Although crime was common in the seventeenth century, murder was rare. This helps to explain the popularity of pamphlets describing unusually violent incidents, often with dramatic and grisly woodcut illustrations of the crimes they described.
The murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, the magistrate who nervously investigated claims of a “popish plot” in1678, scandalized the nation. The discovery of his strangled and stabbed body was quickly exploited by Whigs who were critical of the Crown and claimed that he had been killed by Catholic conspirators. They sought to turn Godfrey into a Protestant martyr, especially through broadsides such as England’s Grand Memorial.
On some occasions the significance of murder went much further than sensational reporting, as with the story of Enoch ap Evans’ savage beheading of both his mother and brother (pictured above). The crime apparently occurred following a family argument over religious beliefs and practices, and Enoch’s case was quickly exploited in a range of tracts and treatises by those who drew a connection between his Puritanism and his criminal behavior.
Many radical Puritans were demonized for challenging authority through outrageous behavior, as with another gruesome tale of a woman who murdered her baby rather than let it be baptized by her Presbyterian husband. She was reported to have said “now go and baptise it, if you will, you must christen the head without a body.” The culprit apparently repented in prison, after being tormented by visions of headless infants.