In May 1868 Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act which abolished the practice of public executions in the United Kingdom. Instead the Capital Punishment Amendment Act required that all prisoners sentenced to death shall now be executed within prison walls and their bodies should also be buried within the grounds of the prison. [1] The fenian Michael Barrett who was convicted for his involvement in the Clerkenwell prison bombing in 1867 was the last prisoner to be publically executed in Britain in May 1868.

Two days later the new capital punishment bill was passed and the so called ‘Spectacle of the Scaffold’ was over. The Daily Telegraph described the banning of public executions as an end to ‘a fragment of medieval barbarism’. There was much debate in the nineteenth century and there is still debate in recent times between historians such as V. A. C. Gatrell, David Cooper and Randall McGowan over the decision by Parliament to abolish public executions in 1868.

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To an extent it is reasonable to describe the abolishment of public executions as an end to ‘a fragment of medieval barbarism’ as to execute prisoners in a brutal way such as hanging in front of the general public is barbaric, uncivilised and backward. However it has to be noted that although public executions were banned, condemned prisoners still suffered the same brutal death of hanging within prisons walls up until 1965. 2] This essay will assess the themes of how humane banning public executions was, the role of the crowd, the civility of public executions, individual cases such as the Edith Thompson case and miscarriages of justice. Firstly it is important to assess how humane the decision to ban public executions actually was.

Various historians such as David Cooper and Leon Radzinowicz would agree with the Daily Telegraph’s assessment that the abolishment of public executions was an end to ‘a fragment of medieval barbarism’. 3] Cooper states that by banning public executions ‘another landmark in the more humane treatment of criminals was reached in the United Kingdom’. [4] However this was not the end of the death penalty in the United Kingdom. It should be noted that the executions of condemned prisoners still continued within prisons walls well into the twentieth century, and capital punishment for murder was not abolished in the United Kingdom until 1965 through the passage of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act by Parliament in 1965. 5] Between 1868 and 1965 over six hundred condemned prisoners were executed in England and Wales. [6] It is also important to note that these executions were mostly carried out through hanging the condemned prisoner. So while executions were moved within prison walls, prisoners were still executed using the same method and suffered in the same way as they did in public executions. In some cases prisoners suffered even worse in private. [7] Horror stories of brutal and botched executions started to leak out of prisons.

One example of this is the execution of Robert Goodale by hangman James Berry in November 1885, in which the hanging went so wrong that the noose decapitated the condemned prisoner. [8] Therefore this clearly contrasts with Cooper’s argument that moving executions within prison walls was a more humane approach as prisoners still suffered in the same way as they did before and in some cases such as Robert Goodale’s arguably suffered a worse fate.

Overall it is clear to see that banning public executions in the United Kingdom was not all that humane, as the same brutal and barbaric practice of hanging prisoners remained, the only difference was that it was now done in private rather than in public. It is also important to examine the role of the crowd in public executions. Public executions were big events in nineteenth century Victorian Britain and often the number of people gathered in front of the gallows to watch the hanging reached well into the thousands. This has led to public hangings being dubbed the ‘Spectacle of the Scaffold’.

McGowan states that the crowds at public executions were ‘monstrous’ and approached the event in the ‘wrong frame of mind’. [9] This is true to a large extent as there has been various reports of disorder and rioting at public executions, and in some cases deaths among the crowds. An example of this is an execution in Newgate in 1807 in which at least twenty seven people were reportedly killed. The Times’ newspaper report of Michael Barrett’s execution reported that ‘so the concourse broke up with its usual concomitants of assault and robbery’. 10] Evidently public executions resulted in crime, rioting and general disorder. There are also various negative descriptions of the crowd from first hand witnesses. For instance the Rev S. G. Osbourne, who described the people who attended public executions as the ‘very scum of mankind’ and stated that ‘their fearful language, people to whom it is a sort of gala day, men and women blaspheming, singing obscene songs, with half drunken jollity coming to riot below the gallows’.

In addition a police officer testified in 1856 that the crowd responded to executions with ‘all kinds of levity, jeering, laughing, hooting, whistling, while he is still struggling and his body is withering there is still these noises going on’, while Lord Henry Lennox complained that ‘they were joking, laughing, pelting oranges, bonneting each other, throwing hats in the air and hailing these practical jokes with burts of laughter’. 12] It is fair to say that public executions attracted the wrong sort of crowds and McGowan’s argument that the audience ‘came in the wrong frame of mind’ is clearly true from the inappropriate behaviour displayed by the crowd.

Therefore this suggests that the Daily Telegraph’s assessment that banning public executions was an end to ‘a fragment of medieval barbarism’ was a reasonable assessment. It is now essential to examine how civilised the decision to ban public executions actually was. V. A. C. Gatrell states that the decision to abolish public executions was part of a ‘civilising process in British society’ and a ‘civilising moment in British history’. [13] This is a fair to an extent. As clearly executing prisoners in a brutal method such as hanging in front of the general public was a barbaric, backward and uncivilised practice and something which should not take place in a civilised society. In addition clearly from the previous paragraph it can be seen that the crowds which attended public executions often behaved and acted in an uncivilised manner.

Seemingly crowds did not take the executions as seriously as the authorities wanted, public executions were meant to send a strong moral message to the public and act as strong deterrent against crime but instead seemed to have had more of a carnival like atmosphere, which is evidently inappropriate and uncivilised behaviour for what should have been solemn events. [14] Therefore banning public executions was clearly part of a civilising process, however there was still a long way to go.

While public executions were abolished, private executions remained which still produced shocking and uncivilised cases. One example of this is the case of Edith Thompson. Edith Thompson was convicted for murder in 1923 on questionable evidence by a male dominated jury. Historians such as Lucy Bland have put forward the argument that Edith Thompson was executed over moral outrage due to her appearance as a flapper and her behaviour which was deemed unacceptable rather than murder. 15] Furthermore Thompson was thought to be pregnant when she was executed and her hanging was particularly brutal which had such an effect on the executioner John Ellis that he quit his post and later committed suicide. [16] Therefore it is clear to see that while abolishing public executions was part of a civilising process this was still to a small extent as shocking and barbaric cases such as Edith Thompson’s continued to emerge.

Finally the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of banning public executions as an end to ‘a fragment of medieval barbarism’ is only reasonable to a small extent as cases of wrongful executions continued to emerge. An example of this is the case of Derek Bentley. In 1952 Derek Bentley was convicted and hanged for the murder of a police officer named Sidney Miles however it was clear that Bentley did not commit the crime. [17] In addition Bentley had the estimated mental age of between nine and twelve and no defence witnesses were called on Bentley’s behalf in court.

In 1998 Bentley received a posthumous pardon for the crime. It should also be noted that the bodies of executed prisoners such as Bentley’s were buried within the grounds of the prison, while previously before the 1868 act bodies of executed prisoners were at least returned to the family and received a proper burial. It is fair to say that hanging prisoners with clear mental deficiencies without clear evidence is barbaric and backward. This therefore suggests that Daily Telegraph’s assessment that banning public executions was an ‘to a fragment of medieval barbarism’ is not a reasonable assessment.

In conclusion it is clear to see that the Daily Telegraph’s assessment of the banning of public executions as ‘an end to a fragment of medieval barbarism’ was only a reasonable assessment to a small extent. The decision to ban public executions was part of a civilising process to an extent as exposing the general public to the brutal death of hanging was uncivilised and backward. However prisoners still suffered the same brutal and barbaric method of hanging just now in within prison walls rather than in public.

In some cases condemned prisoners arguably suffered even worse in private than in public, one example of this being the execution of James Goodale in 1885. Therefore capital punishment in the United Kingdom was clearly was not made more humane by banning public executions. In addition shocking individual cases such as Edith Thompson’s continued to emerge. Edith Thompson was convicted without concrete evidence by a male dominated jury and appeared to be pregnant at the time of execution, which is something that should not happen in a civilised and humane legal system.

Furthermore continuation of the death penalty inevitably to miscarriages of justice in which innocent people suffered the brutal death of hanging, an example being Derek Bentley, which again is uncivilised and barbaric. Overall it is clear that banning public executions was a step forward, there was still a long way to go as the continuation of the practice of hanging was barbaric and medieval. Therefore banning public executions was not an end to a fragment of medieval barbarism.