WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD; ENGLISH LITERARY FIGURES AS OBSERVERS OF PUBLIC EXECUTIONS: PIERCE EGAN, THACKERAY, DICKENS, ALEXANDER SMITH, G.A. SALA, ORWELL.


Edited, with annotations, commentaries, and an introductory essay by Antony E. Simpson.

Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press. 230p.

ISBN-10: 0-9791116-1-7

ISBN-13: 978-0-9791116-1-7

Published July 2008 in hard cover at a price of $65.00




       England in the first half of the 19th century is frequently characterized as a society supporting quite dramatic reforms in the penal law. Between the beginning of the century and the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, the number of capital crimes was reduced from several hundred to no more than a handful. The penal law in place during the Victorian period was very close in substance to that which exists today. Some offenses did, of course, remain capital, although only murderers were hanged with any regularity. From the late 18th century there was a strong movement for the total abolition of capital punishment and bills to outlaw the death penalty were regularly, although unsuccessfully, brought before Parliament during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s.

      With all this, executions were public spectacles as late as 1868. They were also commonly regarded as scenes of disorder, crime, and drunkenness. The crowds in attendance were immense, especially from the 1840s when a sophisticated railway system allowed people to be shipped to the site of the gallows on special trains. Advertising the venues of executions days in advance encouraged such arrangements. Control of these crowds was very problematic as, although a modern police force had been established in London in 1829, such forces were not established throughout the provinces until well into the 1860s. Things did not have to be this way. In France, for example (where public executions were held until 1939!), large crowds were prevented by the simple expedient of only announcing executions a few hours in advance. Those who defended this public spectacle generally invoked the need to demonstrate the majesty and power of the law. In France, this was done pretty effectively through the use of the guillotine. In England, the process of hanging someone was commonly botched and there are many examples of scenes on the gallows which are truly horrific.

      How could this barbaric system of punishment have coexisted with the rapid emergence of a system of penal law and the strength of popular, though minority, opinion which was against the whole concept of capital punishment? This question is addressed in the editor's lengthy introduction. His conclusion is that the judiciary, which implemented the law, had a more punitive and pre-modern attitude toward crime than the legislature, which created the law. Evidence is presented showing that while the penal law was modernized, the law relating to criminal procedure and prisoners' rights remained primitive and undeveloped. There was no right to an appeal from a criminal conviction (other than on purely technical grounds) and no access to a public defender to until the 20th century. Prisoners were not allowed to testify in their own defenses until the late 19th century. Until 1836, those accused of a felony were not allowed to be represented by a lawyer in court. (The change in the law in this year probably had little immediate effect as most of those so accused after this date had no lawyers because they could not afford them).

      Perhaps the most cruel aspect of the 19th century system was the process through which a reprieve could be sought. Mercy was the prerogative of the Home Office. It was exercised in a fashion perceived as being quite arbitrary and the process allowed little time for reflection. A condemned felon was typically executed five days or less after conviction. This allowed very little time for the convict's friends or relatives to prepare a case for reprieve. Those whose connections were in distant parts of the country or elsewhere had even less chance of a happy outcome.

      The fact remains that the judiciary and the legislature were largely peopled by men of the same privileged class. Why was there such a difference between them on the matter of capital punishment and its means of implementation? Why did the public execution end when it did? Some possible answers to these questions are suggested in the essay and hinted at in the first-person accounts presented. The rationale for presenting these accounts is that the general debate cannot help but be informed by the observations of those who were arguably the best and brightest of their time. At the same time, these accounts point to a particular, and class-based, toward the gallows and its spectators shared by several of the observers whose work is included here.

      Most of the accounts are presented here for the first time since their original publication. Five of the six accounts are from the 19th century. Four document public executions in England, one in Scotland and one in Burma. Four of them address the punishment of murderers whose crimes were popular causes célèbres. Each account is prefaced by an essay documenting the nature and circumstances of the particular crime being punished and the author's general attitude toward crime and punishment, as shown in his writing and in his life. Other accounts of the same execution are used to show the accuracy of the author's description. As public executions were such formal and stylized events, it might be supposed that the perceptions of thinking people to very similar events would be repetitive. In fact, there are a number of important differences between them. These range from Thackeray's disgust and permanent disenchantment with this kind of punishment to George Augustus Sala's cynical manipulation of an execution for journalistic copy and his exaggeration of the horrors of the event.

      The six accounts are arranged by date. They include Pierce Egan's account of the execution of John Thurtell in 1824, Thackeray on the execution of Courvoisier in 1840, Alexander Smith who witnessed the hanging of Doolan and Hickie outside Glasgow in 1841, Dickens who saw the hanging of the Mannings in 1849 and also Courvoisier in 1840, George Augustus Sala on the execution of Sarah French in Sussex in 1852, and George Orwell who witnessed a military execution in Burma in the early 1920s.

      The editor of this volume, Antony E. Simpson, is professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and has published extensively in the fields of 18th and 19th century English social and legal history.



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