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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars morbidly fascinating., 1 May 2002
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
By 
Samuel Romilly (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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. Gatrell, in rich detail, traces the complex development of a sensibility nurtured in security which led to disgust at, and opposition to, the public manifestation of death. His conclusion is that we are humane when we can afford to be: 'hostility to the scaffold on humane grounds was never so vehement as when the perceived need for it was waning'. Thus, more convincingly than most, he interrelates the material, political and cultural moves towards the restriction of capital punishment. Hanging was camouflaged, not abolished. One factor, in my opinion, crucial to its survival was the flexibility and ingenuity with which its practitioners and protectors sanitised its procedure. Behind prison walls, after a period set aside for appeals and penitence, the condemned man was despatched almost instantaneously in the presence of a few prison officials and civic dignitaries. This imprisonment of punishment in England - like the invention of the Guillotine in France - was the innovation enabling executions to continue -out of sight - for another 100 years. It burst the bubble of more radical reform. By 1868 agitation for abolition had largely ceased and was not revived for a further 50 years. But that is another story.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Hanging Tree, 21 Sept. 2010
"The Hanging Tree -- Execution and the English people, 1770-1868" isn't really for the sensation-seeker or the ghoulish -- despite its rather lurid title (although, that said, its detailed descriptions of many of the condemned's last days could best be described as "unflinching"!).

Rather, it's a long and fairly academic review of capital law under the penal codes pertaining from the late 18th century until the abolition of public executions in the 19th.

My only criticisms of the book are that it is, at times, a little repetitive (although it would be hard to be otherwise, given that the book is 619 pages long); that it deals with rather few cases -- although these are gone into in great detail -- and that there are, at least to my way of thinking, a superfluity of bibliographical and academic references. Not a page can be turned without several! No matter, this is, at heart, more of an academic study than a populist one, so perhaps that is to be expected.

For me, its real interest lies in the commentary it presents upon the social mores and changing attitudes of the period and, for anyone interested in the history -- either social or political -- of the century covered, it goes a long way to explaining many underlying attitudes which might otherwise be almost incomprehensible to people today.

I think it's well worth reading.
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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
By 
Samuel Romilly (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Hanging Tree (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. Gatrell, in rich detail, traces the complex development of a sensibility nurtured in security which led to disgust at, and opposition to, the public manifestation of death. His conclusion is that we are humane when we can afford to be: 'hostility to the scaffold on humane grounds was never so vehement as when the perceived need for it was waning'. Thus, more convincingly than most, he interrelates the material, political and cultural moves towards the restriction of capital punishment. Hanging was camouflaged, not abolished. One factor, in my opinion, crucial to its survival was the flexibility and ingenuity with which its practitioners and protectors sanitised its procedure. Behind prison walls, after a period set aside for appeals and penitence, the condemned man was despatched almost instantaneously in the presence of a few prison officials and civic dignitaries. This imprisonment of punishment in England - like the invention of the Guillotine in France - was the innovation enabling executions to continue -out of sight - for another 100 years. It burst the bubble of more radical reform. By 1868 agitation for abolition had largely ceased and was not revived for a further 50 years. But that is another story.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book, 4 April 2013
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Gatrell' book is very informative and interesting in a subject matter that has been little researched. Unlike the majority of academically written books Gatrell allows his readers to think, although he tries to nudge you in a certain direction he supplies enough material for the reader to have a different opinion. William Garow (Garrow's Law) does not come out of Gatrell's text as a very creditable person, especially when he was Attorney General. Full marks to Gatrell for an excellent and well researched book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent text book, 26 Nov. 2012
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This review is from: The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (Hardcover)
This book is a must have for anyone studying the Crime and Punishment module for BA History. It is very well written, in a sympathetic and accessible style. It covers a great deal of ground pertaining to the 'bloody code' of the late 18th and early 19th century, focussing primarity on public reaction to capital punishment. There are relevant case histories, examples of broadsides and historiographical references. Invaluable.
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The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868
The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 by V.A.C. Gatrell (Hardcover - 1 Nov. 1994)
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