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.
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.
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.
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.
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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