John Reynolds’ Book of Murder Tales (1621–1635)

We don’t know the year of John Reynolds’ birth or death, but according to the Dictionary of National Biography, he “flourished” between 1620 and 1640, at which time he must have been in his thirties and forties (give or take a few years). Born in Exeter — and known to his contemporaries as “John Reynolds, merchant of Exeter”, to distinguish him from other writers of the same name — he traveled on business to France, Spain, and probably Italy, where he collected the stories that make up his six-volume Triumphs of Gods Revenge and the Crying and Execrable Sin of (Wilful and Premeditated) Murther — one of the earliest examples of “true crime” writing in English.

As in most true crime writing, Reynolds is careful to insist he’s writing about murder only in order to underscore the punishment meted out to murderers:

If our contemplation dive into elder times, and our curiositie turne over the varietie of ancient and moderne Histories (as well Divine as Humane) wee shall find that Ambition, Revenge, and Murther, have ever prooved fatall crimes to their undertakers: for they are vices which so eclipse our judgements, and darken our understandings, as we shall not only see with griefe, but find with repentance, that they will bring us shame for glory, affliction for content, and misery for felicity[.]

This piously moral declaration looks a little suspicious today, especially if we consider the obvious relish Reynolds takes in his stories of marriages gone wrong:

Idiaques causeth his sonne Don Ivan to marrie Marsillia, and then commits Adultery and Incest with her; She makes her Father in Law Idiaques to poyson his old wife Honoria, and likewise makes her owne brother De Perez to kill her Chamber-maid Mathurina; Don Ivan afterwards kils De Perez in a Duell; Marsillia hath her brains dasht out by a horse, and her body is afterwards condemned to be burnt; Idiaques is beheaded; his body consumed to ashes, and throwne into the ayre.
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The Triumphs of Gods Revenge was a politically charged work. The first volume was published in 1621, during the era of the Spanish Match — when the Count of Gondomar, the famously “scheming” Spanish ambassador, was trying to push Protestant Prince Charles into a marriage alliance with the Catholic Maria Anna of Spain. “It has been speculated,” the scholar Berta Cano-Echevarría writes, “that Reynolds produced this collection of tales on the violent consequences of unhappy marriages as an acceptable way of promoting support for the Protestant cause in England”. (This political/religious subtext was partly what led the Jacobean playwrights Middleton and Rowley to adapt one of Reynolds’ murder stories for their 1622 play The Changeling.)

There was also a narrative advantage to setting his stories in Catholic countries on the continent, since by doing so Reynolds could describe these places, to quote Cano-Echevarría again, “(in implied contrast to England) as sites of deceit and debauchery”.

The Triumphs of Gods Revenge strikes us today as above all a rich resource for old murder tales. Jealousy and incest, sadism and cannibalism, death by poisoning and by lightning bolt, by pistols and by immurement, abound. Every element of Gothic fiction and melodrama seems already present in Reynold’s pages:

Catalina causeth her Wayting Mayd Ausilva two severall times attempt to poyson her owne Sister Berinthia; wherein fayling, shee afterwards makes an Empericke, termed Sarmiata, poyson her said Mayd Ansilva: Catalina is killed with a Thunder bolt, and Sarmiata hang'd for poysoning Ansilva. Antonio steales Berinthia away by her owne consent; whereupon her Brother Sebastiano fights with Antonio, and kills him in a Duell: Berinthia in revenge hereof, afterwards murthereth her Brother Sebastiano; she is adjudged to be immured betwixt two Walls, and there languisheth and dyes.
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Sanctifiore (upon promise of mariage) gets Ursina with childe, and then afterwards very ingratefully and treacherously rejecteth her, and marries Bertranna: Ursina being sensible of this her disgrace, disguiseth herselfe in a Friers habit and with a case of Pistols kils Sanctifiore as he is walking in the fields, for the which shee is hanged.
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Reynolds’ books were popular enough to be printed in a single volume in 1635 — and reprinted many times after that, with illustrations depicting the wages of sin he described. The woodenness of the human figures being stabbed, tortured, and tossed into holes only adds to the horror.

You can peruse captioned images from this remarkable early-modern true crime below. You can also page through a digital scan of the printed version above, or read a clear copy of the text here.

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