Continuation of The Spectacle of Execution
Public executions were an incredibly popular entertainment event in Victorian London. Men and women, old and young, rich and poor all came out en mass to watch people die, and they were decidedly not polite nor even reverent about the occasion.
On July 6, 1840, the public execution of Francois Benjamin Courvoisier drew a crowd of 40,000 people.1 The famed writer William Thackeray attended this hanging and, with a mix of awe and dismay, described in great detail the celebration of those “[f]orty thousand persons…of all ranks and degrees,–mechanics, gentlemen, pickpockets, members of both houses of parliament, street-walkers, newspaper-writers,”2 in attendance in his essay “Going to See a Man Hanged.” As he thought about the condemned man and wondered sympathetically on his final hours within his cell, foul mouthed teenaged boys and girls stood their ground at the front of the throngs of people; Lords and Ladies who had paid a pretty penny for rooms in surrounding buildings drank and pranked from their windows; laughter and general conversation rang through the air.
The young journalist also described the moment of execution itself, at least as much of it as he could bear to watch:
Courvoisier bore his punishment like a man, and walked very firmly. He was dressed in a new black suit, as it seemed : his shirt was open. His arms were tied in front of him. He opened his hands in a helpless kind of way, and clasped them once or twice together. He turned his head here and there, and looked about him for an instant with a wild, imploring look. His mouth was contracted into a sort of pitiful smile. He went and placed himself at once under the beam, with his face towards St. Sepulchre’s. The tall, grave man in black twisted him round swiftly in the other direction, and, drawing from his pocket a nightcap, pulled it tight over the patient’s head and face. I am not ashamed to say that I could look no more, but shut my eyes as the last dreadful act was going on, which sent this wretched, guilty soul into the presence of God.3
Thackeray felt “an extraordinary feeling of terror and shame,”4 and the experience left him with even more of a conviction against the death penalty, concluding, “I fully confess that I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done,”5 (his emphasis).
While at the Courvoisier execution, Thackeray saw another famous writer of the time, Charles Dickens. Thackeray’s experience only strengthened his stance against capital punishment6, but Dickens appeared to have been less sensitive about the affairs, attending at least a few in addition the Courvoisier hanging. Though at first Dickens was against capital punishment, he later changed his stance but at least stood firm against public executions7 and is credited, along with Thackeray, as being at the forefront of the 1868 Act banning the practice.8
Dickens was present for the joint execution of Maria and Frederick Manning at Horsemonger Lane Gaol on November 13, 1849, which drew anywhere from 30-50,000 people. It has been said that executions at Horsemonger Lane, which were done from gallows on the roof, were so popular that the tenants of houses across the street were able to make at minimum a year’s rent by simply letting out rooms with a view for just one event.9 George Jacob Holyoake, himself an abolitionist, posted an ironic plea in his journal The Reasoner in response to the increased crowding at executions:
Perhaps a testament to the fearful brutality of facing such a jeering crowd, Maria Manning attempted to commit suicide before the execution, finding it preferable to die by stabbing herself in the neck with her long fingernails than to be killed on display.
The following is one of many accounts, often recounted, of the last half hour of the Mannings from behind the prison walls:
Mrs. Manning entered the chapel, and…seated herself on the same bench with her husband. “I hope,” said Manning, leaning towards his wife and addressing her, “you are not going to depart this life with animosity. Will you kiss me?” She replied, that she had no animosity towards him; and, leaning towards him, they kissed each other. The sacrament was then administered to them… after which they again kissed and embraced each other several times, Manning saying to his wife, “I hope we shall meet in heaven.”10
In the pinioning of Mrs. Manning a longer time was occupied. When the cords were applied to bind her arms, her great natural strength forsook her for a moment, and she was nearly fainting, but a little brandy brought her round again, and she was pinioned without any resistance.11
And then they made their way outside:
The procession passed along a succession of narrow passages, fenced in with ponderous gates, side rails, and chevaux-de-frise of iron. In its course a singular coincidence happened. The Mannings walked over their own graves, as they had made their victim do over his. The male prisoner walked with a feeble and tottering step, and, but for the support of two turnkeys, who walked on either side of him, he would hardly have been able to proceed. A ghastly pallor overspread his face, and he ejaculated, as he went, “Lord, have mercy upon me!”… Mrs. Manning walked to her doom with a firm unfaltering step, and over her large and strongly-built frame no tremor or nervous agitation of any kind was visible…12
And then they faced the crowd:
When the procession appeared above, the thousands of spectators who were gazing at it with up-turned faces immediately watched for the appearance of the wretched creatures doomed to die. Manning came first, supported by two men and accompanied by the chaplain, who read to him the service appointed by the Church. As he ascended the steps leading to the drop his limbs tottered under him, and he appeared scarcely able to move. He first turned his face to the east, apparently reluctant to eye the gaping crowds assembled to watch his last mortal agony… When his wife approached the scaffold he turned more round, with his face to the people, while Calcraft proceeded to draw over his head the white nightcap and to adjust the fatal rope. In the meantime the female prisoner had reached the drop, mounting the steps which led to it with a firm, but, owing to the bandage on her eyes, not a rapid step, and, when at last placed under the fatal beam, standing as fixed as a marble statue. The male prisoner had by this time recovered his firmness to a certain extent, and, turning to his wife, he shook hands with her in token of a final farewell. The executioner then drew the nightcap over the female prisoner’s head, and, all the necessary preparations having now been completed, the scaffold was cleared of all its occupants except the two wretched beings who stood upon it, doomed to die.13
As the Mannings were preparing for their death, outside:
Platforms were run up in every direction, with more attention to profit than security or law, and everything appeared to denote that there would be an immense attendance of spectators to see the Mannings hanged… The sight of the drop (a huge, gaunt, and ominous-looking structure), raised on the flat roof of the gaol, and increasing by a hundredfold the gloomy and repulsive aspect of the whole building, failed to put the least check on the uproarious tendencies of the mob. Now it was a fainting-fit, then a fight, and again the arrest of a thief; but there was always something to keep up the popular excitement. Even the dreadful sight of two human beings—husband and wife—hurried into eternity for the crime of murder, failed to solemnise for one moment or to check perceptibly the disgusting levity of the crowd. 14
Although Dickens was appalled at the scene he witnessed and wrote letters to The Times, his morbid fascination is hard to separate from that of his fellow gawkers at the event. The night before, he hosted a late supper party nearby and afterwards wandered the crowd; he was pleased at the bargain he got for his accommodations, “We have taken the whole of the roof (and the back kitchen) for the extremely moderate sum of ten guineas or two guineas each;” and he even gave his impression of the lifeless body of Maria Manning, her, “fine shape, so elaborately corseted and artfully dressed, that it was quite unchanged in its trim appearance, as it slowly swung from side to side.”15
While Dickens’ letter of admonishment of the bad behavior at public executions did inspire a growth in the abolition movement, some Victorians defended the circus atmosphere, believing it to be a public duty to make the last moments of the convicted so viciously unbearable as to strengthen the deterrence of crime:
The merciful object of every punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge the past crime as to prevent its recurrence. Now, Mrs. Manning’s last moments clearly explain, or rather indisputably prove, the benefit which society practically derives from a public execution. … as for a few fleeting moments she stood, with bandaged eyes, beneath the gibbet, how unanswerably did the picture mutely expound the terror which the wicked very naturally have of being publicly hanged before the scum and refuse of society! “The whistlings — the imitations of Punch — the brutal jokes and indecent delight of the thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds,” so graphically described by Mr. Charles Dickens were — by her own showing — not only the most fearful portion of her sentence but, under Providence, these coarse ingredients may possibly have effected that momentary repentance which the mild but fervent exhortations of the chaplain had failed to produce.16
Sometimes, the urgings of a chaplain to repent just before execution proved to be far more fervent than mild. Consider the case of a condemned woman and her chaplain the day of her execution: “Bev. Richard Chapman, did endeavour to stimulate the sinner to confession and repentance by giving her a slight foretaste of what was in reserve for her hereafter. He held a candle under her hand and scorched it, believing, as he says, ‘that her mind would be more likely to be acted upon through the medium of the senses.’17 The chaplain was fired for his zealous prodding for a confession, but not all of his contemporaries agreed with his dismissal.
Crowds for executions could reach as much as 100,000 strong, as was the case of John Gleeson Wilson’s execution on September 15, 1849 at Kirkdale.18 19 Venders sold refreshments of “fried fish, hot pies, fruit and ginger beer”20 and broadsheets were, of course, in circulation. The case had drawn so much attention that the name of the street where the crime had been committed was changed to avoid publicity.21
Calcraft had a 70-year-old substitute this day and things went terribly wrong:
The drop was too short, and so was the white cap that hardly reached over Wilson’s eyebrows. As he was being slowly strangled to death, those nearest the gallows saw Wilson’s eyes bulge from their sockets and his face turn bright purple. Many fainted. Howard rushed forward to pull the cap down over Wilson’s face, and the dying man glanced sideways at him, a look of terror in his watery, bloodshot eyes. He did not stop struggling at the end of the rope for another 15 minutes.22
Despite a letter from the King of Prussia to Queen Victoria in favor of German Franz Muller, the execution took place on November 14, 1864 to an estimated audience of 100,000 people23. The crowd was wild as usual:
Some serious accidents took place. A young woman was trampled upon in a shocking manner, and should she survive, she it likely to be crippled for life. A bookbinder’s apprentice was much injured by being thrown under the feet of the crowd, and he was with difficulty extricated and taken to the hospital. A woman, with an infant in her arms, became entangled in the crowd. Her arms were crushed in her efforts to protect the child, and both were in an insensible state when rescued.24
By this time, the Victorian public was more divided over public execution. Though many held to the idea that it was a deterrent, abolitionists had good arguments against it. Many pointed to all of the rampant crime that took place in front of the gallows on execution day, the unspeakably poor behavior of all that attended, and a commonly quoted prison chaplain that said that of the 167 prisoners he had assisted in the execution of, only 3 had never been to a public execution.25 Furthermore, the presence of high society–and in such great numbers–was an embarrassment; blood lust was to be expected of the violent poor, after all, but if the rich were showing similar interests, something had to be done.
The final public execution in England was that of Michael Barrett, held at Newgate 1868. The first private execution was of an 18-year-old and held at Maidstone in 1868.
I conclude this tour of Victorian capital punishment with the first private execution to be held at Newgate, that of 18-year-old Alexander Mackay on September 8, 1868:
Instead of the roar of the brutalized crowd, the officials spoke in whispers; there was but little moving to and fro. Almost absolute silence prevailed until the great bell began to toll its deep note, and broke the stillness with its regular and monotonous clangour, and the ordinary, in a voice trembling with emotion, read the burial service aloud. Mackay’s fortitude, which had been great, broke down at the supreme moment before the horror of the stillness, the awful impressiveness of the scene in which he was the principal actor. No time was lost in carrying out the dread ceremony; but it was not completed without some of the officials turning sick, and the moment it was over, all who could were glad to escape from the last act of the ghastly drama at which they had assisted.26
1 “1840: Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, for the murder of Lord Russell,” ExecutedToday.com
2 William Makepeace Thackeray, “Going to See a Man Hanged,” The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Vol. 15 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1869), 386
3 Ibid., 385-6
4 Ibid., 386
5 Ibid., 388
6 Albert I. Borowitz, “Under Sentence of Death,” American Bar Association Journal Vol.64 (Chicago: American Bar Association, 1978), 1263
8 “Newgate,” The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal Vol.33 (Dublin: John Falconer, 1899), 406
9 Alfred Trumble, In Jail with Charles Dickens (London: Suckling & Galloway, 1896), 108-9
10 Robert Hovenden, A Tract of Future Times, or, The Reflections of Posterity on the Excitement, Hypocrisy, and Idolatry of the Nineteenth Century (London: Charles Gilpin, 1850) 139
11 Ibid., 140
13 Ibid., 143-4
14 Ibid., 141-2
15 A.N. Wilson, The Victorians (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003), 337
16 Letter from F.B. Head of Oxenton, reprinted by ExecutedToday.com
17 W.A., “The Coventry Gaol Chaplain Tried by Scripture,” The Reasoner 7-8, ed. G.J. Holyoake (London: J. Watson, 1850), 200
18 The Annual Register of World Events, or a View of the History and Politics of the Year 1849 91, ed. Edmund Burke (London: F.&J. Rivington, 1850), 429
19 Kellow Chesney, The Victorian Underworld (Devon: Readers Union Limited, 1970), 302
21 “September 15th 15/9/1849 John Gleeson Wilson – Liverpool,” True Crime Library Online
23 “The Execution of Muller Under the Gallows,” reprinted in New York Times>, December 3, 1864
25 Borowitz, 1263
26 Arthur Griffiths, Chronicles of Newgate Vol. 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1884), 528