Dickens on Capital Punishment




Dickens’s letters on Capital Punishment have been annotated primarily by linking to pre-existing web pages. What follows is the less common material, significant supplemental matter not available elsewhere on the internet, almost all of it primary research.


Dickens on Capital Punishment  Home Page



recent execution in Ireland


Bryan Seery, hung in front of Mullingar gaol, in County Westmeath, Ireland (13 Feb 1846). See the “case of Seery” below.


one of the most cruel murderers


            Captain George Johnstone (born c.1812) of the ship Tory, testified that by force he had put down three attempts at mutiny, off Ascension Island, off the island of Fayal, and at Plymouth. The Captain ordered an accused mutineer into his cabin—a Thomas Reason—questioned him, shook him, stabbed at him with a sword and bayonet, but all to no avail. Johnstone believed that there had been a plot against his life. “Witness saw the captain with the bayonet in his hand over Reason, and heard him constantly stick the bayonet in his head.” The Captain then said: “For God’s sake, Tom, do speak a couple of words,” and heaved the bayonet on the floor. The corpse was then taken on the deck, and later buried at sea. [Times 3 Dec 1845: 7.5].

            Many of the crew were tortured in similar fashion, or shot in the face, but survived. The first officer was William Henry Rambert: “Rambert went aft, and the captain cut him several times on the head with the cutlass and butt-end of a pistol. He was put in irons, and again let out. I saw him run round the deck, and the captain after him, with a cutlass. The mate [Rambert] ran aft and jumped overboard” [Times 24 Dec 1845: 2.5]. He died by drowning.

            One leader in the mutinies had been the second officer, William Mars. According to testimony from the crew: “…the captain was in a state of continual excitement from drink. After passing Ascension Island, he amused himself by ordering men into irons, and cutting at them with a sabre. Gair accounted in this way for the numerous cuts on his own head. The statement of Yelverton, who, though very young, appeared to be the most intelligent and collected of the party, tended to show that the captain had cut up Mars piecemeal whilst in irons, and that he (Yelverton) had seen Captain Johnstone cut a piece about half the size of a man’s hand off the head of Mars with all the hair upon it.” After “reducing him [Mars] to a dying state, [Johnstone] ordered him on deck, and directed the men to squeeze him with coils of rope round his loins; soon after which he died, and was consigned to the sea” [Times 3 Dec 1845: 7.5]. Numerous eyewitnesses on board independently gave sworn testimony corroborating all these events. One crewman, Stephen Cone, presented as evidence one of Mars’s fingers, which the Captain had slashed off [Times 3 Dec 1845: 8.1].

            Johnstone was put on trial for the triple murder of Reason, Rambert, and Mars. After two days (5–6 Feb 1846) he was found “Not guilty” by reason of insanity [Times 7 Feb 1846: 4.5]. The ex-captain was soon after committed to Bedlam [Dix, 285].


Take the case of Seery, the man just now executed in Ireland


            Bryan Seery had been tried and convicted of the attempted murder (18 Nov 1845) of Sir Francis Hopkins, a resident landlord in County Westmeath, Ireland. The great famine had begun, the country was in a state of near rebellion, and the assassination attempt was thought to be the work of the Ribbonmen, the secret society of armed insurgents, primarily young Catholic tenant farmers. At Seery’s trial, one judge commented: “I have seldom had cases brought before me—cases which more exhibited the dreadful scourge, that wherever it was permitted to take root struck at the very foundation of all social order, and placed in jeopardy the peace and security of every individual in the country.” [Times 27 Jan 1846: 7.5]. Seery was sentenced partly in an attempt to contain the ongoing violence.

            There had been many concerns about Seery’s conviction, as is common in trials with political implications. One bishop wrote to the paper noting: “The manner in which the commission was obtained and carried out; the unimpeached excellence of Seery’s character through life; the omission to summon Catholic jurors; the sectarian arrangement of the general list; the dissent of the jury on the first trial; the exclusion by the Crown of respectable Catholic gentlemen…on the second trial, to which the Crown resorted after the trifling respite of a day from the discharge of the first jury; the jury not having given weight to the testimony of the stipendiary magistrate, of two policemen, and of six other credible and respectable witnesses, all contradicting the evidence given by the prosecutor, who, in a most important fact, contradicted even himself” [Times 7 Feb 1846: 7.2].

            On the day before he was to be executed, Seery issued a written statement from his cell:


I, Bryan Seery, now a prisoner in the gaol of Mullingar, and to be on this day executed, do most solemnly and sincerely declare, in the presence of that God before whom I must shortly appear for judgment, that I never fired at Sir Francis Hopkins—that I never committed any act tending to injure him in person or property—and that I never was cognizant of, or a party to, any conspiracy to plot or shoot, or injure the said Sir Francis Hopkins; and that I am not guilty, directly or indirectly, of the crime for which I am to be hanged.—BRYAN SEERY


…When the prisoner appeared on the drop he said, raising the crucifix, and in a calm, loud, and steady tone, and with an emphasis of awful and terrible solemnity—‘I declare before my God that I had neither act, hand, part or knowledge in the crime for which I am going to die here!’ | This declaration, so pronounced, caused a shudder amongst the soldiery, and the prayer, ‘the Lord have mercy on him,’ burst from every lip. A few moments more and the unhappy man was launched into eternity.

Freeman’s Journal, quoted in Times 16 Feb 1846: 2.5


Hung and killed (13 Feb 1846), Seery was now seen as a martyr, and his funeral was attended by 50–60,000 sympathetic mourners. Sir Francis Hopkins, the resident landlord and prosecutor in the case, soon made a statement to the papers (17 Feb 1846):


It has been stated that I solicited a commutation of the extreme punishment of death, and an inference was drawn therefrom that I had changed my mind respecting the identity of my assailant. It is true that I did solicit the clemency of the Crown for the unhappy prisoner, who, on this occasion, I believe to have been the tool of others; but I most solemnly deny that the shadow of a doubt every crossed my mind as to the identity of my assailant, and notwithstanding the reported dying declaration of innocence by Seery on the scaffold, I again affirm that he was the person who fired at, and subsequently assaulted me, on the night of the 18th of November last, and such is my positive and unalterable conviction. | …I am, Sir, your obedient servant, | FRANCIS HOPKINS

Freeman’s Journal, quoted in Times 19 Feb 1846: 7.5



there is the following suggestion


Dickens quotes from his primary source for the letters, John L. O’Sullivan, Report in Favor of the Abolition of the Punishment of Death by Law, 69. A longer and more precise excerpt in context follows. The most noteworthy alteration was Dickens’s omission of the reference to Frankenstein. Dickens alludes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in Great Expectations, chap. 40, and in a few of his private letters. He did not own a copy at the time of his death.


            But the committee refrain from accumulating higher and higher the mass of testimony which might be presented on this point, to show the inefficacy of the danger of death as a deterring motive, especially in comparison with the powerful influences by which men are driven to great crimes. Nor will they pause, from the direct line of their present inquiry, to dwell on any subtle metaphysical analysis of the causes—deeply as they may be buried in the hidden recesses of our spiritual nature—to which this undeniable truth is to be referred. Whether there be, as Mr. Fazakerly said on the floor of Parliament, in the year 1744, “something in the nature of man that disdains to be terrified; and therefore severe punishments have never been found effectual for preventing any sort of crime;”—or whether the number be so far more widely extended that we are wont to allow ourselves to imagine, of those whom a disbelief in a future state, or a sense of intolerable hardship and evil in the present, may render really at bottom, so long as the actual death-pang is yet at a distance, indifferent to life;—whether there sleep within the breast of man certain dark and mysterious sympathies with the thought of that death and that futurity which await his nature, tending to invest any act expressly forbidden by that penalty with an unconscious and inexplicable fascination, that attracts his thoughts to it, in spite of their very shuddering dread; and bids his imagination brood over its idea, till out of those dark depths in his own nature wherein this process is dimly and silently at work, comes gradually forth a monstrous Frankenstein birth, of Temptation, which acquires over the already impaired moral energies of his own better being a power always dangerous, and too often fatal, to weak and wayward humanity;—whether in these, or any similar ideas, an explanation is to be sought of the fact in question, the committee will not undertake to consider. They content themselves with the reassertion, which the evidence already adduced justifies them in making, of the important truth they have been considering, namely, that the fear of the penalty of death is no effective deterring motive to arrest even the slighter inclinations which lead men to the commission of petty offences,—far less, to stay the sweep of the powerful impulses by which alone souls of a peculiar temper are urged to the perpetration of great ones.

– O’Sullivan, 68–9


obscene spectacle


            Martha Browning (c.1822–1846) had lived with an elderly woman, Elizabeth Mundell (1785–1845), in lodgings at Westminster. Browning was convicted of strangling Mundell to death (1 Dec 1845) by twisting and tying a thick cord around her neck. Browning committed murder to get two ₤5 bank notes—which turned out to be play money [Times 18 Dec 1845: 7.6].

            Samuel Quennell (c.1822–1846), a bricklayer, bought pistol and powder, and shot and killed Daniel Fitzgerald in the street, before witnesses (27 Nov 1845). Quennell had been put out of work after Fitzgerald had spoken to his employer [Times 29 Nov 1845: 6.4; Times 19 Dec 1845: 6.6–7.1].

            Martha Browning was hung at Newgate prison, by John Calcraft, the London hangman, on 5 Jan 1846, at 8:00 o’clock in the morning. Her body was not cut down until 9:00 o’clock. Calcraft meanwhile had gone to Horsemonger-lane gaol, where at 10:00 a.m. he hung Samuel Quennell. “There was a large crowd of spectators in front of the gaol to witness the execution, and several barefaced robberies were committed immediately beneath the gallows” [Times 6 Jan 1846: 3.5].


stated it in the House of Commons


Speeches below, from both Abercromby and (next note) Romilly, are excerpted from a House of Commons debate on the “Dwelling House Robbery Bill”. The debate was opened as follows:


Sir Samuel Romilly moved the second reading of the Bill to repeal so much of an Act, passed in the 12th year of the reign of queen Anne, intituled, “An act for the more effectual preventing and punishing robberies that shall be committed in houses, as takes away the benefit of clergy from persons stealing any money, goods or chattels, wares or merchandizes, of the value of forty shillings or more…”

Hansard’s 29 Mar 1811: 614


[Mr. Abercromby:] One great disadvantage of the existing system was the disinclination of judges and jurors to execute the laws as painful to their feelings. It was mortifying that the people of England should remain so long subject to the animadversion of the people of other countries, either directed against the laws or the execution of them, and that foreigners should have it in their power to make Englishmen blush for those laws which put judges and jurors in such a situation that they could not discharge their duty….When he [Abercromby] recollected that judges and jurors were every session guilty of that for which they were certainly not punishable, but which, nevertheless, could go by no other name than that of perjury, he certainly did think, that some reformation was called for. He [Abercromby] should unfold a case which was already stated last session—a case so striking, that it could not fail to make an impression. A female had stolen a 10l. note. The jury returned a verdict for below 40s. Nothing could afford a more striking illustration than this fact, of the inconvenience to which juries were subjected. Was it fit they should continue subject to them? What opinion must a person who heard the trial, have formed, if next day he himself should have stood in the criminals’ box for perjury?

Hansard’s 29 Mar 1811: 652–3.


mentioned other cases


See forenote to Abercromby’s speech (previous).


[Sir Samuel Romilly:] To the cases already mentioned he [Romilly] begged to add the case of an apprentice tried in the year 1807 before Mr. Justice Lawrence, for robbing his master of his pocket-book, containing six 10l. bank notes. There were alleviating circumstances in the case. The master had held out an improper temptation to the boy, who had otherwise behaved in a most exemplary manner. In these circumstances, what could the jury do? They found the boy guilty of stealing 39s.! A most serious and distressing situation in which to place a jury, by which they must find little less than a judicial murder, or get the better of it by a judicial perjury. A cruel case, first to compel a Jury to call on God to witness their observance of the oath they had taken, and then to open the Statute-Book containing this act, and say, you must consign this boy to death, or you must violate your oaths. This was a most cruel course in which to persevere. 

Hansard’s 29 Mar 1811: 660


Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death


            Dickens quotes from Edward Gibbon Wakefield, Facts Relating to the Punishment of Death in the Metropolis, 2nd ed (1832). Wakefield wrote his book on prison reform from first-hand experience—he had deceived a wealthy manufacturer’s daughter into marriage, under false pretences, and fled with her to Calais. He was apprehended there by the bride’s relatives. Wakefield and his brother served three years in Newgate for the crime; he used his time in prison to begin his study of colonial government. Wakefield later did much work publishing and practising his theories of colonization, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

            Dickens owned a copy of Wakefield’s Facts at the time of his death. All the passages he cites come from the short chapter titled “Executions”; most of this chapter is quoted below. The excerpt below is taken from the first edition (not the second); more specifically, it is taken from the volume held by the Library of Congress, in America. This is the only circulating copy of the Wakefield book in the United States.




WHATEVER the defects of all the stages of capital punishment, except the last, that last act—the execution—may be supposed calculated to deter from crime. Many people believe, that occasional executions in public, even though the persons who suffer death be selected by chance and be by no means the most guilty members of society, must have a salutary effect on the public mind, by impressing every one with an idea of the bare possibility that capital crime may be punished with death. This vulgar notion is sometimes expressed by words to the following effect—“the power of the law consists in its terrors: if you wholly cease to hang, the common people will have nothing to fear; therefore hang one now and then.” A belief precisely opposite to this was forced on me, by fact after fact, in spite of an ignorant attachment to the vulgar notion; and my own conversion to the doctrine of Romilly, Buxton, and Bentham, is an additional fact presented to the reader. When I entered Newgate, (it cannot be egotism that prompts a man to speak of himself in connection with that place,) I had not a doubt of the efficacy of public executions in deterring from crime. By degrees, I came firmly to believe just the contrary. Newgate is the very best place in which to form a sound opinion on the subject; that is, an opinion deduced from all the facts of the case. I will now endeavour to lay before the reader the facts connected with public executions, which assisted to cause a total revolution of my own opinion.

            All readers of newspapers must be acquainted with the legal and religious ceremonies observed at public executions, and with the usual behaviour of the sufferers. The utmost publicity is given to the smallest details of what is called “launching criminals into eternity.” I shall not, therefore, dwell on the mere deed of the hangman, except for the sake of publishing circumstances, not generally known, which may be useful in determining the effect of public executions.

            First. Having taken great pains to ascertain the feeling of the mass of spectators at each execution, during the three years to which these pages relate, I am able to assert positively, that, in every case but one (executions for murder inclusive,) the assembled crowd sympathized with the criminal and expressed feelings of compassion towards the dying person, and of hatred towards the law and its principal executioner, the judge of the fourth and fifth trials. The case of exception was that of Esther Hibner,* hanged for destroying a parish apprentice by repeated acts of cruelty. On that occasion the assembled crown shouted bravos, and clapped their hands, as the woman was “launched into eternity.” On every other occasion the sympathy and anger of the crowd were expressed by such cries as “God bless you!” “shame, shame!” If the late Under Secretary of State for the Home Department assisted at a condemned sermon in Newgate for the purpose of instructing himself, it were to be wished that, with a similar view, he would attend a few executions in front of the jail. Whoever will undergo the pain of witnessing the public destruction of a fellow-creature’s life in London, must be perfectly satisfied, that, in the great mass of spectators, the effect of the punishment is to excite sympathy for the criminal and hatred of the law.

            Secondly. From the reports of thieves and other criminals, whom I questioned on this point, not occasionally, but whenever an opportunity occurred during three years, I feel assured that a considerable portion of the crowds which assemble to witness executions in London, consists of thieves. From all I could learn, I am inclined to believe, that the criminals of London, spoken of as a class and allowing for exceptions, take the same sort of delight in witnessing executions as the sportsman and soldier find in the dangers of hunting  and war. One would suppose that the practice of crime, as a trade, furnishes, by itself, sufficient excitement; but, perhaps, the state of constant alarm in which criminals live, renders them callous to ordinary excitements, and creates in them an appetite for some excitement, which would be painful instead of agreeable to people in general. Be this as it may, nothing can be more sure than, that the sight of an execution is considered a treat by most habitual criminals of the metropolis; and that there is hardly a regular thief in London, who had not frequently gone out of his way to be present at executions. This statement may be abundantly confirmed by examining the officers of the City Police.

            Thirdly. From inquiries made of the boys confined in the School Yard of Newgate, or rather, I ought to say, from having overheard the conversations of the boys amongst themselves, I am satisfied that every public execution creates some criminals. Every execution in front of Newgate is attended by some boys not yet criminal, apprentices, errand-boys, and children on their way to or from school; and though, unfortunately, I neglected to keep an account of the number of cases ascertained by myself, I am confident, that few Old Bailey sessions pass without the trial of a boy, whose first thought of crime occurred whilst he was witnessing an execution. Not less, I venture to say, than a dozen boys have assured me, that they were led to become thieves by attending executions. To some of them, the idea occurred simply through witnessing the struggles of a dying thief; to others, it was suggested by thieves, with whom they were led to form acquaintance by the excitement of the occasion, and who took advantage of that excitement to speak, with success, of the enjoyments of a thief and his many chances of impunity. And one grown man,* of great mental powers and superior education, who was acquitted of a charge of forgery, assured me that the first idea of committing a forgery occurred to him at the moment when he was accidentally witnessing the execution of Fauntleroy.

            Fourthly. I never missed an opportunity of leading prisoners, whose sentence of death had been remitted by the Council or the Secretary of State, to converse with me about executions and the effect of those shows on the individual thus led to express his own feelings. With a great many capital convicts, whose sentences had been remitted, I held a dialogue to the following effect. Indeed, what follows is copied, omitting some oaths, from a note made at the time, of a conversation held with a convict* who was within an ace of being hanged for coining.

            Q. “Have you often seen an execution?”—A. “Yes, often.”

            Q. “Did not it frighten you?” A. “No—why should it?”

            Q. “Did it not make you think that the same would happen to yourself?” A. “Not a bit.”

            Q. “What did you think then?” A. “Think? Why I thought it was a —— shame.”

            Q. “Now when you have been going to run a great risk of being caught and hanged, did the thought never come into your head, that it would be as well to avoid the risk?” A. “Never.”

            Q. “Not when you remembered having seen men hanged for the same thing?” A. “Oh! I never remembered any thing about it; and if I had, what difference would that make? We must all take our chance. I never thought it would fall on me, and I don’t think it ever will.”

            Q. “But if it should?” A. “Then I hope I shall suffer like a man—where’s the use of snivelling?”

            The above, though actually written down at the time, is but a sample of many like conversations; and I beg the reader to observe, that in every case the answers were the same in substance, whilst the questions were always framed so as to have elicited answers of quite another description, had it been true that public executions excite terror amongst criminals.


* Return [made to the House of Commons, 1831], p. 20.

* As this person was acquitted, and is now a good member of society, his name is purposely omitted.

* As he was committed before May, 1827, his name does not occur in the Return.


satisfaction of thinking


[Sugden:] would call the attention of the House to one clause in the Bill, which abolished capital punishment for forging deeds. He [Sugden] thought that a dangerous alteration; but his right hon. friend thought otherwise, and had inserted the clause. In advocating the law as it stood, he [Sugden] had the satisfaction of thinking that he was contributing to deter persons from the commission of crime, and doing what was just and right, in protecting the property of those on whom forgery was committed. The Legislature ought not to reserve all its tenderness for the offender; some should be shown toward those who suffered from his crime….He must say, that he thought the appalling punishment of death, executed as it was with so much ignominy in the public streets, where criminals were suspended before a gaping populace, was greatly calculated to deter men from the commission of crime. 

Hansard’s 7 Jun 1830: 55–56


three striking cases


            A very unhappy case occurred within a few years, in which a citizen of this State [New York], a young man of fine talents, character, and attainments, fell a victim to this fatal uncertainty of all human testimony. His name was Boynton, a brother of a clergyman of the same name, now a resident on Otsego county. He had been staying for a few weeks at a tavern on the Mississippi. some distance above New Orleans, in Louisiana. He had been much in company with a fellow-boarder, who was one day found murdered on the bank of the river, within a very short period after they had been seen together, very near to the spot where the body was discovered. The evidence presented by all the circumstances of the case was such that Boynton was convicted of the charge, notwithstanding the most earnest protestations of his innocence—protestations to which nobody attached the slightest weight. When placed upon the scaffold, he read a very able vindication of himself, again protesting, in the name of his God, that innocence which his fellow-man refused to believe. When informed that his time was come, he broke wildly from those by whom he was surrounded on the scaffold, and rushed in among the multitude, in the most piteous manner, crying for help, and repeating the assurance that he was innocent. He was soon again secured by the sheriff, dragged back to the scaffold, and, in the midst of his piercing shrieks and heart-rending cries, launched into eternity. Not many months after, the keeper of the tavern on his death-bed confessed himself guilty of the murder for which young Boynton had been hung—having, to shield himself from suspicion, directed the circumstances so as to procure the arrest and conviction of the latter. A case likewise occurred in Dutchess county in this State, a number of years ago, having in some respect a remarkable similarity to one of those that have already been referred to. Three persons, a father and two sons, of the name of Wood, having been out in the fields together, one of the sons was shot dead with a rifle, and the father was convicted and executed for the crime chiefly through the testimony of the other son, aided by some circumstantial evidence. It eventually, however, came to light, that the latter was the murderer, who thus removed the two obstacles that intervened between himself and the family property. In Columbia county, also, the memory of the case of a young woman who was executed on the charge of poisoning some children left under her care, and who was afterward proved innocent, is still fresh in the recollection of many of the inhabitants.

            The reader is again referred to the Appendix, where it will appear that of the eleven cases of execution, five ([Lewis] Wilbur [d. 3 May 1839], [Lawrence] McCarty [d. 1 Aug 1839], [Robert] Miller [d. 2 Dec 1839], [Jacob] Leadings [d. 29 Dec 1840], and [Major] McEllory [d. 19 Jan 1841]) have been on evidence merely circumstantial; and whether they were all guilty or not, it is very certain that in several of the cases the force of that evidence appears far less conclusive than in some of those above referred to, in which innocence has been subsequently proved. The testimony must necessarily very often be of this character, from the care with which most men would avoid the presence of witnesses in the commission of such crimes.

– O’Sullivan, 120–21


three brothers


For this incident Dickens again was relying on O’Sullivan as his source:


“I myself,” says Mr. O’Connell, in a speech at Exeter Hall, June, 1832…“defended three brothers of the name of Cremming, within the last ten years. They were indicted for murder….I sat at my window as they passed by, after sentence of death had been pronounced; there was a large military guard taking them back to jail, positively forbidden to allow any communication with the three unfortunate youths. But their mother was there, and she, armed in the strength of her affection, broke through the guard. I saw her clasp her eldest son, who was but twenty-two years of age—I saw her hang on her second, who was not yet twenty—I saw her faint when she clung to the neck of her youngest boy, who was but eighteen—and I ask, what recompense could be made for such agony? They were executed—and—they were innocent!

– O’Sullivan, 123


A more detailed version was given by O’Connell’s descendant:


On 9 September 1823 Thomas Franks, his wife and their son Henry, Lisnagourneen, Kildorrery, Co. Cork, were murdered (Cork Mercantile Chronicle, 15 Sept. 1823). On 10 April 1824 three brothers, Patrick, Maurice and John Cremin, were convicted of the murder and were executed on 12 April. They protested their innocence to the end (Dublin Evening Post, 15 April 1824).

– O’Connell, Correspondence, 3:65



six or seven innocent men


Dickens was thinking of testimony before a Royal Commission on Criminal Law. Edward Archer Wilde, a London sheriff, had made several direct appeals to the Home Secretary, to remit the sentences of various condemned men he believed to be innocent (1827–28). In testimony before the Commission, the Lord Chief Baron, Sir Frederick Pollock, praised Wilde highly (Parliamentary Papers 1836, 36:265; see Afterword). The Commission responded by calling in Wilde in person to give his own information. The relevant portion of Wilde’s examination follows.


            Now, from the experience you have had, in your judgment, do you think it essential to justice that revisions should occasionally take place after conviction?—Yes, I think, in all important cases to the prisoners, where, of course, if injustice is done, it would be more serious than in minor offences, although, upon principle, justice should of course be equal to all.

            You think it is therefore more desirable in capital cases?—Yes, in cases of capital punishment it is highly called for.

            Are there some instances which have fallen within your own knowledge on that subject in which you have personally interfered?—There are.

            Would you have the goodness to state any? There were two men tried, of the names of Anderson and Morris, for the capital offence of robbing a person in Westminster of some very trifling sum, 1 l. 2 s., connected with violence on his person. The prosecutor stated, that he met a woman in Westminster, and that she took him to a house where he was robbed by the prisoners, and considerable violence was used, having ultimately thrown him out of the house after having plundered him. He gave such evidence (I was present at the trial), that the judge, the Recorder Knowlys, called on the prisoners for their defence. They had counsel, and the prisoners at the bar gave an entirely different account of the transaction from the prosecutor. The prisoners asserted their innocence. During this moment a noise was heard at the outer door of the court, and with some difficulty a female came rushing into the court, who was apparently the witness the prisoners wished to call, and she, it appeared, was the individual who had taken the prosecutor to the house in Westminster. She gave an entirely different account of the transaction to that of the prosecutor, stating, that he had gone with her to this house, which she had improperly taken him to, being the house of Morris, with whom she was cohabiting, and that when Morris came home, and found a man there, he kicked him out, and that, in truth, that was the real transaction. The Recorder took a strong impression from what had passed against the prisoners, and in a very few moments, after a very short address to the jury, they found the prisoners guilty, together with a woman who was also a prisoner with them, she being in their company and in the house at the time. Upon the jury finding the prisoners guilty, the recorder immediately made an address to the witness, Hannah Morris, by telling her she was a bad, corrupt woman, and ordered her into custody to be tried for perjury. Having heard the case tried, it appeared to me that the story she had told was true. I therefore, after the court was up, took the governor of Newgate into the prison, where she repeated all the facts she had deposed to. One most material fact was, that the prosecutor a day or two after the alleged robbery, had taken the parties up before a magistrate at Queen’s-square office, and that they were only charged with the common assault. This fact, of course, was easy to be ascertained; and ultimately, after inquiring into every fact to which she had deposed, it turned out that her statements were true. I, therefore, finding that the two male prisoners had been ordered for execution, thought it my duty to submit the facts to the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Peel, urging, that at all events, inasmuch as the Recorder had ordered this woman to be tried for perjury, that there ought to be a respite until that trial was over, to ascertain whether the prosecutor or the witness had sworn truly. After several communications with Sir Robert Peel, but not until half-past eleven o’clock on the night before they were to have been hanged, as on the following morning, was I able to procure a reprieve. If I had not had the assistance of the governor of the prison (the late Mr. Wontner) and his deputy, Mr. Barrett, the facts and circumstances establishing the innocence of these prisoners would never have been made to appear.

            Both the prisoners were to have been executed?—Yes. Two days after the time when they would have been executed the sessions came on, but the prosecutor never dared to appear to support the indictment against Hannah Morris. All the documents connected with that case are to be found at the Home Office; and it was at the sessions, no doubt, of May, 1828, during the year I was sheriff. Another case was that of a man of the name of Smith, who had been indicted and found guilty of forgery, and ordered for execution, he having pleaded guilty under an express promise that his life should be spared if he pleaded guilty. Although the relations of the prisoner were respectable, yet for the want of some proper court of appeal why the sentence should not be carried into execution, it was not until four or five days, or a very short period before the day appointed for his execution, I having heard his condemned sermon, that a respectable relation of his applied to me, as sheriff, to exert my influence to arrest the execution. On inquiry, it appeared that the case was instituted by the committee of bankers, and that as many prisoners had got acquitted from the difficulty of proving the utterance, the then solicitor for the committee of bankers thought it right to authorize the city marshal, Mr. Cope, the present governor of Newgate, to go to the prisoner and state to him, that if he would plead guilty his life should be spared, or in other words, that he should be transported. On finding the facts to be as represented, I communicated with the Secretary of State, Sir Robert Peel, and he made an appointment for an interview with Lord Lyndhurst, the then Lord Chancellor, who ultimately considered it necessary to summon to his private room, at the House of Lords, the prosecutor, the solicitor to the committee of bankers, the city marshal, and others; and after an examination, it being ascertained that the facts were as I had represented, the individual was respited during His Majesty’s pleasure. The person who applied to me on behalf of the prisoner was the prisoner’s brother-in-law, and a highly respectable tradesman in Cornhill, and he had been (as he stated to me) occupied many days in endeavouring to ascertain a proper channel through which the case might be properly submitted. There were also two men indicted, of the names of Mallet and Farthing, the particulars of whose case are at the Home Office. They were found guilty, and ordered for execution. The prisoners were poor destitute Irishmen, and the offence with which they were charged was of the most revolting description. By the humane assistance, however, which in all cases was afforded, of the officers of Newgate, such documents and proofs were sent to me, that I thought it my duty in like manner to submit them to Sir Robert Peel, who, I knew, from the experience which I had had, would cause the case to be properly investigated, and ultimately these prisoners were respited.

            Were they convicted on circumstantial evidence?—Yes; and the prosecution appeared to have originated in a conspiracy on the part of the prosecutors.

            How was the falsity of the charge made to appear in that case; from the improbability of circumstances?—Partly by the improbability of the story on the part of the prosecutor, and partly by direct evidence submitted to the Secretary of State.

            Had you yourself any doubt of the innocence of those persons?—I had none.

            Did they receive a pardon, or what became of them?—I believe they received no more than a respite. I have understood it to be a general rule that when prisoners, who are capitally convicted and ordered for execution, are respited, they are always transported for life. That occurred in the case of Anderson and Morris. Feeling satisfied of their innocence, I wrote to Sir Robert Peel, and they were afterwards pardoned; but not until they had been nine months under transportation.

            Was that the case of the robbery?—Yes.

            As to the forgery, what became of the young man?—He was transported for life.

            And the third case?—The result of that I do not remember, except that they were not executed. There was another man who was capitally indicted for the robbery of a woman; I think his name was Brown, and who, upon the deposition of facts, was respited on the ground of his innocence; but that was not until his master, Mr. Lingham, a wine-merchant, had been exerting himself for many days to procure a remission of his sentence. The documents are at the Home Office.

Parliamentary Papers 1836, 36:286–7 [also numbered 100–01]


fewer crimes in seven years


            During the seven years (1804-1811) of the recordership of the celebrated Sir James Mackintosh, at Bombay, in India, the punishment of death was never once inflicted in the court over which he presided. The following extracts are from his parting charge to the grand jury, (July 20th, 1811,) in reviewing the administration of the law during his presidency of the court:

            “Since my arrival here in May, 1804, the punishment of death has not been inflicted by this court. Now, the population subject to our jurisdiction, either locally or personally, cannot be less than two hundred thousand persons. Whether any evil consequence has yet arisen from so unusual (and in the British dominions unexampled) a circumstance, as the disuse of capital punishment, for so long a period as seven years, or among a population so considerable, is a question which you are entitled to ask, and to which I have the means of affording you a satisfactory answer.

            “From May, 1756, to May, 1763, (seven years,) the capital convictions amounted to 141, and the executions were 47. The annual average of persons who suffered death was almost 7, and the annual average of capital crimes ascertained to have been perpetrated, was nearly 20.

            “From May, 1804, to May, 1811, there have been 109 capital convictions. The annual average, therefore, of capital crimes legally proved to have been perpetrated during that period, is between 15 and 16. During this period there has been no capital execution.

            “But, as the population of this island has much more than doubled during the last fifty years, the annual average of capital convictions ought to have been forty, in order to show the same proportion of criminality with that of the first seven years. And between 1756 and 1763 the military force was comparatively small. A few factories or small ports only depended on this government. Between 1804 and 1811, five hundred European officer, and probably four thousand European soldiers, were scattered over extensive territories. Though honor and morality be powerful aids of law with respect to the first class, and military discipline with respect to the second, yet it might have been expected, as experience has proved, that the more violent enormities would be perpetrated by the European soldiery, uneducated and sometimes depraved as many of them must originally be, often in a state of mischievous idleness, commanding, in spite of all care, the means of intoxication, and corrupted by contempt for the feelings and rights of the natives of this country.

            “If these circumstances be considered, it will appear that the capital crimes committed during the last seven years, with no capital execution, have, in proportion to the population, not been much more than a third of those committed in the first seven years, notwithstanding the infliction of death on forty-seven persons.

– O’Sullivan, 102–3


recent pamphlet on this subject


Dickens cites the Rev. Henry Christmas, Capital Punishments Unsanctioned by the Gospel and Unnecessary in a Christian State: A Letter to the Rev. Sir John Page Wood, Bart., B.C.L. The excerpt below is an in-depth examination of the disputed passage from Genesis 9:6, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” From pages 10–12:


            (5). It is doubtful whether our version does give the exact sense of the passage, or whether the original will bear the translation which we have given it. The great Calmet translated the verse thus:—


“Quiconque aura répandu le sang humain

SERA PUNI par l’effusion de son propre sang.”


In this version the words in capitals are his own interpolation.

John Frederic Ostervald, on the other hand, renders it—


Qui aura répandu le sang de l’homme

dans l’homme, son sang sera répandu.”


This is as nearly literal as can be.

The Vulgate has


“Quicumque effuderit humanum

sanguinem, fundetur sanguis illius.”


The Septuagint has



The Spanish version of Scio gives us,


“Todo el que derramare sangre

humana, será derramada su sangre.”


To these we may add Wycliffe, who renders the passage,


“Whosoeure sheduth manne’s bloode,

hys bloode schall be shedde.”*


            Thus there are five important versions, to which might easily be added many of less note, which altogether reject the words “by man,” in the second member of the sentence.

            On the other hand, Cranmer, Tonstall and Ridley, Coverdale, Matthew, Beza, and the Bishops, interpolate the words, “by man.”

            In this agree Luther and Giovanni Diodati.

            The Chaldee has a curious gloss; it may be translated,


“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood before men—that is, before witnesses—shall by the sentence of the judge be exposed to the same pain.”†


The Rabbis generally understand it,


“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood by means of false witnesses, shall suffer the same penalty which has been unjustly inflicted by his means.”


            (6). The varieties thus given will suffice to show that the passage is not one on which we should depend for the continuance of so terrible an institution as that of capital punishments.

            But an examination of the original, in connection with the above-given versions, will, perhaps, enable us to form a clearer opinion; the difficulty obviously lies in those words which the English translators in general have rendered, “by man,” which Ostervald translates “in man,” and which the LXX, the Vulgate, Wycliffe, and Scio, omit altogether. Let us then see how stands the original.


שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ:  כִּי

בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם.


The difficulty, therefore, lies in the words בָּאָדָם in man,” “through man,” “with man,” how it should be rendered, and to which member of the sentence it belongs; whether in fact with Crammer and Luther we are to divide the verse,


“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood,

By man shall his blood be shed;”


or, adopting the idea expressed by Ostervald, read


“Whoso sheddeth the blood of man that is in him,

His blood shall be shed.”


            It is obvious that the third member of the sentence, “for in the image of God made he man,” sheds no light at all on the previous words. Of all the versions given above, the most important is doubtless that of the Seventy; and this, while it affords some countenance to capital punishments, does so by giving the whole passage an expiatory meaning, so that Calmet rightly paraphrases the LXX


Celui qui répandra le sang humain sera

mis au mort pour expier ce sang.”


Calmet himself advocates the punishment of death on the authority of this passage, and Luther and Diodati take the same view.

            (7). But setting authority aside, and applying ourselves only to the meaning of the words, what sense can we suppose in the translation of Ostervald the most exact of all?


“Whoso sheddeth the blood of man that is in man,

His blood shall be shed.”


            If, with Wycliffe, Jerome, and Scio, we suppose the words, “That is in man” are but a pleonasm, we may leave them out, or treat them as we treat other pleonasms, “He opened his mouth and said,” and similar phrases. It does appear that this is the right view; the phrase seems to resemble such as the following:—


“The fruit of a tree bearing seed whose seed is in itself.”

“Who knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of a man that is in him.”


And then we shall be led to conclude that the best translation is that by the author of the Vulgate,


“Whosoever sheddeth human blood,

his blood shall be shed.”


And the passage will rank with this,


“All they that take the sword

shall perish by the sword.”*


            We have devoted so much time to the examination of this passage, because it is allowed to be the strongest; it is a declaration of God himself speaking immediately, and not by prophet or patriarch in a dream or in a vision; it is pre-mosaic, and consequently cannot be treated as a part of the Jewish ceremonial code.


* MS. Sion College.

Calmet vol. i. p. 84.

* Matt. xxvi. 52.


a kind of effeminate feeling


[Macaulay:] In such cases as the present nothing was easier than for hon. gentlemen to come down to that house and gratify the good humour of their constituents by asking for pardons for all sorts of parties. He [Macaulay] looked upon the origin of this proceeding to be the natural reaction against that barbarous penal code which had been in force in England during the past century, and the result was that there was now such a sort of effeminate feeling in the country, that there was hardly a case of atrocity with respect to which they would not have thousands of persons petitioning for mercy, if the house gave any encouragement to the practice. (Hear, hear.) In the case of that miserable hypocrite [Tawall], who poisoned the woman to whom he ought to have felt bound by the dearest ties—the woman who behaved towards him irreproachably…There was not one circumstance of palliation in his case. He had all the advantages that religion, all the advantages that station, all the advantages that education could have afforded him; yet, notwithstanding this aggravation of his guilt, we had persons of the most pure and religious feelings petitioning in his favour. Even dignitaries of the Church of England signed such petitions, praying that a woman might not be hanged. She was represented to be so good—so excellent an instructress of youth—and her services would be so valuable in a penal Colony in instructing the children there in the precepts of religion, that her life was earnestly prayed for. She had been, it was said, irreproachable through life—her only offence, forsooth, being the little one of having mixed some arsenic in her father’s drink; and petitions were poured in, praying that she should not expiate her crime upon the scaffold. If the prerogative of the Crown were to be used in favour of such criminals, every one of us would soon be concerned in bringing forward cases of the same character.


– first half from Times 1846 Mar 11: 3.3; second half from Hansard’s 10 Mar 1846: 892


intimation given by Sir G. Grey


[Sir George Grey (1799–1882), Secretary for the Home Department:] Nothing is more to be deplored or censured than the desire exhibited by multitudes—and the facilities given them, for mere pecuniary gain, to gratify their depraved taste—to witness the last dying agonies of a fellow-creature suffering the extreme penalty of the law. This is an evil which all should seek to check…On this point, I can say no more than that I entirely concur with him in the censure he has cast upon the scenes attending public executions; but a public execution is not absolutely necessary. If that question comes before the House to be discussed on its merits, I shall be prepared to give my opinion; but I warn the House against supposing that it is necessary to the maintenance of capital punishments to have them public…

Hansard’s 1 May 1849: 1071–72


words of Fielding


Dickens quotes from Henry Fielding, An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c.: with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil, section 11. A longer and more precise excerpt in context follows. At the time of his death Dickens owned a 10-volume set of Fielding’s works (edited by A. Chalmers), with the Times excerpt marked off in pencil [Pilgrim 5:655]. Dickens cited Tom Jones as an influence in the preface to Nicholas Nickleby, and alludes to the same work in David Copperfield, chap. 4. Charles Dickens named his eighth child after Fielding.


            One way of preventing the Frequency of Executions is by removing the Evil I am complaining of: For this Effect in Time becomes a Cause; and greatly increases that very Evil from which it first arose. The Design of those who first appointed Executions to be public, was to add the Punishment of Shame to that of Death; in order to make the Example an Object of greater Terror. But Experience hath shewn us that the Event is directly contrary to this Intention. Indeed a competent Knowledge of Human Nature might have foreseen the Consequence. To unite the Ideas of Death and Shame is not so easy as may be imagined. All Ideas of the Latter being absorbed by the Former. To prove this, I will appeal to any Man who hath seen an Execution, or a Procession to an Execution; let him tell me when he hath beheld a poor Wretch, bound in a Cart, just on the Verge of Eternity, all pale and trembling with his approaching Fate, whether the Idea of Shame hath ever intruded on his Mind? Much less will the bold daring Rogue who glories in his present Condition, inspire the Beholder with any such Sensation.

            The Difficulty here will be easily explained, if we have Recourse to the Poets; (for the good Poet and the good Politician do not differ so much as some who know nothing of either Art affirm; nor would Homer or Milton have made the worst Legislators of their Times:) The great Business is to raise Terror, and the Poet will tell you, that Admiration or Pity, or both, are very apt to attend whatever is the Object of Terror in the human Mind. This is very useful to the Poet, but very hurtful on the present Occasion to the Politician, whose Art is to be here employed to raise an Object of Terror, and, at the same time, as much as possible, to strip it of all Pity and all Admiration.

            To effect this, it seems that the Execution should be as soon as possible after the Commission and Conviction of the Crime; for if this be of an atrocious Kind, the Resentment of Mankind being warm, would pursue the Criminal to his last End, and all Pity for the Offender would be lost in Detestation of the Offence. Whereas, when Executions are delayed so long as they sometimes are, the Punishment and not the Crime is considered; and no good Mind can avoid compassionating a Set of Wretches, who are put to Death we know not why, unless, as it almost appears, to make a Holiday for, and to entertain the Mob.

            Secondly, It should be in some degree private. And here the Poets will again assist us. Foreigners have found fault with the Cruelty of the English Drama, in representing frequent Murders upon the Stage. In fact, this is not only cruel, but highly injudicious: A Murder behind the Scenes, if the Poet knows how to manage it, will affect the Audience with greater Terror than if it was acted before their Eyes. Of this we have an Instance in the Murder of the King in Macbeth, at which, when Garrick acts the Part, it is scarce an Hyperbole to say, I have seen the Hair of the Audience stand an End. Terror hath, I believe, been carried higher by this single Instance, than by all the Blood which hath been spilt on the Stage.—To the Poets I may add the Priests, whose Politics have never been doubted. Those of Egypt in particular, where the sacred Mysteries were first devised, well knew the Use of hiding from the Eyes of the Vulgar, what they intended should inspire them with the greatest Awe and Dread. The Mind of Man is so much more capable of magnifying than his Eye, that I question whether every Object is not lessened by being looked upon; and this more especially when the Passions are concerned: for these are ever apt to fancy much more Satisfaction in those Objects which they affect, and much more of Mischief in those which they abhor, than are really to be found in either.

            If Executions therefore were so contrived, that few could be present at them, they would be much more shocking and terrible to the Crowd without Doors than at present, as well as much more dreadful to the Criminals themselves, who would thus die in the Presence only of their Enemies; and where the boldest of them would find no Cordial to keep up his Spirits, nor any Breath to flatter his Ambition.


Ned Ward the London Spy


The London Spy was the general title for a series of vulgar “sketches” of London life, originally serialized in 18 monthly parts, 16 pages each, from Nov 1698 through May 1700. The author was Edward “Ned” Ward (1667–1731), a pubkeeper and coarse humorist. Soon collected into book form (1703), Dickens owned a copy by 1844 [Pilgrim 4:725]. The section relating to the women of Bridewell prison (from part 6) is excerpted below.


            From thence my friend conducted me to Bridewell, being Court day, to give me the diversion of seeing the lechery of some town ladies cooled by a cat-o’-nine-tails….we turned into another court, the buildings being, like the former, magnificently noble. There straight before us was another grate, which proved the women’s apartment. We followed our noses and walked up to take a view of the ladies, who we found were shut up as close as nuns but, like so many slaves, were under the care and direction of an overseer, who walked about with a very flexible weapon of offence, to correct such hempen journeywomen as were unhappily troubled with the spirit of idleness. These smelt as frowzy as so many goats in a Welsh gentleman’s stable, or rather a litter of piss-tail children under the care of a parish nurse, and looked with as much modesty as so many Newgate Saints canonized at the Old Bailey. They were all as cheerful over their shameful drudgery, notwithstanding their miserable circumstances, as so many jolly Crispins in a garret o’er St Hugh’s bones, or Vulcans in a cellar o’er the merry clinks of the sledge and anvil. Some seemed so very young that I thought it very strange they should know sin enough, at those years, to bring them so early into a state of misery. Others were so old that one would think the dread of the grave, and thoughts of futurity, were sufficient to reclaim ’em from all vice, had they been trained up never so wickedly. Some between both, in the meridian of their years, were very pretty, but seemed so very lewd that, Messalina-like, they might be tired, but never satisfied.

            ‘Pray, sir,’ says one of them, ‘how do you like us? you look very wishfully upon us. What do you think of us?’ ‘Why, truly,’ said I, ‘I think you have done something to deserve this punishment, or else you would not be here.’ To which she replied, ‘If you’ll believe me, without blushing I’ll tell you the truth. I happened to live with an old scrivener, and when my mistress was out of the way he used to tickle my lips with a pen-feather. And at last she catched us, and had me before Justice Overdo, who committed me hither, where I have had more lashes on my poor back than ever my belly deserved since I first scattered my virginity.’

            ‘Don’t believe her, master,’ cries another, ‘she’s as arrant a strumpet as ever earned her living at twopence a bout, and was committed hither for lying so long upon her back that her rump grew to the bottom sheet, so that she could not rise again. She’s one of Posture Moll’s scholars and can show you how the watermen shoot London Bridge, or how the lawyers go to Westminster.’

            ‘What do you think,’ replies the other, ‘this buttocking brimstone came hither for? I’ll tell you, master,’ says she, ‘because I believe you have no good guess with you, viz., ’twas for picking a countryman’s pocket of his pouch and hiding it in her oven. But when she came to be searched, the fool, having forgot to take up the strings, was discovered in her roguery, and sent here to be lashed. Does she not deserve it, sir, for trusting her money in a box that has neither lid nor bottom to it?’

            I could not but wonder to hear this impudence from women, more especially when I considered they were under such shame, misery and punishment, which a man might reasonably imagine would work upon the most corrupt minds, and make them abominate those base practices which brought ’em to this unhappiness.

            Being now both tired with, and amazed at, the confidence and loose behaviour of these degenerate wretches, who had neither sense of grace, knowledge of virtue, fear of shame, or dread of misery, my friend reconducted me back into the first quadrangle, and led me up a pair of stairs into a spacious chamber, where the Court was sitting in great grandeur and order. A grave gentleman whose awful looks bespoke him some honourable citizen, was mounted in the judgement seat, armed with a hammer, like a ’Change broker at Lloyd’s Coffee House when selling goods by inch of candle, and a woman under the lash in the next room, where folding doors were opened so that the whole Court might see the punishment inflicted. At last down went the hammer, and the scourging ceased. I protest, till I was undeceived, I thought the offenders had been Popish penitents who, by the delusion of their priests, were drawn thither to buy lashes by auction. The honourable Court, I observed, were chiefly attended by fellows in blue coats, and women in blue aprons. Another accusation being then delivered by a flat-cap against a poor wench, who had no friend to speak in her behalf, proclamation was made, viz.: ‘All you who are willing E__th T__ll should have present punishment, pray hold up your hands.’ Which was done accordingly, and then she was ordered the civility of the house, and was forced to show her tender back and tempting bubbies to the grave sages of the august assembly, who were moved by her modest mien, together with the whiteness of her skin, to give her but gentle correction.


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