Civilizing Punishment: The End of the Public Execution in England

by Randall McGowen
Civilizing Punishment: The End of the Public Execution in England
Randall McGowen
The Journal of British Studies
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Civilizing Punishment: The End of the
Public Execution in England
Randall McGowen

On August 14, 1868, Thomas Wells was executed behind prison walls in Maidstone. According to the The Times, the event passed off so quietly that the public perhaps failed to note the significance of the occasion. With his death the drama of the public execution came to an end. "It is," the newspaper explained, "emphatically one of those reforms which are hard to realize beforc they are made, but which, once made, seem so simple and unobjectionable that they are treated almost as a matter of course."' On the face of it, this passage seems to capture the salient features of the episode. In the decades leading up to abolition, opinion was deeply divided about the value of the death penalty and the wisdom of public executions. Tlze Times itself, almost to the last moment, resisted the change. But once the issue was resolved in favor of privacy, no voice demanded their return. There were no demonstrations protesting the reform. Even the arguments once used to defend the publicity of punishment disappeared from view.

But The Times meant something more by the phrase "one of those reforms." It indicated a belief that the abolition belonged to a special category of measures, those that contributed to the progress of civiliza- tion in England. The idea that civilization demanded the end of the public execution figured prominently in reform arguments, and occu- pied just as important a place in later interpretations of the change. A liberal member of Parliament, John Hibbert, in pointing to an execu- tion in 1866, explained that "no one anxious to promote civilization could wish to see the recurrence of a scene of that kind." And he

RANDALL is associate professor of history at the [Jniversity of Oregon.

MCGOW~N The author would like to thank John Beattie and Cynthia Herrup for their many helpful comments. This essay was written with support from a University of Oregon summer fellowship.

' The Times (August 14, 18681, p. 6.

Journul (!/'British Studies 33 (July 1994): 257-282 Q 1994 by The North American Conference on British Studies. All rights reserved. 0021-937119413303-0002$01.OO

hailed the 1868 statute "as a measure thoroughly in consonance with the humane legislation of the past thirty year^."^ Lord Cranworth noted with approval that all modern punishment rejected public inflic- tions. It was, he argued, the advance of civilization that made them "necessarily pri~ate."~

A recent historian of the execution reveals the continuing power of these terms to define our understanding of the transformation. With the end of the public execution, he writes, "an- other landmark in the more humane treatment of criminals was reached, while, correspondingly, a new deference and concern for the opinions and feelings of the mass of people was being manife~ted."~ Thus, while the first private execution took place with little fanfare, the triumph of privacy continues to be trumpeted as progressive and humane. The belief in the moral superiority of private penalties passes as one of the unquestioned assumptions governing our contemporary relationship to punishment.

Yet there has always been something peculiar about this predispo- sition to treat the termination of the public execution as a triumph for reform, for humanity, and for civilization. The most obvious symptom of this difficulty lies in the fact that it was carried by the votes of those who wanted to preserve the death penalty and was opposed by the advocates of abolition. To compound the problem, the legislation passed at a time when enthusiasm for the moderation of punishment was at a low ebb. Whereas in the 1840s the abolition of the gallows had been a popular cause with intellectuals, by the 1860s most writers supported capital punishment. The parliament that passed the Private Execution bill firmly rejected a proposal to abolish the death penalty. The end of the public execution coincided with a period of rising fear of the criminal classes, one that saw the passage of legislation imposing increased severity on prisoners.' These complications have scarcely troubled the familiar accounts that connect the end of public punish- ments with the progress of civilization. Most writers trace the disap- pearance of public inflictions to the feeling of repugnance that civilized people are supposed to feel at the sight of suffering. Thus civilization appears to be the wider movement that at once explains and justifies

2~arlhtnenturyDebates (hereafter PD) 1866, vol. 181, col. 1623; PD 1868, vol. 190,

col. 1139.

~urlicztnentury Papers (hereafter PP) 1866, vol. XXI, p. 13.

David Cooper, The L~ssonof'the Scuflbld (Athens, Ohio, 1974), p. 178.

Leon Kadzinowicz, A History ($English Criminul Law (London, 1968), 4:337-38,

343-53; Philip Collins, Dic.kens cznd Crimr (Bloomington, Ind., 1968), pp. 244-48; Clive Emsley, Crime untl Society in England, 1750-1900 (Ncw York, 1987), pp. 58-72, 228-32.

the change in the character of punishment. The argument is as vague, yet compelling, today as it was in the nineteenth century.

In this essay I want to treat the concept of "civilization," not as a self-evident impulse or value, but rather as a phrase that conceals as much as it explains. Far from being an uncomplicated or monolithic idea, it constituted a discourse that was a blend of constraint and aspiration, challenge and resolution. Early in the nineteenth century, the advocates for the reform of punishment fostered the acceptance of what they called "civilized morality." For a time they seemed to sweep all before them, and many reformers confidently expected that they would win the elimination of the death penalty. To their minds death was quite simply inconsistent with the values of a humane civili- zation. They succeeded to the extent that they made the question of punishment a fundamental test for their society and an inescapable dilemma for individual morality. The defenders of the death penalty responded by proposing a new construction of punishment, one that would reconcile the suffering of death with adherence to the values summarized in the phrase "civilized morality." They succeeded, but at the cost of sacrificing the public execution. Ironically, the arguments and images employed by the abolitionists contributed to this success. In particular, the crucial significance attributed to sight, the particular portrayal of the monstrous crowd, and the insistence that punishment was a moral and private, rather than a political and public, event, helped to shape this resolution. In the debate over public executions the appeal to "civilization" set the terms of the controversy; it did not determine the outcome. A careful reading of the dispute reveals a more troubling and ambiguous conclusion about the triumph of private punishments.

The management of public executions provoked unfavorable com- ment long before the nineteenth century. Henry Fielding, in mid- eighteenth-century London, complained that hangings lacked dignity. They were poorly staged, too much like carnival rather than solemn and frightening. The condemned became objects of admiration for their boldness in the face of death. The gallows was, he said, too far "from being an object of terror." He proposed private executions as a remedy to this situation. Carefully conducted, with due attention to dramatic principles, death would become an effective ~enalty.~

Such criticism

Henry Fielding, Con~pleteWorks (New York, 1967), 13:122-26.

was echoed throughout the century. "Our executions," wrote a con- tributor to the Gentleman's Magazine in 1784, "seem to have lost all their good effects, and want that degree of terror and solemnity which such tragic scenes might, and ought always to produce upon the mind of the spectators. Whether this be owing to their frequency, or to the improper mode of conducting them, is not for me to determine; it is notorious, that the crowds who attend them go with the same ease and indifference they would to a race."7 The common grievance was that the crowd came in the wrong frame of mind and behaved indecently on what should be a solemn day of justice. They failed to learn the lesson that was offered to them. Authors like Fielding expressed the hope that a better staging of death would arouse a terror in the crowd that would shock them into a remembrance of higher duties.

By the late eighteenth century a subtly different indictment was offered of the public execution. For these critics it was not enough to stage a hanging differently; they argued that the very sight of violence tended to corrupt public morality. John Scott, writing in 1773, captured this new sentiment when he warned that "such spectacles certainly harden the human heart." They did not encourage spectators to under- stand the "proper value for their own lives or the lives of others." He questioned alike all public inflictions, including what he called "barba- rous flagellations": "They are equally inconsistent with reason and humanity; they degrade the man to the brute, and only serve to obliter- ate the sense of shame; to awaken the diabolical passions of wrath and revenge in the punished, and extinguish all compassion in the bosom of the puni~her."~ It is easy to miss the significance of this change in the direction of criticism. Punishment, for Scott, was as morally dangerous as the act it was supposed to discourage. Of course the crowd misbehaved, but the execution itself was in some measure to blame.

The concern with the moral consequences of attending an execu- tion formed a part of a growing discomfort with all forms of violence. In part this movement reflected a heightened demand for order as well as an increased fear for personal safety. Rut Scott's language implied a wider context for this sensitivity by appealing to moral and psycho- logical principles. Violence could no longer be treated as an isolated act. It was a symptom of an internal state. What it revealed was a lack of social feeling and a predisposition to surrender to base passions. It

Gentlemun'v Magazitze 55 (1784): 18-19. "ohn Scott, Observations on the Pre.cent Statc~ of the Parochiul and Vcrgratzt Poor (London, 1773), pp. 97-99, 134.

was a habit or inclination that rose from the depths of the soul. In a civilized society, feeling and morality supported each other in govern- ing human relations. Civilized individuals demonstrated their higher valuation of human life in a refined sensitivity to suffering. Violence, in whatever form, severed this link and rendered one insensitive to others. A fistfight or cockfighting indicated a moral disorder as pro- found as a murder. It was not enough to avoid such events; one should not watch them unmoved, or, worse, take enjoyment at their occur- rence. Scott feared that public punishment fostered social conflict and hostility. It threatened the most dire consequences for society. There was but a short step from watching an execution to committing a murder.

One expression of this new spirit was the challenge offered to occasions when suffering formed a large part in an entertainment. Be- cause of a belief that violence spawned violence, in whatever form it appeared, authorities sought to eliminate such occurrences. Lower-class sports were particularly criticized. Reformers held that activities such as cock fighting, bear baiting, and the like were not only immoral, but worked upon those who observed them to coarsen and enfeeble the moral sensibility or capacity. Such sports encouraged idleness, yet their real danger lay in this tendency to brutalize spectators. The Stamfi~rdMercury condemned such sports in 1789 because they pro- duced "such scenes as degrade mankind beneath the barbarity of a savage."' Here what was feared was less the doing of violence than the willing seeing of it. Even if no immediate outbreak followed, the tolerance of suffering inflicted, even upon animals, seemed productive of dangerous effects. And these effects were especially to be feared among the lower orders. The act was only the immediate expression of a more powerful undercurrent indicating a sadly disordered and ill-governed society.

Changing patterns of punishment provide a clear indication of the growing influence of these attitudes. By the end of the eighteenth cen- tury, as John Beattie observes, courts had come to punish violent offenses, and especially murder, with more consistent severity. At the same time, the proportion of property offenders sentenced to death who were actually executed declined dramatically. Beattie also dis- covers in the turn away from whipping and the pillory signs of "a re-jection of physical violence as an acceptable means of punishment,

9R. W. Malcolrnson, Popular Recreations in English Socic~ty. 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 118-25, 137; J. M. Golby and A. W. Purdue, The Civilization of the Crowd (Idondon, 1984), pp. 54-55, 78-79.

a rejection that reflects a larger change in sentiment in society regard- ing the legitimacy and acceptability of violence itself." Although these forms were condemned as ineffective, the more fatal accusation in- volved their inhumanity. ''Yet it would not do to exaggerate the speed of this change. If the instances of public whippings declined dramati- cally, the number of those who actually died on the scaffold remained remarkably constant through the 1820s. Over the decade murderers only accounted for a quarter of the total hanged, while property offend- ers continued to constitute a majority of those executed. Even as prac- tice was changing, judges and politicians were slow to amend the crimi- nal law to take account of it. Conservatives in Parliament fought to retain certain crimes as capital even though no one convicted of such a crime faced execution. The symbolism of punishment in the after- math of the French Revolution remained important. Only in the 1830s did criminal law reformers secure significant reductions in the list of capital offenses. And while few individuals after this decade suffered for any offense other than murder, intense debate preceded each pro- posal to make a crime noncapital. It was not until the Offenses against the Person Act of 1861 "that Parliament finally abolished the death penalty for all crimes other than murder and high treason.""

The slow pace of legislative change influenced the timing of the controversy over public executions. While an occasional speaker ad- vocated the complete abolition of capital punishment during the cam- paign to reform the criminal law, it was only after the practical and legislative limit of the penalty was applied to cases of murder that the debate became sharply focused. The advocates of reform had, since the late eighteenth century, linked the call for more effective punish- ment with a demand for greater humanity in punishment. Criminal law reformers who demanded the abolition of hanging for property offenses often appealed to the uneasiness caused by the spectacle as a justifica- tion for change. They celebrated the prison as an institution that re- spected the body and sought instead to reach the soul of the offender. Given their success in dominating the terms of the debate, as illustrated by their effective use of the scandal of the gallows crowd, abolitionists like William Ewart might indeed be confident that they were close to achieving their goal. Conservatives, on the other hand, saw the condemnation of the public execution as a stalking horse for total abolition, and this explains in part their long resistance to its termi- nation.

'OJ. M. Beattie, Crin~etrnd the Cotrrts in England, 1660-1800 (Princeton, N.J., 1986), pp. 530-38, 587-92. 614, 630-33.
"Emsley, pp. 222-23, 230.

Advocates of reform as varied as Romilly, Mackintosh, T. F. Buxton, and William Wilberforce had argued since the turn of the century that a crucial failing of past punishments was their savagery. They meant by this charge that such inflictions were not only ineffective but also counterproductive, fostering the very conduct they were meant to discourage. Authorities in earlier ages, the reformers claimed, pun- ished the body from a simple desire to inflict pain upon the offender. They sought to arouse powerful emotions and encouraged the specta- tor to delight in the suffering of the condemned. This enjoyment of pain marked the morbid, vicious, and savage character of the people. Flocking to see the body suffer was as worthy of blame as inflicting it; indeed, there was no distinction between the two acts. "Where executions are the most savage," announced Henry Rich in 1841, as he introduced a measure to abolish public executions, "and death brought most closely home to the eyes of the people, there they are the most savage, and human life and human laws the least respected."" An advancing civilization, on the contrary, was marked not only by an increase in wealth, but by a higher regard for human life and a sensitiv- ity to suffering. It was incumbent upon society to structure punishment so that it respected and advanced these impulses. The sign of an en- lightened people and a moral civilization was the presence of an in- stinctive reaction to suffering followed by an immediate desire to alle- viate its causes. Punishment was, the humanitarians explained, both a reflection of character and had an unavoidable impact upon the charac- ter of a people. There was no better test of the level of civilization of a society than the treatment of the body during punishment and the reactions of its members to the spectacle.I3

One result of this increased concern about the effects of violence was to challenge the legitimacy of public punishments. Reformers ar- gued that it was impossible to distinguish the psychological consequences of viewing a cockfight from visiting an execution. The civi- lized conscience was a fragile instrument, civilized to the extent that it was sensitive to social feelings, but susceptible to being overwhelmed or destroyed. The repeated experience of the wrong kind of punishment hardened the nerves so vital to the sympathetic faculty. In particular, punishments that afflicted the body had a tendency to

!'PD 1841, vol. 56, col. 650.

"For a fuller statement of the reform position, see my article, "A Powerful Sympa- thy: Terror, the Prison, and Humanitarian Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Brit- ain," Journcil ofBritis11 Studies 25 (1986): 312-34.

disorder justice. It became impossible to separate the violence of the penalty from the violence of the crime. The Rev. John Jessop, a prison chaplain, told the Capital Punishment Commission of 1866 that an execution tended "to familiarize persons with the taking away of life." One foe of the death penalty, George Denman, testified that he be- lieved that "there are many murders which might be actually traced, if you could go into men's minds, to the morbid effect produced upon men's minds by the interest which is shown by the community in persons who are going to be sent out of the world."I4 The problem with the gallows was that it first created interest, then fascination, and finally a desire to emulate the hero of the spectacle. Repeated viewing produced a hardening of feeling for physical suffering and so lowered the threshold to violence. Such effects were irresistible; even those of a humane disposition or those charged with carrying out the law spoke of feeling its power. Charles Hodgson, a police superintendent, re- ported that "a public execution hardens the feelings of those who see it." "I have felt," he confessed, "the effect upon my own mind."" Even if such sights did not immediately turn viewers into murderers, they weakened the moral sensibility that was the most important sup- port to civilized conduct.

No one responded to these criticisms with the argument that a strong sense of justice protected one while participating in such dis- plays. Rather the charge that the spectacle overwhelmed all other ra- tional and moral considerations went unanswered. "Who would dream," asked Lord Houghton (Monckton Milnes), "of taking any- body to a public execution as a grand moral example, or with the expectation of seeing anything that was not essentially repul~ive?"'~ It was not enough to say that one had no desire to see an execution; witnesses felt compelled to add that they feared the sight. Henry Rich asked the inescapable question: "Who, indeed, are the persons of any pretensions whatever to respectability, who, being convicted of having witnessed one of these exhibitions, do not forthwith feel it necessary to make some excuses for having done so?"'7 Civilized persons, even if they recognized the necessity of punishment, were shaken by the sight of death and involuntarily felt sympathy for the suffering body of the condemned. The spectacle of death had become so charged, aroused such powerful emotions, and raised such serious issues about

l4 PP 1866, vol. XXI, pp. 299, 96
"PP 1856 (366), vol. VII, p. 24.
l6 PD 1866, vol. 183, col. 254.
l7 PD 1841, vol. 56, col. 653.

one's character that it challenged the fundamental legitimacy of pun- ishment.

These sentiments expressed the growing conviction that there was something indecent and dangerous about the sight of physical inflic- tions. William Ewart, a leading critic of capital punishment, saw it as nothing less than a universal law that as civilization advanced, people "withdraw themselves" from scenes of bloodshed.I8 "No gentleman," announced his ally John Parry, "except from pure eccentricity, and no respectable woman, would go to see a public execution." He denied ever having "seen a public execution," and never wished "to do so." "It is," he added, "almost a reproach to a man to go and see" one. Such an individual "is considered to belong to a degraded class of persons who like to witness horrible and repulsive sights."'%erein lay the dilemma experienced by Thackeray when he attended an exe- cution. He came to the execution possessed of a belief in his own and his society's benevolence. Yet what he saw at the gallows produced a sense of disorientation. It threatened his identity. How could one be there? What did his presence reveal about his character? And the way in which he restored his moral standing was a characteristic gesture: "I am not ashamed to say," he wrote, "that I could look no more, but shut my eyes, as the last dreadful act was going on."20 The civilized response to punishment and the only way to deflect its power was to turn away.

These claims were the staple of speeches in support of the amelio- ration of the criminal law. There was nothing surprising in their being spoken by reformers. What was stranger was to hear them acknowl- edged by defenders of the gallows, particularly those charged with carrying out the law. Thus Richard Tanner of the Metropolitan Police, a strong advocate of the death penalty, stressed that he did not go to executions: "I have not any such morbid taste." He was not frightened of the scaffold, but he was horrified of having his motives confused with those attributed to the crowd at an execution. It was no longer acceptable to claim satisfaction at the spectacle of an offender hanged at the gallows. There was no more insistent point established in these debates than the principle that no argument about support for the law or the justice of death could justify one in visiting the scaffold. No one volunteered that such attendance showed an endorsement of society's

'"D 1864, vol. 174, col. 2062.
Iy PP 1866, vol. XXI, pp. 351-52.
2"William Makepeace Thackeray, "Going to See a Man Hanged," Frczser's Mczgu-

zine 20 (1840): 156; see Martin Wiener, Rec-onstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-19 14 (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 92-101.

justice. Rather even the highest legal officers feared that their personal reputations would be questioned. No protest could turn aside the sus- picion that one's presence revealed a character flaw. A majority of those interviewed before the 1866 commission reported, as one Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, did, with mingled horror and relief, that he had never seen a hanging. Even George Grey, another Home Secre- tary as well as one who thought public executions were a necessary evil, felt obliged to add that "happily" he had "never witnessed an exec~tion."~~

These concessions, made by those most responsible for law enforcement, exposed the erosion of the traditional defense of public punishment. They posed in an immediate fashion how intracta- ble the question of one's relationship to punishment had become in a country that claimed to be civilized.

Extracting such a confession from a Home Secretary must have seemed a triumph for the opponents of the death penalty. It supported their basic contention that death was inconsistent with the advance of civilized morality. Yet, ironically, the very terms they used to gain this concession worked to subvert their conclusion. For invariably reformers pointed to the disorder and immorality of the crowd to illus- trate what they took to be the deleterious effects of an execution. But these harsh portraits, drawn in the most alarming terms, came to overshadow the indictment of the death penalty and to shift attention from the gallows to the crowd as the problem needing remedy. The reverse side of these hasty avowals that one had no taste for the sight of punishment was a fierce characterization of those who did attend executions. These embarrassed or self-righteous protestations were invariably accompanied by a grim portrait of the crowds that visited the gallows. "The execution of a criminal for murder," explained the Duke of Richmond, "brought together only the very dregs of the popu- lation, and it was impossible to induce respectable persons to be pres- ent." Friends and opponents of the death penalty agreed on this point. "The classes of the community who frequent them," Parry argued, "are unfortunately of the very worst and lowest and most ignorant de~cription."?~"Do we not hear," announced Gathorne Hardy, the

"PP 1866, vol. XXI, pp. 121, 74-75, 219.

"PP 1866, vol. XXI, pp. 121, 351-52. Despite the constant repetition of such arguments, some among the respectable classes continued to attend executions. This inconvenient fact was ignored, as was the evidence that not all murderers were drawn from among the poor and criminal classes.

Home Secretary who introduced the bill ending public executions, "over and over again, that they represent the very worst classes."23 On the one hand, this characterization of the crowd powerfully rein- forced the general sense of what was wrong with public punishments. On the other, and even more subtly, it transferred concern from the uneasiness with capital punishment to a fear of the crowd.

The typical portrait of the crowd was highly stereotyped by the 1850s. While middle-class narrators spoke as individuals in describing their revulsion at the scene, the crowd was presented as undifferenti- ated in its response. Despite the great numbers and the noise, it always spoke with one voice. The Rev. S. G. Osborne, a Dorsetshire rector, repeated the familiar phrases, known widely even to those who claimed never to have attended an execution: who could expect, he asked, anything good of a punishment

before a crowd, who come to the scene as to a play, a crowd notoriously composed of those who are the very scum of mankind, who go again and again to such scenes, each time to pollute the very air with their fearful language, people to whom it is a sort of gala day, men and women blas- pheming, singing obscene songs, with half drunken jollity coming to riot below the gallows, departing to follow the life out that leads to it, viewing the scene without one single display of one feeling that evinces sympathy with the law, screaming a kind of fiend's welcome to the hangman, . . . groaning at, or, in their own way, encouraging the "victim," ordering "hats off" to "death," but damning each other's souls,-as they look upon it.24

The descriptions offered of the crowd were impoverished as well as tediously conventional. Yet they all went to prove a few simple points. They firmly associated the act of attending an execution with a host of inappropriate emotions. Hodgson testified in 1856 that the crowd responded with "all kinds of levity, jeering, laughing, hooting, whistling, even at the moment the man is coming up." "While he is still suffering," this policeman explained, "while he is still struggling, and his body withering, there is all this noise going on-obscene expressions-anything but the impression which people might imagine would be caused by the ~pectacle."~~

"From one end of the crowd to the other," Lord Henry Lennox complained, "they were joking, laughing, pelting oranges, bonneting each other, throwing up the hats

23 PD 1868, vol. 190, col. 1 130.
24 PP 1866, vol. XXI, pp. 426-27.
25PP1856 (366), vol. VII, p. 24.

of those who had foremost places in the crowd, and hailing the practi- cal joke with wild bursts of laughter."'('

The critics of the crowd claimed that those who attended the exe- cution had no idea what the event was meant to show. The spectators had no interest in justice; they had no respect for death. Their moral depravity stood revealed in their desire for amusement. Thomas Kittle, a police inspector, thought that the crowd "looked upon it as they would look upon a prize fight, or any other exhibition of a like nature." "I think," he added, "that they seem to amuse and rather enjoy them- selves previous to the sight which they come to see." "It seems to me," he concluded, "that they look upon a theatrical scene precisely in the same way as upon an exe~ution."~~

"It was," reported Henry Barber, governor of Winchester Gaol, "more sight-seeing than any- thing else." "There is," he thought, "a great proportion of the individ- uals who attend executions who regard the day more as a kind of holiday. "28

The newspapers were full of accounts that portrayed the behavior of the crowd in disreputable and alarming ways. They described the crowd gathering for hours before the time of the execution. The drink- ing began the night before, while rough fellows and dissolute women took over the streets surrounding the prison. In rural areas people walked for miles in order to attend. The crowd rushed to the scene, and its members never took their eyes from the gallows. The cry "hats off," far from showing respect for the condemned, only indicated a desire to see better. "The whole exhibition," wrote Robert Lowe, "is to them one of thrilling interest and excitement-of interest into which they can thoroughly enter, of excitement which the coarsest and most callous natures cannot help feeling."" Such comments suggest that the real fear was less the threat of immediate civil disturbance than a generalized anxiety about the moral status of the crowd. But such alarm included a concern for personal security. Speakers often drew a connection between the desire to see the gallows and the crime for which the condemned suffered. The endlessly repeated claim that most murderers had attended an execution enforced the conclusion that the blood passion of the crowd was indistinguishable from the impulse that led to murder. "They all saw the kind of people," Hibbert explained in 1864, "who usually attended these public executions. They were, generally speaking, not the most intelligent and reflecting, but, on the

2hPl)1864, vol. 173, col. 952.
27 PP 1866, vol. XXI, pp. 110, 112.
28 PP 1856 (366), vol. VII, pp. 21-22.
"Robert Lowe, "Criminal Law Reform," Edinburgh Review 121 (1865): 116.

contrary, of the lowest and most criminal class. They were," he con- cluded, "of the classes most hardened, and who could witness execu- tions without being in the least moved or deterred by them."30 The crowd and the murderer belonged to the same moral universe. The spectators learned the thrill of taking life even as they admired the condemned who despised death.

The horror of the crowd became the irresistible focus of attention for the participants in the debate over the death penalty. Reformers had long held that it was inappropriate to make a spectacle of death. "For hitherto," complained Rich, "all our executions have partaken more or less of the character of exhibitions-spectacles! and it is against this exhibitionary character, this notion of making a spectacle of an execution, that 1 endeavor to raise my voice." Yet the fault lay less with the ceremonies that surrounded death than with the mistake of putting on such a display before an unsuitable audience. The behav- ior of the crowd turned the solemnities offered by the authorities into mere spectacle. Their presence disrupted the occasion, converting it into a different kind of business: while Rich's charge seemed at first directed at the authorities, the onus soon shifted to the crowd. "They are drawn thither," he explained, "by a certain fascination or at- traction for scenes of blood and strong e~citement."~' The scene around the gallows became the alarming spectacle that demanded the action of Parliament.

In part, the force of this argument was that punishment belonged too much to the poor. Despite the best intentions of the authorities, the lower orders imposed their own construction upon the event. "The whole punishment of death," said Hilary Nissen, sheriff for the City of London, "is deprived of its solemnity by the manner in which the execution is conducted before a large number of people." The punish- ment was, he complained, "too prosaic," and there was an "entire want of any solemn preparation for a man being launched into eter- nity." "The whole thing," he concluded, "appears to me rather to be regarded as a matter of entertainment by the publi~."'~

The thrust of this description of the scene around the scaffold was to load the crowd with responsibility for the evils associated with punishment. The crowd became the negative image against which one defined one's own respectable feelings and conduct. Many agreed with the enemy of the gallows George Hadfield that "it was a sad reflection

30 PD 1864, vol. 173, col 944
31PD1841, vol. 56, col\ 649, 654
32PP1866, vol. XXI, pp. 220-21

on the age in which they lived, that there was no sight in the country so interesting to the masses of the people as the sight of the execution of a fello~-man."~~

The inevitable tendency of such language was to shift both anxiety and blame to the class that felt this way. Both oppo- nents and supporters of the gallows collaborated in this characteriza- tion of the public execution. Each account shared the conclusion that the crowd was drawn to the scene out of a desire to see suffering, that its members were indifferent to the lessons of a guilty death. Abolitionists argued that the existence of capital punishment helped produce such results. But the force of their descriptions was to make many fear the crowd even more than they hated the scaffold.

These highly charged representations of the execution seem to allow no space for opposition to their claims. They also foster the belief that the abolition of the spectacle was the only and inevitable outcome of the controversy. Yet for over two decades the political community resisted calls for the end of public hangings. As we have seen, it was difficult for the respectable to defend a visit to the gallows, so the argument for its retention was fragmented. Still, faint echoes of older principles and concerns can be detected, and, especially, a differ- ent understanding of the crowd. After all, Lord Somerville asked, did not public executions have the weight of tradition on their side? "You are aware," he told a parliamentary committee, "that in what, speak- ing generally, one may call all history, it has been usual to execute great criminals before the public, with, as far as one can judge, the general idea prevailing in all Governments that such a spectacle excited a wholesome terror in the mass of the people?"34

It was, as usual, left to members of the House of Lords to show that they were less squeamish about the character of the people who attended or the disorder that accompanied the execution. "Their Lord- ships," the Earl of Malmcsbury cautioned, "were highly educated men, possessing refined feelings and minds, and they were naturally shocked at the sight of a public execution." "They would," he thought, "carefully avoid witnessing one except for the purpose of observing what its effect was upon the minds of the masses who assem- bled around the scaffold." Yet he claimed that the execution was use- ful, and that it deterred those whom it was supposed to deter. He

"PD 1864, vol. 173, col. 945.
34PP1856 (366), vol. V11, p. 12.

reminded his listeners not to create too severe a standard of conduct, for English crowds were often obscene and disorderly, and not just at the gallows.35 Thp Times questioned whether the gallows actually brutalized the spectators. "When it is urged," the paper responded, "that none but the lowest and most brutal classes go to see executions, it is obvious to reply that this is the very class which they are intended to effect. If the ruffians of London congregate to the spectacle of an- other ruffian's execution, it is at least certain that the very persons witness it for whom it was intended."'(' Defenders of the death penalty gazed across the gulf between classes with less alarm because they were confident of the deterrent power of the gallows. They expressed no anxiety that the spectacle had become disorganized, nor were they sensitive to the questioning of society's right to employ death.

Even those witnesses who at one time offered such an alarming catalog of reasons why the crowd attended a hanging, at other times suggested more varied and therefore less disturbing motives. Barber, the prison governor, told of many attending out of "a feeling of nov- elty, and others with an expectation of hearing the culprit say some- thing before death." Hodgson, the police officer, testified of their "cu- riosity to see how the man will behave, or to see the length of time he will be dying; to hear whether he will make any assertions on the scaffold; and an eagerness not to avoid the sight."37 However unflat- tering these sentiments may have sounded to middle-class ears, they scarcely excite the revulsion that the more powerful language of blood- lust inspired. The members of the crowd, according to many witnesses, were curious to see how an offender died. They reacted to the scene with a variety of different responses, depending on how they felt about the criminal and the crime. They shouted or laughed, gasped or fell silent, abused the hangman or mocked the criminal. What the crowd did not display was an embarrassment at seeing the event.

The standard portrait of a crowd at an execution presented a uni- form picture of disorder and immorality. Yet any survey of the descrip- tions of crowd behavior at nineteenth-century hangings was bound to challenge the bleak conclusions offered by reformers. Such accounts make clear that people attended in large numbers, and that the crowd was composed largely, but not exclusively, of the lower orders. These stories usually show that the police had the situation under control. Indeed, it seemed to some more surprising that so many assembled

3'PD 1866, vol. 184, col. 455.
3"he Tirne.5 (February 23, 1864), p. 7.

1856 (366). vol. V11, pp. 21-22, 24, 27.

with so little evidence of disorder. Occasionally, as at the execution of Franz Muller in 1864, the unruliness reached alarming proportions. But more typically the reports of executions in the Annual Register for that year speak of a "crowd that was quiet." Often the journal expressed satisfaction that, despite the presence of "a considerable crowd," "they conducted themselves in an orderly and decorous manner."3x

Other witnesses testified in a similar vein. George Bowyer told Parliament that the reports of bad conduct at executions "were greatly exaggerated." "No doubt," he said, "executions brought together many 'roughs,' and members of what were called the 'dangerous classes,' and in so motley an assemblage good manners, and even good morals, could not be expected to prevail universally." "But," he hastened to add, "when mixing with the crowd, he had heard many excellent remarks, showing that the object of the spectacle was clearly under~tood."~~

Several letters to The Times supported his observa- tions. Some explained that at a recent execution a level of order pre- vailed such as was seldom seen at any event in England attracting so many people. One author confessed that he was not "ashamed" to have attended a hanging. He found it "the most solemn sight I have ever witnessed." He described a vast sea of faces who reacted with powerful emotion when the "drop fell." "I should say," he added, "that the pervading feeling was a cordial acceptance of the act then transacted before them, and a complete recognition that it was just inevitable." He was "satisfied" that the execution had produced ex- actly the response that was intended. Since this was a result so differ- ent from that usually reported, he felt compelled to write about it.40

Thus the defenders of the public execution pointed out that the spectacle attracted its proper audience. They also claimed that its crit- ics set an unrealistic standard of conduct for the lower orders. But more circumspectly they referred to the political dimension of punish- ment. They argued that the publicity of the execution was congruent with English principles of justice. "The fundamental principle," argued Lord St. Leonards, "which governed administration of the crimi- nal law in this country was that all proceedings involving life and liberty should be conducted in public, and it was only in accordance with it that the punishment should also be carried out in public." "By that means," he concluded, "the public was certain that everything

18AnnualRegister, "Chronicle," 1864, pp. 7, 178

1868, vol. 190, cols. 1132-33.
40 The Tirne.5 (February 23, 1864), p. 7.

was done fair and right, and that justice had been done."41 Just as the trial was public and the judgment delivered in open court, so the punishment, particularly in cases of death, should be as well.

The speakers who alluded to the political aspect of punishment expressed a concern that the crowd would exercise a kind of resistance if their "right" to see the execution was denied. Time and again de- fenders of publicity suggested that the poor and ignorant would suspect that executions inflicted torture or that the rich escaped the sentence. Such beliefs would not only annul the immediate deterrent effect of punishment but also erode confidence in the law. John Haynes, a po- liceman, cautioned in 1856 that it was important for the people to see an execution, so that they would know that it was done. Private executions, he feared, "would not satisfy the p~blic."~' Speakers ap- pealed to the stories that circulated widely on the streets, even under the regime of the public execution, of how the rich eluded death by trickery or with the help of surgeons. They worried that such suspi- cions would multiply if the private execution was adopted. The public in withholding belief would overturn the entire course of justice. A member of parliament feared "that private executions would be found a most dangerous expedient, as it might give rise to a belief that mur- ders were committed under such a ~ystem."~' Private punishment, The Times warned, "loses its popular character and wants the popular sanction."44 The lower orders must see punishment if its legitimacy and deterrent force were to be felt. These sentiments spoke of the mingling of prudence and example that had guided so much of eigh- teenth-century legal practice. At such moments in the debates some saw the crowd differently, not simply as immoral and unruly, but also as possessing opinions that needed to be respected, if only for pruden- tial reasons.

The public execution existed for the lower orders. It was a theater that recognized how precarious was order and how powerful was the audience. The ceremony expressed an elite message, but to an audi- ence whose autonomy was both respected and feared. The individual members of the class were held in contempt, but the collective strength of the crowd was understood. The ritual of death sought to instruct about punishment in a public display that employed all the available imagery of state and religion. It mingled entertainment and instruction; it sought to draw a crowd for didactic purposes. The price to be paid

4' PD 1866, vol. 184, col. 452.
42 PP 1856 (366), vol. V11, pp. 35--36.

1837, vol. 38, col. 924.
4"he Tirne.5 (November 17, 1864), p. 8.

for this attendance was the freedom of the crowd to adopt its own attitude toward the event. It was seldom quiet, often unruly, especially in the eighteenth century. The spectators sometimes sympathized with the condemned; on other days they were more severe in their abuse of the offender. The execution provided an opportunity for license, a space for expression. But authorities feared the consequences of not staging such a spectacle more. They believed that publicity was a necessary ingredient in the effectiveness of the death penalty. And, of course, on most days the crowd behaved as was expected.

Why, then, did the political community insist so emphatically upon these extreme representations of the execution day? The charge leveled against the crowd with most telling effect was that its members came to the execution to see a miserable death. There is little enough evidence that this was the case. No voice from the crowd ever ex- pressed this view. The only reports were of a cacophony of sounds whose meaning was distilled by middle-class observers. The noise, the laughter, the movement of the crowd, all worked to unsettle the mean- ing of life and death. The openly expressed fascination with death, the obscene language and disrespectful gestures, signaled both gross immorality and contempt for authority. In sum, the bodily presence of the crowd obstructed a clear view of the gallows. The surging mob suggested that there was a life apart from the death that was supposed to overawe it. Its supposed attitude toward the body distracted, embar- rassed, and frightened the "civilized" members of society.45 But more than their immorality, it was chiefly their attendance and the lack of embarrassment it revealed that condemned the crowd in the eyes of the respectable.

By the 1860s, the arguments of tradition and prudence as defenses of public execution were swept aside amidst a controversy over the nature and goals of punishment. In one sense this result may seem the culmination of over a half century of penal change. In many respects the 1850s saw the triumph of the reform program. With the end of

45Thomas Laqueur most f(11ly explores this aspect of the crowd's presence. In calling these descriptions offered by the opponents of the crowd into question, I do not mean to imply that "disreputable" behavior did not occur. And I do not disagree with Laqueur's characterization of the carnivalesque moments in the crowd's activities. But I do think that his account presents us with a caricature of the crowd, one that echoes without the disapproving tones the portrait drawn by middle-class moralists (Thomas Laqueur, "Crowds, Carnival, and the State in English Executions, 1604-1868," in The First Modern Society, ed. A. L. Beier et al. ICambridge, 19891, pp. 305-55).

transportation in sight, the prison regime stood forth as the dominant mode of punishment. The death penalty had not only in practice but also legislatively been limited to murder. The humanitarian argument that punishment should be no more penal than necessary and as re- formative as possible seemed to have triumphed. Abolitionists like Ewart believed that the logic of a half century of amelioration of the criminal law should climax in the end of the death penalty. Limiting the gallows to murder in the name of the sacredness of human life suggested to them that society was ready to take the next step, to show that it cherished life by refusing to take it under any provocation.

Yet the midcentury saw, in other respects, a retreat from the enthusiasm for the reform of the criminal. The approaching end of transportation produced an anxiety, fostered by newspapers, about releasing serious offenders back into society. The garrotting panics of 1856 and 1862 focused these concerns upon the figure of the violent offender. These stories made people feel less secure in the streets. The resulting panic produced a backlash against penal reform, as writers and politicians came to blame leniency in the treatment of offenders with encouraging crime. "While prison theorists are wrangling," complained The Times,"honest people get their throats cut." The mount- ing outcry centered particularly on the fear of violence against the individual, and this despite the considerable evidence of a long-term decline in violent offenses. Parliament responded with the Garotters Act, which restored whipping for the offense, and in the Prisons Act of 1865 made confinement more punitive.46 Even as mid-Victorians congratulated themselves on their sensitivity, they expressed renewed concern about the violence that originated on the borders of the com- munity. The graphic descriptions of executions served to arouse fear of the lower orders and their violence. An enraged public demanded more severe penalties. Yet the ambiguous status of the gallows high- lighted in these descriptions rendered problematic for the respectable both their defense of death and the passion that inspired it.

Thus the lines were sharply drawn in the debates over the death penalty. All sides agreed that violence was to be feared. But there were deep differences over what kind of punishment best promoted the goal of a less violent society. Ewart, in questioning the Whig Home Secretary, George Grey, before a parliamentary commission in 1866, congratulated him for dwelling "very justly on the sacredness of hu- man life, as a reason for Capital Punishment for murder." But he

46 R. Sindall, "The London Garotting Panics of 1856 and 1862," Social History 12 (1987): 356-59.

pressed Grey to concede that "the Government itself should set the example of maintaining the sacredness of life" by abolishing the death penalty. Grcy responded that it did so "by taking away the life of a person who has been the means of destroying lifc." "Thc sacredness of human life, is," he added, "the great principle which is thc founda- tion of law; and the sacredness of human life being the great object to be kept in view, it is in order to protect human life that I am an advocate for retaining Capital Punishment in cases of wilful murder." Walpole told the same commission that "human life ought to be re- garded as so sacred a thing that anybody who attempts to take it away from another ought to feel that he does so at the risk of losing his own." The public, he felt, demanded as much. Capital punishment for murder, he concluded, "stands ~acred."~'

A growing number of intellectuals shared this conviction by the 1860s. J. S. Mill summarized this argument when he spoke in support of retaining the death penalty for murder. Mill began by praising those he called philanthropists for humani~ing the punishments inflicted by the law. But, he added, "there is a point at which, I conceive, that career ought to stop." This point had been reached when reformers called for the abolition of capital punishment. If they ever reached this goal, he was sure that it would prove a "fatal victory." "For they will have achieved it," he argued, "by bringing about, if they will forgive me for saying so, an enervation, and effeminacy, in the general mind of the country." It would show that those who held a higher regard for life were no longer possessed of the strength to protect it from those who were willing to use violence. The retention of death was required by a proper understanding of the nature of life. For Mill as well as for Grey, the death penalty had assumed a symbolic importance far beyond the actual threat of murder.48 So long as there remained violent offenders who preyed upon civilization, society must be ready to respond in kind, even though that response went against their civi- lized impulses.

According to Mill, society would be mistaken to respond to the dangerous classes with anything other than violence. It was a punish- ment suited to their natures and to their understanding. Thcir contempt for human life did not mean that they were not afraid of death. On the contrary, the fact that they lacked a more elevated notion of life meant they were more exposed to such fcars. "1 think," reported Lt. Col.

47PP1866, vol. XXI, pp. 211, 195, 75-77.

48PD1868, vol. 191, cols. 1048-51. The best discussion of the intellectual shift is found in Wiener's Reconstructing the Criminal (n. 20 above).

Henderson, drawing upon his long years of experience in the convict service, "that I have formed the same opinion as almost every person who has come into immediate contact with the criminal classes, namely, that the fear of death is the strongest deterrent which you have." "There is no question," he claimed, "especially with the low- est classes of the criminals, that they share that characteristic with the lower animals; the strongest passion which they have is the love of life, and the fear of losing it is of course the strongest deterrent."4' The character of the crowd only underlined the necessity of the punish- ment as a barrier to protect life from savages ready to take it at the first sign of weakness. "I believe," explained Grey, "that life is better protected by that punishment than by any other, and that if that punish- ment was taken away many more cases of murder would take place, because murder might be committed with comparative impunity ."5"

The most powerful charge leveled by the advocates of abolition was that the death on the gallows merely repeated the crime for which the offender suffered. Judicial murder, they claimed, was no different from murder. They proved their point by looking to the crowd and claiming that its attendance showed a disregard for life that led to murder. But so powerful was the fear of the crowd aroused by these representations that they helped instead to reinforce the felt necessity for the gallows. Society was divided by a difference in how people regarded life. The respectable revealed their character by staying away from an execution, while the crowd displayed a contempt for life by attending. Lord Henry Lennox only voiced the common belief when he said that the mob at an execution was composed of "the scum and refuse of their p~~ulation."~' "There is notoriously," the Saturday Review warned, "a section of society in which heinous crimes flourish, not indeed exclusively, but principally. It consists of men who either have not been brought up to any settled honest calling, or who have abandoned it for a roving, vagabond, and predatory life." "It is for this class," the author continued, "that punishments are de~ised."~' The problem with the public execution lay not with the penalty, but with the presence of a crowd who spoiled and perverted the lesson they were to learn.

Thus a particular construction of the execution reinforced the be-

1866, vol. XXI, p. 104.

'"PP 1866, vol. XXI, p. 150.

"PD 1864, vol. 173, col. 951; for a fuller discussion of such language, see Peter

Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Trnnsgression (Cambridge,

1986), pp. 125-40.

52 "The Debate on Capital Punishment," Saturday Review 25 (1868): 547.

lief that the death penalty was required by society to protect itself from the kind of people who attended the gallows. The necessity for death arose from the nature of those people, and said nothing about the character of respectable society except that it possessed the strength to protect itself. Some argued that a private execution would be more frightening to the class inclined to commit violent offenses. The Rev. John Clay testified that he was "persuaded" in his own mind "that the imagination of an evil-doer would draw a far more impressive pic- ture of an execution taking place under such circumstances, than would be actually presented to his eyes in But the debates over the death penalty reveal that the central concern was less with producing terror in the minds of potential criminals than in satisfying the consciences of the respectable classes. Bishop Wilberforce posed this issue when he asked, "what should be the measure and the nature of the publicity attending them."54 Rich had said as much in 1841 when he called for more "publicity-not the publicity that panders to coarse or morbid sensibility-but real useful publicity and general atten- ti~n."~'Although it was the savage reactions of the crowd that most often came in for condemnation, the real dilemma for legislators arose from their desire to preserve the death penalty while retaining for England the claim to be a civilized society. The spectacle of what went on around the gallows created the suspicion that death was no more than spectacle, and that people derived the wrong kind of satisfaction from its infliction.

The private execution wrapped the death of an individual in mys- tery. "A certain mystery and uncertainty about the actual extinction of life," reasoned the Earl of Harrowby, "creates a greater solemnity upon the mind than the public witnessing of the act."56 A concealed execution would bring relief to the general public. It would play to a different audience. The imaginations that would be soothed were those of the respectable classes of society. They would no longer have to see the symbols and the event; they would be spared the encounter with the crowd. They would not run the risk of having their passionate defense of death confused with the sentiments expressed by the mob
53 PP 1856 (366), vol. V11, pp. 35-36, 32.

1856, vol. 142, col. 247.
1841, vol. 56, col. 662.

1856 (366), vol. V11, pp. 35-36, 32. It only reinforces the general argument of this essay to note that the question of what the condemned suffered at the moment of death scarcely entered into the debate. Despite the wide recognition that a hanging might produce a slow strangulation accompanied by great suffering, there was no enthu- siasm for Charles Neate's proposal that they seek a ''less painful mode of execution" (PD 1868, vol. 191, col. 1063; PD 1866, vol. 184, col. 454).

assembled around the scaffold. The private execution, Wilberforce remarked, "by removing in that way its accidents, its awfulness would be impressed far more deeply on the minds of men." "The fact," he explained, "could be made known that the forfeited life had been sacrificed, with nothing to draw the attention of the spectators from the reality of the great act of ju~tice."'~ Instead they would be com- forted by the stark biological exchange that sheltered their lives and entertained by the polite mystery of death. "By adopting this change," Ewart complained, "you will have only veiled, not removed the evil." "The interest taken in an execution will continue to exist. It will even be aggravated and stimulated by c~ncealment."~~

Such a charge did not disturb the defenders of the gallows; it was instead precisely the outcome they desired.

The dilemma of punishment was experienced most fully in the midcentury debates about the death penalty. On the one hand there was a mounting fear of violence as well as a growing rage against those who perpetrated it. On the other hand it was less easy to express satisfaction with a punishment that inflicted pain or death. The tradi- tional defenses of the gallows had been decisively undermined by the delegitimization of violence that had gone on over the preceding cen- tury. It was no longer respectable to see violence done, and it was even difficult to take too much satisfaction in knowing of its infliction. Yet a growing number of politicians and intellectuals spoke with open rage at what they saw as the violent elements threatening the survival of civilized society. The crowd gathered around the scaffold symbol- ized perfectly the threat. What was needed was a way to abolish the crowd and at the same time distinguish the passionate call for retribu- tion in punishment from the supposedly savage impulses of the specta- tors. The Times,after years of seeing the demand for private execu- tions as a staple of the abolitionist position, suddenly discovered in it a way to save the death penalty. The end of the public execution has been portrayed as a tactical move by the defenders of death in order to save the penalty. It was certainly that, but in a more profound sense then is usually indicated.

The political significance of the end of the public hanging went unremarked. The full and complex meanings of the execution scene,


1854, vol. 133, col. 307.
PD 1856, vol. 142, col. 1241

the complicated negotiations between crowd and authorities, were re- duced to a few charged phrases for characterizing the mob-brutal, savage, obscene. By 1868 the political community coalesced around the principle that the issue was simply one of morality; the crowd, attracted to the gallows in quest of a barbaric entertainment, had proved itself unfit to see the ultimate sanction of the law. The crowd's autonomy and legitimacy were in the same breath invalidated. "It was not a question," one MP argued in 1864, "between privacy and publicity, but whether the community should call together a mob of the lowest character, acted on by a greedy and craving curiosity of the most savage nature, or should, on the other hand, make provision that the last solemn act of the law should be performed with solemnity, gravity, and decency."" 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. There was no public space or occasion within which punishment could be done because seeing punishment could not be freed of the imputation of being in- spired by low desire. The phrasing of the charge against the crowd now assumed its full significance; at a stroke what might be characterized as a political right was represented as mere entertainment. The sight of punishment, once a civic event, had now become an embarrassment from which one should turn away. Punishment in a civilized society was necessarily private. The concern expressed here was as much to separate oneself from the violence associated with punishment as it was to curtail the amount of violence employed in punishment. And since the standard for judging punishment had become so personal, the refusal to see its infliction preserved the moral reputations of both the individual and the state from the charge that punishment was con- taminated with brutal or vengeful emotions.

The Times was quick to celebrate the change it had for so long resisted: "We shall not in the future have to read how, the night before the execution, thousands of the worst characters in England, aban- doned women and brutal men, met beneath the gallows to pass the night in drinking and buffoonery, in ruffianly swagger and obscene jest."60 The triumph it recorded was over the crowd. People would still read about death, but it would be mediated solely by the newspaper, no
"PD 1864, vol. 173, col. 954.

The Times (August 14, 1868), pp. 6, 10. What are we to make of the fact that there were no popular protests at the end of the public execution'? Perhaps that for the people punishment had always been someth~ng more than merely entertainment.

longer by the crowd. The papers would create a discreet distance be- tween the act and its audience. Although death itself remained terrify- ing to contemplate, the execution became an impoverished affair. When it moved within the prison death became subject to that regime, petty, tedious, and mean. Here was wrung out of it any trace of the ceremonial and festive. The occasion became as cheerless as the'build- ing. If it became more mysterious, it was also more anonymous and bureaucratic. Those in attendance were officials, but not even particu- larly distinguished representatives of the state. At Maidstone only the under-sheriff, governor, surgeon, chaplain, and sixteen members of the press attended. The scene was drab, sordid, and functional. The condemned, guilty of a terrifying crime, appeared diminished and con- temptible. The low character of the guilty justified an embarrassed death. Punishment was no longer an elevated spectacle; it was a mun- dane institution and set of practices for removing a fearful ~ontagion.~'

It is difficult for us to set aside the feeling that private punishments are more "civilized" than public punishments. And so it is hard to view the legislation of 1868 in any other light than as a victory for humanity. This is the compelling conclusion offered in so many histo- ries of punishment in Britain. This story says that if punishment took place in private, one denies the crowd the opportunity to derive illicit pleasure from human suffering, and one distinguishes one's own desire to punish from the immoral impulses that drove the crowd. In these accounts the introduction of private punishments passes for a noble reform. They suppress the other consequences of the change, such as the loss of a role for the public in punishment, and the confusion of responsibility for whatever pain accompanies punishment. And they help to rewrite the role of privacy in the rise of the prison. For the walls of the prison in the early nineteenth century were intended to cut off prisoners from their friends on the outside and from their allies within the prison. But in the debate over the location of the execution, privacy came to be valued in a different sense, as separating the re- spectable from the sight of punishment. The respectable classes of mid-Victorian England found the issue of punishment, and particularly capital punishment, deeply troubling. They were anxious about the question of violence, both in the form of that seemingly threatened by the murderer and the crowd, and of their own desire for revenge and retribution. The scene of the public execution aroused these concerns

"The mid-Victorian public health movement and the introduction of the private execution share more than just a language for characterizing the poor and the threat they represent,to society. See Anthony Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Vic,torian Britain (London, 1983).

in an acute form. More disturbing than the immorality or threat of disorder was the way in which the presence of the crowd challenged Victorian society's self-image. What proved unsettling was the crowd's willingness to see punishment, as well as the wide variety of responses its members took to it. The public execution threatened to expose death on the gallows for the ambiguous and compromised solu- tion that it was. Privacy at the very least permitted the preservation of punishment, permitted one to explain and accept its necessity. The argument for private punishment offered a virtuous course for the re- spectable in not seeing punishment, and proclaimed that an unseen punishment was juster for being freed of vindictive personal feeling.h2

hZ Elias Canetti, Crowds and Po~~er

(New York, 1978), p. 52.

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