Author Journal / History

Capital Sentences

James Gregory.

Victorians Against the GallowsImagine a dishevelled father reading the illustrated pages of Murder Monger to his wife and a brood of ragged children in a slum room adorned with the portraits of such homicidal celebrities as the murderer James Greenacre. So the famous cartoonist John Leech, in the pages of the magazine Punch in 1849, depicted the depraved taste of the lowest classes. Throughout the Victorian age, there was much anxiety expressed about violent, lurid and suggestive literature corrupting the minds of the working-classes, through tales which recounted the exploits of highwaymen such as Jack Sheppard, and other villains; and condemnation of the gutter press for bloodthirsty reporting of modern atrocities.

For my study of the efforts to abolish capital punishment in Britain, Victorians Against the Gallows, however, I have been interested not so much in the ‘literature of Newgate’ (so-called after the prison in London) as in the discussion of crime and punishment in works of fiction which sought to make the gallows a thing of the past.

We know that a few important early Victorian novelists used their works to critique current penal practices – Edward Lytton Bulwer had done this already in Paul Clifford in 1830, and Dickens expressed his distaste in Barnaby Rudge in 1841, for instance. Dickens’ friend Douglas Jerrold – a famous writer at the time – was a noted abolitionist who used the pages of Punch magazine in its early years, to promote this cause. Other novels were for a middle-class readership – appearing in expensive three-volume novels, or short stories in periodicals. For a more plebeian readership there was the impassioned attack on the gallows in G.W.M. Reynolds’s radical and lurid penny dreadfuls on underworld and aristocratic depravities, Mysteries of the Court of London (1848 – 1856).

Naturally, since capital punishment was one of the heated questions of the day, not all the literary treatments were against capital punishment, and, rather like the representation of the vegetarian which I explored in an earlier book, Of Victorians and Vegetarians, the abolitionist might figure as a representative crank or revolutionary.

Abolitionists believed in the power of the text to persuade readers: hence the mass of pamphlets they produced to try and win over public opinion and politicians. The problem for the abolitionist cause was that, as the journalist Charles Manby Smith wrote in 1856, the ‘annals of literature can boast no publication whose circulation equals that of the gallows-sheet’.  Street literature associated with public hanging (not abolished in Britain until 1868) rarely criticised the penalty of death when they provided the life, trial, confessions and dying speeches of the condemned men and women – although I uncovered a few posters and broadsheets produced by abolitionists which sought to parody these.

For further evidence that capital punishment featured as the terrible fate of evildoers in Victorian literature – especially moralistic tales for a middle-class Christian households – you need look no further than Mary Sherwood’s Fairchild Family (first published in 1818) in which the father provided a memorable lesson to his children about the consequences of crime, after the squabbling at the breakfast table, by showing them the mouldering corpse of a murder on gibbet:

…the body of a man hung in chains; the body had not yet fallen to pieces, although it had hung there some years. It had on a blue coat, a silk handkerchief round the neck, with shoes and stockings, and every other part of the dress still entire; but the face of the corpse was shocking, that the children could not look upon it.

‘Oh! Papa, papa! What is that?’ cried the children.

‘That is a gibbet’, said Mr Fairchild: ‘and the man who hangs upon it is a murderer – one who first hated and afterwards killed his brother!’

The influence of Sherwood’s Fairchild Family was so vast that it led the Morning Chronicle to declare: ‘There is hardly an Evangelical family in England in which this lady’s works are not “the children’s library”.’

It’s difficult to ascertain whether reading about capital punishment in works of fiction persuaded people to join the ranks of abolitionists – many abolitionists before the abolition of public hanging had the visible horrors of execution crowd and gallows as a more compelling spur to their imagination and sympathies. Newspapers endlessly reported executions and participated in the debates on the rights and wrongs of the death penalty. But my study of the capital punishment question in novels, short stories in periodicals, and poetry, persuades me, a historian rather than literary scholar, that a turn to works of fiction, whether high brow or low brow, is essential for uncovering the complexities of attitudes towards important topics in the past.

James Gregory is Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Bradford and his new book, Victorians Against the Gallows, was published in November.

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