that Hogg’s fourth issue had left unfinished.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment to take a closer look at R.S. Kirby, who thus emerges onto the scene as one of the leading publishers of ‘terrific’ material. He was, it appears, originally a London bookseller who was engaged by Hogg to peddle his partwork. Sales, evidently, were good enough to tempt Kirby to betray his partner and go into business on his own account, but it would be wrong to think of the pirate publisher as nothing but a thief. Yes, the historical material that appeared in the wonderful magazines was often treated cavalierly – most of it was unreferenced, poorly researched, endlessly hacked up and rewritten, and, inevitably, it also favoured anecdote and the ‘good story’ over verifiable fact. Considerable work, however, did sometimes go into the acquisition of new material… particularly when it came to accounts of contemporary trials and executions, which were wildly popular. There was, throughout this period, a guarantee of ready sales for any penny-a-liner able to obtain an exclusive interview with a notorious murderer in the condemned cell, and it was pretty common for gaolers to be heavily bribed to permit access in suchcircumstances. Kirby himself appears to have been present at the remarkable 1804 trial of Francis Smith for the murder of the ‘Hammersmith Ghost,’ and another writer of sensational criminal literature, J. Curtis (whose day job was as a court reporter for The Times), boasted that he had not missed an execution in the vicinity of London for a quarter of a century, and once walked 29 miles before breakfast to be present at the hanging of a Captain Moir.
The corollary of all this was that material from the various wonderful magazines retained its value for decades; there’s a reference, dating to 1843 (which I cannot find right now, drat it) to the copyrights to Kirby’s then four-decade-old work being sold at auction. For those willing to read the material carefully (read: critically, and with an awareness of cultural context), the Wonderfuls still have much to offer us today. So I’m going to list those that I know existed here, and link to those that – all hail Google Books – are going online, as and when they do so. My aim will be to keep this listing updated every now and then; in time I may even get around to creating a rough index to the material they contain. If you’re interested in wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines, in short, you may want to bookmark this post and refer back to it every now and then.
• 1764-65 The Wonderful Magazine, or Marvellous Chronicle, Consisting Entirely of Matters Which Come Under the Denomination of Miraculous! Queer! Odd! Strange! Supernatural! Whimsical! Absurd! Out o’ The Way! and Unaccountable!
London, 2 vols. Sold at 6d. per number.
• 1793-95 Wonderful Magazine and Marvellous Chronicle… Containing Authentic Accounts of All the Most Wonderful Productions and… Events That Have Ever Happened, etc.
London, 5 vols. (60 weekly numbers). Edited by Alexander Hogg. Published by C. Johnson. A revival and extension of the 1760s periodical.
• 1802-07 New, Original and Complete Wonderful Museum & Magazine Extraordinary.
London, 5 vols. William Granger and James Caulfield. Sometimes referred to as Granger’s New Wonderful Museum and Extraordinary Magazine.
•1802-08 Wonderful and Scientific Museum, or Magazine of Remarkable and Eccentric Characters. London, 6 vols. RS Kirby and Alexander Hogg. ‘A complete Library of every thing that can make the Work useful and entertaining.’
Sold bound at 10s.6d. per volume.
• 1803-07 The Eccentric Mirror: Reflecting a Faithful and Interesting Delineation of Male and Female Characters, Ancient and Modern…
London, 4 vols. Edited by G.H. (Henry) Wilson. Published by James Cundee. Focussed on those with “extraordinary qualifications, talents, and propensities, natural or acquired…” including longevity, obesity, “enterprising pursuits” etc.
• 1809 The Mariners’ Marvellous Magazine, or Wonders of the Ocean
London, 4 vols. Thomas Tegg. Mostly shipwreck narratives.
• 1809 The American Magazine of Wonders, and Marvellous Chronicle…
New York, 2 vols. Donald Fraser. Widely available on microfilm in academic libraries.
• 1809 The Supernatural Magazine
Dublin. Wilkinson & Courtney. A short-lived publication. Deals with ghosts, portents, animal magnetism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism etc.
• 1821 Wonderful Characters: comprising memoirs and anecdotes of the most remarkable persons of every age and nation
London, 3 vols. G.H. (Henry) Wilson.
• 1822 Biographica Curiosa, or, Memoirs of Remarkable Characters of the Reign of George III.
London. George Smeeton; illustrations by George Cruikshank. May be the same as Smeeton’s Historical and Biographical Tracts (1820)? “A fascinating compendium of celebrated “freaks” (midgets, giants and
the overweight, female fireaters and wildboys), misers, religious
frauds or visionaries (Joanna Southcott, Anne Moore), murderers,
beggars, eccentrics and the self-deluded.” [Bonham's auction catalogue, 2010]
• 1823-41 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction
London, 48 vols. Edited by T. Byerley. Published by John Limbaird. Much broader in content than the ‘wonderfuls,’ but still contained abundant quantities of more or less sensational material, especially in its early volumes.
London. J. Limbaird
• 1825 The Terrific Register, or, Record of Crimes. Judgements, Providences,and Calamities
London, 2 vols. T. Richardson. Includes various natural marvels, peculiar deaths, lucky escapes, accounts of human sacrifice in Mexico, etc. in addition to straightforward criminal reporting.
Volume 1, Volume 2
London. J. Mark. Dwarves, monsters, wizards. Only one story per part.
• 1827 Wonders of the Universe, or, Curiosities of Nature and Art, including Memoirs and Anecdotes of Wonderful and Eccentric Characters…
London. Jones & Co.
• 1830 Smeeton’s Wonderful Magazine, or, The Wonderful Magazine of All That Is Singular, Curious, and Rare in Nature and Art
London. G. Smeeton.
New York. McElrath & Bangs. American edition of the 1824 British Cabinet, with some new material.
• 1849-50 The New Wonderful Magazine, Consisting of a… Collection of Remarkable Trials, Biographies &c.
London, 2 vols.
• 1880 Collection of four hundred portraits of remarkable, eccentric and notorious personages printed from the original copper plates of Caulfield’s Remarkable characters, Grainger, and Kirby’s Wonderful museum
London. Reeves & Turner.
[Hat-tip: my grateful thanks to the estimable John Adcock, of the highly recommendable Yesterday's Papers, for pointing me in the direction of a significant proportion of the above material.]