Monday, May 24, 2010

A Certain Grim Pleasure


One of the great events in the early years of Victoria's reign was a public hanging. While figures vary dramatically, there is no reason to doubt that the number of spectators might range anywhere from 20,000 up to 100,000, the number, according to The Times, attending Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool for the mutiple hanging of four men on 11 September 1863.

In amongst the mob one found many of the labouring classes; mill-hands, factory girls and women, bricklayer’s labourers and dock workmen, either hoping for some entertainment on their way to work or enjoying St. Monday. Women and children were frequent spectators and at the last public execution in England, The Times commented on the “blue velvet hats and huge white feathers [which] lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death.” At any execution one might see ragged children darting to and fro to “play their usual pranks at the foot of the gallows.”

Charles Dickens, who, somewhat against his better judgment, had gone to the double hanging of Frederick George Manning and his wife, Maria, on a Tuesday morning, the 13th of November 1849 outside of Horsemonger Lane Gaol was horrified at midnight, before the execution, by "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.” It made, he wrote to The Times, “my blood run cold."

Most, but not all, of those in attendance at hangings were drawn from the lower and labouring classes. Certainly the better class of artisans and their families attended; sometimes making the trip to a public execution an excursion or the opportunity for a picnic. In September of 1853, a train with thirty carriages of sightseers travelled from Bradford to Liverpool for a multiple hanging at Kirkdale Gaol.  “The majority of the ‘excursionists,’” The Times reported, “were respectably dressed persons--decent looking mechanics, women in silk dresses with expanded crinolines, and youths from 12 to 20 years of age.” The huge crowd estimated at over 100,000 spectators was swelled by excursionists from Huddersfield and Blackburn as well.

On Monday, the 5th of January 1846, Nathaniel Bryceson, a 19 year-old wharf clerk in Pimlico recorded two public hangings.

 This morning at 8 o’clock the woman Martha Browning expiated her crime on the scaffold in the Old Bailey, for the murder of Elizabeth Mundell on the 1st of December last.  The culprit showed great presence of mind on the occasion and ascended the gallows with a firm and steady step, and without any assistance.  The body was cut down at 9 o’clock and Calcraft, the executioner, took his departure from Newgate to Horsemonger Lane County Gaol to offer his services for a similar occasion, namely to put in force the sentence of the law against Samuel Quennell for the murder of a shipmate, by shooting him in Kennington Lane.  The execution took place on the top of the Prison over the front gates precisely at 10 o’clock.  The culprit behaved himself becomingly on so solemn an occasion and ascended the scaffold without assistance. ‘Remarks: this is the first execution of a female that I ever recollect in my time, also the first at Horsemonger Lane, and likewise the first time that two executions took place in the one day, to my recollection.

William Calcraft began his career as a hangman in 1828. He had been employed at Newgate Gaol to flog juvenile offenders when, in an emergency, he was sent to Lincoln to execute two men. In 1829, on the death of John Foxton (or Foxen), the City of London executioner, Calcraft was appointed to fill the office. As official hangman he received a guinea per week from the city and another guinea for each execution performed. For acting as hangman for Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark, Surrey, just across the Thames in what is now South London, Calcraft was paid a retaining fee of five guineas annually as well as the usual guinea per execution.

That Calcraft was paid in guineas is, in itself, an interesting point. The value of the guinea is one pound plus one shilling. Generally tradesmen were paid in pounds and gentlemen in guineas. For example, barristers were paid in guineas, but kept only the pound; the extra shillings going to their clerks. Perhaps Calcraft was paid in guineas because his work was considered an element of the legal profession.

Dickens accused Calcraft. At the Mannings' execution, of being guilty at times of “unseemly briskness, ... jokes, … oaths, and … brandy.” At the hanging of Franz Muller, outside Newgate Prison in 1864, when Calcraft went to cut the dead man down, he was greeted with “hisses and sneering inquiries of what he had had to drink that morning.” The choice of language in describing Calcraft also reflects the attitudes toward his role.  In April of 1851, fore example, one newspaper referred to him as “the public strangler.”  This may also have reflected on the fact that many of those who were hanged died in agony as the rope was too short for the fall to effectively snap the neck, leading to death by slow strangulation.

Virtually all accounts suggest that the bulk of those attending public executions formed a volatile mob. When Franz Muller was hanged in 1864, according to the Annual Register for that year,

the most conspicuous element in the mob was the lowest refuse of metropolitan life--the combined force of ruffianism and thieving.  The behaviour of the densely packed mob was in some places not indecent; but in the vicinity of the drop it was the reverse.  Fights and hustlings for the purpose of robbery were incessant as the hour of the execution drew nigh, and were actually in operation when the bell was tolling, and when the cry of “hats off” had commenced.
The fascination with executions extended well beyond those able or willing to attend the actual hanging. Sellers of street literature worked their way up and down the countryside selling papers and pamphlets, usually prepared well in advance, purporting the have been either the written or spoken words of the condemned man (albeit they were likely to be neither). One seller of such literature who had gone down from London to Norwich expressly to sell his wares at an execution described the process:

I worked my way down there with "a sorrowful lamentation" of his own composing which I'd got written by a blind man expressly for the occasion. On the morning of the execution we beat all the regular newspapers out the field; for we had the full, true, and particular account down, you see, by our own express, and that can beat anything that ever they can publish; for we get it printed several days afore it comes off, and goes and stands with it right under the drop.
After the hanging, of course, the pamphlet or broadsheet seller could do a brisk trade by going from county to county. When Francis Benjamin Courvoisier was hanged in 1840, over 1,666,000 broadsheets were sold detailing the execution. Nine years later, when the Mannings were hanged, 2,500,000 were sold.

4 comments:

Hermes said...

I read it some years ago, but

The Lesson of the Scaffold: The Public Execution Controversy in Victorian England by David D. Cooper

addsto this excellent post.

Hels said...

I find executions morally repugnant, but even in the Victorian era, there was a dilemma, isn't there?

If the authorities wanted to hang people inside gaols, they certainly could have. You have to assume they hanged people in public squares specifically to warn the labouring classes about what would happen to them if they misbehaved. I assume it was meant to be a sobering, horrifying experience.

Yet you note that the very audience who should have been horrified.. were busy picnicking and partying with their children. I can imagine food stalls to the side of the hanging space, selling hot chips if people became a little peckish.

Did the judges, church and police ever try to restrain the picnic atmosphere and make people more reflective?

Bruce said...

There was considerable debate about both the value of execution in general and public execution in particular; much of which took place in the 1840s. Some of the comments of the judicial establishment, particularly on such issues as "insanity" are really quite shocking.

victorian fiction said...

Great post, and I`m glad you put in a quote from Dickens who had such strong views on the subject.