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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.4 (2000) 607-609

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Book Review

Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America

Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835

Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy, eds. Over the Threshold: Intimate Violence in Early America. (New York: Routledge, 1999). viii + 296pp. $75.00 cloth, $19.99 paper.

Michael Meranze. Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1996). xii + 338. $19.95 cloth.

The 1823 hanging of William Gross attested to the ritualistic power of public corporal punishment. Spectators lined Philadelphia's streets as the gown-clad murderer walked from the prison to Logan Square. They watched the sheriff and other public officials following on horseback. Ascending the scaffold, Gross played the perfect penitent and admonished the crowd to avoid card playing and bad company. After his death, a popular pamphlet reiterated the didactic lessons of Gross's fall. The defenders of public order could not have asked for a better ceremony. Why, then, was Gross the last person publicly executed in nineteenth-century Philadelphia?

In Laboratories of Virtue, Michael Meranze argues that public displays of state violence ill-suited a liberal capitalist republic predicated on the self-interested striving and voluntary submission of a rational citizenry. Elite members of Philadelphia's [End Page 607] myriad voluntary associations guided the state to a new penal regime that "restrained the directly violent power of authority only to expand techniques for the more constant oversight and regulation of its subjects" (14). In the decades following the Revolution, Pennsylvania reduced the number of capital offences, terminated public whippings for property crimes, experimented with public labor for convicts, turned to lengthy terms of incarceration, and ultimately segregated criminals from the public--and from one another--in penitentiaries. Stating the fundamental logic of this transition in 1789, Benjamin Rush declared "a wheelbarrow, a whipping post, nay even a gibbet, are all light punishments compared with letting a man's conscience loose upon him in solitude" (168).

Reformers like Rush and Roberts Vaux depended on more than conscience to discipline an increasingly disorderly public. They founded organizations that fanned out into Philadelphia's lower-class neighborhoods, attempted to regulate time and space for residents, and ultimately continued to act upon the body via a massive scheme of institutionalization that ensnared teenagers, prostitutes, the dependent poor, and criminals alike. Opened in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary marked the highest stage of this disciplinary project. But even behind the high walls of this solitary-confinement prison, officials still used physical violence on the recalcitrant. Only in form did the new penal regime differ from the older one based on public corporal punishment. The landscape of penitentiaries and asylums better served liberal capitalism by seeking to create the atomized, self-controlled individual. The contradiction of locking people up to make them free appeared unproblematic.

The disciplinary scene moved haltingly and incompletely from open spaces to hidden ones. William Gross's 1823 execution occurred thirty years into a competing penal model that acted upon the conscience in private, not the body in public. This staggered transition allows Meranze to trace competing discourses across time and to show how penal practices often threatened to undermine the public order they served. In the case of William Gross, officials framed the execution as a morality play in the service of middle-class notions of domestic propriety. To do so required suppressing the details of his crime. Gross murdered Keziah Stow, the unmarried young woman with whom he lived. Gross and Stow traveled in a plebeian subculture where the struggle for economic subsistence precluded middle-class domesticity. So too did a growing percentage of the urban population, for whom the didactic message of the execution would provoke more class resentment than disciplined behavior. By the 1820s, Philadelphia's social order "could no longer be contained within, or sustained by, the rituals of public punishment," which is why its leaders sent no one else to...


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