- The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868
Historians have told us in recent years that the gallows cast a long shadow over eighteenth-century Britain. V. A. C. Gatrell, in his new book on execution, agrees with this emphasis, but he can scarcely conceal his impatience with traditional scholarship. Seven thousand people, he calculates, died on the scaffold during the period he studies, and thousands regularly attended the executions. The number executed remained alarmingly large right through the 1820s, and the capital code found defenders to the very last. Gatrell argues that historians have been too quick to turn away from these spectacles of ignominious death. They have been too preoccupied with puzzling out the administration of the law and arguing over whose interests it might serve. “There remain,” he writes, “strange gaps in our understanding. What did humble, middling, and middle kinds of people think about hanging” (vii)? He insists that we should be studying the feelings of people who suffered death, saw the execution, imposed the sentence, and agitated for [End Page 238] reform of the criminal law. We will, he contends, have a better understanding of how the criminal system operated, and why it was reformed, if we pay more attention to the “diverse ways in which people released, accommodated, or suppressed emotions as they watched, read about, or reported hanging”(5).
When we confront the execution scene, Gatrell explains, we must begin with the recognition that what people saw was “horrific”(7). “We must move closer to the choking, pissing, and screaming than taboo, custom, or comfort usually allow”(30). Death was not an abstract idea; it was a grim and messy experience. Such language is characteristic of this book. His approach is psychological; Freud, rather than Foucault, presides over this work (238–41, 266–69). He wants to force us to see what we are too polite to talk about. Gatrell is at war with the squeamishness that characterizes so much of modern civility. He is also at odds with what he calls the “prim” approach of most legal historians. His primary target is the claim of the humanitarians to have overthrown the gallows. Not only did their claims about feeling not bring about reform; on the contrary, it was the simple “overloading of the capital code” that produced change (19). But their supposed sympathy with the condemned was limited. Sympathy was typically reserved for those of their own class. Their fastidiousness kept them from developing a genuine revulsion against the cruelty and injustice of the institution.
Many of the six hundred pages of this book bring together a wide variety of sources that help Gatrell to build a picture of how people reacted to death. He makes imaginative use of broadsides, ballads, and woodcuts to suggest how the populace felt about an execution. He surveys an impressive number of diaries and letters to illustrate the range of responses among the respectable classes. His richest find consists of the petitions submitted to the crown in hopes of securing a mitigation of a sentence of death or transportation. Only a few such petitions survive for the eighteenth century, but by the 1820s we find thick files with extensive comments by those in authority. They offer, he says, a truer guide to public opinion and a more forceful argument for reform than the exaggerated appeals originating with the self-proclaimed humanitarians. He uses these sources to narrate a succession of gripping episodes that illustrate his main points.
Gatrell’s portrait of British justice is as sweeping as his insistence on emotion as the key to the history of the gallows. “It would not be an anachronistic verdict to say that the punishments surveyed here delivered an offense against humanity, and that the scaffold and the justice which sent people to it were monstrous devices of power” (55). Trials were disorderly: judges were callus, careless, and vindictive. They displayed no qualms of conscience as they ignored mitigating claims or even evidence of innocence. His sharpest words are reserved for...