13th November, 1849 – a very public execution
According to work carried out by researchers at King’s College published this week, Great Britain (i.e. excluding Northern Ireland) is one of the most liberal societies in the world. We have seen monumental shifts in attitudes towards homosexuality, abortion, divorce, euthanasia and casual sex, according to their survey. Where we are not so liberal is in connection with the death penalty: 21 per cent thought it was justifiable — a higher proportion than Morocco, Russia, Spain and the Philippines — while 42 per cent said it was not. There is however a significant party political difference. Only 16% of Labour voters believe the death penalty is justifiable, while the figure among Conservative voters is 32%, with another 35% believing it is potentially (?) justifiable.

Which perhaps explains the recent appointment of Lee Anderson as vice-chairman of the Conservative party, Mr Anderson says that, after an execution, there is no question of repeat offending. I’m not sure if he thinks that a posthumous pardon provides a tangible benefit to someone executed after a wrongful conviction, but then balanced thinking does not come easily to members of this government.

What follows is, I hope, a look into a past not to be repeated.

Letters to the editor of the Times of London (from the Times archive)

From Mr Charles Dickens

Sir, I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over. I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest, and most public, means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir George Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir George Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself. I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd assembled at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun; the horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators.

When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies and negro melodies, with substitutions of 'Mrs. Manning" for "Susannah”, and the like were added to these. When the day dawned thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the Sun rose brightly – as it did – it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country and I think-there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season, we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not time to think of this one, and to root it out.

I am, Sir, your faithful servant,

Charles Dickens, Devonshire Terrace, Tuesday, November 13.

Opera Glasses at Executions
Sir,-The evidence of Mr. Dickens on the nature and doings of the mob at the execution of the Mannings is powerfully and truthfully given. Such an execution was sure to act as the flushing of the sewers of London society; the outfall was at the spot where he passed his night-and the horrid early hours of the next day; no wonder that the reckless foul doings of such a filthy mob so overpowered him. I am afraid he was not so placed that he could look into the rooms, those of Winter Terrace, where the outfall of the moral sewerage of what is called respectable society found itself – where respectable persons used opera glasses to assist their sight in watching the agonies of a man and his wife strangled a few yards from where champagne and cigars helped to while away the hours of this respectable company, just as porter, tobacco, pipes, ribaldry and indecency helped the non-respectables to kill the hours they were compelled to wait, thirsting for the toll of the bell which was to invite them to the exhibition they so desired to see.

I, like Mr. Dickens, have seen something of what is called justly the awful condition of those who live lives of utter degradation - open, undisguised vice. I have seen what ignorance, the result of neglect, and depravity taught from the days of childhood, can do to level men to scarce an equality with brutes in brutality; but neither reality nor fiction ever yet pictured to me such utter absence of all humanity, such an utter contempt of all decency, so gross an outrage on all which is held to be right by even men of very low moral standard, as this conduct of these opera-glass creatures; and yet I fear it will be found that some of them were men of note in the world – men familiar with the best society in London - men of rank - men some of whom perhaps are members of the Legislature. I trust this is not the case, for God help the aristocracy if such a crowd is to witness such a sample of them; if it is the case, I trust the public voice may demand their names, and public opinion yield them the execration they deserve.

Had they formed a part of a crowd of such beings as may be seen watching the operations of a slaughter-house, or peeping through the palings of a knacker’s yard, one might have thought. of them as men of low, vulgar, debased taste, who, palled with all common excitement, sought it in places in which its filthy form would soon make it hateful; or we could have hazarded the assumption that they were passers-by, attracted by a momentary impulse of unhealthy curiosity; but we are told these West-end respectables had long since secured their places, and went deliberately to the scene of their promised enjoyment. Men studying the dying convulsions of a murderess, just as they have criticised, through the same instrument, the postures of the ballet dancer!   S. G. O.

Paul Buckingham

10 March 2023


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