Research Stream


Joanne McEwan
The University of Western Australia

Women’s Crime and the Changing Role of Sympathy and Support in Eighteenth-Century London

Courtroom judges repeatedly counsel juries to cast emotion aside and base their decisions on the evidence rather than on their own feelings. But, emotion pervades the legal process in ways that both affect and effect cases.

Elizabeth_canning crop.jpg

In the courtroom, the appearance of defendants, including their body language, gestures and utterances, the tone and content of lawyers’ speech and even the narratives offered to explain and contextualise evidential ‘facts’ are all carefully engineered and stage-managed for the emotional impact they might have on jurors. This was even more true in the eighteenth century, when most of the evidence presented at trial was witness testimony. Long before criminal cases even reached jury deliberation, however, extensive attempts to elicit sympathy affected the machinations of the prosecution process and, potentially, the outcomes of cases. This extended from the framing of testimony by witnesses in the pre-trial process to the gendered and highly prejudicial representation of crime in newspapers and printed media. Recent work by David Lemmings, Robert Shoemaker, David Barrie and Susan Broomhall highlights the potential for newspapers and print culture to shape public attitudes and effect social or judicial change. This suggests that if Peter King is correct and most people were obtaining information about crime and justice from the media by the mid-eighteenth century, public discourses on criminality were crucial for influencing the attitudes, actions and reactions of not only defendants, but also prosecutors, witnesses and jurors. By examining the ways in which the press employed sympathy, this project will interrogate the link between public discourse and criminal prosecution during the eighteenth century. It will add to wider discussions about the role the press played in shaping social anxieties and concerns within the public sphere, and the impact this had in practice.

Papers and Presentations

McEwan, J. ‘“Injured Innocence": Gender, Sympathy and Elizabeth Canning in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London’, CMEMS/LUND Research Seminar, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 22 March 2017.


Barrie, D. and J. McEwan. ‘The Newspaper Press, Sedition and the High Court of Justiciary in Late Eighteenth-Century Edinburgh’. In Political Trials in an Age of Revolutions, edited by M. T. Davis, E. Macleod and G. Pentland. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2019.

Image: ‘Elizabeth Canning’, in James Caulfield, Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Persons, from the Revolution in 1688 to the End of the Reign of George II. Collected from the Most Authentic Accounts Extant (London, 1820), p. 108.