So, like the best laid plans of mice and men, my grand schemes for this blog have gone awry. May 1st was my second anniversary of starting my PhD and was also the day after my final annual review (a 10,000 word report on your progress which is grilled by a panel of academics – I passed!). It therefore seemed like a perfect point for a blog on ‘What I’ve learned’ and I was even going to try and throw in some high level theory, but, the bank holiday and a trip to my cousin’s wedding in London put paid to all this and now nearly 6 weeks have passed since my last blog and I just want to get one out – the life affirming, theory heavy, blog will have to wait.
Over the last two weeks, I have been exhaustively adding to my word document of all the people executed in the North East in my period (1752-1878). In each case I have been using numerous regional and, where possible, national newspaper reports of their trials and executions to build up an easily reference-able report for each person. So far, I have managed to compile densely detailed entries for all the executions from 1816-1878 (currently runs to about 120 pages). Just 1752-1815 to go then!
Two things struck me re-reading these execution reports. Firstly, the rising importance of the scaffold and secondly the explosion of press reporting of the punishment itself. Both of which tell us a great deal about the changing nature of punishment in that period. The latter i will return to in later weeks, so for now we will focus on the ‘engine of death’.
The execution spectacle has often been read by scholars and contemporaries as a symbol of the ultimate state theatre, a sort of Judicial Dramaturgy in which the condemned and their punishers are the actors and the crowd the willing audience. As if to prove his continuing relevance on the four-hundreth anniversary of his death, who better to quote on the subject than the great bard himself.
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
William Shakespeare – As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII
In this reading of the spectacle the stage or scaffold becomes doubly profound.
What I find most remarkable about the longevity of this analogy is that, if the execution was a play, it was a distinctly amateurish production. For starters the actors (the condemned men and women) were unchecked in what they said, the condemned were largely free to say whatever they wanted both en route and at the site of their death. This is not to underplay the role of the chaplains who pressed the condemned to admit both the justness of their sentences and submit themselves to God’s mercy, but it seems remarkable that in a big production, none of the actors knew their lines – indeed, had no script. Secondly, the hangmen were rank amateurs – understudies at best, often chosen from the prison population themselves and with no way to practice other than on the victims themselves (more on this next week). In short, if the intention was to inspire awe and cowing fear amongst the audience, the reality far more often invited derision and sympathy for the very people they were supposed to despise.
Now, this begins to change in 1816, hence why I have stopped for now on this date. This date is particularly key in my study of the North East, as it is the year in which Durham moved its executions from a large open space (Dryburn – now the site of the modern University Hospital of North Durham) to without the walls of the County Court² (pictured below) and with it embarked on using a wholly different type of scaffold. In essence it was the first serious attempt to professionalise the production.
This move led to both a substantive change in the siting and presentation of execution. It was no longer wholly public nor fully private, sitting somewhere awkwardly in the middle as a sort of semi-private spectacle.
One of the most fundamental changes that came from this relocation was the abolition of the procession of the prisoner through the principal streets of the town. In addition to this, it brought about the new technology of the ‘drop’ style execution. A system in which the convict would stand on a collapsible platform and drop through the hole following the pulling of a lever, intended to cause a swifter and ‘cleaner’ death – execution prior to that often being from slow strangulation after the cart the condemned man or woman was stood upon was driven out from under them. This transfer had happened much earlier in London, in 1783, when the site of execution was moved from Tyburn (Modern Day Marble Arch) to without the walls of Newgate Prison (modern-day Old Bailey). In York, a similar transition took place in 1801, the gallows moving to the foot of York Castle with a drop system employed.¹
In the case of Newcastle, this procedure was still in place as late as 1844. Indeed, at the execution of Mark Sherwood, in that same year, on the Town Moor the procession went from Carliol Street Gaol up
Carliol-street, along New Bridge-street, Northumberland street, Barras-bridge and past the Bull Park, on to the Town Moor within the racecourse.”
Newcastle Courant 23rd August 1844
For any Newcastle residents, you will know that these are some of the principal streets of the town, as they were then. As, was often the case, the streets were lined all the way along the route and reports mention the windows along the streets being packed with people. So, the removal of the procession was a huge transition in the process of execution and has been quite often co-opted as one of the earliest examples of an increasing ‘civilization’ in which the public elements of punishments were increasingly frowned upon by an apparently more enlightened population. However, this reading ignores the fact that the procession, particularly at Tyburn, was redolent with meaning and fraught with opportunities for the condemned to undermine the spectacle itself. In so removing this element, then, the authorities could theoretically regain control of this amateur production.
Executions previous to this were often occasioned by the condemned being ridden in a cart to the site of execution, in some cases sat on their own coffin. As in the case of Jane Jamieson’s 1829 execution on Newcastle Town Moor
the cart moved from under her, and she was launched into the world of spirits, a dreadful example to the licentious and those who give way to unbridled passions Her struggle appeared to be very brief.
Account of the Execution of Jane Jamieson, who was Convicted of the Wilful Murder of Her Mother, Margaret Jamieson, at the Assizes for Newcastle, on Thursday, March 5th, 1829, and Suffered on the Scaffold, on Saturday, March 7. Printer W.Boag.
However, in Durham from 1816 onwards, the scaffold was a far more impressive and terrifying construction. A report of the 1862 execution of John Cox described it in great detail, it having apparently stayed largely unchanged since its initial application.
The scaffold is a hideous erection of wood, painted black, and is of considerable age, having, we believe, been made at the same time that the new gaol and courthouses were erected. It was placed yesterday in its usual position, on the top of the stone platform, from which the main doors of the court-house are entered, and the top of the great wooden box- so to speak-forming the chief portion of the clumsy instrument of death, is exactly level with the sill of the centre window of the grand jury room, in which it is customary to pinion prisoners before taking them out for execution. On top of the box, there is the usual apparatus of crow bars &c.. while the drop, which is of very great size, is worked by means of a handle at the back of the scaffold floor. Great numbers of persons visited the gaol on Monday for the purpose of obtaining a glimpse of the hideous structure on which the workmen were engaged until nearly ten o’clock at night”
Newcastle Journal 24th December 1862
Similarly, at the 1865 execution of Matthew Atkinson, the Newcastle Chronicle added further detail about the construction of the scaffold itself.
The sable erection is placed in the centre of the County Court Building, and is an enclosure, a frame of about ten feet in length and thirteen feet in height, planked over with black boards, and with a low rail at the top. Inside of the scaffold there is fixed a small platform about six and a half feet from the ground, for the convenience of the executioner when drawing the bolt, and also for the men who take down the body. Two pieces of timber, fixed upon the scaffold, with the usual crossbeam, form the gallows, and the drop is about a foot above the scaffold platform, and nearly in the middle of the crossbeam.
Newcastle Chronicle 18th March 1865
Interestingly, of the limited visual sources depicting the scaffold at Durham they are curiously inaccurate, as evidenced by the broadside below detailing the execution of Thomas Smith and Milner Lockey in 1860. The condemned, as detailed in many reports, would have in fact fallen under behind the vertical slatted boards pictured, the drop doors having collapsed below them.
Also, the executed would have had white caps placed over their head. These are important distinctions as they meant that far from the wholly public spectacle of old, many of the crowd may never have actually seen the condemned hanged. The body having fully disappeared from sight. Indeed, as reference in the above quotes, often the coffin itself was kept in the concealed area behind the slats so as to allow the body to be placed in it directly out of sight. As in the case of Mark Sherwood, at the first drop execution in Newcastle on the Town Moor Racecourse, 1844.
After hanging the usual time, the body was taken down and put into a coffin, which had been placed in an enclosure beneath the drop; it was then deposited in a hearse and conveyed to the gaol, within the precincts of which, in a fulfilment of the remainder of the sentence, it was interred in the course of the afternoon.
The Times 26th August 1844
So, why does this matter? Well, firstly it is important to note that there was no one universal national experience of execution, let alone in the North East. At any one time up until the mid c19th, a prisoner in Newcastle might be being paraded through the town to be dragged off a cart and strangled at the same time as a felon at Durham would be hidden from the public until the final seconds of his life, his death itself even hidden from view. These are important distinctions to make as the changing nature of execution it is too often simply understood as a transition from a public spectacle to a private one behind the prison walls after 1868. In acknowledging the nuances, adjustments, changing sites and adapting presentations of execution we come closer to seeing what role it was intended to play.
In my humble opinion, the changes we see enacted were far more about regaining control of a spectacle that had, hitherto, been a rankly amateurish production, than being representative of a wider European ‘civilizing’ movement, motivated by a growing public abhorrence to public punishment. One only needs to look at how crowds grew in this period to further support this notion – a point to which I will turn next week.
 The County Court backed onto the new prison and still does (construction of which began in 1809 with the first prisoners finally admitted in 1819)
Distraction 1: Les Miserables.
My girlfriend hates musicals and theatre or ‘live pretending’ as she calls it. Which means she barely appreciates the fact that she lives with none other than an alumnus of the National Youth Theatre (as such my talents are largely wasted!). I could be mean and tell you that she once called it “slapping the planks” which I actually prefer now to “treading the boards.” In her favour though, these days I largely agree with her as I’ve gone off watching live theatre (my previously reported trip to the National Theatre’s fantastic Hangmen, being an exception). Anyway, I still can’t help but have a soft spot for the odd show and Les Miserables is one of them. I remember growing up listening to my dad’s LPs and was lucky enough to see it a on the West End. So, I tuned in with interest to a BBC documentary all about the affect that one song from the production had had on many different peoples lives. The song in question was Bring Him Home, brilliantly performed in the original production by Colm Wilkinson (see below). The highlight of the documentary was an interview with the lyricist, Herb Cretsner, who told how he struggled for months with the song – not originally intended to be in the show, but finally cracked it after a long evening with the director in which the Director mentioned that the music “sounded like a prayer.” Despite being an avowed atheist, Crestner said that this immediately clicked with him and after months of toil he wrote one of the most spine tingling songs in the history of musical theatre.
Distraction 2: What a tangled web we weave.
Having mocked my girlfriend it seems only right to sing her praises. I have mentioned several times that she is an incredible florist and I was very pleased to be able to help her fully showcase that. My background before my PhD was in making corporate films, branding and websites but I was always frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t build them. Anyway, along came Squarespace and in a few short months I have managed to build both my girlfriend and myself a new website (mine soon to follow). Her new site has got a great response and I am currently in the process of completing an online shop for it, so for anyone who wants amazing flowers or homewares check out her (New Website).
2 thoughts on “Suffering on the Scaffold: Execution and the Engine of Death.”
Really interesting post, Paddy. Especially on the point that even at the same time, people in the NE are having radically different experiences of what it is like to see or be the subject of an execution.
I know you’ve probably thought of this, but I thought the play analogy was quite revealing, because I think there’s something quite ‘modern’ (maybe anachronistic?) about this idea of a production as an organized thing where everyone knows exactly what everyone else going to do or say, and with a director in charge. Indeed, I think the “director” is a late C19th invention. I guess this might be an interesting coincidence of timing – or is there a corollary between when plays got more organised, and people started holding gallows performances to higher production standards?
That’s a very interesting point. It’s never crossed my mind. The comparisons with the scaffold and the stage are happening right from the beginning of my period (1752) and no doubt before too. I know Henry Fielding, in his treatise on increased robberies (1751ish – off the top of my head) calls for a more private system of execution using the analogy of Macbeth and how deaths performed offstage conjure far greater imagined terror than their public counterparts. It’s an intriguing thought. Thanks very much for the thought, glad you enjoyed the blog.