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This review is from: The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (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.