True crime stories, especially tales of murder instigated by the devil, were the stuff of bestselling pamphlets. Descriptive, lengthy titles and vivid illustrations were blazoned on the title page. Such publications usually followed immediately after a trial, when all the details had been revealed and the punishment (execution) carried out.
But tabloid stories weren't limited to the grisly details of murders. Unusual occurrences and physical abnormalities provided rich fodder for sensational and popular news stories. In the case of Strange Newes of a Prodigious Monster, expert testimony was sought to authenticate the reporting of the birth of conjoined twins. The title page prominently notes that a preacher with a Bachelor of Divinity could attest to the accuracy of the news.
One could read the weekly report of deaths in London–and their causes. Not every death seems explicable to modern eyes: two perished by “evil,” “suddenly” accounted for one poor soul, and nineteen died as a result of “teeth,” presumably from infection.
Strange weather was yet another newsworthy event. England was devastated by storms during the winter of 1612–13. But why? Unlike the complex scientific calculations which meteorologists undertake to predict the weather today, the author of the above pamphlet found the answer in the sinful behavior of the people. God’s punishment for immoral conduct included hundreds of ships lost, whole villages flooded, and goods swept away.
Many radical social and religious groups sprang up in the turbulent times in England after the Civil Wars of the 1640s and the execution of the monarch in 1649. One such group, the Ranters, who were much feared and reviled, was alleged to have believed in nudity, free love, and wife-swapping, as well as many other “ungodly” practices. One pamphlet gives prominent status to their myriad sins–including gluttony and dancing.