Law in Popular Culture, 1790–1920: The People and the Law

Law has been a source of popular interest for centuries. From tabloid journalism to serious news coverage to everything in between, legal conflicts and controversies have been capturing the public’s imagination ever since the nation’s inception and, arguably, before. With the advent of movies, radio, and television in the twentieth century, popular representations of law have become commonplace, but even before these technologies were invented, the law had considerable popular appeal. Unable to appreciate the spectacle of courtroom justice via satellite from their homes, people in the nineteenth century satisfied their curiosity about recent legal developments by attending trials in person and by keeping up with the flood of newspaper and magazine articles devoted to legal events. Helping fuel an unquenchable demand for law-related stories, book publishers like Beadle and Adams churned out thousands of dime novels whose plots revolved around crimes, while artists and craftsmen made their own contributions in the form of public statues, coins, paintings, and medallions devoted to legal themes. Virtually no area of life was unaffected by the popular obsession with the law. During the infamous trial of the preacher Henry Ward Beecher for adultery in 1875, for example, the law even found its way into a popular playground rhyme that “testified” to the preacher’s integrity: “Beecher, Beecher is my name – Beecher till I die! I never kissed Mis’ Tilton – I never told a lie!”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the law’s widespread appeal as a topic of lurid as well as serious concern, the relationship between law and culture, both high and low, remains obscure

via Cambridge Histories Online : Law in Popular Culture, 1790–1920: The People and the Law.