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The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868by V. A. C. Gatrell
Synopses & Reviews
Some thirty-five thousand people were condemned to death in England and Wales between 1770 and 1830, and seven thousand were ultimately executed, the majority convicted of crimes such as burglary, horse theft, or forgery. Mostly poor trades people--weavers, clerks, whipmakers--these terrified men and women would suffer excruciating death before large and excited crowds. Indeed, crowds of three to seven thousand were normal, and for famous cases, the mob could swell to fifty thousand or more (a hundred thousand were said to have watched the hanging of murderers Holloway and Haggarty--so great a throng that thirty spectators were crushed to death). What brought people out for such a gruesome spectacle? How did they feel about the deadly justice meted out in their midst? These are some of the questions examined in The Hanging Tree, a fascinating history of public executions in their awful heyday in England.
Drawing on letters, diaries, ballads, and poignant appeals for mercy, V.A.C. Gatrell vividly recreates the social atmosphere and heated debate swirling about these cruel spectacles. He gives readers an unflinching look at what these executions were really like, paints a colorful portrait of the large crowds who gathered to watch, and describes the part the gallows played in the popular imagination (as reflected in flash ballads, Punch and Judy shows, and broadsides). Gatrell illuminates the debate over public execution that raged in polite society, discussing the commentary of writers such as Boswell, Byron, Thackeray, and Dickens, most of whom deplored the behavior of the crowd more than the inhumanity of the sentence (Macaulay denounced abolitionists as effeminate). And Gatrell also examines the attitudes of the judges, politicians, and monarch who decided who should be reprieved and who should hang (a mortal decision often delivered with the one-sentence formula: "Let the law run its course"). Throughout the book, Gatrell traces how attitudes to death and suffering changed as the century progressed (after 1837, for instance, only murderers were hung, and after 1868, public exeuctions were abolished). Perhaps most surprising, Gatrell reveals that the demise of public hanging owed little to humanitarianism. In part, polite society simply preferred not to look at the ugly machine of justice that subtly served their interests. But ultimately, Gatrell contends, it was the unleashed passions of the scaffold crowd the unsettled the middle class: the crowd mirrored the state's violence too candidly and gave the lie to middle-class pretensions of civility and humanity.
Panoramic in scope, authoritatively researched, and gripping from beginning to end, The Hanging Tree radically alters our sense of the past. It is not only a history of emotions, but also an emotional story, invested with the author's own incredulity and anger over the merciless events he chronicles. Taking up the plight of those who felt the hand of justice at its heaviest, he recaptures the lived experience of people poorly served by their own criminal law.
Hanging people for petty crimes as well as grave, the Bloody Penal Code was at its most active between 1770 and 1830. Some 7,000 men and women were executed on public scaffolds, watched by crowds of thousands.
This acclaimed study is the first to explore what a wide range of people felt about these ceremonies. Gatrell draws on letters, diaries, ballads, broadsides, and images, as well as on poignant appeals for mercy which, until now, have been largely neglected by historians. Panoramic in range, scholarly in method, and compelling in style and in argument, this is one of those rare histories which both shift our sense of the past and speak powerfully to the present.
About the Author
V.A.C. Gatrell is Fellow of Caius and University Lecturer in the Faculty of History at Cambridge University.
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