Osborne and the pleasure of pain.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne delivers his autumn budget in parliament in London

“The more public the punishment, the greater the influence it has commonly had.”

George Osbourne 

Last week we got the long-awaited Autumn statement from the Chancellor, George Osborne. One of the key features of any announcement by this government and particularly one by Osborne is the tidal wave of criticism that follows it, mostly relating to his smugness and questioning to what extent he gets a sort of sadistic pleasure from cutting public services. So, it was a beautifully serendipitous moment when I stumbled upon this quote in my PhD supervisor’s fascinating work on c18th law enforcement in the North East of England.

That this was a society strongly committed in principle to the public witness of punishment can hardly be doubted. ‘The more public the punishment, the greater the influence it has commonly had,’ remarked George Osbourne in a sermon to the assizes.

G.Morgan & P.Rushton., Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law: The Problem of Law Enforcement in north-east England. p.151

Okay, so I duped you, my opening quote was from an c18th North East preacher, rather than our current Lord and master (clue was in the spelling of the surname, for my more eagle-eyed readers)- but don’t tell me you didn’t believe it to be true at first.

Osborne’s latest statement (the Chancellor – no more tricks i promise) led to a bizarre dialogue in the House of Commons, laced with innuendoes on particular sexual practices. For the sake of my mother I’ll steer clear of a full divulging of what was said, other than to state that, apparently sex can extend past the missionary position and some people enjoy pain more than others. I’m sure this horrified the sitting MPs who are famously asexual, which would explain the paucity of rumours and stories around their private sexual peccadilloes!

So, what has this got to do with capital punishment I hear you say – more than you might think actually. There was no more public a spectacle of punishment than the execution itself, indeed the intention was very clearly for it to act as an instructive message to as many people as could crowd around the scaffold itself.

If the sermon be edifying, you cannot have too large a congregation; if you teach a moral lesson in a grand, impressive way, it is difficult to see how you can have too many pupils:

“A Lark’s Flights” by Alexander Smith., Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country, London: Strachan & Co., 1863 pp.93-112 Taken from Witnesses to the Scaffold: English Literary Figures as Observers of Public Executions., Ed. Antony. E. Simpson (True Bill Press. Lambertville., NJ) p.168

Sometimes the crowd was reportedly as many as 100,000 strong, although in the North East in my period 20-25,000 seems to have been the upper limit.¹ However, it is not the crowd that interested me this week, but the watching of the execution itself.

I received a book  (on loan from the British Library) that contains several essays by English literary figures of varying notoriety (Dickens, Thackeray, Orwell amongst others), all recalling their experience of watching an execution. It is fascinating in and of itself that some of our greatest writers went to executions and chose to write about them. In his work on reporting private executions (executions behind prison walls – 1868 onwards) John Tulloch describes the execution as a “limit experience” for journalists, as it represented

a confrontation with death which mirrored the observer’s own apprehensions of mortality.

John Tulloch., The Privatising of Pain., Journalism Studies 7:3 (2006) p.438

The book was of particular interest to me as one authors’, George Orwell, account of watching an execution was the original inspiration for my interest in the study of capital punishment. Orwell’s essay on seeing a hanging in Burma, during his time as a very young and impressionable colonial officer, stuck with me for many years after reading it, when I was a similarly very young and impressionable ski lift operator in Canada (not under colonial orders!). It was also Orwell’s essay that formed the majority of my interview for a PhD scholarship, so it has been an important part of my life at several formative points. However, it was another essay, Alexander Smith’s ‘A Lark Rising’ that grabbed me in this new book and in particular the motivations described therein for watching a hanging.

Several historians have argued that the crowd attendant at the execution became a problem to the state, particularly from the early 1800’s onwards. The press of the period variously describe the crowd as barbarous and unfeeling and some historians have argued that in the mid 1800’s attendance at an execution became indelibly linked with shameful behaviour.

The attendance of the crowd was no longer infused with political significance. It had become a question of an illicit amusement appealing to sordid and scandalous emotions. The crowd had once possessed a collective right; now one’s presence at an execu-tion reflected an individual’s moral standing.

R.McGowen., Civilising Punishment: The End of Public Execution in England. Journal of British Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Jul., 1994) p.280

All this, despite public attendance being the very modus operandi behind the public presentation of the spectacle itself.

It is my contention that even to this day the motivations of the execution crowd have been misunderstood. It is very easy to sit in judgement on the past as if the behaviour of its people is anathema to our modern ‘enlightened’ consciousness, but it is far harder to accept that perhaps that same innate and prurient curiosity does still exist in us. One need only look at conversations online and in the press regarding paedophiles to see that, however morally acceptable, there is no lack of appetite for public punishment.

In his essay on the execution of Denis Doolan and Patrick Redding at Glasgow in 1841, Alexander Smith ( a Scottish poet and writer) discusses the predominating opinions of the crowd attendant, but brings these assumption into question.

It is taken for granted that the spectators of public executions – the artisans and country people who take up their stations over-night as close to the barriers as possible, and the wealthier classes who occupy hired windows and employ opera-glasses – are merely drawn together by a morbid relish for horrid sights. He is a bold man who will stand forward as the advocate of such persons-so completely is the popular mind made up as to their tastes and motives. It is not disputed that the large body of the mob, and of the occupants of windows, have been drawn together by an appetite for excitement; but it is quite possible that many come there for an impulse altogether different.

“A Lark’s Flights” by Alexander Smith., Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country, London: Strachan & Co., 1863 pp.93-112 Taken from Witnesses to the Scaffold: English Literary Figures as Observers of Public Executions., Ed. Antony. E. Simpson (True Bill Press. Lambertville., NJ) p.169

Broadside entitled 'Execution of Doolan and Redding' courtesy of the Word on the Street project at the National Library of Scotland.
Broadside entitled ‘Execution of Doolan and Redding’ courtesy of the Word on the Street project at the National Library of Scotland.

The crowd in question, if corroborating reports are anywhere close to accurate, may have been the biggest ever recorded in the period, with some estimating it at 200,000 people. That’s enough people to fill St James’ Park four times over. Given the size, their behaviour is even more remarkable and would seem to bring into question that they are there as a bloodthirsty rabble. Indeed so quiet and solemn are the spectators that the eponymous lark of the essay’s title, can be heard just in the final moments of the execution drama.

When the men appeared beneath the beam, each under his proper halter, there was a dead silence-everyone was gazing too intently to whisper to his neighbour even. Just then, out of the grassy space at the foot of the scaffold, in the dead silence audible to all, a lark rose from the side of its nest and went singing upwards in its happy flight. O heaven! how did that song translate itself into dying ears?

“A Lark’s Flights” by Alexander Smith., Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country, London: Strachan & Co., 1863 pp.93-112 Taken from Witnesses to the Scaffold: English Literary Figures as Observers of Public Executions., Ed. Antony. E. Simpson (True Bill Press. Lambertville., NJ) p.176

Although, no doubt using some poetic licence, Smith’s description of the solemn, decorous crowd is corroborated by press reports. Smith goes on to present several convincing reasons why one might have attended an execution for reasons other than a prurient desire. Thus, perhaps, shedding light on the solemn behaviour of those attendant.

Just consider the nature of the expected sight,- a man in tolerable health probably, in possession of all his faculties, perfectly able to realise his position, conscious that for him this world and the next are so near that only a few seconds divide them-such a man stands in the seeing of several thousand eyes. He is so peculiarly circumstanced, so utterly alone,-hearing the tolling of his own death bell, yet living, wearing the mourning clothes for his own funeral,-that he holds the multitude together by a shuddering fascination. The sight is a peculiar one, you must admit, and every peculiarity has its attractions. Your volcano is more attractive than your ordinary mountain. Then consider the unappeasable curiosity as to death which haunts every human being, and how pathetic that curiosity is, in so far as it suggests our own ignorance and helplessness, and we see it once that people may flock to public executions for other purposes than the gratifications of morbid tastes:

“A Lark’s Flights” by Alexander Smith., Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country, London: Strachan & Co., 1863 pp.93-112 Taken from Witnesses to the Scaffold: English Literary Figures as Observers of Public Executions., Ed. Antony. E. Simpson (True Bill Press. Lambertville., NJ) p.169

I do not believe that this fascination would be found much less wanting today. Indeed, in America a big debate preceded the 2011 execution of Timothy McVeigh after he himself requested that his execution be nationally televised. One webcast channel launched a law suit for the right to show the event as a pay per view live webcast.

I knew my objective was state-assisted suicide and when it happens, it’s in your face.

Timothy McVeigh quoted in Mieszkowski, Katharine; Standen, Amy (19 April 2001). The execution will not be webcast. Salon (Salon Media Group)

As is so often the case, rightly or wrongly, the wants of an American audience will be dismissed out of hand by most people reading this, but perhaps the case of Saddam Hussein is more revealing.

Following his execution, an official video was released within hours of the execution, crucially without audio. The video showed, “what appeared to be a subdued, compliant Saddam Hussein on the gallows being readied for execution. It did not show the hanging itself.”²

Saddam Hussein

However, a second video, shot on a mobile phone by an onlooker below the scaffold – revealed “an angry scene in which witnesses hurled insults at the former leader and he in turned mocked them. It also showed the moment of death.”³ It would appear that the authorities fear of the execution crowds’ intentions and behaviour is still very much a feature of modern life.

So, before you sit in judgement on the spectators of the past, perhaps take a moment to ask yourself if you think people would attend an execution today and if so why. When you’ve come to a decision on this, ask yourself if you watched the mobile phone footage released of Saddam Hussein’s execution and if so why.

Footnotes:

1. Figures for crowds are famously unpredictable and execution reports often carry wildly different estimates for the same hanging. Arguably it is still an inaccurate science today. As an Arsenal fan, I know all to well that a ‘sold out’ stadium is often conspicuously absent of the requisite number of supporters.

2&3. Saddam Hussein’s Last Moments. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6218875.stm (article from Sunday, 31 December 2006)

Distraction 1: space odyssey 2001

I was fortunate enough to see a special screening of 2001: a space odyssey at the Tyneside cinema in Newcastle this week. The showing was preceded by a Q and A with a panel including Joy Cuff, an artist who worked on the film. It was astonishing to hear her description of moon landscapes made out of wood and chicken wire and pairing that with the visually spectacular rendering of the moon and space in the film. Even more astonishing, considering there hadn’t been a moon landing before the film was made. My uncle thinks there still hasn’t been, but that’s for another time, place and PhD!

IMG_4776.JPG

Distraction 2: They Used To Call It The Moon – Baltic Gallery

While on the subject of moon landings, there is an excellent exhibition on at the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead currently. I should send my uncle there as, according to the programme notes, it has a particular focus on “lunar mythology past and present.”

BALTIC 39: They Used to Call it the Moon from BALTIC CentreforContemporaryArt on Vimeo.

3 thoughts on “Osborne and the pleasure of pain.

  1. Pingback: Dear Diary: Attending an execution | lastdyingwords

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