The death penalty

Capital Punishment, the death penalty… surprisingly the last executions in the United Kingdom by the noose took place in 1964.

You be executed for all sorts 200 years ago such as ‘being in the company for one month’, vagrancy for soldiers and sailors, shoplifting goods worth 5 shillings or less, returning from transportation, letter-stealing and sacrilege..seems a bit hard to me and I guess Samuel Romilly introduced reforms in 1808 to abolish the death penalty for some of the 200-plus capital offences.

The ‘Bloody code’ as it was called saw reforms between 1832- 1834 where the death penalty was abolished for all of the above.

Another reform saw the end of gibbeting, this was the practice of hanging a body in a cage…this was supposed to be a warning to those who had criminal tendancies.

J.Ewing Ritchie describes a public hanging from the 1850’s

I am not about to give an opinion as to the propriety or impropriety of capital punishments.  On this point good men have differed, and will differ, I dare say, for some time to come.  What I wish to impress upon the philanthropic or Christian reader is the horrible nature and atrocious effect of a public execution.

A few Sunday evenings since I was passing by Newgate, along the outside of which a considerable crowd had been collected.  Respectable mechanics, with their wives and children, were staring at its dreary stone walls.  Ragged boys and girls were romping and laughing in the streets.  All the neighbouring public-houses were filled with a tipsy crowd.  Here and there a few barriers had been erected, and workmen were engaged in putting up more.  Why were these preparations made?  For what purpose had this crowd collected?  A man was to be hung, was the reply.  I resolved for once to see the tragedy performed.  To me or the living mass around, that man was an utter stranger.  I had never seen him or heard the sound of his voice; all I knew was that he had led an outlaw’s life, and was to die as outlaws ofttimes do.  How strange the mysterious interest with which death clothes everything it touches!  Is it that looking at a man so soon to have done with life we fancy we can better pry into the great secret?  Do we deem that seeing him struggle we shall die more manfully ourselves, or is it merely the vague interest with which we regard any one about to travel into distant regions, all unknown to him or us, and the secrets of which he can never return to tell?  Be this as it may, I went back at twelve.  The public-houses had been closed, decent people had gone home to bed; but already the crowd had become denser, already had the thief and the bully from all the slums and stews of the metropolis been collected together.  You can easily recognise the criminal population of our capital.  The policeman knows them instinctively, as with their small wiry figures, restless eyes, and pale faces, they pass him by.  One can tell them as easily as one knows the child of Norman origin by his noble bearing, or the Anglo-Saxon by his blue eyes and rosy cheeks.  There is generally something fine, and genial, and hearty about an English mob.  On the night of the peace-rejoicing you might have taken a lady from one end of London to the other, and she would not have heard an objectionable word, or been inconvenienced in the least; but the mob of which I now write seemed utterly repulsive and reprobate; all its sympathies seemed perverted.  It is a hard world this, I know, and it has but little mercy for the erring and the unfortunate; but that they should regard it with such evil eyes, that they should be so completely estranged from all its recognised modes of thought and action, that it should seem to them such a complete curse, was what I was not prepared to expect.  It really made one’s blood run cold to hear the mob around me talk.  The man to be hung had rushed into a jeweller’s shop as it was being closed, beaten the shopman, who tried to defend his master’s property, with a life-preserver, and then left him for dead.  But he had not said one word about his accomplices, and the crowd evidently admired him rather than not.  “The ticket-of-leave man was out on starvation,” as one of them informed me.  “The Government,” I drop the expressive adjective by which the noun was prefixed, “dodges him, and if he steals it is only what he must do, and if murder follows it is not his fault, and Government is unjust in hanging him for it.”  Such was the popular notion of the subject in my immediate neighbourhood.  Government seemed to have planned the opportunity for the holders of such opinions to ventilate them.  Till eight o’clock these men were to be formed into one compact mass; and how were they to pass their time if they did not talk? and here who was there to lift up his voice on behalf of law and order? and if there were such, who would have listened?  Realise the state of the case.  Look around!  Where do you see the clear front and unabashed presence of honesty and virtue?  The virtuous and the honest have long been in bed.  Here there is a fight.  That bundle of rags, with matted hair covering all the face so that you cannot clearly see a feature, is the Clare Market Pet, and she has just encountered Slashing Sal, between whom and herself there has been mortal enmity for years.  Both women—yes, they are women, nor so fallen are they but that the temperance agent or the city missionary may yet lead them to a diviner life, and He may smile on them who never yet turned away repentant son or daughter of sin and shame—are very tipsy, very dirty, and very red.  Shrieking and cursing, the Clare Market Pet rushes on Slashing Sal, who is by no means loth for the encounter.  A ring is formed, men and boys halloo and encourage, and the battle rages furiously, though both women are far too drunk to do each other any serious harm.  At length the Clare Market Pet is vanquished and order is restored, just as we are told tranquillity reigns at Naples.  “Please give me a penny,” says a girl of about fourteen, and I find myself in the midst of a group of youthful costermongers and their wives, who have come here for a lark, just as they frequent the penny gaff, or crowd the gallery in the Victoria.  I listen to their slang till I feel sick, as I think for what a future of crime and its result they are now rapidly ripening.  In this Christian land can no agency be formed that shall save these young heathens?  Again, I find a female standing by my side; she is horridly dirty; she stinks of gin; her face is that of the confirmed sot—of one who has given up home and husband, and comfort, and decency, for the accursed drink.  She looks very piteously in my face.  “And so they are going to hang the poor man,” she exclaims; “they have no mercy on him.”  “You forget,” I reply, “the poor man whom he murdered, and on whom he had no mercy.”  “No, I don’t,” she exclaims with tipsy gravity; “he had no right to kill the man, and ought to be punished; but ain’t we all morally bad?”—but here the conversation ends, for she has sunk down, maudlin, stinking with gin, and overcome by it and weariness, on the doorstep.  Ah, these doorsteps, let us look at them.  To-night the police don’t bid the habitués move on.  What crowds are collected on them,—ragged boys, who, perhaps, have nowhere else to sleep, wild-looking women unbonnetted and shoeless, with red, uncombed hair, faces very much marked with the small pox, only seen on such occasions as these—old men crouch on them for whom home has no charm, and life no lustre, and girls whose rouged cheeks and shabby finery tell to what wretchedness and degradation, though young in years, they have already come.  Let them sleep on, if they can, on their stony mattress, beneath this inclement sky, out in this cold December night; they are happier now than they can be in their waking hours!  But look at the windows, all lighted up and filled with gay company.  Those two beautiful girls—let us hope they are not ladies—not English mothers or wives—who have just stepped out of the brougham, and are now gazing from a first-floor on the wild human sea beneath, will sit playing cards and drinking champagne all night; yet scarce have the sounds of Sabbath bells died away, and in a few hours a man is to be hung, and these girls, all sensibility and tears, will sit with their opera glasses during the fearful agony, as if merely Grisi acted or Mario sang.

Let us take another stroll through this living mass.  The workmen have put up the last barriers—the clock strikes three—a crowd, dense and eager, has planted itself by the Old Bailey.  The yard is thrown open, and three strong horses, such as you see in brewers’ drays, drag along what seems to be an immense clumsy black box.  It stops at the door of Newgate nearest to St Sepulchre’s.  Women shriek as it rumbles over the stones, and you shudder, for instinctively you guess it is the gallows.  By the dim gas-light you see workmen first fix securely a stout timber—then another—and then a beam across from which hangs a chain—and now the crowd becomes denser.  Let us leave it and enter the house, at the top of which we have previously engaged a seat.

We are some eight or nine in a very small room, and most of us are amateurs in hanging, and it seems to us a very pleasant show.  Some of us have come a long way, and most of us have been up all night.  We have seen every execution for the last ten years, and boast how on one day we saw one man hung at Newgate, and took a cab and got to Horsemonger-lane in time to see another.  A rare feat that, and one of which we are justly proud.  We talk of these things, and how we have seen criminals die, till some of us get very angry, and flatly contradict each other.  Altogether there is somewhat too much mirth in the house, though we could not have had a better place had we paid £5 for it.  The women are too exuberant and full of fun.  It is true, as the girls say to each other, “they don’t hang a man every day,” but the gaiety is discordant.  Over the way he is just waking up from his troubled sleep.  A thin waif of smoke goes up from the dark dreary building opposite—are they boiling him his last cup of tea?  See, there is a light in the press-room!  Ah, what are they doing there?  St Sepulchre’s strikes six.  The door at the foot of the scaffold opens, and very stealthily, and so as to be seen by none but such as are high up like ourselves, a man throws sawdust on the scaffold, and disappears again; we see him this time with a chain or rope.  All this while the hydra-headed mob beneath amuses itself in various ways.  It sings songs, chiefly preferring those with a chorus—it hoots dogs—it tosses small boys about on its top.  As we look from the window, we think we never saw such a mob before.  Far as the eye can reach towards Ludgate-hill on one side, and Giltspur-street on the other, it is one mass of human heads; the very air is tainted with their odour—we smell it where we are.  Our amateur friends are in excellent spirits; they have not seen so many people at an execution for some years.  They are agreeably surprised; they all thought the man would not have been hung, and had backed their opinions by bets.

A long wearisome night was it, even to us—and it is not yet eight.  The roar of the crowd is so great—can hehear it within?—that we cannot catch the sound of the neighbouring chimes; but we see signs that the end is approaching.  The police have filled up the intervening space between the scaffold and the crowd.  A bell tinkles dismally, horridly.  We look beyond the scaffold down into the open doorway, and there they are, ascending the stairs.  First the chaplain, then the criminal, and then Jack Ketch.  Marley walks steadily, with pale face and eyes cast down, and places himself immediately under the rope.  He trembles slightly as his legs are being fastened, his hands had already been pinioned behind.  A nightcap is drawn over his face, the rope is adjusted round his neck, Jack Ketch hastens down the ladder, the chaplain, reading the burial service all the while, steps back, down goes the drop, a woman or two shrieks, there is a slight convulsive movement of the body, and what was a minute back a living man is now a dishonoured corpse.  There he dangles in the cold north wind for an hour.  We cannot get away, as the crowd is determined to see the last of it, and will not move.  It stops to hoot Jack Ketch, as he comes to cut Marley down at nine o’clock.  Till then, there he hangs, a tall, well-made man, with fine dark whiskers, in his very prime, heedless of the sixty thousand glaring eyes all round, with hands clasped as if supplicating that divine mercy which all born of woman need, and which may God grant us in our dying hour.  Away hastes the crowd to its business or its pleasure; and when a short time after I pass by the very spot where that hideous throng had stood, blaspheming in the very presence of death, butchers’ and carriers’ carts filled up the vacant space, and the past night seemed a ghastly dream.

Public executions were halted in 1868 because it was felt  (and by reading the above) they were grotesque.

The question of the ultimate penalty, that of death comes back from time to time in the UK. I believe a public members bill has been drawn up to debate it.

I guess the questions is the ‘Who has the right to take another’s life…?’

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