Sensationalism – the purveyance of emotionally charged content, focused mainly on violent crime, to a broad public – has often been decried, but the full history of the phenomenon has yet to be written. Scholars have tended to dismiss sensationalism as unworthy of serious study, based on two pervasive though somewhat incompatible assumptions. First, that sensationalism is essentially a commercial product, built on the exploitation of modern mass media, and second, that it appeals almost entirely to a simple, basic emotion and thus has little history apart from the changing technological means of spreading it. An exploration of sensationalism's early history, however, challenges both assumptions and suggests that they have tended to obscure the complexity and historicity of the genre. Its dependence on emotional response – the factor that most tends to arouse scholarly disdain – emerges as central to the genre's functioning, in particular its ability to mold common responses to extreme violations of social norms. Its growth and development in the modern era reflect not merely the growth of commercialism but the success of sensationalism in employing the discourse of violent crime to address changing cultural needs and sociopolitical agendas.