Henry Fielding

The day appointed by law for the thief’s shame is the day of glory in his own opinion. His procession to Tyburn, and his last moments there, are all triumphant.
— Henry Fielding - An Inquiry into the causes of the late increase of robberies & c - (1751).

Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century public executions were the brutal final sanction of a bloody criminal justice system in England, Scotland and Wales. However, leading commentators in the eighteenth century, amongst them Magistrate and Playwright Henry Fielding, believed that they were not serving their purpose.  Writing in 1751, Fielding noted that, "The day appointed by law for the thief's shame is the day of glory in his own opinion. His procession to Tyburn, and his last moments there, are all triumphant." Fielding’s views were in line with many others at the time who were calling for a fiercer punishment for the severest of crimes. One of Fielding’s key themes was that punishment should be meted out swiftly after sentencing. His wish was met in one of the provisions of the Murder Act in 1752. The Act stated that executions must take place two days after the prisoner has been sentenced unless the third day was a Sunday, in which case the execution would take place on the following Monday.

From and after the first day of Easter term, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifty two, all persons who shall be found guilty of wilful murder, be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday, and in that case on the Monday following.
— Part of the introductory clause of the 1752 Murder Act

The Jury (1861). By John Morgan. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By the late eighteenth century there were a vast number of crimes punishable by death (some historians have argued as many as 230) a system that is now widely known as the Bloody Code. However, in part owing to this, juries were actually very reluctant to sentence people to death. Between 1791 and 1805, for example, only 15 out of more than a hundred men and women accused of murder in London were actually executed. In one sense then it was actually quite rare for a criminal to be hanged. Recent studies have shown that the experience of places like Cornwall, Wales and the North East of England were vastly different to London with far less frequent executions. 

It was...remarkably difficult to get yourself hanged for murder in any region of eighteenth-century England and Wales and particularly in Cornwall which had a long record of resisting the State’s attempts to impose laws that local people were not in tune with. The relatively small number of cadavers made available by the Murder Act mainly reflected the power jurors had to either acquit or bring in a partial verdict, downgrading the initial murder accusation to one of manslaughter which rarely resulted in more than a year in prison.
— Getting away with Murder in Eighteenth Century England by Peter King
Peter King

In the late eighteenth century executions began to move from large open, rural spaces to outside of the prison walls, at once ending the public procession through the centre of cities and towns that had previously been such an integral part of this brutal public spectacle. London led the way in 1783 when executions moved from Tyburn to outside the walls of Newgate Prison. However, this transition was not uniform across the country. In Newcastle public executions were still taking place on the Town Moor as late as 1844. Despite the changing presentation of punishment, public executions throughout the c18th and early to mid c19th remained hugely popular events. It was not uncommon for large numbers of the labouring classes to strike from work and travel long distances to attend. Similarly, men and women of means and higher social standing would frequently attend and buy tickets to watch from windows in the houses or prominent buildings surrounding the scaffold, which might offer a better view. Amongst those who famously attended executions in the nineteenth century were William Thackeray and Charles Dickens, both of whom wrote about their experiences. 

A Hanging outside Newgate Prison. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at the execution could be imagined by no man
— A letter by Charles Dickens on the execution of Frederick and Marie Manning (1849), published in the Times 14th November, 1849

There it stands black and ready, jutting out from a little door in the prison. As you see it, you feel a kind of dumb electric shock, which causes one to start a little, and give a sort of gasp for breath. The shock is over in a second; and presently you examine the object before you with a certain feeling of complacent curiosity. At least, such was the effect that the gallows produced upon the writer, who is trying to set down all his feelings as they occurred, and not to exaggerate them at all.
— William Makepeace Thackeray on seeing the gallows at the 1840 execution of Francois Courvoisier. Taken from Thackeray, W. Going to see a man Hanged (1840).

Executions remained a public spectacle until 1868. That year the Capital Punishment Amendment Act put an end to the practice and from henceforth they took place behind the prison walls in which the offender had been held. From that point on few, if any, people other than legal and medical officials were allowed to witness the spectacle. In some cases even the windows of the prisons were blocked up to stop fellow prisoners seeing the spectacle. What began as an intentionally public spectacle had, by the mid to late nineteenth century, become an expressly private affair. 




BANNER IMAGE:  Execution of the notorious William Burke, the murderer who supplied Dr. Knox with subjects. 
From a contemporary print c. 1820's. Wellcome Images L0007160

BODY TEXT: Patrick Low