Friday, 7 November 2014

Murder as Entertainment

This particular gibbet is Winter’s Gibbet, in Northumberland, named after William Winter who was hung at Newcastle’s Westgate prior to the Victorian era in 1792.

I was scrolling through the BBC News website when I came across an article entitled, “Day out at the gallows and other bygone photographic oddities”. It was the first half of this title, “Day out at the gallows”, and the accompanying image (see above) that grabbed my attention. How could visiting the gallows be a family day out? I was fascinated by the notion that Victorian families could enjoy what is essentially the murder of another human being so much so that they would gather for a family photograph beneath a noose and wooden head. This led me in to thinking about Victorian families going out to see the act of public hanging itself.

Public hangings were an extremely popular form of entertainment in Victorian London particularly. They were a spectacle enjoyed by men, women and children of all ages and classes, until the Capital Punishment Amendment Act (1868) banned the practice of public execution. Two writers that are accredited with being very influential in getting this Act passed were Charles Dickens and William Thackeray. Both of these men famously wrote about the spectacle of public hanging.

Dickens' letter to The Times
In a letter to The Times dated 13th November 1849 (see above image), Dickens describes the “wickedness and levity” (43) of the “immense crowd” (43) that had gathered to watch the hanging of Marie and Frederick Manning. Their crime, which became known as the ‘Bermondsey Horror’, was murdering Marie’s former lover and attempting to run away with his money. This was the first time in over a century that a husband and wife had been executed together and this fact added to the public excitement and, consequently, a crowd of between 30,000 and 50,000 spectators assembled to watch.

Dickens despairs at what he perceives to be the immoral levity of the crowd, and he describes in detail the “offensive and foul behaviour” (43) and “tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight” (43) that he observes. Yet his descriptions of the crowd and the “two miserable creatures” (43) that were “turned quivering in the wind” (43) have an element of morbid fascination to them that are not dissimilar to the enjoyment and intrigue of the crowd itself.  Dickens’ is a very negative view of the watching crowd. He employs copious amounts of harsh adjectives to describe the “brutal mirth” (43) of the people gathered, and he writes that their behaviour and attitude towards the scene they had come to witness made his “blood run cold” (43).     

There is a very noticeable difference between Dickens’ account of the Manning executions and William Thackeray’s essay entitled, “Going to see a man hanged” (dated July 1840). Thackeray attended the execution of Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, along with a crowd of 40,000 others (The Victorian Daily). His descriptions of the crowd are far more positive in comparison to Dickens’, and he is far more condemning of the actual act of public hanging itself. Thackeray writes in his essay, “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” (10).

Courvoisier’s case generated a huge amount of public interest and broadsides (such as the one in the image above) were kept as souvenirs by those who attended the public hangings. 
 Although Thackeray’s descriptions agree with Dickens’ in regards to the “festive” (Thackeray 5) atmosphere of the crowd, he portrays the spectators as “extraordinarily gentle and good-humoured” (4) in contrast to Dickens who perceives them to be “inconceivably awful” (43) and “atrocious” (43). Dickens notes that “swooning women were dragged out of the crowd” (43), but Thackeray makes a point of stating that “a dozen people were ready to give the woman protection” (5) and that “round the women the men ha[d] formed a circle, and ke[pt] them as much as possible out of the rush and trample” (5).

Thackeray’s essay alludes to the practice of “tak[ing] a window” (3). He observes how “The windows of the shops opposite are now pretty nearly filled by the persons who hired them” (7). Those that owned or were tenants of the shops and homes with a view of the gallows were able to rent out their rooms for a fee. In Horsemonger Lane, for letting out their rooms with a view for just one public hanging, tenants could make a minimum of the cost of a year’s rent (The Victorian Daily).
At Horsemonger Lane Gaol, public hangings took place on the roof. Those whose homes or businesses overlooked the building could make a lot of money in letting out their rooms for the ‘event’.

 Both Thackeray and Dickens are concerned about how desensitised people are to the public hangings – they are willingly and unflinchingly witnessing murder. Dickens writes despairingly of the fact that after the Mannings were hung, there was “no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, nor more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world” (43). Thackeray shares a similar fear and worry in relation to the public’s desensitisation to the “butchery” (10) of public hanging. He says that the “punishment had grown to be a joke” (7) and that it was not until fifteen minutes prior to the allotted time of death that the crowd began to “think about the man [they] were going to see hanged” (7).

Dickens and Thackeray both end their writings with a prayer of sorts; appealing to God to end the abhorrent act of public hanging that was, as Dickens believed, contaminating and corrupting the country. Dickens ends his letter with the following direct appeal to the reader: “And when in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not time to think of this one, and to root it out” (44). Dickens is clearly very much against, not capital punishment itself, but the public executions that were taking place in Victorian London. Thackeray, on the other hand, is against capital punishment completely. He ends his essay with a similar plea and on an even more despairing note: “I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight; and that I pray to Almighty God to cause this disgraceful sin to pass from among us, and to cleanse our land of blood” (10).

Works Cited:

Dickens, Charles. ‘Letter No. 013” Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving Of A Wider Audience. Ed. Usher, Shaun. Edinburgh: Cannongate Books Ltd., 2013. Print.

Thackeray, William. “Going to see a man hanged” The Ex-Classics Website. Web. 4th December 2014.

Islay, Mathilda. “The Spectacle of Execution part 2”. The Victorian Daily. 25th September 2011. Web. 4th November 2014.

BBC. “Day out at the gallows and other bygone photographic oddities”. BBC NEWS Magazine. September 2014. Web. 4th November 2014.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this Beth, it just seems so bizarre that hangings were such a popular form of entertainment for the Victorians. I wonder why Dickens didn't find enjoyment from watching the hangings, like almost everybody else in Victorian London did...

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this, Daniel. It is bizarre, isn't it? It is amazing how what is culturally and socially acceptable changes over time.

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