Execution Essay, Research Paper
The last public execution in England took place in 1868. The transition of penal practices from torturous public executions to less barbaric and somewhat more humane practices aroused many suspicions in historians. For a better understanding of such changes, one must focus on the ways historians have accounted for this fundamental change. Randall McGowen in his account focuses on the fact that society is becoming more civilized and illustrates the need for more civilized penal practices. Historian David D. Cooper claims that the people of the 1800 s sought reformation through political and literary intellects as well as through accounts of the massive crowds as a means to end public execution, lastly, historian V.A.C. Gattrell formulates his essay on the crowds and the outrageous uprisings that surrounded public executions. Public executions were to serve as a spectacle for all to see and instill fear of the might of the sovereign and therefore act as a deterrent for others to commit similar actions. A common belief that is still relevant today is that violence spawned violence. . Randall McGowen attempts to convey the fact that there was an inherent need in society to civilize punishment. Ending public execution and abolishing capital punishment altogether was the desired goal for criminal law reformers. They celebrated the prison as an institution that respected the body and sought to reach the soul of the offender. Conservatives on the other hand saw condemnation of public execution as a stalking horse for total abolition, which explains their long resistance to its termination.2 McGowen furthers the need for civilizing punishment by recounting the type of person(s) who attended public executions. The execution of a criminal for murder brought together only the very dregs of the population and it was impossible to induce respectable persons to be present, both friends and opponents of the death penalty agreed on this point. 3 Members of Parliament, wealthy lords, sheriffs and literary intellects such as Mill would never be found in attendance of a public execution. Unfortunately such barbaric displays of lawful murder lasted for over two decades, after all it was practically considered tradition. McGowen states that the crowds would laugh and mock the accused and even the hangman , but would never ever feel embarrassed at seeing the event. 4 Trials of the time were public and judgment was delivered in an open court, thus making the punishment , typically death, public as well. This made executions theatre like in that crowds of thousand would walk hundreds of miles just to attend. The death penalty was looked upon as a necessary requirement by society to protect itself from the kind of people that attended the gallows. McGowen clearly illustrates that those who attend then are no better than those about to be murdered, in that the are one and the same. Change was not only evident but also a necessity for the growing numbers of attendance to the gallows and the public outrage that coincided with the executions was rapidly increasing. Therefore, it is hard to view the legislation of 1868 in any other light than as a victory for humanity. 5 By this account then the point McGowen is attempting to convey is that society has an ever-growing need to become more civilized and therefore a direct need for more civilized penal practices. With civilization comes humanitarian which resulted in the end but not the abolishment of public execution. Historian David D. Cooper, like McGowen emphasized the beliefs in public executions of the era, If English law was public, as a safeguard against government tyranny, then its punishment must also be public. 6 Reformers underlying movement was not just to end public execution but rather to abolish it altogether. Evidence of this is found in Cooper s essay, the first recorded dissent in parliament against public executions occurred in 1819, but the real movement to abolish them began in the Victorian period when a group of radicals sought to totally abolish capital punishment. 7 Cooper acknowledges that the working class were not alone in their fascination with crime and criminals Crowds swarmed into Newgate on foot, by omnibuses and by the Metropolitan Underground Railway…while vendors hawking chestnuts, oranges, hot potatoes and greasy pastries, moved loudly among them. 8
Reformers such as Charles Dickens attended an execution and later wrote about how he detested public executions and rejected capital punishment. Dickens wrote to various newspapers such as the Daily News and the London Times in hopes to produce enough agitation to abolish public executions. Cooper furthers his essay in illustrating the effects of public execution and how effective private executions have become in other countries: The Select Committee of the House of Lords on Capital Punishment reported that public executions had no deterring effect, and that the system of executions glorified the criminal, cast him in a martyr s role, and lightened the terrors of death…the committee report recommended that henceforth executions should take place within prison walls, noting that other countries including Prussia and the United States executed criminals within prison walls without injurious consequences and with the approval of strong public opinion. 9 Unfortunately Cooper states that both radical and conservative groups condemned the report and argued that giving the government the right to put men to death secretly would lead to secret trials. In becoming a public spectacle, death of the criminal became sensationalized. A condemned man who proves to be resilient, be it for a short time, to the pains given to him by the executioner may be revered a hero rather than being seen as a deterrent. Cooper maintains this idea in his account of the Irish Fenians .10 As a result of this change in the desired response from viewers of the spectacles a similar change was becoming necessary in penal practices. Emphasis began to be put upon the humanity of the crime. The final essay to be reviewd is Ending the Spectacle by V.A.C. Gatrell. For decades past the crowd had been made to bear the odium of the law s brutality, just as the hangman had: so in 1868 it was easy to assume that with the crowds abolition an obscene ceremony was in some magical sense cleansed. 11 Within this text Gatrell emphasizes the need to eradicate public execution for the crowds in attendance were becoming uncontrolable. He begins with the fact that one, cannot deny that 1868 was a civilizing moment in British history…it ended an age old plebeian festival, always rowdy, often cruel, and increasingly shocking…none of this however, means that 1868 marked a humane moment in British history. 12 As mentioned earlier many people wrote of the accounts of a criminals executions. The literature that was offered mimiced the horific account of the actual execution. This gave those who would not attend such an affair, polite people a chance to experience the execution. Gatrell claims that the monstorous other now dominated crime reporting, fiction, and melodrama and furthered his opinion by stating, the biggest audience was still a polite one, tucked away in distant clubs and drawing rooms, consuming images in safety, as pornography is always consumed. 13 Gatrell gives an account of the first private hanging and demonstrates how the prisoners death was no longer a sport for the populace, he furthers this notion by stating that the new system was, wholesome, sound and humane. 14 Fueling the need for reformation of public execution was the fact that the wealthy wanted the gallows relocated at a covenient distance from the town so as not to annoy the inhabitants thereof. 15 This furthered the concept that a change for society was eminent. However it may merely be a fact of human nature to be interested in the macob surrounding the fascination with public execution.