by Antony E. Simpson (ed). Lambertville, NJ: The True Bill Press, 2008. 230pp. Hardback $65.00. ISBN: 9780979111617.

Reviewed by J Thomas Parker, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Office of the Inspector General. Email: j.parker [at] us.army.mil.


In an obvious way, the title to Professor Antony E. Simpson’s WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD; ENGLISH LITERARY FIGURES AS OBSERVERS OF PUBLIC EXECUTIONS: PIERCE EGAN, THACKERAY, DICKENS, ALEXANDER SMITH, G.A. SALA, ORWELL, tells what there is to tell about the book. The six literary figures offer accounts about hangings. In reality, the book provides more as Simpson opens with a lengthy essay and as he provides further interpretive essaysto set the stage for the individual authors.

In his introductory essay, Simpson gives a solid explanation concerning the range of crimes for which Britain meted out a death sentence, the techniques used, and the numbers of cases from 1805-1845. This landscape has been thoroughly examined (Gatrell 1994), but Simpson is more particularly focused on the fact that hangings were held publicly in England until 1868. In fact, they were widely attended gatherings. London crowds are estimated to have “routinely numbered in the tens of thousands” but a couple of particularly interesting cases may have drawn upwards to 100,000 people (p.7).

There are many explanations for public executions. There is some belief that there was doubt that sentences would always be carried out and mistrust that the wealthy could buy their way out. The opposite belief may have also existed. If the events were not public it would be possible for the government to execute its enemies without benefit of trial (pp.9-10). In all likelihood, the truth lies in more base aspects of human nature. Instead of any link to a rule working to foster a greater municipal order, the event simply catered to “a salacious, prurient element in which emotion is on display” (p.10). Although the general character of the crowd behavior may have changed over time, there was very often an attendant, carnival-like atmosphere. Still, the public nature of the ceremony may have worked, before the advent of modern policing methods, to instill order (p.19). It may have served functionally in fostering the two main tenets of British penal law: “the application of terror and mercy” (p.12).

The fact that executions were public events, then, provides much worth discussing, particularly since they continued to draw crowds from all classes, both sexes, and even children. Professor Simpson’s opening discussion on this range of issues is brief but thorough, and he draws on a wide range of source material in telling the broader [*871] story. A primary aim is to explore the crowd's psychology but, as a matter of literary criticism, to go further and ascertain whether “these authors express empathy with the crowd as fellow witnesses to brutality, or superiority to it for its coarseness and insensitivity” (p.49).

The first offering from WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD comes from Pierce Egan and concerns the case of John Thurtell, who, with two accomplices, was convicted for the murder of William Weare. Thurtell was what we would probably refer to today as a “B-list” celebrity as he was involved in the theater and prominent in gambling and sporting circles. Given that he was a public figure “[n]ewspaper coverage of the murder and trial was massive” (p.55). Thurtell murdered Weare because Weare had cheated Thurtell at cards and because Weare was reputed to carry large sums of money. Egan’s account takes us from the trial through Thurtell’s hanging. His portrayal is over-the-top with its sympathy for the condemned man. Thurtell is shown to be eloquent, noble, generous to the prison officials, and ultimately repentant of his sin. Egan’s retelling of the minister’s sermon to Thurtell is remarkable for its detail (pp.80-83).

The next account comes from William Makepeace Thackeray and describes the execution of François Courvoisier. Courvoisier was a servant who concocted an elaborate scheme to rob his master and to cover the crime by making it look like a burglary-murder. Thackeray’s focus is on how the execution takes place. Unlike Egan, who apparently had access to the condemned, Thackeray imagines what goes on in Courvoisier’s final hours, but he does render a clear account of the hanging itself, what he describes as “this hideous debauchery” (p.123).

The third entry is from Charles Dickens and is made up of three letters to THE TIMES editor. The first of these was penned after Dickens witnessed Courvoisier’s execution. The second and third came after Dickens witnessed the execution of Frederick and Maria Manning, a husband and wife team who shot and bludgeoned their friend, Patrick O’Connor. Unlike the other accounts, Dickens spends little time describing the condemned. His essays are essentially calls to put an end to the public spectacle because it “attract[s] . . . the most abandoned of mankind” and because of its “debasing and hardening influence” (p.152).

The next account is from Alexander Smith. Like Dickens, Smith spends little time on the condemned men. Dennis Doolan and Patrick Redding were railroad workers convicted of murdering their oppressive overseer, John Green, in revenge for the dismissal of Doolan’s brother. Only a boy at the time, the point of Smith’s recollection is to juxtapose the spectacle of a lark alighting from the scene of the hangings. The sunny flight of this bird is actually “ghastly” as it points out how nature is unaffected in the face of the torment about to ensue (p.177). Smith does offer his opinion that individuals are attracted to a public execution because they hope thereby to gain a better understanding of what death may be like (p.170). He also offers up the fascinating idea that a public execution works to steady the condemned and that a private one would be more difficult to bear. It was his [*872] belief that the condemned would be “soothed somewhat with the idea that his firmness and composure will earn him the approbation, perhaps the pity of the spectators” (p.171).

The fifth account is from George Augustus Sala. Sala is probably the most obscure of the authors under examination. His story is called “Open-Air Entertainments.” In this account he relates how he was on his way back to London from Brighton. While looking for something to occupy his time, he finds a crowd of people at the train station who are headed off to a fair. He is shocked to find that the fair, “where mirth and jollity seemed universally to reign[,]” was not really a fair (p.200). Instead, it was the scene for the hanging of Sarah Ann French who was convicted of poisoning her husband. As Simpson points out, Sala’s surprise was probably less than genuine (p.188). Sarcastic or not, Sala neatly, draws out the point that the crowd’s behavior and the conversations of those present in no way reflected any of the moral or other reasons “for which this fair had been professedly made public” (p.203).

George Orwell gives us the last offering. It differs substantially from the others in that the hanging takes place in the 1920s and in colonial Burma. More importantly, unlike the other accounts, the crime in this instance was of no apparent interest to the general public and Orwell provides no background or other context. As in the other stories, witnesses attend the execution, but unlike the others, the audience is made up solely of government officials. Of all the offerings, Orwell’s is perhaps the most understated, but also the most compelling. Orwell explains what he thinks about the event, that it was quite horrible, but the reader can easily draw the same conclusions. As the condemned man walks his final steps, he takes pains to avoid stepping into a puddle of water. Whatever his crime it goes unnoticed and forgiven by a dog who interrupts by bounding into the procession and attempting to lick the condemned man’s face. Taken together, we come to understand that he is still a viable human capable of worrying about the minutest concerns even while on the verge of his fate. Without the complete story of the crime, one must assume the punishment in this instance was meant to deter, was simply retribution, or was a routine exercise of colonial power. Orwell’s description, then, establishes how the exercise works to convey a more basic, but more important message.

Each of the authors gives us a different perspective from which to examine the public spectacle. While one could find commonality among all the stories, Egan and Orwell are concerned to comment on a human toll that transcends any justice in the punishment. Thackeray’s primary focus is on the methodology itself. Smith ascribes metaphysical meaning to the event. Sala, if he can be taken at face value, gives insight into the crowd’s psychology. Although each author provides at least a glimpse at the crowd and its behavior, Dickens’ intent is to offer up the crowds’ behavior for condemnation.

In response to Professor Simpson’s central question, Egan and Orwell have the most empathy for the crowd “as . . . witnesses to brutality.” The rest are at a superior remove, but any ultimate conclusion is difficult and there are subtle distinctions in each case. With [*873] Sala, for example, and as Professor Simpson points out, a deeper interpretation would be that his sarcastic approach works to mask the possibility that he had no real interest in the crowd’s behavior, but the crowd offered up a way for him to sell a story (pp.186-7).

As with the opening, lengthy essay, Professor Simpson’s shorter entries provide background information to set up the authors’ stories. He covers the authors’ biographies, the condemned persons’ crimes, and their biographies where known. He provides insight into how the executions may have influenced the authors’ other work. His research into each story and its author is quite thorough as the numerous footnotes establish. In Dickens’ case, the letters to the editor would be difficult to understand without the interpretive essay. Most importantly, Professor Simpson has woven all of this straightforward material together, but he has further contextualized the information. As an example, he looks beyond Thackeray’s description of the crowd to other newspaper accounts in order to confirm Thackeray’s accuracy (p.106, n.14). As another example, he digs to find that Sala’s point that public executions fail to deter was confirmed when another woman who lived near the site of the French hanging was charged herself for poisoning within two weeks of French’s execution (p.193).

This book should prove useful to those with an interest in the particular authors represented, to those with an interest in the history of the administration of British justice, and to activists and attorneys who deal with capital punishment. For the latter group, the work offers small practical utility, but will broaden one’s understanding. Professor Simpson’s essays will offer much to literary scholars, but they will have undoubtedly already considered the excerpted portions. The opposite may prove true for historians in that the excerpted portions should broaden their knowledge about the literary figures, but Professor Simpson’s essays probably discuss issues with which they are already familiar. For those interested in law in literature, WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD provides welcome insight into how a process, other than the jury trial, may have affected and infused the work of the authors under consideration. WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD could serve as an introductory text for those with a focused interest on the subject, but it may work best supplementing more comprehensive treatments.

These possibilities aside, WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD is a relatively short work, but it takes one into the midst of the crowd. As much as one might find answers to questions about the authors and fodder for debate on Professor Simpson’s central question, the book also works to bore at questions about whether such spectacles would come off today and whether any of us would have the nerve to attend even if we were like Sala and obviously bent from the outset to foist up the crowds’ behavior. With a lucrative, graphic entertainment industry churning away, perhaps answers to those questions are not far off, but the stories and essays in WITNESSES TO THE SCAFFOLD bring us as close as we should ever hope to come to actually witnessing an execution. [*874]

Gatrell, V.A.C. 1994. THE HANGING TREE: EXECUTION AND THE ENGLISH PEOPLE 1770-1868. New York: Oxford University Press.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, J Thomas Parker.