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The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 [Paperback]

V. A. C. [Vic] Gatrell
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Nov 1996
Hanging people for small crimes as well as grave, the Bloody Penal Code was at its most active between 1770 and 1830. In those years some 7,000 men and women were executed on public scaffolds, watched by thousands. Hanging was confined to murderers thereafter, but these were still killed in public until 1868. Clearly the gallows loomed over much of social life in this period. But how did those who watched, read about, or ordered these strangulations feel about the terror and suffering inflicted in the law's name? What kind of justice was delivered, and how did it change?

This book is the first to explore what a wide range of people felt about these ceremonies (rather than what a few famous men thought and wrote about them). A history of mentalities, emotions, and attitudes rather than of policies and ideas, it analyses responses to the scaffold at all social levels: among the crowds which gathered to watch executions; among `polite' commentators from Boswell and Byron on to Fry, Thackeray, and Dickens; and among the judges, home secretary, and monarch who decided who should hang and who should be reprieved. Drawing on letters, diaries, ballads, broadsides, and images, as well as on poignant appeals for mercy which historians until now have barely explored, the book surveys changing attitudes to death and suffering, `sensibility' and `sympathy', and demonstrates that the long retreat from public hanging owed less to the growth of a humane sensibility than it did to the development of new methods of punishment and law enforcement, and to polite classes' deepening squeamishness and fear of the scaffold crowd.

This gripping study is essential reading for anyone interested in the processes which have 'civilized' our social life. Challenging many conventional understandings of the period, V. A. C. Gatrell sets new agendas for all students of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture and society, while reflecting uncompromisingly on the origins and limits of our modern attitudes to other people's misfortunes. Panoramic in range, scholarly in method, and compelling in argument, this is one of those rare histories which both shift our sense of the past and speak powerfully to the present.

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The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 + Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law, and Policy in England, 1830-1914
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Product details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed edition (1 Nov 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192853325
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192853325
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.4 x 3.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 390,184 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

[a] classic study (The Sunday Times Culture Magazine)

There is plenty to incite horror, but the cleverness of the book is the way it puts the English way of execution into a political context (Jeremy Paxman, Independent)

monumental in the subtlety and richness of the argument ... a rare combination of pellucid clarity and passion that carries the reader on to the final chapter without a single (John Adamson, Sunday Telegraph)

.

From the Publisher

Winner of the Whitfield Prize of the Royal Historical Society

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
THE WAYS IN WHICH PEOPLE WERE KILLED ON PUBLIC SCAFfolds have always been shrouded in euphemism. Read the first page
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Concordance
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars morbidly fascinating. 1 May 2002
Format:Paperback
This book is as compelling as it is horrific as it draws the reader into the blood soaked wretchedness of 18th and 19th Century London. Using eyewitness accounts, pamphlets and broadsheets of the time Gattrell vividly depicts what life was like for those witnessing or awaiting execution.
With morbid fascination you learn of the appalling torture of condemned souls by bungling executioners, the blood-lust of the baying mob, and the sad lack of regard placed on human life.
This book enables you to almost feel what it must have been like to be at Tyburn or Newgate on hanging day, and how executions rose to almost epidemic proportions in the 1770's for a vast range of crimes that today would warrant no more than a period of community service.
Saddened and sickened, but always morbidly inrigued, this book once started is hard to put down. If you want to know what London was really like 200 years ago this goes some way to opening your eyes. Brillian read!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magisterial 12 Feb 2013
Format:Paperback
The refinement of punishment has been a phenomenon common to most western countries, allowing the survival of practices whose intrinsic barbarity could easily have led to their earlier demise. Torture has long gone, but capital punishment survived in Europe until recent years, and in the United States it not only survived but prospers still. Technological advance aided the sanitization of executions. In America the noose yielded to the electric chair, the gas chamber to the lethal injection. In France the Guillotine brought humanity and equality to death sentences. Kings and commoners would be alike swiftly despatched, and their severed heads lie cheek by cheek in the same basket. In England the removal of hanging from the public gaze and the increasing expertise with which it was carried out defeated abolitionist pressure for a century.

Dr Gatrell has written a magisterial volume, the most important study in 20 years on the last century of public executions in England. At the beginning of his period the Bloody Code, whereby the most minor offender could be hanged, was literally in full swing. The condemned man, taken to a prominent public place, was slowly strangled in full view of the populace, the corpse sometimes being gibbeted for greater effect. Crowds, often drunken, filled the streets when an execution was imminent. Clergy condemned their conduct but not the institution. Dickens deprecated the spectacle but defended the penalty. In the first half of the nineteenth century reformers persuaded parliament to restrict the scope and use of the noose. The numbers hanged fell to a mere handful a year. Finally, in 1868 public executions were ended, and the sentence of death was performed in the privacy of a prison.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A capital volume 23 Aug 2013
Format:Paperback
The refinement of punishment has been a phenomenon common to most western countries, allowing the survival of practices whose intrinsic barbarity could easily have led to their earlier demise. Torture has long gone, but capital punishment survived in Europe until recent years, and in the United States it not only survived but prospers still. Technological advance aided the sanitization of executions. In America the noose yielded to the electric chair, the gas chamber to the lethal injection. In France the Guillotine brought humanity and equality to death sentences. Kings and commoners would be alike swiftly despatched, and their severed heads lie cheek by cheek in the same basket. In England the removal of hanging from the public gaze and the increasing expertise with which it was carried out defeated abolitionist pressure for a century.

Dr Gatrell has written a magisterial volume, the most important study in 20 years on the last century of public executions in England. At the beginning of his period the Bloody Code, whereby the most minor offender could be hanged, was literally in full swing. The condemned man, taken to a prominent public place, was slowly strangled in full view of the populace, the corpse sometimes being gibbeted for greater effect. Crowds, often drunken, filled the streets when an execution was imminent. Clergy condemned their conduct but not the institution. Dickens deprecated the spectacle but defended the penalty. In the first half of the nineteenth century reformers persuaded parliament to restrict the scope and use of the noose. The numbers hanged fell to a mere handful a year. Finally, in 1868 public executions were ended, and the sentence of death was performed in the privacy of a prison.
Read more ›
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