In the late nineteenth century, it has often been remarked, a lady’s name appeared in print only three times—at birth, at marriage, and at death. However, there were other women, just as there was—and always is—another history than that which appears in the textbooks, a kind of tabloid obbligato to more important events.
Here we reproduce, on the kind of shocking pink paper favored at the time, a sampler from the popular weeklies of the Police Gazette era. Without a blush we devote it to woodcut glimpses of these other women. If soiled doves and brazen society hussies alike shocked the Victorian godly, they titillated the sporty male and allowed the plebeian the ineffable pleasure of scoffing at the sins and follies of what purported to be the upper classes. Any resemblance, of course, between real life and that reported in the gossip columns, was as purely coincidental as it is today. Yet the language of the original captions is an art in itself.
Appropriately enough, the National Police Gazette was conceived in a New York jail cell before it was launched as a cheap crime exposé sheet in 1845. Later it fell into the gifted hands of an Irish immigrant named Richard K. Fox, who built a vast circulation on the classic formula of sex and crime. The pious moral was always introduced—after the editor forced himself to include every painful detail of the seduction, or crime, or hanging under discussion. Sports too played a large role in the Gazette and in such imitators as the Illustrated Police News of Boston and the short-lived New York Illustrated News; but then, most sporting activities of the time, except perhaps croquet, were a little disreputable anyway. They were barbershop papers, objects of guilty fascination to gawky youths and of crude jests on the vaudeville stage. (“Seen the Police Gazette?” “No, I shave myself.”)
Police Gazette girls were well-fed and vigorous, so much so that they always managed to display at least a boot-top, if not a whole ankle and sometimes—were there no limits?—a knee. Pretty tame stuff for 1960, but how will 2060 A.D. react, one wonders, to glimpses of Playboy and the covers of our current paperbacks? It is an interesting, though not pressing, speculation.