Privacy, Punishment and the Press

Dickens’s letter on execution, 1849 courtesy of the British Library

One of the key changes to capital punishment in the period I am covering (1750-1880) is the move towards private executions. The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 dictated that executions may no longer be performed in public and must be enacted within the walls of the prison and the body buried in the grounds of the prison. This was partly the result of longstanding reform movements, most notably backed by Charles Dickens, a frequent execution attendee. Quite often this is cited as evidence of the wider movement of civilising, in which public sensibilities have changed, while this may be the case in part it is not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination.

The argument over hiding executions from the public had been about for many decades prior to Dickens’ concerns, but the predominant arguments were not that it was too shocking a spectacle – in fact it was quite the opposite. There was a general concern amongst writers, scholars and opinion makers in the c18th that the very public nature of execution was in fact making it lose its power to shock and instruct. After all, it was intended as an awful spectacle that would show the inevitable end to a life of crime – the best visual representation of this being in Hogarth’s 12-part masterpiece ‘Industry and Idleness’. Many contemporaries believed that in both its overuse and very public nature, the spectacle was being diluted and far from being a thing of horror, was becoming a thing of intrigue to, ‘those callous enough and bad enough to have an unnatural liking to hover around the foot of the gallows.’¹

The fear was that little was being learned by the ‘great unwashed’ and that far from fear, the public were actually finding fun in a hanging day. Henry Fielding, English novelist and Magistrate and brother of John Fielding – founder of London’s first police force (The Bow Street Runners) classified this position in a general essay on what was a perceived increase in crime in the period.

“A murder behind the scenes, if the poet knows how to manage it, will affect the audience with greater terror than if it was acted before their eyes”

Henry Fielding: An Inquiry into the Late Increase of Robbers – 1751 p.193

To many contemporaries making executions more sporadic, infrequent and increasingly shielded from public view would cause a greater terror in the public mind. The merits of this argument can be debated and no doubt will be in later blogs, but it is interesting to note that the North East saw long periods without any executions, in some instances up to seven years. When executions do occur after these long gaps there is often mention of the spectacle having a more powerful effect as it has been so rarely seen.

One thing that the arguments over public and private execution throws up is a fascinating snobbery towards the behaviour of the crowd at the time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Dickens’ musings. Dickens was known to frequently attend executions – paying large sums of money to get the greatest view of the spectacle (often from houses that overlooked the gallows at Tyburn), however his disdain for the people in attendance at these events is marked.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at the execution could be imagined by no man.

Charles Dickens’ letter on the execution of the Mannings in 1849

There is an implication in much of his writing on executions that the people present are either incapable or unwilling to learn the lessons presented to them. Whereas he himself is presumably merely a neutral, objective spectator observing this awful scene. Dickens’ view on execution was actually a more nuanced affair than it might first appear. On the one hand he was against the horror of the public spectacle, but on the other – he couldn’t see anything other than death as the answer for certain crimes.

I should be glad to abolish both [public executions and capital punishment] if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilization. As I do not, I would rid Society of them, when they shed blood, in a very solemn manner but would bar out the present audience

Charles Dickens taken from Michael Slater, Charles Dickens (Yale, 2009)

Dickens’ unclear/nuanced view on execution, was one shared by a lot of the newspaper reports I have stumbled across, specifically from the 1830’s onwards. There is a marked turn in the presentation of executions in print material. Many newspapers start to talk of the hangman and hanging in generally derogatory tones – there is much conversation of the awful profession of the hangman and frequently a hanging is greeted as disturbing the peace of the town or casting a pall over the region . Covering the execution of Matthew Atkinson (the last man in Durham to be publicly executed the Newcastle Journal byline was ‘Fearful Scene at The Scaffold’

Newcastle Journal

Yesterday morning…the peace of Durham was once again disturbed by another of those spectacles which for some years back have been witnessed at regular intervals in that town. Never before, however, has an execution taken place in Durham – seldom, a scene more revolting, and one more painful to describe than that which was witnessed yesterday.

Newcastle Journal – Friday 17 March 1865

The Journal’s reaction was in part to the horrible spectacle of another botched hanging, a not uncommon practice as last weeks blog will show, but it is also indicative of what appears to be a growing moral dilemma in the period. How do we punish societies worst criminals and enforce the authority of the law, but at the same time not make a public spectacle of something so apparently disdainful and barbaric. The decision seems to have been to move it behind closed doors, a fudged and arguably morally cowardly decision, that would stay with us into the mid 1950’s.

Jonathan Wild Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland. c.1725. ©

Blast from the Past: I am a bit late with this one, but saw the furore about Take That’s unpaid tax bill and in my cursory reading saw that Gary Barlow’s manager was called Jonathan Wild. It wouldn’t take long for anyone studying the c18th to come across a gentleman with the same name of similarly shady dealings. Jonathan Wild was widely known as the Thief Taker General and the scourge of the common criminal. Rumoured to be the inspiration for Dickens’ Fagin, Wild made his name by straddling both sides of the law, in public he was an expert thief catcher, but in private he was effectively the ruthless boss of half of London’s criminal underworld. He would hand in criminals when they had run their purpose for him and collect the rewards. As a result most contemporary reports of his execution report that the crowd reacted in a manner that would  imply they were most approving that he would never be Back for Good (sorry couldn’t help it).

1).Newcastle Journal - Friday 17 March 1865 p.2

Distraction 1: So, despite being 29 years old, white and middle class I had never listened to Belle and Sebastien until this weekend. Thanks to my partner The Wildflower for introducing them, during a particularly intense double-header of scrabble and dominos (who says training academics can’t party). As a result of the recommendation I have had this song on repeat most of the weekend.

Distraction 2: Half way through a particularly long day of newspaper searches last week I went on a William Hogarth diversion and ended up putting a £5 bid on three gilt framed etchings, which i duly forgot about. On sunday afternoon I was reminded of the bid when an email woke me from an afternoon nap to say I’d won the bid. So for £5 (plus the £10 postage) I am now the proud owner of three great prints. They can join my current collection of black and white, North East fishing industry prints (Amber and the Side Gallery) in what I’m grandly calling my study/gallery – or at least that’s what I tell those I’m charging to enter.

One thought on “Privacy, Punishment and the Press

  1. Pingback: The Times They are a Changing | lastdyingwords

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