On Monday, 6 July 1840 Charles Dickens, along with his friend and fellow writer William Makepeace Thackeray, attended the public hanging of François Benjamin Courvoisier outside Newgate prison. A crowd of around 40,000 witnessed the execution. Courvoisier was a Swiss-born valet who was convicted for murdering his employer Lord William Russell at 14 Norfolk Street, Park Lane (now Dunraven Street, Mayfair), in London. Two weeks later, Thackeray wrote the following essay about his experiences of the occasion, which was first published in the August 1840 issue of Fraser’s Magazine. Thackeray was accompanied by the politician and social reformer, Richard Monckton Milnes (1809 – 1885), whom he refers to as ‘X——’.
X—— , who had voted with Mr. Ewart for the abolition of the punishment of death, was anxious to see the effect on the public mind of an execution, and asked me to accompany him to see Courvoisier killed. We had not the advantage of a sheriffs order, like the “six hundred noblemen and gentlemen” who were admitted within the walls of the prison; but determined to mingle with the crowd at the foot of the scaffold, and take up our positions at a very early hour.
As I was to rise at three in the morning, I went to bed at ten, thinking that five hours’ sleep would be amply sufficient to brace me against the fatigues of the coming day. But, as might have been expected, the event of the morrow was perpetually before my eyes through the night, and kept them wide open. I heard all the clocks in the neighbourhood chime the hours in succession; a dog from some court hard by kept up a pitiful howling; at one o’clock, a cock set up a feeble melancholy crowing; shortly after two the daylight came peeping grey through the window-shutters; and by the time that X—— arrived, in fulfilment of his promise, I had been asleep about half-an-hour. He, more wise, had not gone to rest at all, but had remained up all night at the Club along with Dash and two or three more. Dash is one of the most eminent wits in London, and had kept the company merry all night with appropriate jokes about the coming event. It is curious that a murder is a great inspirer of jokes. We all like to laugh and have our fling about it; there is a certain grim pleasure in the circumstance — a perpetual jingling antithesis between life and death, that is sure of its effect.
In mansion or garret, on down or straw, surrounded by weeping friends and solemn oily doctors, or tossing unheeded upon scanty hospital beds, there were many people in this great city to whom that Sunday night was to be the last of any that they should pass on earth here. In the course of half-a-dozen dark wakeful hours, one had leisure to think of these (and a little, too, of that certain supreme night, that shall come at one time or other, when he who writes shall be stretched upon the last bed, prostrate in the last struggle, taking the last look of dear faces that have cheered us here, and lingering — one moment more — ere we part for the tremendous journey); but, chiefly, I could not help thinking, as each clock sounded, what is he doing now — has he heard it in his little room in Newgate yonder — Eleven o’clock. He has been writing until now, can hold out no longer, and is very weary. “Wake me at four,” says he, “for I have still much to put down.” From eleven to twelve the gaoler hears how he is grinding his teeth in his sleep. At twelve he is up in his bed and asks, “Is it the time —” He has plenty more time yet for sleep; and he sleeps, and the bell goes on tolling. Seven hours more — five hours more. Many a carriage is clattering through the streets, bringing ladies away from evening parties; many bachelors are reeling home after a jolly night; Covent Garden is alive; and the light coming through the cell-window turns the gaoler’s candle pale. Four hours more! “Courvoisier,” says the gaoler, shaking him, “it’s four o’clock now, and I’ve woke you as you told me; but there’s no call for you to get up yet.” The poor wretch leaves his bed, however, and makes his last toilet; and then falls to writing, to tell the world how he did the crime for which he has suffered. This time he will tell the truth and the whole truth. They bring him his breakfast “from the coffee-shop opposite — tea, coffee, and thin bread and butter.” He will take nothing, however, but goes on writing. He has to write to his mother — the pious mother far away in his own country — who reared him and loved him; and even now has sent him her forgiveness and her blessing. He finishes his memorials and letters, and makes his will, disposing of his little miserable property of books and tracts that pious people have furnished him with. “Ce 6 Juillet, 1840. Francois Benjamin Courvoisier vous donne ceci, mon ami, pour souvenir.” He has a token for his dear friend the gaoler; another for his dear friend the under-sheriff. As the day of the convict’s death draws nigh, it is painful to see how he fastens upon everybody who approaches him, how pitifully he clings to them and loves them.
While these things are going on within the prison (with which we are made accurately acquainted by the copious chronicles of such events which are published subsequently), X——’s carriage has driven up to the door of my lodgings, and we have partaken of an elegant dejeuner that has been prepared for the occasion. A cup of coffee at half-past three in the morning is uncommonly pleasant; and X—— enlivens us with the repetition of the jokes that Dash has just been making. Admirable, certainly — they must have had a merry night of it, that’s clear; and we stoutly debate whether, when one has to get up so early in the morning, it is best to have an hour or two of sleep, or wait and go to bed afterwards at the end of the day’s work. That fowl is extraordinarily tough — the wing, even, is as hard as a board; a slight disappointment, for there is nothing else for breakfast. “Will any gentleman have some sherry and soda-water before he sets out? It clears the brains famously.” Thus primed, the party sets out. The coachman has dropped asleep on the box, and wakes up wildly as the hall-door opens. It is just four o’clock. About this very time they are waking up poor — pshaw! who is for a cigar? X– does not smoke himself; but vows and protests, in the kindest way in the world, that he does not care in the least for the new drab-silk linings in his carriage. Z—— , who smokes, mounts, however, the box. “Drive to Snow Hill.” says the owner of the chariot. The policemen. who are the only people in the street, and are standing by, look knowing — they know what it means well enough.
How cool and clean the streets look, as the carriage startles the echoes that have been asleep in the corners all night. Somebody has been sweeping the pavements clean in the night-time surely; they would not soil a lady’s white satin shoes, they are so dry and neat. There is not a cloud or a breath in the air, except Z——’s cigar, which whiffs off, and soars straight upwards in volumes of white pure smoke. The trees in the squares look bright and green — as bright as leaves in the country in June. We who keep late hours don’t know the beauty of London air and verdure; in the early morning they are delightful — the most fresh and lively companions possible. But they cannot bear the crowd and the bustle of mid-day. You don’t know them then — they are no longer the same things. We have come to Gray’s Inn; there is actually dew upon the grass in the gardens; and the windows of the stout old red houses are all in a flame.
As we enter Holborn the town grows more animated; and there are already twice as many people in the streets as you see at mid-day in a German Residenz or an English provincial town. The ginshop keepers have many of them taken their shutters down, and many persons are issuing from them pipe in hand. Down they go along the broad bright street, their blue shadows marching after them; for they are all bound the same way, and are bent like us upon seeing the hanging.
It is twenty minutes past four as we pass St. Sepulchre’s: by this time many hundred people are in the street, and many more are coming up Snow Hill. Before us lies Newgate Prison; but something a great deal more awful to look at, which seizes the eye at once, and makes the heart beat, is
There it stands black and ready, jutting out from a little door in the prison. As you see it, you feel a kind of dumb electric shock, which causes one to start a little, and give a sort of gasp for breath. The shock is over in a second; and presently you examine the object before you with a certain feeling of complacent curiosity. At least, such was the effect that the gallows produced upon the writer, who is trying to set down all his feelings as they occurred, and not to exaggerate them at all.
After the gallows-shock had subsided, we went down into the crowd, which was very numerous, but not dense as yet. It was evident that the day’s business had not begun. People sauntered up, and formed groups, and talked; the new-comers asking those who seemed habitués of the place about former executions; and did the victim hang with his face towards the clock or towards Ludgate Hill? and had he the rope round his neck when he came on the scaffold, or was it put on by Jack Ketch afterwards — and had Lord W—— taken a window, and which was he — I may mention the noble Marquis’s name, as he was not at the exhibition. A pseudo W—— was pointed out in an opposite window, towards whom all the people in our neighbourhood looked eagerly, and with great respect too.
The mob seemed to have no sort of ill-will against him, but sympathy and admiration. This noble lord’s personal courage and strength have won the plebs over to him. Perhaps his exploits against policemen have occasioned some of this popularity; for the mob hate them, as children the schoolmaster.
Throughout the whole four hours, however, the mob was extraordinarily gentle and good-humoured. At first we had leisure to talk to the people about us; and I recommend X——’s brother senators of both sides of the House to see more of this same people and to appreciate them better. Honourable Members are battling and struggling in the House; shouting, yelling, crowing, hear-hearing, pooh-poohing, making speeches of three columns, and gaining “great Conservative triumphs,” or “signal successes of the Reform cause,” as the case may be. Three hundred and ten gentlemen of good fortune, and able for the most part to quote Horace, declare solemnly that unless Sir Robert comes in, the nation is ruined. Three hundred and fifteen on the other side swear by their great gods that the safety of the empire depends upon Lord John; and to this end they quote Horace too. I declare that I have never been in a great London crowd without thinking of what they call the two “great” parties in England with wonder. For which of the two great leaders do these people care, I pray you? When Lord Stanley withdrew his Irish Bill the other night, were they in transports of joy, like worthy persons who read the Globe and the Chronicle? or when he beat the Ministers, were they wild with delight, like honest gentlemen who read the Post and the Times? Ask yonder ragged fellow, who has evidently frequented debating-clubs, and speaks with good sense and shrewd good-nature. He cares no more for Lord John than he does for Sir Robert; and, with due respect be it said, would mind very little if both of them were ushered out by Mr. Ketch, and took their places under yonder black beam. What are the two great parties to him, and those like him? Sheer wind, hollow humbug, absurd clap-traps; a silly mummery of dividing and debating, which does not in the least, however it may turn, affect his condition. It has been so ever since the happy days when Whigs and Tories began; and a pretty pastime no doubt it is for both. August parties, great balances of British freedom: are not the two sides quite as active, and eager, and loud, as at their very birth, and ready to fight for place as stoutly as ever they fought before — But lo! in the meantime, whilst you are jangling and brawling over the accounts, Populus, whose estate you have administered while he was an infant, and could not take care of himself — Populus , has been growing and growing, till he is every bit as wise as his guardians. Talk to our ragged friend. He is not so polished, perhaps, as a member of the “Oxford and Cambridge Club;” he has not been to Eton; and never read Horace in his life; but he can think just as soundly as the, best of you; he can speak quite as strongly in his own rough way; he has been reading all sorts of books of late years, and gathered together no little information. He is as good a man as the common run of us; and there are ten million more men in the country, as good as he — ten million, for whom we, in our infinite superiority, are acting as guardians, and to whom, in our bounty, we give — exactly nothing. Put yourself in their position, worthy sir. You and a hundred others find yourselves in some lone place, where you set up a government. You take a chief, as is natural; he is the cheapest order-keeper in the world. You establish half-a-dozen worthies, whose families you say shall have the privilege to legislate for you for ever; half-a-dozen more, who shall be appointed by a choice of thirty of the rest: and the other sixty, who shall have no choice, vote, place, or privilege at all. Honourable sir, suppose that you are one of the last sixty: how will you feel, you who have intelligence, passions, honest pride, as well as your neighbour; how will you feel towards your equals, in whose hands lie all the power and all the property of the community — Would you love and honour them, tamely acquiesce in their superiority, see their privileges, and go yourself disregarded without a pang? you are not a man if you would. I am not talking of right or wrong, or debating questions of government. But ask my friend there, with the ragged elbows and no shirt, what he thinks — You have your party, Conservative or Whig, as it may be. You believe that an aristocracy is an institution necessary, beautiful, and virtuous. You are a gentleman, in other words, and stick by your party.
And our friend with the elbows (the crowd is thickening hugely all this time) sticks by his. Talk to him of Whig or Tory, he grins at them: of virtual representation, pish! He is a democrat, and will stand by his friends, as you by yours; and they are twenty millions, his friends, of whom a vast minority now, a majority a few years hence, will be as good as you. In the meantime we shall continue electing, and debating, and dividing, and having every day new triumphs for the glorious cause of Conservatism, or the glorious cause of Reform, until —
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
What is the meaning of this unconscionable republican tirade — a propos of a hanging — Such feelings, I think, must come across any man in a vast multitude like this. What good sense and intelligence have most of the people by whom you are surrounded; how much sound humour does one hear bandied about from one to another! A great number of coarse phrases are used, that would make ladies in drawing-rooms blush; but the morals of the men are good and hearty. A ragamuffin in the crowd (a powdery baker in a white sheep’s-wool cap) uses some indecent expression to a woman near: there is an instant cry of shame, which silences the man, and a dozen people are ready to give the woman protection. The crowd has grown very dense by this time, it is about six o’clock, and there is great heaving, and pushing, and swaying to and fro; but round the women the men have formed a circle, and keep them as much as possible out of the rush and trample. In one of the houses, near us, a gallery has been formed on the roof. Seats were here let, and a number of persons of various degrees were occupying them. Several tipsy dissolute-looking young men, of the Dick Swiveller cast, were in this gallery. One was lolling over the sunshiny tiles, with a fierce sodden face, out of which came a pipe, and which was shaded by long matted hair, and a hat cocked very much on one side. This gentleman was one of a party which had evidently not been to bed on Sunday night, but had passed it in some of those delectable night-houses in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden. The debauch was not over yet, and the women of the party were giggling, drinking, and romping, as is the wont of these delicate creatures; sprawling here and there, and falling upon the knees of one or other of the males. Their scarves were off their shoulders, and you saw the sun shining down upon the bare white flesh, and the shoulder-points glittering like burning-glasses. The people about us were very indignant at some of the proceedings of this debauched crew, and at last raised up such a yell as frightened them into shame, and they were more orderly for the remainder of the day. The windows of the shops opposite began to fill apace, and our before-mentioned friend with ragged elbows pointed out a celebrated fashionable character who occupied one of them; and, to our surprise, knew as much about him as the Court Journal or the Morning Post. Presently he entertained us with a long and pretty accurate account of the history of Lady—— , and indulged in a judicious criticism upon her last work. I have met with many a country gentleman who had not read half as many books as this honest fellow, this shrewd proletaire in a black shirt. The people about him took up and carried on the conversation very knowingly, and were very little behind him in point of information. It was just as good a company as one meets on common occasions. I was in a genteel crowd in one of the galleries at the Queen’s coronation; indeed, in point of intelligence, the democrats were quite equal to the aristocrats. How many more such groups were there in this immense multitude of nearly forty thousand, as some say — How many more such throughout the country? I never yet, as I said before, have been in an English mob without the same feeling for the persons who composed it, and without wonder at the vigorous orderly good sense and intelligence of the people.
The character of the crowd was as yet, however, quite festive. Jokes bandying about here and there, and jolly laughs breaking out. Some men were endeavouring to climb up a leaden pipe on one of the houses. The landlord came out, and endeavoured with might and main to pull them down. Many thousand eyes turned upon this contest immediately. All sorts of voices issued from the crowd, and uttered choice expressions of slang. When one of the men was pulled down by the leg, the waves of this black mob-ocean laughed innumerably; when one fellow slipped away, scrambled up the pipe, and made good his lodgment on the shelf, we were all made happy, and encouraged him by loud shouts of admiration. What is there so particularly delightful in the spectacle of a man clambering up a gas-pipe? Why were we kept for a quarter of an hour in deep interest gazing upon this remarkable scene — Indeed it is hard to say: a man does not know what a fool he is until he tries; or, at least, what mean follies will amuse him. The other day I went to Astley’s and saw clown come in with a fool’s-cap and pinafore, and six small boys who represented his schoolfellows. To them enters schoolmaster; horses clown, and flogs him hugely on the back part of his pinafore. I never read anything in Swift, Boz, Rabelais, Fielding, Paul de Kock, which delighted me so much as this sight, and caused me to laugh so profoundly. And why? What is there so ridiculous in the sight of one miserably rouged man beating another on the breech? Tell us where the fun lies in this and the before-mentioned episode of the gas-pipe? Vast, indeed, are the capacities and ingenuities of the human soul that can find, in incidents so wonderfully small, means of contemplation and amusement.
Really the time passed away with extraordinary quickness. A thousand things of the sort related here came to amuse us. First the workmen knocking and hammering at the scaffold, mysterious clattering of blows was heard within it, and a ladder painted black was carried round, and into the interior of the edifice by a small side door. We all looked at this little ladder and at each other — things began to be very interesting. Soon came a squad of policemen; stalwart rosy-looking men, saying much for City feeding; well-dressed, well-limbed, and of admirable good-humour. They paced about the open space between the prison and the barriers which kept in the crowd from the scaffold. The front line, as far as I could see, was chiefly occupied by blackguards and boys — professional persons, no doubt, who saluted the policemen on their appearance with a volley of jokes and ribaldry. As far as I could judge from faces, there were more blackguards of sixteen and seventeen than of any maturer age; stunted, sallow, ill-grown lads, in ragged fustian, scowling about. There were a considerable number of girls, too, of the same age: one that Cruikshank and Boz might have taken as a study for Nancy. The girl was a young thief’s mistress evidently; if attacked, ready to reply without a particle of modesty; could give as good ribaldry as she got; made no secret (and there were several inquiries) as to her profession and means of livelihood. But with all this, there was something good about the girl; a sort of devil-may-care candour and simplicity that one could not fail to see. Her answers to some of the coarse questions put to her, were very ready and good-humoured. She had a friend with her of the same age and class, of whom she seemed to be very fond, and who looked up to her for protection. Both of these women had beautiful eyes. Devil-may-care’s were extraordinarily bright and blue, an admirably fair complexion, and a large red mouth full of white teeth. Au reste, ugly, stunted, thick-limbed, and by no means a beauty. Her friend could not be more than fifteen. They were not in rags, but had greasy cotton shawls, and old faded rag-shop bonnets. I was curious to look at them, having, in late fashionable novels, read many accounts of such personages. Bah! what figments these novelists tell us! Boz, who knows life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal fantastical personage possible; no more like a thief’s mistress than one of Gesner’s shepherdesses resembles a real country wench. He dare not tell the truth concerning such young ladies. They have, no doubt, virtues like other human creatures; nay, their position engenders virtues that are not called into exercise among other women. But on these an honest painter of human nature has no right to dwell; not being able to paint the whole portrait, he has no right to present one or two favourable points as characterising the whole; and therefore, in fact, had better leave the picture alone altogether. The new French literature is essentially false and worthless from this very error — the writers giving us favourable pictures of monsters, and (to say nothing of decency or morality) pictures quite untrue to nature.
But yonder, glittering through the crowd in Newgate Streets —, the Sheriff’s carriages are slowly making their way. We have been here three hours! Is it possible that they can have passed so soon? Close to the barriers where we are, the mob has become so dense that it is with difficulty a man can keep his feet. Each man, however, is very careful in protecting the women, and all are full of jokes and good-humour. The windows of the shops opposite are now pretty nearly filled by the persons who hired them. Many young dandies are there with moustaches and cigars; some quiet fat family-parties, of simple honest tradesmen and their wives, as we fancy, who are looking on with the greatest imaginable calmness, and sipping their tea. Yonder is the sham Lord W——, who is flinging various articles among the crowd; one of his companions, a tall, burly man, with large moustaches, has provided himself with a squirt, and is aspersing the mob with brandy-and-water. Honest gentleman! high-bred aristocrat! genuine lover of humour and wit! I would walk some miles to see thee on the treadmill, thee and thy Mohawk crew!
We tried to get up a hiss against these ruffians, but only had a trifling success; the crowd did not seem to think their offence very heinous; and our friend, the philosopher in the ragged elbows, who had remained near us all the time, was not inspired with any such savage disgust at the proceedings of certain notorious young gentlemen, as I must confess fills my own particular bosom. He only said, “So-and-so is a lord, and they’ll let him off,” and then discoursed about Lord Ferrers being hanged. The philosopher knew the history pretty well, and so did most of the little knot of persons about him, and it must be a gratifying thing for young gentlemen to find that their actions are made the subject of this kind of conversation.
Scarcely a word had been said about Courvoisier all this time. We were all, as far as I could judge, in just such a frame of mind as men are in when they are squeezing at the pit-door of a play, or pushing for a review or a Lord Mayor’s show. We asked most of the men who were near us, whether they had seen many executions — most of them had, the philosopher especially; whether the sight of them did any good — “For the matter of that, no; people did not care about them at all; nobody ever thought of it after a bit.” A countryman, who had left his drove in Smithfield, said the same thing; he had seen a man hanged at York, and spoke of the ceremony with perfect good sense, and in a quiet sagacious way.
J. S — , the famous wit, now dead, had, I recollect, a good story upon the subject of executing, and of the terror which the punishment inspires. After Thistlewood and his companions were hanged, their heads were taken off, according to the sentence, and the executioner, as he severed each, held it up to the crowd, in the proper orthodox way, saying, “Here is the head of a traitor!” At the sight of the first ghastly head the people were struck with terror, and a general expression of disgust and fear broke from them. The second head was looked at also with much interest, but the excitement regarding the third head diminished. When the executioner had come to the last of the heads, he lifted it up, but, by some clumsiness, allowed it to drop. At this the crowd yelled out, “Ah, Butter-fingers!” the excitement had passed entirely away. The punishment had grown to be a joke — Butter-fingers was the word — a pretty commentary, indeed, upon the august nature of public executions, and the awful majesty of the law.
It was past seven now; the quarters rang and passed away; the crowd began to grow very eager and more quiet, and we turned back every now and then and looked at St. Sepulchre’s clock. Half-an-hour, twenty-five minutes. What is he doing now? He has his irons off by this time. A quarter: he’s in the press-room now, no doubt. Now at last we had come to think about the man we were going to see hanged. How slowly the clock crept over the last quarter! Those who were able to turn round and see (for the crowd was now extraordinarily dense) chronicled the time, eight minutes, five minutes; at last — ding, dong, dong, dong! — the bell is tolling the chimes of eight.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Between the writing of this line and the last, the pen has been put down, as the reader may suppose, and the person who is addressing him has gone through a pause of no very pleasant thoughts and recollections. The whole of the sickening, ghastly, wicked scene passes before the eyes again; and, indeed, it is an awful one to see, and very hard and painful to describe.
As the clock began to strike, an immense sway and movement swept over the whole of that vast dense crowd. They were all uncovered directly, and a great murmur arose, more awful, bizarre, and indescribable than any sound I had ever before heard. Women and children began to shriek horribly.
I don’t know whether it was the bell I heard; but a dreadful quick feverish kind of jangling noise mingled with the noise of the people, and lasted for about two minutes. The scaffold stood before us, tenantless and black; the black chain was hanging down ready from the beam. Nobody came. “He has been respited,” some one said; another said, “He has killed himself in prison.”
Just then, from under the black prison-door, a pale quiet head peered out. It was shockingly bright and distinct; it rose up directly, and a man in black appeared on the scaffold, and was silently followed by about four more dark figures. The first was a tall grave man: we all knew who the second man was. “That’s he — that’s he!” you heard the people say, as the devoted man came up.
I have seen a cast of the head since, but, indeed, should never have known it. Courvoisier bore his punishment like a man, and walked very firmly. He was dressed in a new black suit, as it seemed: his shirt was open. His arms were tied in front of him. He opened his hands in a helpless kind of way, and clasped them once or twice together. He turned his head here and there, and looked about him for an instant with a wild imploring look. His mouth was contracted into a sort of pitiful smile. He went and placed himself at once under the beam, with his face towards St. Sepulchre’s. The tall grave man in black twisted him round swiftly in the other direction, and, drawing from his pocket a night-cap, pulled it tight over the patient’s head and face. I am not ashamed to say that I could look no more, but shut my eyes as the last dreadful act was going on which sent this wretched guilty soul into the presence of God.
If a public execution is beneficial — and beneficial it is, no doubt, or else the wise laws would not encourage forty thousand people to witness it — the next useful thing must be a full description of such a ceremony, and all its entourages, and to this end the above pages are offered to the reader. How does an individual man feel under it — In what way does he observe it, — how does he view all the phenomena connected with it, — what induces him, in the first instance, to go and see it, — and how is he moved by it afterwards? The writer has discarded the magazine “We” altogether, and spoken face to face with the reader, recording every one of the impressions felt by him as honestly as he could.
I must confess, then (for “I” is the shortest word, and the best in this case), that the sight has left on my mind an extraordinary feeling of terror and shame. It seems to me that I have been abetting an act of frightful wickedness and violence, performed by a set of men against one of their fellows; and I pray God that it may soon be out of the power of any man in England to witness such a hideous and degrading sight. Forty thousand persons (say the Sheriffs), of all ranks and degrees, — mechanics, gentlemen, pickpockets, members of both Houses of Parliament, street-walkers, newspaper-writers, gather together before Newgate at a very early hour; the most part of them give up their natural quiet night’s rest, in order to partake of this hideous debauchery, which is more exciting than sleep, or than wine, or the last new ballet, or any other amusement they can have. Pickpocket and Peer each is tickled by the sight alike, and has that hidden lust after blood which influences our race. Government, a Christian Government, gives us a feast every now and then: it agrees — that is to say, a majority in the two Houses agrees — that for certain crimes it is necessary that a man should be hanged by the neck. Government commits the criminal’s soul to the mercy of God, stating that here on earth he is to look for no mercy; keeps him for a fortnight to prepare, provides him with a clergymen to settle his religious matters (if there be time enough, but Government can’t wait); and on a Monday morning, the bell tolling, the clergyman reading out the word of God, “I am the resurrection and the life,” “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” — on a Monday morning, at eight o’clock, this man is placed under a beam, with a rope connecting it and him; a plank disappears from under him, and those who have paid for good places may see the hands of the Government agent, Jack Ketch, coming up from his black hole, and seizing the prisoner’s legs, and pulling them, until he is quite dead — strangled.
Many persons, and well-informed newspapers, say that it is mawkish sentiment to talk in this way, morbid humanity, cheap philanthropy, that any man can get up and preach about. There is the Observer, for instance, a paper conspicuous for the tremendous sarcasm which distinguishes its articles, and which falls cruelly foul of the Morning Herald. “Courvoisier is dead, “says the Observer: “he died as he had lived — a villain; a lie was in his mouth. Peace be to his ashes. We war not with the dead.” What a magnanimous Observer! From this, Observer turns to the Herald, and says, “Fiat justitia, ruat cælum. So much for the Herald.
We quote from memory, and the quotation from the Observer possibly is, — “De mortuis nil nisi bonum; ” or, “Onme ignotum pro magnifico; ” or, “Sero nunquam est ad bonos mores via;” or, “Ingenuas didicisse fideliter artes emollit mores nec sinit esse feros:” all of which pithy Roman apophthegms would apply just as well.
“Peace be to his ashes. He died, a villain.” This is both benevolence and reason. Did he die a villain — The Observer does not want to destroy him body and soul, evidently, from that pious wish that his ashes should be at peace. Is the next Monday but one after the sentence the time necessary for a villain to repent in — May a man not require more leisure — a week more — six months more — before he has been able to make his repentance sure before Him who died for us all — — for all, be it remembered, — not alone for the judge and jury, or for the sheriffs, or for the executioner who is pulling down the legs of the prisoner, — but for him too, murderer and criminal as he is, whom we are killing for his crime. Do we want to kill him body and soul? Heaven forbid! My Lord in the black cap specially prays that Heaven may have mercy on him; but he must be ready by Monday morning.
Look at the documents which came from the prison of this unhappy Courvoisier during the few days which passed between his trial and execution. Were ever letters more painful to read — At first, his statements are false, contradictory, lying. He has not repented then. His last declaration seems to be honest, as far as the relation of the crime goes. But read the rest of his statement, the account of his personal history, and the crimes which he committed in his young days, — then “how the evil thought came to him to put his hand to the work,” — it is evidently the writing of a mad, distracted man. The horrid gallows is perpetually before him; he is wild with dread and remorse. Clergymen are with him ceaselessly; religious tracts are forced into his hands; night and day they ply him with the heinousness of his crime, and exhortations to repentance. Read through that last paper of his; by Heaven, it is pitiful to read it.
See the Scripture phrases brought in now and anon; the peculiar terms of tract-phraseology (I do not wish to speak of these often meritorious publications with disrespect); one knows too well how such language is learned, — imitated from the priest at the bedside, eagerly seized and appropriated, and confounded by the poor prisoner.
But murder is such a monstrous crime (this is the great argument), — when a man has killed another it is natural that he should be killed. Away with your foolish sentimentalists who say no — it is natural. That is the word, and a fine philosophical opinion it is — philosophical and Christian. Kill a man and you must be killed in turn: that is the unavoidable sequitur. You may talk to a man for a year upon the subject, and he will always reply to you, “It is natural, and therefore it must be done. Blood demands blood.”
Does it — The system of compensations might be carried on ad infinitum, — an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as by the old Mosaic law. But (putting the fact out of the question, that we have had this statute repealed by the Highest Authority), why, because you lose your eye, is that of your opponent to be extracted likewise? Where is the reason for the practice? And yet it is just as natural as the death dictum, founded precisely upon the same show of sense. Knowing, however, that revenge is not only evil, but useless, we have given it up on all minor points. Only to the last we stick firm, contrary though it be to reason and to Christian law.
There is some talk, too, of the terror which the sight of this spectacle inspires, and of this we have endeavoured to give as good a notion as we can in the above pages. I fully confess that I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done. As we made our way through the immense crowd, we came upon two little girls of eleven and twelve years: one of them was crying bitterly, and begged, for Heaven’s sake, that some one would lead her from that horrid place. This was done, and the children were carried into a place of safety. We asked the elder girl — and a very pretty one — what brought her into such a neighbourhood? The child grinned knowingly, and said, “We’ve koom to see the mon hanged! ” Tender law, that brings out babes upon such errands, and provides them with such gratifying moral spectacles!
This is the 20th of July, and I may be permitted for my part to declare that, for the last fourteen days, so salutary has the impression of the butchery been upon me, I have had the man’s face continually before my eyes; that I can see Mr. Ketch at this moment, with an easy air, taking the rope from his pocket; that I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight; and that I pray to Almighty God to cause this disgraceful sin to pass from among us, and to cleanse our land of blood.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight.William Makepeace Thackeray. On going to see a man hanged.
‘X——’ refers to Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton (1809 – 1885), English poet, patron of literature and a politician. Milnes was a strong supporter of social justice and keen reformer. At the time, Milnes was a Conservative member of parliament for the constituency of Pontefract.
Charles Dickens refers to his experiences of viewing the execution of François Benjamin Courvoisier in a letter he wrote to the Daily News on the issue of capital punishment, published on 28 February 1846.