A date with death

photo (1)First thing’s first, I survived my 5 day ‘Surviving the PhD’ induction course – I even have a certificate on the way, if only the Doctorate was as easy to achieve – So, I’m a little off the pace with interesting stories, so forgive me if this is merely remedial ruminations.

Today being my first day of proper study, I have had my head buried in C18th North East newspaper accounts of executions – courtesy of the incredible British Newspaper Archive.

The overwhelming sense of the execution reports so far is the scant coverage they receive, given the enormity of what they are describing. For a region and nation that was, is and possibly always will be enthralled by crime, it seems bizarre that these events drew so little traditional press attention – especially given how well they were publicly attended. After all, the front page of most regional publications in the North East was the ‘Hue and Cry’ – a sort of public posting of all known offences that week and a ‘general alert’ system for apprehending criminals. So there was no shortage of appetite for coverage of the condemned.

Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Courtesy of British Newspaper Archive http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

All too often though, they will have left this mortal coil with little more than a minute, matter of fact report of their final moments. It is too early to speculate why this might have been and whether it is peculiar to this region, but it is interesting never the less. Perhaps it is the horror of the event that defies detail.

The day of Execution arises – the wretches are led forth to suffer and exhibit a spectacle to the beholders, too aweful and solemn for description.²

Or as Primo Levi put it perhaps,

Our language lacks words to express the offense, the demolition of a man.¹

Or perhaps it’s because the act of public execution, by its very nature, is a visual thing – a truly awesome spectacle in the original sense of the word, that is meant to be seen. A visceral and ultimate reminder of our subservience to God and the law.

Well, whatever it is, I’m too early in my study to be spouting off assumptions and theories – i can merely ask questions. So, for now I’ll leave you with my favourite comic scene on death. I’m off to my book group to attempt to convince my friends that I understood the ‘meta narrative’ in Gogol’s The Overcoat!

¹Primo Levi - Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on humanity, p.22
²Martin Madan, Thoughts on Executive Justice with Respect to our Criminal Laws, 1785 pp.26

To Watch:

One of the best things about studying is the interesting things that the other people you meet are studying and how they make you reassess what you’re looking at. One of the people I have already met introduced a fascinating concept to me called ‘individuation’, which, to put it very roughly, looks at people’s loss of individualism in a crowd – something that I already know will divert me for hours in respect to the execution crowd. If you want to have the same diversions, I suggest you start here.

Philip Zimbardo’s TED talk on The ‘Lucifer Effect.’


To Listen: Don’t Start Me Talking – Sonny Boy Williamson

Have had this song on all week. A pure classic and amazing when strolling in the sun




2 thoughts on “A date with death

  1. The idea of individuation is really interesting, I was reading something about it recently but can’t remember where. When studying the French Revolution I read a lot about how the excesses of the crowd carried people to commit acts which were far more heinous than any individual would have allowed, and that went completely against the ‘rational’ and ‘civilising’ teachings of the enlightenment. The book ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’ is also interesting in its study of how individual’s personal morality becomes subverted by a wider societal norm. I think Kat Cowan who also studied history at Sheffield may have specialised in crowd violence and public executions – or at least it was certainly something that interested her.

    1. Thanks Sam. I will see if I can pick Kat’s brains on that – haven’t spoke to her in years but she seems to be some sort of high flying local radio personality if Facebook is anything to go by. Perhaps I ll reach her via the medium of a phone in. Hope all is well with you mate.

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