Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Episode 127: Penny Dreadful Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 127: Penny Dreadfuls

Record Date: October 3, 2021

Air Date: October 6, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turns of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Dan… you know what time it is, right? 

It is now October and that means… OMINOUS MUSIC 

it’s officially, officially Spooky Season! 

Dark, creepy, macabre… these themes have gained more and more popularity in the U.S. in the last few decades. Entire TV series are dedicated to disturbing storylines from true crime to horror to monsters to weekly fright, jump-scream tales. For me, the very best are the classic horror films like Nosferatu and The Mummy. And while I’m not one for the gory or cruel stuff, I do rather enjoy the eerie fun of shows like the Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. 

To honor my love for creepy tales, this episode is about penny dreadfuls. 


Here is a description from the British Library: 

The penny dreadful was a 19th-century publishing phenomenon. Judith Flanders explains what made these cheap, sensational, highly illustrated stories so popular with the Victorian public.

In the 1830s, increasing literacy and improving technology saw a boom in cheap fiction for the working classes. ‘Penny bloods’ was the original name for the booklets that, in the 1860s, were renamed penny dreadfuls and told stories of adventure, initially of pirates and highwaymen, later concentrating on crime and detection. Issued weekly, each ‘number’, or episode, was eight (occasionally 16) pages, with a black-and-white illustration on the top half of the front page. Double columns of text filled the rest, breaking off at the bottom of the final page, even if it was the middle of a sentence.

This article was published in 2014 and written by Judith Flanders. She includes a lot more about the topic as well as images of several early penny dreadfuls. We’ll share the link so you can check it out. 

Oxford English Dictionary

penny dreadful  n. and adj. now chiefly historical

(a) n. a cheaply published crime story written in a sensational or morbidly exciting style; a cheap publication containing such a story;

(b) adj. of or relating to penny dreadfuls.

When does this one begin? 

The earliest item I located is The Parliamentary Debates By Great Britain. Parliament, William Cobbett, Thomas Curson Hansard · 1804. I was only able to actually view this one small section and the date and other corroborating information is not on that scan. I’d love to have been able to read the entire entry. 

The next earliest item I found is the book Varney the Vampire; Or, the Feast of Blood By Thomas Preskett Prest. While I was unable to find anything in print referencing the phrase penny dreadful, the publisher of Varney shares this about the book, quote: 

“First published in the year 1847, famous Victorian writer Thomas Preskett Prest's longish gothic story 'Varney the Vampire; Or, the Feast of Blood' was serialized as weekly cheap pamphlets of the kind then known as "penny dreadfuls".

It is possible that this Parliamentary Debate was given the wrong date when scanned… this happens on occasion and as the preview is not available, we can’t confirm the publication date. 

Now, what about the statements that the terms penny blood or penny awful were first? Let’s see what we can find on those. 

From the Oxford English Dictionary

penny blood  n. now chiefly historical a cheaply published work of fiction characterized by sensationalism or violence; cf. penny dreadful n. and adj.

Aug 22 1892 edition of the Standard

On the lad the Constable..found a number of copies of what are known as ‘penny bloods’.

That was penny blood, what about penny awful? 

Oxford English Dictionary’s entry states:

penny awful  n. and adj.  (a) n. a penny dreadful;  (b) adj. = penny dreadful n. and adj. (b).

Earliest attestation for this one is

1880 in the Times October 2. 

My second protest against the unreal and ‘goody’ type of so many of the stories and publications put forth by church writers... This ‘pernicious nonsense’ needs our vigilance as much as do the ‘penny awfuls’ themselves.

Okay. These were both used, however they were definitely not the first usage and were not nearly so popular as penny dreadful. So, from here out we’ll just be covering dreadful. 

These are both later than the first confirmed attestation for penny dreadful which is in the July 1861 edition of the North American review out of Cedar Falls, IA: University of Northern Iowa

They can read the ‘penny dreadful’, but they cannot darn their stockings or mend their shoes.

Many of the articles in this episode were accessed on the Chronicling America website, this is a digital repository or database of the United States Library of Congress. 

The Vinton record [volume], February 17, 1872, (M'arthur, Vinton County, Ohio) 

Let’s move to 1881, the November 11 edition of The Salt Lake herald from Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the November 14, 1894 edition of the Birmingham age-herald. We find an interesting nugget of information: 

From the same year, a lovely poem was published in the May 26, 1894, EXTRA edition of The Durham daily globe out of Durham, North Carolina. 

The poem is describing all of the terrible fads the youths of the day have been up to in order to highlight how truly awful roller skating is. 

From the September 12, 1896 edition The courier out of Lincoln Nebraska. 

This next one is also from The courier out of Lincoln Nebraska. This time from the May 01, 1897 edition. From the section titled Observations. 

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Halsig-Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Shauna and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more. 

And we turn to you, our listening community, to help cover those costs. To do that, we use Patreon, a service that allows you to support the creators and artists you love. Our patrons get exclusive behind the scenes content, early access to episodes, and access to our videos so you can actually watch along as Shauna and I make the show. 

If you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options. We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon, or find links to everything we do at

Modern Uses

2011 Book - Penny Dreadful By Laurel Snyder

Here is the synopsis from the publisher: From the author of Any Which Wall, comes another story of magic and how it can change you. In Penny Dreadful the magic is small, but the transformation is big. Penelope Grey is a lonely, wealthy child in a nothern big city who, by a twist of fate, becomes Penny: a happy, poor child in the rural south. Rich with unusual and appealing characters, Penny Dreadful asks readers to think about who they really are and what they really want. For fans of Polly Horvath, Lemony Snicket, and Kate diCamillo!

Penny Dreadful the TV series on Showtime first aired in 2014. 

Many people are familiar with classic literary characters like Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. "Penny Dreadful" brings those and other characters into a new light by exploring their origin stories in this psychological thriller that takes place in the dark corners of Victorian London. Sir Malcolm is an explorer who has lost his daughter to the city's creatures, and he will do whatever is needed to get her back and to right past wrongs. His accomplice, seductive clairvoyant Vanessa Ives, recruits charming American Ethan Chandler to help locate Sir Malcolm's daughter and slay some monsters. Oscar-winner Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") is one of the series' executive producers. 

Matt Penny on Twitter shares 


Can I just say that I absolutely love this phrase! I love the sound of the words together. I love that it sounds creepy but also slightly innocent which makes you wonder.  And I think the fact that it does sound slightly innocent and is also dark makes it even creepier all at the same time. It's this weird mix of things. I also think it's fantastic that so many people hear it and imagine a sort of female character named Penny Dreadful. It's also terribly entertaining to me that this was seen as a negative by the adults of the day. That poem comparing it to all of the other "horrible" things children get up to. It's just too good. 

The Egg and Other Stories by Andy Weir. Those stories and this talk of Penny Dreadfuls reminds me of my favorite stories and books that I read as a kid whether it was Stephen King, had a bit of a sci-fi flare like Ray Bradbury, or even the antique true crime tales. I just love all of it!


That’s about all the time we have for today. If you have a pop culture reference we should have mentioned, we’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website - Of course, the best way to make sure we see your comment is to post it on the Patreon page! 


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Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 


Words belong to their users.

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