Two’s company, twenty five thousand’s an execution crowd.

The Idle Prentice - Executed at Tyburn. William Hogarth.
The Idle Prentice – Executed at Tyburn. William Hogarth.

Last week, we looked at the period between 1816-1868 and the rise of a new type of scaffold in the North-East and, with it, an increasingly private execution, a sort of semi-hidden horror. Reference was made to the widely adopted notion that execution was a sort of judicial dramaturgy or the ultimate state theatre; a notion I queried as being troublesome at best, not least because the presentation of execution was so amateurish. In order to interrogate this notion further though it is important to look at all the parts of the ‘production’ and, if last weeks look at the scaffold covered the stage, todays will cover the audience; the attendant crowd.

The execution crowd is a tricky beast. Most scholars are still guilty of speaking of it as if it were one amorphous unit, comprised of people of the same social status, driven by the same desires and motivations – as opposed to a wilful collection of individuals. As someone who infrequently attends football matches, I would hate to be lumped in as being as representative of the whole; different people have wildly different desires and motivations. Why then do we refuse to accept this when studying the crowds at executions?

In many ways this thinking is a direct descendant of the early c18th and c19th newspapers. As always, we are limited by the sources. In my surveying of hundreds of regional accounts of executions, the crowd are invariably an “immense concourse” or a “mob” or a “rabble” on which little further detail is provided, other than the presumption that they are motivated by only the basest desires. However, where alternative sources are available we very quickly see a divergence in opinion. it is notable that in perhaps the two most famous accounts of an execution (that of Dickens and Thackeray) their summation of the crowd is wildly at odds.

Throughout the whole four hours…the mob was extraordinarily gentle and good-humoured.


Thackeray, W. Going to see a man hanged. 1840  

Indeed, of one fellow in the crowd Thackeray states,

Talk to our ragged friend. He is not so polished, perhaps, as a member of the “Oxford and Cambridge Club;” he has not been to Eton; and never read Horace in his life; but he can think just as soundly as the, best of you; he can speak quite as strongly in his own rough way; he has been reading all sorts of books of late years, and gathered together no little information. He is as good a man as the common run of us;


Yet, at the same execution Dickens,

did not see one token in all the immense crowd … of any one emotion suitable to the occasion…No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes … It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse.

Dickens, C., ‘Letters on Social Questions. Capital Punishments’ Published:  23 February 1846 – 16 March 1846 , London. See more at:—16-march-1846#sthash.Inwfq6pz.dpuf


To my mind this divergence of opinion is almost entirely the bi-product of where they watched the spectacle from. Thackeray stood amongst the crowd, whilst Dickens (as many richer people were want to do) had hired a window in a building overlooking the spectacle. The fact that Dickens cannot see the irony in his own attendance is testament to the sort of baffling hypocrisy that still clouds our thinking – the assumption being that an educated man was only there to see why others were.

This is to say little of women, it is marked how many execution reports note that the women outnumber the men, more often than not having children accompany them. At Jane Jamieson’s execution in 1829 on Newcastle Town Moor the reports detailed that

She was taken to the cart and then the procession, an immense multitude, moved forward to the Town Moor, where the gallows was prepared, and where thousands awaited the approach of the unhappy wretch… The crowd was immense:- a very large proportion of which were women.[1]

Account of the execution of Jane Jamieson (Broadside)

One paper stating that,

The number of persons present was estimated at 20,000 more than half of whom were women.

London Standard 12th March 1829

Of the few examples that survive where someone attended a North-East execution, and wrote about it their motivations are far from simple. Indeed, in the case of Richard Lowry, a Newcastle railwayman in the 1840’s, he stood as close to the gallows as possible at the Town Moor execution of Mark Sherwood in 1844, despite being strongly opposed to the practice, a belief he states that was widely shared by the crowd.

no words proceeded from the…multitude around him except admiration for his firmness and pity at his condition. He met with commiseration from all. All seemed to condemn the cold blooded butchery.

Richard Lowry’s diary 1844, August 23rd.

In the case of Lowry, noted above, he was an amateur phrenologist and keen to see the shape of the criminals head. For others there were even stranger desires at play, as In Our Time on Radio 4 mentioned this week, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles was motivated by his guilt at feeling sexual arousal at the 1856 execution of Elizabeth Martha Brown, the last public hanging in Dorset.

So, if it wasn’t to satisfy their basest desires, what was it that motivated people to attend executions? The simple answer is many different things. Firstly though, consider the execution itself, it was intended as a moral lesson writ large and therefore demanded a big audience. It was a victim of its own success. As the Scottish Poet Alexander Smith put it,

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 Flight 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

The fact that the authorities and commentariat were horrified by the increasing numbers that attended is bizarre in the extreme as the success of the lesson depended on a high attendance.

This overly simplistic reading of the crowd is problematic for several reasons. Not least for our understanding of why the spectacle disappeared from public view. There is a common notion, mentioned in last weeks blog, of an increasing European wide ‘civilisation’, motivated by enlightenment principles that led to, amongst other things, the removal of public punishment. However, in order for this notion to take hold it surely would need to be supported by a body of evidence showing a steep decline in execution attendance leading up to 1868 – nothing could be further from the truth. In a remarkable article in 1989, Thomas Lacquer noted how the crowd grew throughout the period.

Public executions, though smaller in number – dramatically so after 1838 – became ever grander in scale until their final abolition in 1868. Railways, better publicity and public hunger born of rarity made nineteenth-century hangings far larger and more boisterous occasions than their earlier counterparts.

Thomas Laqueur, “Crowds, Carnival and the State in English Executions, 1604-1868,” in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. A. L. Beier, David Cannadine, and James M. Rosenheim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 308.


This is particularly true in the North-East, in which the execution crowd grows exponentially, reaching its peak between the mid 1840’s and 1860’s. The execution figures of Mark Sherwood (Newcastle, 1844) and George Vass (Newcastle 1863) to name but two are estimated in the tens of thousands, in the case of Sherwood that is excluding those lining the streets where he is processed. At a time when execution was on the wane, the desire to watch it was growing exponentially.

Indeed, this failure to acknowledge anything other than the basest, most animalistic emotional traits as the motivating factors for attending an execution execution is as much a problem in modern studies as it was in contemporary thought. We tell ourselves a convenient lie when we see it as a disgusting relic of a barbarous past and not something through which further examination may lead to deeper understanding of ourselves. We are a society fascinated by death, but yet we tell ourselves that it is implausible that we find it implausible that our ancestors attending hangings in the same way we might a football match, a play or the fair. To my mind, the greatest explanation for the complexity of emotion involved in attending an execution came from Alexander Smith, reference above. It is worthy of a fuller airing than this, but I will leave you with a part of his astonishing essay on seeing an execution, A Lark’s Flight.

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 horrible 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 from an impulse altogether different. 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 lonely 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 86 pathetic that curiosity is, in so far as it suggests our own ignorance and helplessness, and we see at once that people may flock to public executions for other purposes than the gratification of morbid tastes : that they would pluck if they could some little knowledge of what death is ; that imaginatively they attempt to reach to it, to touch and handle it through an experience which is not their own. It is some obscure desire of this kind, a movement of curiosity not altogether ignoble, but in some degree pathetic ; some rude attempt of the imagination to wrest from the death of the criminal information as to the great secret in which each is profoundly interested, which draws around the scaffold people from the country harvest-fields, and from the streets and alleys of the town. Nothing interests men so much as death. Age cannot wither it, nor custom stale it.

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

Next week, I will look at the final actor in the drama of execution – the villain of the piece; the hangman.


In the writing of this article I stumbled across a deeply disturbing story that felt necessary to include. Reports have just been released of an Isis orchestrated execution in Iraq, in which random spectators from the crowd were pulled out and ordered to undertake the execution of the prisoners. It is a particularly galling time to be working on something that feels like an archaic punishment, when brutal public examples are being played out across the world (I will blog on this soon). It seems, in their search for an ever more outrageous spectacle, ISIS have called the bluff of those who attended to terrible effect.

Distraction 1: Comfortably Numb

One of my survival tactics for the PhD has been to teach myself new skills in my spare time. Alongside web building, my latest attempt to ‘upskill’ is by learning to video edit. I have spent most of my working life being in edit suites or being parts of edits for adverts/corporate things not to mention endless edits for my comedy group, but i’ve never actually known how to work the editing software. Anyway, I have been trying to teach myself and had a go at Hot Gulp’s new showreel, the other two members of the group amazingly liked it and so here it is. Having spent the last three weeks solidly listening to Pink Floyd, I couldn’t help myself using one of my favourite tracks – not renowned for their comedy, but i think it’s all the better for it. See what you think.




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