Not Saussure

January 1, 2007

Dickens on public hangings

Filed under: Books, history — notsaussure @ 1:00 pm

Dickens, in a letter to the London Daily News in 1846, having watched a hanging for the first time:

I was, purposely, in the spot, from midnight of the night before; and was a near witness of the whole process of the building of the scaffold, the gathering of the crowd, the gradual swelling of the concourse with the coming-on of day, the hanging of the man, the cutting of the body down, and the removal of it into the prison. From the moment of my arrival, when there were but a few score boys in the street, and all those young thieves, and all clustered together behind the barrier nearest to the drop–down to the time when I saw the body with its dangling head, being carried on a wooden bier into the gaol–I did not see one token in all the immense crowd; at the windows, in the streets, on the house-tops, anywhere; of any one emotion suitable to the occasion.

No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of “Hats off!” when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a Play–to see the stage the better, in the final scene.

And this, from his essay (letter?) on Capital Punishment;

There never is (and there never was) an execution at the Old Bailey in London, but the spectators include two large classes of thieves– one class who go there as they would go to a dog-fight, or any other brutal sport, for the attraction and excitement of the spectacle; the other who make it a dry matter of business, and mix with the crowd solely to pick pockets. Add to these, the dissolute, the drunken, the most idle, profligate, and abandoned of both sexes– some moody ill-conditioned minds, drawn thither by a fearful interest–and some impelled by curiosity; of whom the greater part are of an age and temperament rendering the gratification of that curiosity highly dangerous to themselves and to society–and the great elements of the concourse are stated.

Nor is this assemblage peculiar to London. It is the same in country towns, allowing for the different statistics of the population. It is the same in America.

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  1. Dickens puts it rather well, methinks.

    Comment by Longrider — January 1, 2007 @ 3:03 pm

  2. I thought he expressed it pretty accurately, too.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 1, 2007 @ 9:03 pm

  3. Very apt extracts, deeply sobering. And, on top of everything, what a political mess the Saddam hanging has made.

    Comment by Dave Hill — January 2, 2007 @ 4:55 pm

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