Dickens on Capital Punishment

The Famous Letters



            Dickens owed an editor an article. On a trip to Scotland, he had met Macvey Napier (June 1841), and for four years now, had been promising and putting off contributing a piece of social commentary to his magazine. Not just any magazine, either—this was the Edinburgh Review, the pre-eminent Whig quarterly, among the most prestigious of all intellectual venues. Placing an article there would have been a coup for any author, even for the most admired novelist of the day. But the piece was a slow starter. Dickens proposed several ideas for his long-delayed submission, including, most significantly, one on the outrageous state of capital punishment as it was then enforced [28 Jul 1845; Pilgrim 4:340–41].

            Society certainly seemed to be doing something wrong. There was an ongoing series of what were called “popular” murderers—something like what we would today call “tabloid” killers—and every year or two, another wretched potboy or sooty serving maid would gain a brief national notoriety, and a black romantic infamy, as the latest culprit was quickly tried and hung [Hindley, passim].

            The hysteria surround these commonplace criminals is scarcely to be believed. The most celebrated were recreated as wax figures in Madame Tussaud’s, often built with the criminal’s death mask or clothing [Pilbeam, 123 and passim]. At a time when Dickens’s monthly shilling numbers were selling in the tens of thousands, cheap penny broadsides of criminal deeds and confessions were purchased—incredible as it seems—in the millions; and outsold Dickens by one hundred to one. Dreary junk, much of it fabricated by the printer, these broadsides were unquestionably among the most widely-read material throughout all of Britain [Altick, 382]. Towards the peak of the craze (as we will read below) came the execution of the Mannings, who waxed large at Tussaud’s, who were sold as small china statuettes, and whose murderous exploits sold 2.5 million copies [Sweet, 79; Cooper, op. 164; Mayhew, 1:284.2]. This, at a time when the population of the UK was 27 million.

            But Dickens never wrote for the Edinburgh Review. He appeared to be uncomfortable with the journal’s austere and reserved style, or its more moderate politics, and his own multitude of projects kept taking a higher priority. Most notable of these projects was the launch of Daily News, a new daily newspaper of “free trade” politics. Something of a disaster, Dickens was editor for only 20 days (21 Jan–9 Feb 1846), but happily he used up most of his Review ideas in writing for the News, during and after his editorship. The News was more liberal, Dickens could write under his own name, and he could take centre stage.

            It was at the Daily News that Dickens wrote his first five letters on Capital Punishment, along the lines of the proposal he had sent to Napier. The intellectual pedigree of the Edinburgh Review was still evident, in that these letters were among the best-researched and best-argued of all of Dickens’s non-fiction. As will be seen, they eventually turned out to be some of the most important.

            Dickens had witnessed the execution of a certain Courvoisier—one of the “popular” murderers—and this incident was told in the second of the letters. He had also been particularly offended by the news stories of a shoemaker’s son, Thomas Henry Hocker, who killed to gain celebrity—and this is related in the third. But the proximate prod which finally spurred forth the long-delayed essays was the conjunction of two trials for murder, both apparently gone catastrophic. A Navy captain had horribly abused his authority, and killed three of his crew—but was found insane, and acquitted. An Irishman accused of killing his landlord was widely believed innocent—and there were serious problems indeed with his conviction—but he was found guilty, and hung. The time was out of joint, and Charles Dickens took up his pen.


1. Letter to the Daily News, 23 Feb 1846







GENTLEMEN. I choose this time for addressing to you, the first of two or three letters on the subject of Capital Punishment, because it seems to me that the importance of the question is very strongly presented to the public mind just now, by a recent execution in Ireland: and the recent acquittal, in England, of one of the most cruel murderers of whom we have any record. And although there can be no doubt that such a theme, of all others, should be considered with the calmest reference to its own broad Right and Wrong, and not with a limited appeal to its illustration in this or that instance: still, I apprehend that cases like these resolve themselves so directly into the general question, as to have a legitimate and very powerful bearing on it; and that no better occasion can be seized for reviving its discussion, than when such circumstances are generally remembered.

            I wish to be distinctly understood, in the outset, as writing in no spirit of sympathy with the criminal. It will be a part of my purpose to endeavour to show, that the morbid and odious sentimentality which has been exhibited of late years, in favour of ruffians utterly unworthy of it, but drawing nigh to the gallows, is one of the evil concomitants of the Punishment of Death. And I desire to consider it, with a reference to the criminal, only in two points of view. To these, I will confine this introductory letter.

            First. Whether one of the two great objects of all punishment (reserving the second for its proper place) be not to reform the offender. Secondly. Whether an irrevocable Doom—which nothing can recall, which no human power can set right if it be wrong, which may be wrongfully inflicted with the most just intention and which has been wrongfully inflicted with the most just intention, as we all know, more than once—should ever be pronounced by men of fallible and erring judgment, on their fellow-creatures.

            It may be urged that, in the preparation of a criminal for death, and in his devout reception of religious comfort, and in his full confession and late repentance, his reformation is achieved and worked out. Reverend ordinaries, at Newgate and elsewhere, have said so. Hosts of angels have been imagined, in enthusiastic sermons, waiting to conduct the murderer to Heaven; and strange parallels have even been suggested, in such discourses, between the Scaffold and the Cross. GOD forbid that I should presume to measure, or doubt, the mercy in store for the worst criminal ever executed! But I do distinctly challenge and dispute this kind of reformation. Besides that the reformation brought about by legal punishment, should be, to be satisfactory, a living, lasting, growing one: working on, in degradation and humility, from day to day; and striving, in its chains, and labour, and long-distant Hope, to make some atonement always;—besides this, I doubt the possibility of a great change being wrought in any man’s heart and nature, in the flush and fever of that flying interval between the Warrant and the Noose. I see the dreadful hurry of the time, expressed in every word and action that comes leaking through the prison walls, to be caught up by the thirsty crowd outside. I see Hope living on, and know it must live on, in some faint shape, until the Bell begins to toll. I see the restless mind wandering away, miserably, from the main theme of the repentant letter, written in the cell; and while it tells of trust and steadfastness, having power to settle nowhere. I see the abject clinging on to life, which clutches at the hangman’s hand, and blesses him beneath the beam. I see, in everything, the same wild, rapid, incoherent dream: of which I believe the penitence and preparation to be, at least, as unsettled and unsubstantial as any other part. And I believe this, because of the natural constitution of the human mind, and its ordinary workings at such a frightful pass.

            “I can give you no hope of life,” said a gentlemen to a criminal in Newgate, on the night before the day appointed for his execution. “Unless I had solemnly given the promise elsewhere, that I would tell you so, I should not be here. But, by much entreaty, I have obtained a respite: that there may be time to inquire into what I have represented as a doubtful point. Can you bear the thought of living, only for another week?” “O God, sir!” cried the man, “a week is a long time to live!” And being smitten, as if he were only a week old then, he fell down, senseless, on the ground.*

            Upon the second question, whether an irrevocable punishment be, on principle, justifiable; ordained, as it necessarily is, by men of fallible judgment, whose powers of arriving at the truth are limited, and in whom there is the capacity of mistake and false deduction; upon this question alone, I submit that a firm and efficient stand may be made against the punishment of Death. Better that hundreds of guilty persons should escape scot-free (which, supposing any other punishment to be substituted in its place, they never could or would), than that one innocent person should suffer. Better, I will even say, that hundreds of guilty persons should escape, than that the possibility of any innocent man or woman having been sacrificed, should present itself, with the least appearance of colour of reason, to the minds of any class of men!

            Take the case of SEERY, the man just now executed in Ireland: in that unhappy country, where it is considered most essential to assert the law, and make examples through its means. My impression of the case, so far as I know it from the public reports, is, that the man was guilty; but that is nothing to the purpose. There are these facts in it:

            The prosecutor was shot at, by night; and identified the wretched man who has suffered, as the person who fired at him: against whom there was some other evidence, but all of a circumstantial and constructible nature. Before that miserable man went to his death, he set on record, a deliberate and solemn protest against the justice of his sentence, and called upon his Maker before whom he would so soon appear, with all his sins upon his head, to bear witness to his innocence. Since his death, the prosecutor (an honourable and credible witness, no doubt), has repeated his “positive and unalterable conviction,” that he was not mistaken in his previous identification, and that SEERY was the man who fired at him.

            Will anyone deny that there is, here, the Possibility of mistake? I entreat all who may chance to read this letter, to pause for an instant, and ask themselves whether they can remember any occasion, on which they have, in the broad day, and under circumstances the most favourable to recognition, mistaken one person for another: and believed that in a perfect stranger, they have seen, going away from them or coming towards them, a familiar friend. I beg them to consider whether such mistakes be not so common, in all men’s experience, as to render it highly probable that every Irish peasant in whose remembrance this dying declaration lives and burns, can easily recal one such for himself. And then I put this question—Is such an execution calculated to assist the law: to diffuse a wholesome respect for it: to repress atrocious crimes against the person: to awaken any new sense of the sacredness of human life?

            Contending, at present, against the Justifiability of the Punishment of Death, on this second ground which I have stated: I submit that Probability of mistake is not required. The barest Possibility of mistake is a sufficient reason against the taking of a life which nothing can restore; whereas, it would weigh but as a shred of gossamer against the infliction of any other punishment, within the power of man to repair.

            With this, I leave the question of Capital Punishment in its reference to the convict sentenced, and shall beg leave, in another letter, to consider it in its bearings on Society and Crime. But, as a part of its effects upon Society, I would, in conclusion, entreat your readers to reflect, whether such a declaration as that made by Seery before his execution, would be likely to have awakened a general sympathy among the Irish people, or any strong conviction of his innocence (unless afterward revived and borne out by newly discovered circumstances), but for its being surrounded by the awful dignity of Death.


   * In consequence of the new proof elicited by this new inquiry, the man was saved [annotated by Dickens].


2. Letter to the Daily News, 28 Feb 1846


GENTLEMEN, IN the very remarkable Report made to the State Assembly of New York, in 1841, by a select committee of that body, who arrived at the conclusion, ‘that the punishment of death, by law, ought to be forthwith and forever abolished’ in that part of America [O’Sullivan, 8], there is the following suggestion:


                ‘…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, comes gradually forth a monstrous birth of Temptation….’


            Strongly impressed by this passage when I first read the report; and believing that it shadowed out a metaphysical truth, which, however wild and appalling in its aspect, was a truth still; I was led to consider the cases of several murderers, both in deed, and in intent, with a reference to it; and certainly it gathered very strong and special confirmation in the course of that inquiry. But, as the bearing, here, is on capital punishment in its influences on the commission of crime; and as my present object is to make it the subject of one or two considerations in its other influences on society in general; I, for the present, defer any immediate pursuit of the idea, and merely quote it now, as introducing this lesser and yet great objection to the punishment of death:

            That there is, about it, a horrible fascination, which, in the minds—not of evil-disposed persons, but of good and virtuous and well-conducted people, supersedes the horror legitimately attracting to crime itself, and causes every word and action of a criminal under sentence of death to be the subject of a morbid interest and curiosity. Which is odious and painful, even to many of those who eagerly gratify it by every means they can compass; but which is, generally speaking, irresistible. The attraction of repulsion being as much a law of our moral nature, as gravitation is in the structure of the visible world, operates in no case (I believe) so powerfully, as in this case of the punishment of death; though it may occasionally diminish in its force, through strong reaction.

            When the murderers HOCKER and TAWELL had awakened a vast amount of this depraved excitement, and it had attained to an unusually indecent and frenzied height, one of your contemporaries, deploring the necessity of ministering to such an appetite, laid the blame upon the caterers of such dainties for the Press, while some other newspapers, disputing which of them should bear the greater share of it, divided it variously. Can there be any doubt, on cool reflection, that the whole blame rested on, and was immediately and naturally referable to, the punishment of death?

            Round what other punishment does the like interest gather? We read of the trials of persons who have rendered themselves liable to transportation for life, and we read of their sentences, and, in some few notorious instances, of their departure from this country, and arrival beyond sea; but they are never followed into their cells, and tracked from day to day, and night to night; they are never reproduced in their false letters, flippant conversations, theological disquisitions with visitors, lay and clerical: or served up in their whole biography and adventures—so many live romances with a bloody ending. Their portraits are not rife in the print-shops, nor are their autographs stuck up in shop-windows, nor are their snuff-boxes handed affably to gentlemen in court, nor do they inquire of other spectators with eye-glasses why they look at them so steadfastly, nor are their breakfasts, dinners, and luncheons, elaborately described, nor are their waxen images in Baker-street (unless they were in immediate danger, at one time, of the gallows), nor are high prices offered for their clothes at Newgate, nor do turnpike trusts grow rich upon the tolls that people going to see their houses, or the scenes of their offences, pay. They are tried, found guilty, punished; and there an end.

            But a criminal under sentence of death, or in great peril of death upon the scaffold, becomes, immediately, the town talk; the great subject; the hero of the time. The demeanour in his latter moments, of SIR THOMAS MORE—one of the wisest and most virtuous of men—was never the theme of more engrossing interest, than that of HOCKER, TAWELL, GREENACRE, or COURVOISIER. The smallest circumstance in the behaviour of these, or any similar wretches, is noted down and published as a precious fact. And read, too—extensively and generally read—even by hundreds and thousands of people who object to the publication of such details, and are disgusted by them. The horrible fascination surrounding the punishment, and everything connected with it, is too strong for resistance; and when an attempt is made in this or that gaol (as it has been sometimes made of late), to keep such circumstances from transpiring, by excluding every class of strangers, it is only a formal admission of the existence of this fascination, and of the impossibility of otherwise withstanding it.

            Is it contended that the fascination may surround the crime, and not the punishment? Let us consider whether other crimes, which have now no sort of fascination for the general public, had or had not precisely the gross kind of interest which now attaches to Murder alone, when they were visited with the same penalty. Was Forgery interesting, when Forgers were hanged? and is it less interesting now when they are transported for life? Compare the case of Dr. Dodd, or Fauntleroy, or the Reverend Peter Fenn, or Montgomery, or Hunton, or any other generally known, with that of the Exchequer-Bill forgery in later times, which: with every attendant circumstance but death, or danger of death, to give it a false attraction, soon dwindled down into a mere item in a Sessions’ Calendar. Coining, when the coiner was dragged (as I have seen one) on a hurdle to the place of execution; or Burglary, or Highway Robbery—did these crimes ever wear an aspect of adventure and mystery, and did the perpetrators of them ever become the town talk, when their offences were visited with death? Now, they are mean, degraded, miserable criminals; and nothing more.

            That the publication of these Newgate court-circulars to which I have alluded, is injurious to society, there can be no doubt. Apart from their inevitable association with revolting details, revived again and again, of bloodshed and murder (most objectionable as familiarizing people’s minds with the contemplation of such horrors), it is manifest that anything which tends to awaken a false interest in great villains, and to invest their greatest villainies and lightest actions with a terrible attraction, must be vicious and bad, and cannot be wholesome reading. But it is neither just nor reasonable to charge their publication on the newspapers, or the gleaners for the newspapers. They are published because they are read and sought for. They are read and sought for: not because society has causelessly entered into a monstrous and unnatural league on this theme (which it would be absurd to suppose), but because it is in the secret nature of those of whom society is made up, to have a dark and dreadful interest in the punishment at issue.

            Whether public executions produce any good impression on their habitual witnesses, or whether they are calculated to produce any good impression on the class of persons most likely to be attracted to them, is a question, by this time, pretty well decided. I was present, myself, at the execution of Courvoisier. I was, purposely, on the spot, from midnight of the night before; and was a near witness of the whole process of the building of the scaffold, the gathering of the crowd, the gradual swelling of the concourse with the coming-on of day, the hanging of the man, the cutting of the body down, and the removal of it into the prison. From the moment of my arrival, when there were but a few score boys in the street, and those all young thieves, and all clustered together behind the barrier nearest to the drop—down to the time when I saw the body with its dangling head, being carried on a wooden bier into the gaol—I did not see one token in all the immense crowd; at the windows, in the streets, on the house-tops, anywhere; of any one emotion suitable to the occasion. No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of ‘Hats off!’ when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a Play—to see the Stage the better, in the final scene.

            Of the effect upon a perfectly different class, I can speak with no less confidence. There were, with me, some gentlemen of education and distinction in imaginative pursuits, who had, as I had, a particular detestation of that murderer; not only for the cruel deed he had done, but for his slow and subtle treachery, and for his wicked defence. And yet, if any one among us could have saved the man (we said so, afterwards, with one accord), he would have done it. It was so loathsome, pitiful, and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse; being very much the stronger, and shedding around it a far more dismal contagion.

            The last of the influences of this punishment on society, which I shall notice in the present letter, is, that through the prevalent and fast-increasing feeling of repugnance to it, great offenders escape with a very inadequate visitation. Only a few weeks have elapsed since the streets of London presented the obscene spectacle of a woman being brought out to be killed before such a crowd as I have described, and, while her young body was yet hanging in the brutal gaze, of portions of the concourse hurrying away, to be in time to see a man hanged elsewhere, by the same executioner. A barbarous murderer is tried soon afterwards, and acquitted on a fiction of his being insane—as any one, cognizant of these two recent executions, might have easily foreseen.

            I will not enter upon the question whether juries be justified or not justified in evading their oaths, rather than add to the list of such deeply degrading and demoralizing exhibitions, and sanction the infliction of a punishment which they conscientiously believe, and have so many reasons for believing, to be wrong. It is enough for me that juries do so; and I presume to think that the able writer of a powerful article on Johnstone’s trial in The Daily News, does not sufficiently consider that this is no new course in juries, but the natural result and working of a law to which the general feeling is opposed. MR ABERCROMBIE, five-and-thirty years ago, stated it in the House of Commons to have become a common practice of juries, in cases of Forgery, to find verdicts ‘contrary to the clearest and most indisputable evidence of facts’; and cited the case of a woman who was proved to have stolen a ten-pound note, which the jury, with the approbation of the judge, found to be worth only thirty-nine shillings. SIR SAMUEL ROMILLY, in the same debate, mentioned other cases of the same nature; and they were of frequent and constant occurrence at that time.

            Besides—that juries have, within our own time, in another class of cases, arrived at the general practice of returning a verdict tacitly agreed upon beforehand, and of making it applicable to a very different sets of facts, we know by the notable instance of Suicide. Within a few years, juries frequently found that a man dying by his own hand, was guilty of self-murder. But this verdict subjecting the body to a barbarous mode of burial, from which the better feeling of society revolted (as it is now revolting from the punishment of death), it was abrogated by common consent, and precisely the same evasion established, as is now, unfortunately, so often resorted to in cases of murder. That it is an evasion, and not a proceeding on a soundly-proved and established principle, that he who destroys his own life must necessarily be mad—the very exceptions from this usual course in themselves demonstrate.

            So it is in cases of Murder. Juries, like society, are not stricken foolish or motiveless. They have, for the most part, an objection to the punishment of death: and they will, for the most part, assert such verdicts. As jurymen, in the Forgery cases, would probably reconcile their verdict to their consciences, by calling to mind that the intrinsic value of a bank note was almost nothing, so jurymen in cases of Murder probably argue that grave doctors have said all men are more or less mad, and therefore they believe the prisoner mad. This is a great wrong to society; but it arises out of the punishment of death.

            And the question will always suggest itself in jurors’ minds—however earnestly the learned judge presiding, may discharge his duty—‘which is the greater wrong to society? To give this man the benefit of the possibility of his being mad, or to have another public execution, with all its depraving and hardening influences?’ Imagining myself a juror, in a case of life or death: and supposing that the evidence had forced me from every other ground of opposition to this punishment in the particular case, as a possibility of irremediable mistake, or otherwise: I would go over it again on this ground; and if I could, by any reasonable special pleading with myself, find him mad rather than hang him—I think I would.



3. Letter to the Daily News, 9 Mar 1846





            I will take for the subject of this letter, the effect of Capital Punishment on the commission of crime, or rather of murder; the only crime with one exception (and that a rare one) to which it is now applied. Its effect in preventing crime, I will reserve for another letter: and a few of the more striking illustrations of each aspect of the subject, for a concluding one.





            Some murders are committed in hot blood and furious rage; some, in deliberate revenge; some, in terrible despair; some (but not many) for mere gain; some, for the removal of an object dangerous to the murderer’s peace or good name; some, to win a monstrous notoriety.

            On murders committed in rage, in the despair of strong affection (as when a starving child is murdered by its parent) or for gain, I believe the Punishment of Death to have no effect in the least. In the two first cases, the impulse is a blind and wild one, infinitely beyond the reach of any reference to the punishment. In the last, there is little calculation beyond the absorbing greed of the money to be got. Courvoisier, for example, might have robbed his master with greater safety and with fewer chances of detection, if he had not murdered him. But, his calculations going to the gain and not to the loss, he had no balance for the consequences of what he did. So, it would have been more safe and prudent in the woman who was hanged a few weeks since, for the murder in Westminster, to have simply robbed her old companion in an unguarded moment, as in her sleep. But, her calculation going to the gain of what she took to be a Bank note; and the poor old woman living between her and the gain; she murdered her.

            On murders committed in deliberate revenge, or to remove a stumbling block in the murderer’s path, or in an insatiate craving for notoriety, is there reason to suppose that the Punishment of Death has the direct effect of an incentive and an impulse?

            A murder is committed in deliberate revenge. The murderer is at no trouble to prepare his train of circumstances, takes little or no pains to escape, is quite cool and collected, perfectly content to deliver himself up to the Police, makes no secret of his guilt, but boldly says, “I killed him. I’m glad of it. I meant to do it. I am ready to die.” There was such a case the other day. There was such another case not long ago. There are such cases frequently. It is the commonest first exclamation on being seized. Now, what is this but a false arguing of the question, announcing a foregone conclusion, expressly leading to the crime, and inseparably arising out of the Punishment of Death?  “I took his life. I give up mine to pay for it. Life for life; blood for blood. I have done the crime. I am ready with the atonement. I know all about it; it’s a fair bargain between me and the law. Here am I to execute my part of it; and what more is to be said or done?” It is the very essence of the maintenance of this punishment for murder, that it does set life against life. It is in the essence of a stupid, weak, or otherwise ill-regulated mind (of such a murderer’s mind, in short), to recognise in this set off, a something that diminishes the base and coward character of murder. In a pitched battle, I, a common man, may kill my adversary, but he may kill me. In a duel, a gentleman may shoot his opponent through the head, but the opponent may shoot him too, and this makes it fair. Very well. I take this man’s life for a reason I have, or choose to think I have, and the law takes mine. The law says, and the clergyman says, there must be blood for blood and life for life. Here it is. I pay the penalty.

            A mind incapable, or confounded in its perceptions—and you must argue with reference to such a mind, or you could not have such a murder—may not only establish on these grounds an idea of strict justice and fair reparation, but a stubborn and dogged fortitude and foresight that satisfy it hugely. Whether the fact be really so, or not, is a question I would be content to rest, alone, on the number of cases of revengeful murder in which this is well known, without dispute, to have been the prevailing demeanour of the criminal: and in which such speeches and such absurd reasoning have been constantly uppermost with him. “Blood for blood,” and “life for life,” and such like balanced jingles, have passed current in people’s mouths, from legislators downwards, until they have been corrupted into “tit for tat,” and acted on.

            Next, come the murders done to sweep out of the way a dreaded or detested object. At the bottom of this class of crimes, there is a slow, corroding, growing hate. Violent quarrels are commonly found to have taken place between the murdered person and the murderer: usually of opposite sexes. There are witnesses to old scenes of reproach and recrimination, in which they were the actors; and the murderer has been heard to say, in this or that coarse phrase, “that he wouldn’t mind killing her, though he should be hanged for it”—in these cases, the commonest avowal.

            It seems to me, that in this well-known scrap of evidence, there is a deeper meaning than is usually attached to it. I do not know, but it may be—I have a strong suspicion that it is—a clue to the slow growth of the crime, and its gradual development in the mind. More than this; a clue to the mental connexion of the deed, with the punishment to which the doer of that deed is liable, until the two, conjoined, give birth to monstrous and mis-shapen Murder.

            The idea of murder, in such a case, like that of self-destruction in the great majority of instances, is not a new one. It may have presented itself to the disturbed mind in a dim shape and afar off; but it has been there. After a quarrel, or with some strong sense upon him of irritation or discomfort arising out of the continuance of this life in his path, the man has brooded over the unformed desire to take it. “Though he should be hanged for it.” With the entrance of the Punishment into his thoughts, the shadow of the fatal beam begins to attend—not on himself, but on the object of his hate. At every new temptation, it is there, stronger and blacker yet, trying to terrify him. When she defies or threatens him, the scaffold seems to be her strength and “vantage ground.” Let her not be too sure of that; “though he should be hanged for it.”

            Thus, he begins to raise up, in the contemplation of this death by hanging, a new and violent enemy to brave. The prospect of a slow and solitary expiation would have no congeniality with his wicked thoughts, but this throttling and strangling has. There is always before him, an ugly, bloody, scarecrow phantom, that champions her, as it were, and yet shows him, in a ghastly way, the example of murder. Is she very weak, or very trustful in him, or infirm, or old? It gives a hideous courage to what would be mere slaughter otherwise; for there it is, a presence always about her, darkly menacing him with that penalty whose murky secret has a fascination for all secret and unwholesome thoughts. And when he struggles with his victim at the last, “though he should be hanged for it,” it is a merciless wrestle, not with one weak life only, but with that ever-haunting, ever-beckoning shadow of the gallows, too; and with a fierce defiance to it, after their long survey of each other, to come on and do its worst.

            Present this black idea of violence to a bad mind contemplating violence; hold up before a man remotely compassing the death of another person, the spectacle of his own ghastly and untimely death by man’s hands; and out of the depths of his own nature you shall assuredly raise up that which lures and tempts him on. The laws which regulate those mysteries have not been studied or cared for, by the maintainers of this law; but they are paramount and will always assert their power.

            Out of one hundred and sixty-seven persons under sentence of Death in England, questioned at different times, in the course of years, by an English clergyman in the performance of his duty, there were only three who had not been spectators of executions.

            We come, now, to the consideration of those murders which are committed, or attempted, with no other object than the attainment of an infamous notoriety. That this class of crimes has its origin in the Punishment of Death, we cannot question; because (as we have already seen, and shall presently establish by another proof) great notoriety and interest attach, and are generally understood to attach, only to those criminals who are in danger of being executed.

            One of the most remarkable instances of murder originating in mad self-conceit; and of the murderer’s part in the repulsive drama, in which the law appears at such great disadvantage to itself and to society, being acted almost to the last with a self-complacency that would be horribly ludicrous if it were not utterly revolting; is presented in the case of Hocker.

            Here is an insolent, flippant, dissolute youth: aping the man of intrigue and levity: over-dressed, over-confident, inordinately vain of his personal appearance: distinguished as to his hair, cane, snuff-box, and singing-voice: and unhappily the son of a working shoemaker. Bent on loftier flights than such a poor house-swallow as a teacher in a Sunday-school can take; and having no truth, industry, perseverance, or other dull work-a-day quality, to plume his wings withal; he casts about him, in his jaunty way, for some mode of distinguishing himself—some means of getting that head of hair into the print-shops; of having something like justice done to his singing-voice and fine intellect; of making the life and adventures of Thomas Hocker remarkable; and of getting up some excitement in connection with that slighted piece of biography. The Stage? No. Not feasible. There has always been a conspiracy against the Thomas Hockers, in that kind of effort. It has been the same with Authorship in prose and poetry. Is there nothing else? A Murder, now, would make a noise in the papers! There is the gallows to be sure; but without that, it would be nothing. Short of that, it wouldn’t be fame. Well! We must all die at one time or other; and to die game, and have it in print, is just the thing for a man of spirit. They always die game at the Minor Theatres and the Saloons, and the people like it very much. Thurtell, too, died very game, and made a capital speech when he was tried. There’s all about it in a book at the cigar-shop now. Come, Tom, get your name up! Let it be a dashing murder that shall keep the wood-engravers at it for the next two months. You are the boy to go through with it, and interest the town!

            The miserable wretch, inflated by this lunatic conceit, arranges his whole plan for publication and effect. It is quite an epitome of his experience of the domestic melodrama or penny novel. There is the Victim Friend; the mysterious letter of the injured Female to the Victim Friend; the romantic spot for the Death-Struggle by night; the unexpected appearance of Thomas Hocker to the Policeman; the parlour of the Public House, with Thomas Hocker reading the paper to a strange gentleman; the Family Apartment, with a song by Thomas Hocker; the Inquest Room, with Thomas Hocker boldly looking on; the interior of the Marylebone Theatre, with Thomas Hocker taken into custody; the Police Office with Thomas Hocker “affable” to the spectators; the interior of Newgate, with Thomas Hocker preparing his defence; the Court, where Thomas Hocker, with his dancing-master airs, is put upon his trial, and complimented by the Judge; the Prosecution, the Defence, the Verdict, the Black Cap, the Sentence—each of them a line in any Playbill, and how bold a line in Thomas Hocker’s life!

            It is worthy of remark, that the nearer he approaches to the gallows—the great last scene to which the whole of these effects have been working up—the more the overweening conceit of the poor wretch shows itself; the more he feels that he is the hero of the hour; the more audaciously and recklessly he lies, in supporting the character. In public—at the condemned sermon—he deports himself as becomes the man whose autographs are precious, whose portraits are innumerable; in memory of whom, whole fences and gates have been borne away, in splinters, from the scene of murder. He knows that the eyes of Europe are upon him; but he is not proud—only graceful. He bows, like the first gentleman in Europe, to the turnkey who brings him a glass of water; and composes his clothes and hassock, as carefully as good Madame Blaize could do. In private—within the walls of the condemned cell—every word and action of his waning life, is a lie. His whole time is divided between telling lies and writing them. If he ever have another thought, it is for his genteel appearance on the scaffold; as when he begs the barber “not to cut his hair too short, or they won’t know him when he comes out.” His last proceeding but one is to write two romantic love letters to women who have no existence. His last proceeding of all (but less characteristic, though the only true one) is to swoon away, miserably, in the arms of the attendants, and be hanged up like a craven dog.

            Is not such a history, from first to last, a most revolting and disgraceful one; and can the student of it bring himself to believe that it ever could have place in any record of facts, or that the miserable chief-actor in it could have ever had a motive for his arrogant wickedness, but for the comment and the explanation which the Punishment of Death supplies!

            It is not a solitary case, nor is it a prodigy, but a mere specimen of a class. The case of Oxford, who fired at Her Majesty in the Park, will be found, on examination, to resemble it very nearly, in the essential feature. There is no proved pretence whatever for regarding him as mad; other than that he was like this malefactor, brimful of conceit, and a desire to become, even at the cost of the gallows (the only cost within his reach) the talk of the town. He had less invention than Hocker, and perhaps was not so deliberately bad; but his attempt was a branch of the same tree, and it has its root in the ground where the scaffold is erected.

            Oxford had his imitators. Let it never be forgotten in the consideration of this part of the subject, how they were stopped. So long as attempts invested them with the distinction of being in danger of death at the hangman’s hands, so long did they spring up. When the penalty of death was removed, and a mean and humiliating punishment substituted in its place, the race was at an end, and ceased to be.


4. Letter to the Daily News, 13 Mar 1846


             We come, now, to consider the effect of Capital Punishment in the prevention of crime.

            Does it prevent crime in those who attend executions?

            There never is (and there never was) an execution at the Old Bailey in London, but the spectators include two large classes of thieves—one class who go there as they would go to a dog-fight, or any other brutal sport, for the attraction and excitement of the spectacle; the other who make it a dry matter of business, and mix with the crowd, solely to pick pockets. Add to these, the dissolute, the drunken, the most idle, profligate, and abandoned of both sexes—some moody ill-conditioned minds, drawn thither by a fearful interest—and some impelled by curiosity; of whom the greater part are of an age and temperament rendering the gratification of that curiosity highly dangerous to themselves and to society—and the great elements of the concourse are stated.

            Nor is this assemblage peculiar to London. It is the same in country towns, allowing for the different statistics of the population. It is the same in America. I was present at an execution in Rome, for a most treacherous and wicked murder, and not only saw the same kind of assemblage there, but, wearing what is called a shooting-coat, with a great many pockets in it, felt innumerable hands busy in every one of them, close to the scaffold.

            I have already mentioned that out of one hundred and sixty-seven convicts under sentence of death, questioned at different times in the performance of his duty by an English clergyman, there were only three who had not been spectators of executions. Mr. Wakefield, in his Facts relating to the Punishment of Death, goes into the working, as it were, of this sum. His testimony is extremely valuable, because it is the evidence of an educated and observing man, who, before having personal knowledge of the subject and of Newgate, was quite satisfied that the Punishment of Death should continue, but who, when he gained that experience, exerted himself to the utmost for its abolition, even at the pain of constant public reference in his own person to his own imprisonment. “It cannot be egotism,” he reasonably observes, “that prompts a man to speak of himself in connexion with Newgate.”

             “Whoever will undergo the pain,” says Mr. Wakefield, “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….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….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….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. To which it may be added, that Fauntleroy is said to have made precisely the same declaration in reference to the origin of his own criminality.”

            But one convict “who was within an ace of being hanged”, among the many with whom Mr. Wakefield conversed, seems to me to have unconsciously put a question which the advocates of Capital Punishment would find it very difficult indeed to answer. “Have you often seen an execution?” asked Mr. Wakefield. “Yes, often.” “Did it not frighten you?” “No. Why should it?

            It is very easy and very natural to turn from this ruffian, shocked by the hardened retort; but answer his question, why should it? Should he be frightened by the sight of a dead man? We are born to die, he says, with a careless triumph. We are not born to the treadmill, or to servitude and slavery, or to banishment; but the executioner has done no more for that criminal than nature may do to-morrow for the judge, and will certainly do, in her own good time, for judge and jury, counsel and witnesses, turnkeys, hangmen, and all. Should he be frightened by the manner of the death? It is horrible, truly, so horrible, that the law, afraid or ashamed of its own deed, hides the face of the struggling wretch it slays; but does this fact naturally awaken in such a man, terror—or defiance? Let the same man speak. “What did you think then?” asked Mr. Wakefield. “Think? Why, I thought it was a — shame.”

            Disgust and indignation, or recklessness and indifference, or a morbid tendency to brood over the sight until temptation is engendered by it, are the inevitable consequences of the spectacle, according to the difference of habit and disposition in those who behold it. Why should it frighten or deter? We know it does not. We know it from the police reports, and from the testimony of those who have experience of prisons and prisoners, and we may know it, on the occasion of an execution, by the evidence of our own senses; if we will be at the misery of using them for such a purpose. But why should it? Who would send his child or his apprentice, or what tutor would send his scholars, or what master would send his servants, to be deterred from vice by the spectacle of an execution? If it be an example to criminals, and to criminals only, why are not the prisoners in Newgate brought out to see the show before the debtor’s door? Why, while they are made parties to the condemned sermon, are they rigidly excluded from the improving postscript of the gallows? Because an execution is well known to be an utterly useless, barbarous, and brutalising sight, and because the sympathy of all beholders, who have any sympathy at all, is certain to be always with the criminal, and never with the law.

            I learn from the newspaper accounts of every execution, how Mr. So-and-so, and Mr. Somebody else, and Mr. So-forth shook hands with the culprit, but I never find them shaking hands with the hangman. All kinds of attention and consideration are lavished on the one; but the other is universally avoided, like a pestilence. I want to know why so much sympathy is expended on the man who kills another in the vehemence of his own bad passions, and why the man who kills him in the name of the law is shunned and fled from? Is it because the murderer is going to die? Then by no means put him to death. Is it because the hangman executes a law, which, when they once come near it face to face, all men instinctively revolt from? Then by all means change it. There is, there can be, no prevention in such a law.

            It may be urged that Public Executions are not intended for the benefit of those dregs of society who habitually attend them. This is an absurdity, to which the obvious answer is, So much the worse. If they be not considered with reference to that class of persons, comprehending a great host of criminals in various stages of development, they ought to be, and must be. To lose sight of that consideration is to be irrational, unjust, and cruel. All other punishments are especially devised, with a reference to the rooted habits, propensities, and antipathies of criminals. And shall it be said, out of Bedlam, that this last punishment of all, is alone to be made an exception from the rule, even where it is shown to be a means of propagating vice and crime?

            But there may be people who do not attend executions, to whom the general fame and rumour of such scenes is an example, and a means of deterring from crime.

            Who are they? We have seen that around Capital Punishment there lingers a fascination, urging weak and bad people towards it, and imparting an interest to details connected with it, and with malefactors awaiting it or suffering it, which even good and well disposed people cannot withstand. We know that last dying speeches, and Newgate calendars, are the favourite literature of very low intellects. The gallows is not appealed to, as an example in the instruction of youth (unless they are training for it); nor are there condensed accounts of celebrated executions for the use of national schools. There is a story in an old spelling-book, of a certain Don’t Care, who was hanged at last, but it is not understood to have had any remarkable effect on crimes or executions in the generation to which it belonged, and with which it has passed away. Hogarth’s idle apprentice is hanged; but the whole scene—with the unmistakable stout lady, drunk and pious, in the cast; the quarrelling, blasphemy, lewdness, and uproar; Tiddy Doll vending his gingerbread, and the boys picking his pocket—is a bitter satire on the great example; as efficient then, as now.

            Is it efficient to prevent crime? The parliamentary returns demonstrate that it is not. I was engaged in making some extracts from these documents, when I found them so well abstracted in one of the papers published by the committee on this subject established at Aylesbury last year, by the humane exertions of Lord Nugent, that I am glad to quote the general results from its pages:

             “In 1843, a return was laid on the table of the House of the commitments and executions for murder in England and Wales, during the 30 years ending with December 1842; divided into five periods of six years each. It shows that in the last six years, from 1836 to 1842, during which there were only 50 executions, the commitments for murder were fewer by 61 than in the six years preceding with 74 executions; fewer by 63 than in the six years ending 1830 with 75 executions; fewer by 56 than in the six years ending 1824 with 94 executions; and fewer by 93 than in the six years ending 1818, when there was no less a number of executions than 122. But it may be said, perhaps, that, in the inference we draw from this return, we are substituting cause for effect, and that, in each successive cycle, the number of murders decreased in consequence of the example of public executions in the cycle immediately preceding, and that it was for that reason there were fewer commitments. This might be said with some colour of truth, if the example had been taken from two successive cycles only. But when the comparative examples adduced are of no less than five successive cycles, and the result gradually and constantly progressive in the same direction, the relation of facts to each other is determined beyond all ground for dispute, namely, that the number of these crimes has diminished in consequence of the diminution of the number of executions. More especially when it is also remembered that it was immediately after the first of these cycles of five years, when there had been the greatest number of executions and the greatest number of murders, that the greatest number of persons were suddenly cast loose upon the country, without employ, by the reduction of the Army and Navy; that then came periods of great distress and great disturbance in the agricultural and manufacturing districts; and above all, that it was during the subsequent cycles that the most important mitigations were effected in the law, and that the Punishment of Death was taken away not only for crimes of stealth, such as cattle and horse stealing, and forgery, of which crimes corresponding statistics show likewise a corresponding decrease, but for the crimes of violence too, tending to murder, such as are many of the incendiary offences, and such as are highway robbery and burglary. But another return, laid before the House at the same time, bears upon our argument, if possible, still more conclusively. In table 11, we have only the years which have occurred since 1810, in which all persons convicted of murder suffered death; and, compared with these an equal number of years in which the smallest proportion of persons convicted were executed. In the first case there were 66 persons convicted, all of whom underwent the penalty of death; in the second 83 were convicted, of whom 31 only were executed. Now see how these two very different methods of dealing with the crime of murder affected the commission of it in the years immediately following. The number of commitments for murder, in the four years immediately following those in which all persons convicted were executed, was 270.

             “In the four years immediately following those in which little more than one-third of the persons convicted were executed, there were but 222, being 48 less. If we compare the commitments in the following years with those in the first years, we shall find that, immediately after the examples of unsparing execution, the crime increased nearly 13 per cent., and that after commutation was the practice and capital punishment the exception, it decreased 17 per cent.

             “In the same parliamentary return is an account of the commitments and executions in London and Middlesex, spread over a space of 32 years, ending in 1842, divided into two cycles of 16 years each. In the first of these, 34 persons were convicted of murder, all of whom were executed. In the second, 27 were convicted, and only 17 executed. The commitments for murder during the latter long period, with 17 executions, were more than one half fewer than they had been in the former long period with exactly double the number of executions. This appears to us to be as conclusive upon our argument as any statistical illustration can be upon any argument professing to place successive events in the relation of cause and effect to each other. How justly then is it said in that able and useful periodical work, now in the course of publication at Glasgow, under the name of the Magazine of Popular Information on Capital and Secondary Punishment; ‘the greater the number of executions, the greater the number of murders; the smaller the number of executions, the smaller the number of murders. The lives of her Majesty’s subjects are less safe with a hundred executions a year than with fifty; less safe with fifty than with twenty-five.’”

             Similar results have followed from rendering public executions more and more infrequent, in Tuscany, in Prussia, in France, in Belgium. Wherever Capital Punishments are diminished in their number, there, crimes diminish in their number too.

            But the very same advocates of the Punishment of Death who contend, in the teeth of all facts and figures, that it does prevent crime, contend in the same breath against its abolition because it does not! “There are so many bad murders,” say they, “and they follow in such quick succession, that the Punishment must not be repealed.” Why, is not this a reason, among others, for repealing it? Does it not go to show that it is ineffective as an example; that it fails to prevent crime; and that it is wholly inefficient to stay that imitation, or contagion, call it what you please, which brings one murder on the heels of another?

            One forgery came crowding on another’s heels in the same way, when the same punishment attached to that crime. Since it has been removed, forgeries have diminished in a most remarkable degree. Yet within five and thirty years, Lord Eldon, with tearful solemnity, imagined in the House of Lords as a possibility for their Lordships to shudder at, that the time might come when some visionary and morbid person might even propose the abolition of the Punishment of Death for forgery. And when it was proposed, Lords Lyndhurst, Wynford, Tenterden, and Eldon—all Law Lords—opposed it.

            The same Lord Tenterden manfully said, on another occasion and another question, that he was glad the subject of the amendment of the laws had been taken up by Mr. Peel, “who had not been bred to the law; for those who were, were rendered dull, by habit, to many of its defects!” I would respectfully submit, in extension of this text, that a criminal judge is an excellent witness against the Punishment of Death, but a bad witness in its favour; and I will reserve this point for a few remarks in the next, concluding, Letter.


5. Letter to the Daily News, 16 Mar 1846


             The last English Judge, I believe, who gave expression to a public and judicial opinion in favour of the Punishment of Death, is Mr. Justice Coleridge, who, in charging the Grand Jury at Hertford last year, took occasion to lament the presence of serious crimes in the calendar, and to say that he feared that they were referable to the comparative infrequency of Capital Punishment.

            It is not incompatible with the utmost deference and respect for an authority so eminent, to say that, in this, Mr. Justice Coleridge was not supported by facts, but quite the reverse. He went out of his way to found a general assumption on certain very limited and partial grounds, and even on those grounds was wrong. For among the few crimes which he instanced, murder stood prominently forth. Now persons found guilty of murder are more certainly and unsparingly hanged at this time, as the Parliamentary Returns demonstrate, than such criminals ever were. So how can the decline of public executions affect that class of crimes? As to persons committing murder, and yet not found guilty of it by juries, they escape solely because there are many public executions—not because there are none or few.

            But when I submit that a criminal judge is an excellent witness against Capital Punishment, but a bad witness in its favour, I do so on more broad and general grounds than apply to this error in fact and deduction (so I presume to consider it) on the part of the distinguished judge in question. And they are grounds which do not apply offensively to judges, as a class; than whom there are no authorities in England so deserving of general respect and confidence, or so possessed of it; but which apply alike to all men in their several degrees and pursuits.

            It is certain that men contract a general liking for those things which they have studied at great cost of time and intellect, and their proficiency in which has led to their becoming distinguished and successful. It is certain that out of this feeling arises, not only that passive blindness to their defects of which the example given by my Lord Tenterden was quoted in the last letter, but an active disposition to advocate and defend them. If it were otherwise; if it were not for this spirit of interest and partisanship; no single pursuit could have that attraction for its votaries which most pursuits in course of time establish. Thus legal authorities are usually jealous of innovations on legal principles. Thus it is described of the lawyer in the Introductory Discourse to the Description of Utopia, that he said of a proposal against Capital Punishment, “‘this could never be so established in England but that it must needs bring the weal-public into great jeopardy and hazard,’ and as he was thus saying, he shaked his head, and made a wry mouth, and so he held his peace.” Thus the Recorder of London, in 1811, objected to “the capital part being taken off” from the offence of picking pockets. Thus the Lord Chancellor, in 1813, objected to the removal of the Penalty of Death from the offence of stealing to the amount of five shillings from a shop. Thus, Lord Ellenborough, in 1820, anticipated the worst effects from there being no Punishment of Death for stealing five shillings’ worth of wet linen from a bleaching ground. Thus the Solicitor General, in 1830, advocated the Punishment of Death for forgery, and [had] “the satisfaction of thinking” in the teeth of mountains of evidence from bankers and other injured parties (one thousand bankers alone!) “that he was deterring persons from the commission of crime, by the severity of the law.” Thus, Mr. Justice Coleridge delivered his charge at Hertford in 1845. Thus there were in the criminal code of England, in 1790, one hundred and sixty crimes punishable with death. Thus the lawyer has said, again and again, in his generation, that any change in such a state of things “must needs bring the weal-public into jeopardy and hazard.” And thus he has, all through the dismal history, “shaked his head, and made a wry mouth, and held his peace.” Except—a glorious exception!—when such lawyers as Bacon, More, Blackstone, Romilly, and—let us ever gratefully remember—in later times Mr. Basil Montagu, have striven, each in his day, within the utmost limits of the endurance of the mistaken feeling of the people or the legislature of the time, to champion and maintain the truth.

            There is another and a stronger reason still, why a criminal judge is a bad witness in favour of the Punishment of Death. He is a chief actor in the terrible drama of a trial, where the life or death of a fellow creature is at issue. No one who has seen such a trial can fail to know, or can ever forget, its intense interest. I care not how painful this interest is to the good, wise judge upon the bench. I admit its painful nature, and the judge’s goodness and wisdom to the fullest extent—but I submit that his prominent share in the excitement of such a trial, and the dread mystery involved, has a tendency to bewilder and confuse the judge upon the general subject of that penalty. I know the solemn pause before the verdict, the hush and stilling of the fever in the court, the solitary figure brought back to the bar, and standing there, observed of all the outstretched heads and gleaming eyes, to be, next minute, stricken dead, as one may say, among them. I know the thrill that goes round when the black cap is put on, and how there will be shrieks among the women, and a taking out of some one in a swoon; and, when the judge’s faltering voice delivers sentence, how awfully the prisoner and he confront each other; two mere men, destined one day, however far removed from one another at this time, to stand alike as suppliants at the bar of God. I know all this, I can imagine what the office of the judge costs, in this execution of it; but I say that in these strong sensations he is lost, and is unable to abstract the penalty as a preventive or example, from an experience of it, and from associations surrounding it, which are and can be, only his, and his alone.

            Not to contend that there is no amount of wig or ermine that can change the nature of the man inside; not to say that the nature of a judge may be, like the dyer’s hand, subdued to what it works in, and may become too used to this Punishment of Death, to consider it quite dispassionately; not to say that it may possibly be inconsistent to have, deciding as calm authorities in favour of death, judges who have been constantly sentencing to death;—I contend that for the reasons I have stated, alone, a judge, and especially a criminal judge, is a bad witness for the punishment but an excellent witness against it, inasmuch as in the latter case his conviction of its inutility has been so strong and paramount as utterly to beat down and conquer these adverse incidents. I have no scruple in stating this position, because, for anything I know, the majority of excellent judges now on the bench may have overcome them, and may be opposed to the Punishment of Death under any circumstances.

            I mentioned that I would devote a portion of this letter to a few prominent illustrations of each head of objection to the Punishment of Death. Those on record are so very numerous that selection is extremely difficult; but in reference to the possibility of mistake, and the impossibility of reparation, one case is as good (I should rather say as bad) as a hundred; and if there were none but Eliza Fenning’s, that would be sufficient. Nay, if there were none at all, it would be enough to sustain this objection, that men of finite and limited judgment do inflict, on testimony which admits of doubt, an infinite and irreparable punishment. But there are on record numerous instances of mistake; many of them very generally known and immediately recognisable in the following summary, which I copy from the New York Report already referred to [O’Sullivan, 118–20].

             “There have been cases in which groans have been heard in the apartment of the crime, which have attracted the steps of those on whose testimony the case has turned—when, on proceeding to the spot, they have found a man bending over the murdered body, a lantern in the left hand, and the knife yet dripping with the warm current in the blood-stained right, with horror-stricken countenance, and lips which, in the presence of the dead, seem to refuse to deny the crime in the very act of which he is thus surprised—and yet the man has been, many years after, when his memory alone could be benefited by the discovery, ascertained not to have been the real murderer! There have been cases in which, in a house in which were two persons alone, a murder has been committed on one of them—when many additional circumstances have fastened the imputation upon the other—and when, all apparent modes of access from without being closed inward, the demonstration has seemed complete of the guilt for which that other has suffered the doom of the law—yet suffered innocently! There have been cases in which a father has been found murdered in an out-house, the only person at home being a son, sworn by a sister to have been dissolute and undutiful, and anxious for the death of the father, and succession to the family property—when the track of his shoes in the snow is found from the house to the spot of the murder, and the hammer with which it was committed, (known as his own) found, on a search, in the corner of one of his private drawers, with the bloody evidence of the deed only imperfectly effaced from it—and yet the son has been innocent!—the sister, years after, on her death-bed confessing herself the fratricide as well as the parricide. There have been cases in which men have been hung on the most positive testimony to identity, (aided by many suspicious circumstances,) by persons familiar with their appearance, which have afterwards proved grievous mistakes, growing out of remarkable personal resemblance. There have been cases in which two men have been seen fighting in a field—an old enmity existing between them—the one found dead, killed by a stab from a pitch-fork known as belonging to the other, and which that other had been carrying—the pitch-fork lying by the side of the murdered man—and yet its owner has been afterwards found not to have been the author of the murder of which it had been the instrument, the true murderer sitting on the jury that tried him. There have been cases in which an innkeeper has been charged by one of his servants with the murder of a traveller, the servant deposing to having seen his master on the stranger’s bed, strangling him, and afterwards rifling his pockets—another servant deposing that she saw him come down at that time at a very early hour in the morning, steal into the garden, take gold from his pocket, and carefully wrapping it up bury it in a designated spot—on the search of which the ground is found loose and freshly dug, and a sum of thirty pounds in gold found buried according to the description—the master, who confessed the burying of the money, with many evidences of guilt in his hesitation and confusion, has been hung of course, and proved innocent only too late. There have been cases in which a traveller has been robbed on the highway, of twenty guineas which he had taken the precaution to mark—one of these is found to have been paid away or changed by one of the servants of the inn which the traveller reaches the same evening—the servant is about the height of the robber, who had been cloaked and disguised—his master deposes to his having been recently unaccountably extravagant and flush of gold—and on his trunk being searched, the other nineteen marked guineas and the traveller’s purse are found there, the servant being asleep at the time, half-drunk—he is of course convicted and hung, for the crime of which his master was the author! There have been cases in which a father and daughter have been overheard in violent dispute—the words ‘barbarity,’ ‘cruelty,’ and ‘death’ being heard frequently to proceed from the latter—the former goes out, locking the door behind him—groans are overheard, and the words, ‘cruel father, thou art the cause of my death!’—on the room being opened, she is found on the point of death from a wound in her side, and near her the knife with which it had been inflicted—and on being questioned as to her owing her death to her father, her last motion, before expiring, is an expression of assent; the father, on returning to the room, exhibits the usual evidences of guilt; he, too, is of course hung,—and it is not till nearly a year afterwards that, on the discovery of conclusive evidence that it was a suicide, the vain reparation is made to his memory by the public authorities, of waving a pair of colours over his grave in token of the recognition of his innocence.”

             More than a hundred such cases are known, it is said in this Report, in English criminal jurisprudence [O’Sullivan, 117]. The same Report contains three striking cases of supposed criminals being unjustly hanged in America; and also five more in which people whose innocence was not afterwards established were put to death on evidence as purely circumstantial and as doubtful, to say the least of it, as any that was held to be sufficient in this general summary of legal murders. Mr. O’Connell defended, in Ireland, within five and twenty years, three brothers who were hanged for a murder of which they were afterwards shown to have been innocent. I cannot find the reference at this moment, but I have seen it stated on good authority, that but for the exertions, I think of the present Lord Chief Baron, six or seven innocent men would certainly have been hanged. Such are the instances of wrong judgment which are known to us. How many more there may be, in which the real murderers never disclosed their guilt, or were never discovered, and where the odium of great crimes still rests on guiltless people long since resolved to dust in their untimely graves, no human power can tell.

            The effect of public executions on those who witness them, requires no better illustration, and can have none, than the scene which any execution in itself presents, and the general Police-office knowledge of the offences arising out of them. I have stated my belief that the study of rude scenes leads to the disregard of human life, and to murder. Referring since that expression of opinion to the very last trial for murder in London, I have made inquiry, and am assured that the youth now under sentence of death in Newgate for the murder of his master in Drury Lane, was a vigilant spectator of the three last public executions in this City. What effects a daily increasing familiarity with the scaffold, and with death upon it, wrought in France in the Great Revolution, everybody knows. In reference to this very question of Capital Punishment, Robespierre himself, before he was

in blood stept in so far”,


warned the National Assembly that in taking human life, and in displaying before the eyes of the people scenes of cruelty and the bodies of murdered men, the law awakened ferocious prejudices, which gave birth to a long and growing train of their own kind. With how much reason this was said, let his own detestable name bear witness! If we would know how callous and hardened society, even in a peaceful and settled state, becomes to public executions when they are frequent, let us recollect how few they were who made the last attempt to stay the dreadful Monday-morning spectacles of men and women strung up in a row for crimes as different in their degree as our whole social scheme is different in its component parts, which, within some fifteen years or so, made human shambles of the Old Bailey.

            There is no better way of testing the effect of public executions on those who do not actually behold them, but who read of them and know of them, than by inquiring into their efficiency in preventing crime. In this respect they have always, and in all countries, failed. According to all facts and figures, failed. In Russia, in Spain, in France, in Italy, in Belgium, in Sweden, in England, there has been one result. In Bombay, during the Recordership of Sir James Macintosh, there were fewer crimes in seven years without one execution, than in the preceding seven years with forty-seven executions; notwithstanding that in the seven years without Capital Punishment, the population had greatly increased, and there had been a large accession to the numbers of the ignorant and licentious soldiery, with whom the more violent offences originated. During the four wickedest years of the Bank of England (from 1814 to 1817, inclusive), when the one-pound note capital prosecutions were most numerous and shocking, the number of forged one-pound notes discovered by the Bank steadily increased, from the gross amount in the first year of ₤10,342, to the gross amount in the last of ₤28,412. But in every branch of this part of the subject—the inefficiency of Capital Punishment to prevent crime, and its efficiency to produce it—the body of evidence (if there were space to quote or analyse it here) is overpowering and resistless.

            I have purposely deferred until now any reference to one objection which is urged against the abolition of Capital Punishment: I mean that objection which claims to rest on Scriptural authority.

            It was excellently well said by Lord Melbourne, that no class of persons can be shown to be very miserable and oppressed, but some supporters of things as they are will immediately rise up and assert—not that those persons are moderately well to do, or that their lot in life has a reasonably bright side—but that they are, of all sorts and conditions of men, the happiest. In like manner, when a certain proceeding or institution is shown to be very wrong indeed, there is a class of people who rush to the fountainhead at once, and will have no less an authority for it than the Bible, on any terms.

            So, we have the Bible appealed to in behalf of Capital Punishment. So, we have the Bible produced as a distinct authority for Slavery. So, American representatives find the title of their country to the Oregon territory distinctly laid down in the Book of Genesis. So, in course of time, we shall find Repudiation, perhaps, expressly commanded in the Sacred Writings.

            It is enough for me to be satisfied, on calm inquiry and with reason, that an Institution or Custom is wrong and bad; and thence to feel assured that IT CANNOT BE a part of the law laid down by the Divinity who walked the earth. Though every other man who wields a pen, should turn himself into a commentator on the Scriptures—not all their united efforts, pursued through our united lives, could ever persuade me that Slavery is a Christian law; nor, with one of these objections to an execution in my certain knowledge, that Executions are a Christian law, my will is not concerned. I could not, in my veneration for the life and lessons of Our Lord, believe it. If any text appeared to justify the claim, I would reject that limited appeal, and rest upon the character of the Redeemer, and the great scheme of His Religion, where, in its broad spirit, made so plain—and not this or that disputed letter—we all put our trust. But, happily, such doubts do not exist. The case is far too plain. The Rev. Henry Christmas, in a recent pamphlet on this subject, shows clearly that in five important versions of the Old Testament (to say nothing of versions of less note) the words, “by man,” in the often-quoted text, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,” do not appear at all. We know that the law of Moses was delivered to certain wandering tribes, in a peculiar and perfectly different social condition from that which prevails among us at this time. We know that the Christian Dispensation did distinctly repeal and annul certain portions of that law. We know that the doctrine of retributive justice or vengeance, was plainly disavowed by the Saviour. We know that on the only occasion of an offender, liable by the law to death, being brought before Him for His judgment, it was not death. We know that He said, “Thou shalt not kill.” And if we are still to inflict Capital Punishment because of the Mosaic law (under which it was not the consequence of a legal proceeding, but an act of vengeance from the next of kin, which would surely be discouraged by our later laws if it were revived among the Jews just now), it would be equally reasonable to establish the lawfulness of a plurality of wives on the same authority.

            Here I will leave this aspect of the question. I should not have treated of it at all, in the columns of a newspaper, but for the possibility of being unjustly supposed to have given it no consideration in my own mind.

            In bringing to a close these letters on a subject, in connexion with which there is happily very little that is new to be said or written, I beg to be understood as advocating the total abolition of the Punishment of Death, as a general principle, for the advantage of society, for the prevention of crime, and without the least reference to, or tenderness for any individual malefactor whomsoever. Indeed, in most cases of murder, my feeling towards the culprit is very strongly and violently the reverse. I am the more desirous to be so understood, after reading a speech made by Mr. Macaulay in the House of Commons last Tuesday night, in which that accomplished gentleman hardly seemed to recognise the possibility of anybody entertaining an honest conviction of the inutility and bad effects of Capital Punishment in the abstract, founded on inquiry and reflection, without being the victim of “a kind of effeminate feeling.” Without staying to inquire what there may be that is especially manly and heroic in the advocacy of the gallows, or to express my admiration of Mr. Calcraft, the hangman, as doubtless one of the most manly specimens now in existence, I would simply hint a doubt, in all good humour, whether this be the true Macaulay way of meeting a great question? One of the instances of effeminacy of feeling quoted by Mr. Macaulay, I have reason to think was not quite fairly stated. I allude to the petition in Tawell’s case. I had neither hand nor part in it myself; but, unless I am greatly mistaken, it did pretty clearly set forth that Tawell was a most abhorred villain, and that the House might conclude how strongly the petitioners were opposed to the Punishment of Death, when they prayed for its non-infliction even in such a case.



6. Letter to the Times, 14 Nov 1849: 4.5


            The Daily News letters were well received, though they did not raise much of a stir at the time. As a consequence, Dickens was invited to attend one of the first meetings of Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, by the founder, Charles Gilpin. Unable to attend, Dickens only sent a letter of support, and wrote (28 Apr 1846): “I need not say that I sympathise most heartily with the object of the meeting, or that the more I reflect upon the subject to which it is directed, the more I am convinced that the punishment of death must be, and will be before long abolished.” [Pilgrim 4:542].

            Three years passed before Dickens was to write on the topic again. Readers will notice that his first five letters to the Daily News, above, differ significantly from these final two letters to the Times, below.

            Firstly, Dickens’s politics had changed, and he had become markedly more conservative. Opponents of capital punishment at the time split into two main factions: 1) those who wished it abolished altogether, and 2) the more moderate position, those who campaigned for private executions. When writing the Daily News letters, Dickens fell in with the first camp, but by the time of the Times letters, he had moved over to the second. As he later explained to same Charles Gilpin (15 Nov 1849): “I believe that the enormous crimes which have been committed within the last year or two, and are fresh, unhappily, in the public memory, have indisposed many good people to share in the responsibility of abandoning the last punishment of the Law. And I know that there are many such who would lend their utmost aid to an effort for the suppression of public executions for evermore, though they cannot conscientiously abrogate capital punishment in extreme cases” [Pilgrim 5:647–48]. I cannot infer exactly which “enormous crimes” made hanging seem a bit more tolerable to Dickens, but in any case the world is never short of them. Dickens despaired of the more idealistic goal of total abolition, and from this time on worked toward the more pragmatic end of private executions.

            Secondly, recall that a complaint sometimes made about Dickens (to this day) is that he would often point out problems, but rarely suggest solutions. To just such a critic of his Daily News letters, Dickens had written that: “he objects on principle to the position that those who shew Capital Punishment to be ineffectual and demoralizing are at all bound to provide a substitute for it” [16 Mar 1846; Pilgrim 4:520]. But in these subsequent Times letters Dickens does indeed propose a substitution, a solution, in that he gives details of a new system of private executions, and this far more practical and constructive approach shows a maturation in his social criticism.

            A bit of context will prepare the reader for the Times letters to follow. After Courvoisier, Dickens had hoped never again to witness an execution, but was somehow convinced to attend one of the most notorious of them all: the hanging of Frederick and Maria Manning. The deadly couple had killed a lodger, and buried him under the flagstones of their kitchen floor. Punch, the weekly humor newspaper, had dedicated itself from its first issue (1841)  to abolishing capital punishment [Spielmann, 2]. Punch’s star cartoonist was John Leech—the illustrator of A Christmas Carol—and Dickens, at first reluctant, was eventually persuaded to attend the execution alongside Leech [Pilgrim 5:642].

            Buildings facing the site of execution let out their prime viewing spots for top dollar. In order to secure the roof and back kitchen of one of the best vantage points, Dickens and Leech each paid two guineas (about three weeks’ pay for Bob Cratchit). Three other colleagues accompanied them, including John Forster, Dickens’s closest friend and his first major biographer, making a total of ten guineas rent dispensed [Pilgrim 5:643–44].

            Forster did not publish on the subject, but he did write two private letters, to Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last Days of Pompeii. While Dickens and Leech found the spectacle abhorrent, Forster’s feeling was closer to morbid fascination, a more typical reaction from spectators. His description of Maria Manning’s death:


I never witnessed such a sight which I think a man ought to undergo once, for his soul's sake—as he goes through meazles for his body. You should have seen this woman ascend the drop, blindfold, and with [a] black lace veil over her face—with a step as firm as if she had been walking to a feast. She was beautifully dressed, every part of her noble figure finely and fully expressed by close fitting black satin, spotless white collar round her neck loose enough to admit the rope without its removal, and gloves on her manicured hands. She stood while the rope was adjusted as steadily as the scaffold itself, and when flung off, seemed to die at once. But there was nothing hideous in her as she swung to and fro afterwards. The wretch beside her was as a filthy shapeless scarecrow—she had lost nothing of her graceful aspect! This is heroine-worship, I think!

 – Forster to Bulwer-Lytton [Nov 1849?], Pilgrim 5:643


After I wrote to you about that [exterminated] criminal—the woman Manning, I heard what fell from her as she stood on the drop. ‘Mind you do your work well!’ she said to the hangman as he adjusted the rope. ‘Nothing, but to thank you for much kindness,’ she said to the parson, as he advanced to ask if she had anything to say, hoping she might then confess. Then—when he had retired—she called to the surgeon, who had led her (blindfold) up the scaffold, and said these words, the last she spoke on this earth. ‘I am poorly, at present; I trust to you that it shall not be made known.’ It was true—and she had obtained a clean napkin not ten minutes before she ascended the drop. A sensitive cleanliness of body seems to have been her passion—and the doctor who [examined] the bodies after death, and who said he had never seen so beautiful a figure, compared her feet to those of a marble statue.—The last letter which she wrote (to a French advocate, her guardian, who appears to have been very kind to her) was written so close upon her death (the same morning) that it could not be posted till after the execution—and it contained a vehement protestation of innocence, and her satisfaction that she was going to the presence of a judge who would not judge her falsely, and in whose ‘Saint Paradis’ she would forgive all her enemies. Yet her guilt was horrible and indisputable!—Lord Carlisle (she lived in his sister's family, you may remember) says she was always singing in the house—and that all the ladies adored her, while her fellow servants detested her….

– Forster to Bulwer-Lytton (15 Dec 1849), Davies, 13–4


            Leech’s Punch cartoon on the subject soon appeared as: “The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Nov 13”. Leech concentrated less on the execution, and more on the crowd in attendance. (Among that crowd was Herman Melville, who paid a half a crown to stand on a nearby roof [Lindgren, 6.1].) Dickens’s own observations, which also focused on the crowd, are given here now, in one of his most oft-cited pieces of non-fiction: the first of his letters to the London Times on the execution of the Mannings.




Sir,—I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

            I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself.

            I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly—as it did—it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

            I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when, in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season, we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not a time to think of this one, and to root it out.

I am, Sir, your faithful servant,


Devonshire-terrace, Tuesday, Nov. 13.


7. Letter to the Times 19 Nov 1849: 5.2–3


            The Times had a wider readership than the Daily News, the Mannings were the topic of the day, and so Dickens’s Times letters made a great stir indeed. The Times ran a “leader” on the subject, an editorial, on the same day as the first letter, and for days after responses rushed in, both to the newspaper and to Dickens personally. Dickens wrote to a friend’s wife (16 Nov 1849): “Such proofs of a general concurrence in the necessity of the change we advocate, have poured in upon me since Wednesday Morning that I begin to hope it may be brought about at no distant day. I am considering what to do next, towards that righteous end.” [Pilgrim 5:649]. To his Unitarian minister (20 Nov 1849): “I write in the midst of such a roaring sea of correspondence, brought upon me by those two letters in The Times, that I seem to have no hope of land.” [Pilgrim 5:656].

            Amongst all this writing roaring in, two pieces particularly caught Dickens’s attention, and he later responded to them in print. We will include these two here. First, from the Times editorial:


A great novelist, whose knowledge of the human heart and its workings under the infinite varieties and accidents of modern life, needs not our praise, has sent us a letter describing his impressions on witnessing the execution. His language excites our admiration, but not our surprise. The scene is doubtless the most horrid, and apparently the most hardening, that can be imagined. We are not prepared, however, to follow Mr. DICKENS to his conclusion. It appears to us a matter of necessity that so tremendous an act as a national homicide should be publicly as well as solemnly done. Popular jealousy demands it. Were it otherwise, the mass of the people would never be sure that great offenders were really executed, or that the humbler class of criminals were not executed in greater numbers than the State chose to confess. The mystery of the prison walls would be intolerable, for, besides mere curiosity, popular indignation would ask to see or learn the details of the punishment, the fact of its ignominious character, and the bearing of the criminals. Nor do we think it altogether fair to infer the real feelings, much less the abiding impression, of the spectators from the horrid, hysterical mirth produced by a night’s exposure, an immense crowd, and a long suspended expectation. Few of us ever choose to confess deep emotion, and men often hide the deepest feeling with the wildest excesses of manner and of language. They who would bury themselves under the earth if they could, when they cannot escape the public eye will sometimes belie their mental struggles by the most frantic exaggerations. HAMLET was never so mad as over the grave of OPHELIA, when the scene recalled all his natural melancholy, all the miseries of his life, and the horrors of his preternatural mission. In the rude multitude yesterday congregated before Horsemonger-lane Gaol there might be no nearer approach to HAMLET than Mr. DICKENS himself, yet what we say is true of the great majority of minds, and not less true of the most undisciplined.

Times 14 Nov 1849: 4.2


Next, a correspondent to the Times, one who believed that Dickens had confused cause and effect:




                Sir,—A striking letter from Mr. Charles Dickens, published in your paper of the 14th inst., will have been read with much interest.

                It describes forcibly the degrading scenes he witnessed in front of Horsemonger-lane Gaol during the night and morning preceding the recent popular execution, if we may use the term; and he calls energetically upon Sir George Grey to use his influence with Parliament to put an immediate stop to such abominations.

                But I would submit that, in accordance with a prevailing sentiment, he carries his deductions too far, or does not sufficiently explain himself. The manifest inference to be drawn from his letter is, that these public executions are a leading cause of the depravity he describes; while, in fact, they only afford exhibitions of it.

                The real causes are far too constant and deep-seated to be affected by such rare occurrences, and it would be well worthy of such powerful minds as those of Sir George Grey and Mr. Dickens to investigate the causes and suggest the means of eradicating the many real sources of the evil.

                The bad passions elicited by the concourse of the scum (as regards character) of London may be mischievous, and to be deprecated, but I much doubt that the execution itself has had an evil effect; indeed, I am satisfied that it has a contrary tendency.

                It is impossible but that the sight must create a momentary dread. It may be light and evanescent, but some impression is made. I could as easily conceive water to run up hill as the sight of an execution to be in itself in the slightest degree an incentive to crime.

                Had Mrs. Manning herself witnessed the execution of Rush, it might not have cured her diabolical propensities, but it would have terrified her, and it may be a question whether the awful sensation does not produce a greater shock in the minds of those inwardly conscious of similar feelings with the culprit, that on others.

                It is no proof of inefficacy that many murderers have been in the habit of witnessing executions, although this manifests that it is not an infallible remedy; but who can venture to say how many may have been prevented from committing the crime, not even by witnessing, but by merely reading the horrid circumstances of an execution?

                It may be right to suppress these disgraceful assemblages, but in doing so let us not lay the flattering unction to our souls, that we have made any great step towards removing the dreadful evils elicited by them, but rather let us contemplate what we have witnessed as an awful evidence of a condition of society, towards the amelioration of which our efforts should be directed, addressing them to the substantial ill, and not alone to its manifestation.

Your obedient servant, MILO.


Times 17 Nov 1849: 4.6


The reaction of the readership was not all written; there was also a response at a notable public meeting, held to discuss the abolition of Capital Punishment. As before, Charles Gilpin had invited Dickens to the meeting, and as before, Dickens declined, explaining that he now supported the private execution position, and not total abolition (this explanation quoted above).

            The meeting was held the first Monday after the hangings (19 Nov 1849), without Dickens; in attendance was Gilpin, also the Reverend Henry Christmas (cited in the News letters), and many more. The crowd quickly got nasty, and turned and bit at the absent apostate Dickens, as a man who had changed his colours. Gilpin declared that: “he felt obliged to Mr. Charles Dickens for the descriptive letter he had recently written to the newspapers; but he altogether differed from him as to the propriety of private executions as an instalment. (Cheers.) That point never would be given up by the true opponents of death punishments. They would not substitute assassinations for public executions. (Cheers.)” Three other men could not attend, but sent noteworthy letters to be read. Douglas Jerrold was head writer for Punch, and a good friend of Dickens; he was said to have written that the “genius of English society would never permit private hanging: the brutality of the mob was even preferable to the darkness of secrecy.” Cobden and Bright, the free trade leaders, sent letters echoing Gilpin’s opinion that private hanging was simply assassination [Illustrated London News 24 Nov 1849: 346.3].

            Dickens was irked but also amused (the good-natured man often reacted this way). In a public dinner speech on Wednesday, two days later, he joked that he was “roaming about the world with an unsatiated thirst for human blood” [Speeches (21 Nov 1849), 103].

            In his second letter to the Times, Dickens responded to three of the critics above: 1) the correspondent “Milo”, 2) the Times leader writer, and 3) Douglas Jerrold (Dickens had received an early copy of Jerrold’s letter to the meeting). Let’s see what Dickens had to say, in this, the last letter in the series.




            Sir,—When I wrote to you on Tuesday last I had no intention of troubling you again; but as one of your correspondents has to-day expressed a reasonable desire that I would explain myself more clearly, and as I hope I may do no injury to the cause I would serve by stating my views upon it a little more in detail, I shall be glad to do so, if you will allow me the opportunity.

            My positions in reference to the demoralizing nature of public executions are—

            First, that they chiefly attract as spectators the lowest, the most depraved, the most abandoned of mankind; in whom they inspire no wholesome emotions whatever.

            Secondly, that the public infliction of a violent death is not a salutary spectacle for any class of people; but that it is in the nature of things that on the class by whom it is generally witnessed it should have a debasing and hardening influence.

            On the first head I must appeal again to my own experience of the execution of last Tuesday morning; to all the evidence that has ever been taken on the subject, showing that executions have been the favourite sight of convicts of all descriptions; to the knowledge possessed by the magistracy and police of the general character of such crowds; to the police reports that are sure to follow their assemblage; to the unvarying description of them given in the newspapers; to the indisputable fact that no decent father is willing that his son, and no decent master is willing that his apprentices or servants, should mingle in them; to the indisputable fact that all society, its dregs excepted, recoil from them as masses of abomination and brutality. (That there were not more robberies committed at this last execution was not the fault of the assembled thieves, whose numbers on the occasion the Home Secretary may easily learn from the Commissioners in Scotland-yard, but the merit of the police, whose vigilance was beyond all praise.)

            On the second head, after a passing allusion to the hardening influence which familiarity even with natural death produces on coarse minds, I must again refer to my own experience. Nothing would have been a greater comfort to me—nothing would have so much relieved in my mind the unspeakable terrors of the scene, as to have been enabled to believe that any portion of the immense crowd—that any grains of sand in the vast moral desert stretching away on every side—were moved to any sentiments of fear, repentance, pity, or natural horror by what they saw upon the drop. It was impossible to look around and rest in any such belief. With every consideration and respect for your suggestion that the concourse may have been belying their mental struggles by frantic exaggerations, I am confident that if you had been there beside me, seeing what I saw, and hearing what I heard, you could never have admitted the thought. Such a state of mind has its signs and tokens equally with any other, and no such signs and tokens were there. The mirth was not hysterical, the shoutings and fightings were not the efforts of a strained excitement seeking to vent itself in any relief. The whole was unmistakeably callous and bad. As the ferocious woman who was charged on the same day with threatening to murder another in the midst of the multitude, proclaiming that she had a knife about her, and would have her heart’s blood, and be hanged on the same gibbet with her namesake, Mrs. Manning, whose death she had come to see—as she had her evil passions excited to the utmost by the scene, so had all the crowd. I believe this was the whole and sole effect of what they had come to see, and I hold that no human being, not being the better for such a sight, could go away without being the worse for it.

            To prevent such frightful spectacles in a Christian country, and all the incalculable evils they engender, I would have the last sentence of the law executed with comparative privacy within the prison walls. Before I state how, let me strengthen this proposal with some words of Fielding on this subject, to whose profound knowledge of human nature you, I know, will render full justice:—

                “The execution 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. Terror hath, I believe, been carried higher by this single instance than by all the blood which hath been spilt upon 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 those 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.”

            From the moment of a murderer’s being sentenced to death, I would dismiss him to the dread obscurity to which the wisest judge upon the bench consigned the murderer Rush. I would allow no curious visitors to hold any communication with him; I would place every obstacle in the way of his sayings and doings being served up in print on Sunday mornings for the perusal of families. His execution within the walls of the prison should be conducted with every terrible solemnity that careful consideration could devise. Mr. Calcraft, the hangman (of whom I have some information in reference to this last occasion), should be restrained in his unseemly briskness, in his jokes, his oaths, and his brandy. To attend the execution I would summon a jury of 24, to be called the Witness Jury, eight to be summoned on a low qualification, eight on a higher, eight on a higher still; so that it might fairly represent all classes of society. There should be present, likewise, the governor of the gaol, the chaplain, the surgeon, and other officers, the sheriffs of the county or city, and two inspectors of prisons. All these should sign a grave and solemn form of certificate (the same in every case) that on such a day, at such an hour, in such a gaol, for such a crime, such a murderer was hanged in their sight. There should be another certificate from the officers of the prison that the person hanged was that person, and no other; a third, that that person was buried. These should be posted on the prison-gate for 21 days, printed in the Gazette, and exhibited in other public places; and during the hour of the body’s hanging I would have the bells of all the churches in that town or city tolled, and all the shops shut up, that all might be reminded of what was being done.

            I submit to you that, with the law so changed, the public would (as is right) know much more of the infliction of this tremendous punishment than they know of the infliction of any other. There are not many common subjects, I think, of which they know less than transportation; and yet they never doubt that when a man is ordered to be sent abroad he goes abroad. The details of the commonest prison in London are unknown to the public at large, but they are quite satisfied that prisoners said to be in this or that gaol are really there and really undergo its discipline. The “mystery” of private executions is objected to; but has not mystery been the character of every improvement in convict treatment and prison discipline effected within the last 20 years? From the police van to Norfolk Island, are not all the changes changes that make the treatment of the prisoner mysterious? His seclusion in his conveyance hither and thither from the public sight, instead of his being walked through the streets, strung with 20 more to a chain, like the galley-slaves in Don Quixotte (as I remember to have seen in my school-days), makes a mystery of him. His being known by a number instead of by a name, and his being under the rigorous discipline of the associated silent system—to say nothing of the solitary, which I regard as a mistake—is all mysterious. I cannot understand that the mystery of such an execution as I propose would be other than a fitting climax to all these wise regulations, or why, if there be anything in this objection, we should not return to the days when ladies paid visits to highwaymen, drinking their punch in the condemned cells of Newgate, or Ned Ward, the London spy, went upon a certain regular day of the week to Bridewell to see the women whipped.

            Another class of objectors I know there are, who, desiring the total abolition of capital punishment, will have nothing less; and who, not doubting the fearful influence of public executions, would have it protracted for an indefinite term, rather than spare the demoralization they do not dispute, at the risk of losing sight for a while of their final end. But of these I say nothing, considering them, however good and pure in intention, unreasonable, and not to be argued with.

            With many thanks to you for your courtesy, and begging most earnestly to assure you that I write in a deep conviction that I incurred a duty when I became a witness of the execution on Tuesday last, from which nothing ought to move me, and which every hour’s reflection strengthens,

I am, Sir, your faithful servant,


Devonshire-terrace, Saturday, Nov. 17.




            This has been a long series of letters. By now the reader will naturally be wondering—Did Dickens gain his end? Did these letters halt the barbaric practice of public hangings, and lead to the custom of private executions? Was Dickens’s writing a force for social good? Did Charles Dickens change the world?

            It might not seem so at first. Hanging were indeed made private, but not for quite some time. The next major legislative effort came some seven years later, when the House of Commons appointed a Select Committee to consider Capital Punishment. Such a committee was often the first step towards developing new statutes. During debate, some familiar names were cited:


LORD CAMPBELL concurred entirely in the sentiments of the right rev. Prelate. He had long felt the great evil of public executions. They had been described by Fielding and another novelist not inferior to him, Mr. Charles Dickens, and he hoped the efforts of the right rev. Prelate to mitigate those evils would be crowned with success.

Hansard’s 9 May 1856: 250


The Select Committee ultimately recommended unanimously the abolishment of public executions, but the House of Lords stopped the reform.

            The abolishment finally came after the report of a Royal Commission of 1864­­–6, leading to new legislation in 1868: and this was over twenty years after Dickens began writing those letters. Twenty years after the fact, was it really still possible that his work could bring any weight to bear upon a reluctant Parliament? If we wished to show that Dickens’s writing made a strong and immediate contribution to the reform of the law, we would need to show that his letters were cited by the Royal Commission, or that the Commission was chartered in response to them.

            In fact, in the event, through an astonishing turn of events, this is quite a bit like what actually happened. The origins of the Royal Commission, which we’ll now relate, began when the issue of Capital Punishment came once again to the forefront of political discourse, through all-too-familiar events. There had been yet another sensational lurid murder, and yet another dramatic hanging to snare and retain the public’s fancy. This time it was the execution of the “Five Pirates” (22 Feb 1864), mutineers who had slain the captain and five crewmen of the Flowery Land, on its way to Singapore. It was the first time five men had been hung at once since the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820). Once again there was a coarse, raucous crowd of thousands, though this time, with some 1200 policeman in attendance, things were at least a little more orderly than usual [Cooper, 15–20].

            The very next day, the topic of public executions was raised again in the House of Commons, and many of the familiar old arguments, pro and con, were aired one time more. A proponent of private executions, John Tomlinson Hibbert, spoke at some length. Among his many points:


Mr. HIBBERT [Liberal, Oldham]: …Thus, from Under Sheriffs, chaplains, governors of gaols, and other experienced persons, they had a decided condemnation of these spectacles. After the execution the Mannings, Mr. Charles Dickens wrote a letter to The Times, which had a very powerful influence on the public at the time. Mr. Dickens had recently written another letter on the subject, in which, he said, he believed a public execution to be a savage horror, far behind the times, affording an indecent and fearful gratification to the worst of people; but Mr. Dickens also added, that “he was sorry to have to confess he now felt that capital punishment was necessary in extreme cases.” The intention of these executions was not so much to punish or to protect themselves from the offenders, as to be a deterring example to others. They all saw the kind of people who usually attended these public executions. They were, generally speaking, not the intelligent or reflecting, but, on the contrary, of the lowest and most criminal classes. They were of the classes most hardened, and who could witness executions without being in the least moved or deterred by them.

Hansard’s 23 Feb 1864: 943– 44


The new letter cited by Hibbert was only a brief private note from Dickens; we don’t really know much about the original recipient, or how it ended up in Hibbert’s hands. The key passage:


I am sorry to confess that I do now believe Capital Punishment to be necessary in extreme cases; simply because it appears impossible otherwise to rid Society of certain members of whom it must be rid, or there is no living on this earth. But I believe a public execution to be a savage horror far behind the time, affording an indecent and fearful gratification to the worst of people.

– Dickens to Henry Rawson (26 Mar 1863), Pilgrim 10:226–7


            It was probably this speech by Hibbert which reminded a second Member of Parliament of Dickens’s old Times letters. At just that time, one William Townley Mitford wrote to Charles Dickens, and asked for copies of the Manning material. Capital Punishment was to be debated later in the session, and Mitford was going to be prepared. Dickens replied:


That faithful description of mine to which you refer, is contained in a letter I addressed to the Times on the occasion of the execution of the Mannings, man and wife, at Horsemongers Lane Jail. It was published on the morning after the execution, and was succeeded in a day or two by another. I have no copies of them, or they should be at your service….The question of Public Executions, I venture to suggest, is not in the least one to theorize about. No man's opinion on the subject (in support of public executions) is worth anything to me unless he has seen the shameful sight. I cannot bear to repeat the experience; but I was outside Newgate last Sunday night at 10 o'Clock, and found the old wicked unimpressible forces in full action. Two young ladies walked round me, within a few yards of the ground reserved for the scaffold; and the worst class of boys and ruffians in London were already taking their places. The rest of the scene was like a Diabolical Fair.

– Dickens to W.T. Mitford (23 Feb 1864), Pilgrim 10:360–1


Ten weeks later, the Royal Commission came up for consideration in the House of Commons. Mitford was not the only Member to remember Dickens’s famous missives on the topic. During the debate, many, many wise men were cited—lawyers, judges, authors, and philosophers—Beccaria, Blackstone, Shakespeare, Molière, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and more—but one man was named and referenced far more than any one other, and far more by quite some measure. The individual whose facts and figures preponderated in the key and crucial discussion was the man whose name appears in the title of this paper. A selection of excerpts from this debate follows. This is not a representative or typical sampling, far from it, but rather one which gives emphasis and foreground to those sections concerning our subject, Mr. Charles Dickens.



May 3, 1864



William Ewart (1798–1869) had been a long-time opponent of capital punishment. He had been chipping away at it for thirty years, eliminating the death penalty for horse stealing, for sheep stealing, for letter stealing, and for other relatively minor offenses. In 1840 he had begun to work for its abolition entire. As he noted in his opening speech, correctly, it had been a long struggle, but now the public mood seemed to be changing. Ewart moved for a select committee of inquiry, clearly with the goal of further reforms in the law.


MR. W. EWART [Liberal, Dumfries]: But, not only among juries, coroners, and Judges, but in the Home Office itself, there is reason to believe that conviction is forcing its way, and that some of our most eminent official men are convinced of the inexpediency of maintaining the punishment of death. A similar metamorphosis of opinion is taking place, as that which sprung up in our public offices during the agitation of the Corn Law Question.

Hansard’s 3 May 1864: 2059


It is not clear if William Townley Mitford (1817–1889) ever located copies of Dickens’s letters from the Times, but he does seem to be referencing them here, perhaps from memory. Note the good use Mitford makes of Dickens’s personal note concerning the “Five Pirates” execution. 


MR. MITFORD [Conservative, Midhurst]: Public executions did not appear to impress any one on the spot with any good feelings whatever. They appeared to cause unmitigated evil by bringing together masses of people who, for reasons of policy and morality, should be kept isolated and dispersed. They knew that a place of execution was a scene of debauchery of the grossest nature. They knew that when the unfortunate criminals were brought on the scaffold men whistled and behaved as though in the gallery of a theatre, and while the attention of the spectators was attracted to what was going on their pockets were picked. He thought the practice of public executions was unworthy of the age, and he hoped the time would come when they would cease. He called the attention of the House to a letter on the subject from Mr. Charles Dickens, written since the execution of the pirates at Newgate. Mr. Dickens said he ventured to suggest that the question of public executions was not one to theorize about. No man’s opinion on the subject was worth anything to him unless he had seen the shameful sight. He (Mr. Dickens) was, he said, outside of Newgate on the occasion of the execution to which he referred, and declared the scene was diabolical.

ibid, 2079


John Bright (1811–1889) is most often remembered as leader (with Cobden) of the “free trade” or anti-Corn Law movement. Years earlier, he had given his written support to the meeting denouncing Dickens as an assassin (19 Nov 1849, discussed above). He was silent on the subject of Dickens this day.


MR. BRIGHT [Liberal, Birmingham]: …I should be glad indeed if it might be said of this Parliament of some future time, that it had dared to act upon the true lessons, and not upon the—what shall I say?—the superstitions of the past; and that this Parliament might be declared to be the Parliament which destroyed the scaffold and the gallows, in order that it might teach the people that human life is sacred, and that on that principle alone can human life be secured.

ibid, 2104


Following is the bulk of the speech of Charles Gilpin (1815–1874), the same abolitionist leader who had asked years earlier for Dickens to attend his meetings. By this date Gilpin had been chosen to sit as a Member of Parliament. If he still remembered that he had compared Dickens to an assassin, on this day Gilpin maintained a discreet silence on the matter—the moral weight of Dickens’s name and reputation was too powerful to go unused. Note here how almost all of Gilpin’s arguments come from the Daily News letters. In fact Gilpin has gone farther, and traced back two of Dickens’s points to their source. Gilpin provides more detail on the story from O’Connell, and corrects Dickens’s uncertainty about the actions of the Lord Chief Baron (Sir Frederick Pollock). As this excerpt begins, Gilpin is giving advice on who might be best suited to sit on an investigative Commission.


MR. GILPIN [Liberal, Northamptonshire]: No one could venture to say that the Judges were the best fitted to be upon the proposed Commission, far less to be the sole members of it. He [Gilpin] could not forget that in 1811 the Recorder of London objected to the punishment of death being done away with for the crime of pocket-picking; that in 1813 the Lord Chancellor regretted the removal of the capital penalty for the offence of stealing property to the amount of 5s. from a dwelling house; that Lord Ellenborough thought it should be retained in the case of stealing linen from a bleaching ground; and that other Judges had advocated its retention in cases of forgery. He [Gilpin] repudiated the idea of charging the advocates of the abolition of capital punishments with any sympathy with crime, with any mawkish sentimentality, with anything but a sincere desire to support that punishment which experience proved to be the most effective deterrent from crime. His right hon. Friend the Secretary of State [Sir George Grey] had said that if any other punishment could be shown to be equally deterrent from crime, he would give up capital punishment; and he (Mr. Gilpin) said that the advocates of the abolition would give up their whole case if capital punishment could be shown to be best. He [Gilpin] held that all punishments had, or ought to have, three objects in view —the security of society by the prevention of crime, restitution to the injured wherever possible, and he was not ashamed to add even in the case of the worst murderers, the reformation of the offender himself. Not one of these objects was accomplished by the punishment of death. Another important point for consideration was the fact that many innocent persons had suffered the penalty of death. The judgment of man was too weak and wavering to be intrusted with the infliction of an irrevocable punishment. Innocent men had been hanged, and their innocence had been established after their death. There was a case in which cries were heard from an apartment, and when it was reached, a man was found over a body with a weapon in his hand. This man was innocent.

            MR. ROEBUCK: Was this an English case?

            MR. GILPIN said it was.

            MR. ROEBUCK: Who is the authority for it?

            MR. GILPIN: Charles Dickens.

            MR. ROEBUCK: He is no authority at all.

            MR. GILPIN: The hon. and learned Gentleman may say that Mr. Dickens is no authority—some people may say that the hon. and learned Gentleman is no authority. I well recollect the late Daniel O’Connell relating in Exeter Hall, in 1844, the touching account of three brothers—


            “I myself (said he) 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 had been pronounced. There was a large military guard taking them back to gaol, positively forbidden to allow any communication with the three unfortunate youths. But their mother was there, and she, armed with 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 to her second, who was not twenty; I saw her faint, when she clung to the neck of the youngest son, who was but eighteen—and, I ask, what recompense could be made for such agony? They were executed—and—they were innocent.”


            “I think,” said Sheriff Wilde in his examination (Report 1836, p. 101), “many innocent persons have suffered. I think that if the documents in the Home Office are examined, many instances will be found in which—by exertions of former sheriffs—the lives of many persons ordered for execution have been saved.”

            He was well authorized to say so. This most estimable gentleman is still alive, so we may not speak of him as we sincerely feel; but we shall chronicle his acts—they are his best eulogy. During the seven months of Mr. Wilde’s shrievalty he saved the lives of six innocent persons who had been actually ordered for execution! The records and the documents are at the Home Office. These six men would have been hanged save for the volunteer philanthropy of this Christian man, who gave his time, his talents, his money, and his toil in behalf of hapless strangers. Where are we to find such men, at once so able and self-sacrificing? Let Sir Frederick Pollock answer—


“Though I believe undoubtedly the sheriffs of London are, in general, conspicuous for an active, humane, and correct discharge of their duty, they have not all, and cannot have, the means of bringing to the investigation of such subjects the same facility and the same unsparing exertion that Mr. Wilde afforded while he was sheriff….It is impossible to speak in too high terms of the zeal, humanity, unsparing labour and expense which he bestowed upon those occasions, but the result satisfied me (says Sir Frederick Pollock) that he parties were in several instances guiltless of any crime, and in all, the cases were such as did not justify capital punishment; and Sir Robert Peel, after much labour in the investigation, was of the same opinion….My impression is that several of these cases were cases of perfect and entire innocence, and that the others were cases of innocence as to the capital part of the charge. I had frequent communication (he adds) with Mr. Wilde on them as they proceeded.”

[– Parliamentary Papers 1836, 36:265]


The hon. Member [Gilpin] quoted several other cases on the authority of Charles Dickens. He [Gilpin] also instanced the case of the Cormacks, executed in Ireland in 1858, on which he had spoken shortly after coming into Parliament. Other cases there were also in which, whether the convicts were innocent or guilty, the strongest conviction prevailed among the public of their innocence; in these cases the whole end and object of the punishment was lost. He would only, in conclusion, call the attention of the House to this simple fact. We sentenced men to death as the last and greatest punishment of the law, and assumed to execute them for the sake of the example. He asked the House to consider for one moment what that example was. It was an example of revenge; an exemplification of what might be characterized the law of tit for tat; it was an example of life for life. In his opinion it was a reading backwards of the principles of the New Testament, and after paying great attention to the matter for the past twenty years he was convinced it did not prevent crime. It entailed the suffering of the innocent; it favoured the escape of the guilty; it was opposed to the spirit of Christianity and true civilization; and he trusted the time was not far distant when the result of the inquiry of this Commission, and the opinion of the public, would be the entire abolition of the punishment of death.

ibid, 2108–11


Gilpin, above, has copies of the Daily News letters before him as he speaks [Times 4 May 1864: 9.6]. Furthermore, we know that Mitford tried to obtain the Times letters before debate began. It’s only reasonable that those men would do research to prepare themselves to speak. But note that in the following response, Sir Francis Crossley (1817–1872) seems to be gainsaying Dickens’s use of the Hogarth print (from letter 4)—and Crossley can have had no idea that Dickens’s letters were going to be introduced in debate. Crossley is apparently remembering the original Daily News letter, from eighteen years earlier.


SIR FRANCIS CROSSLEY [Liberal, Yorkshire (West Riding)]: The noble Lord the Member for Chichester (Lord Henry Lennox) had given the House an interesting account of the recent execution. In the interests of science, and in a desire to enlighten and benefit mankind, the noble Lord sacrificed his own feelings and personal convenience and attended the execution of the five pirates. The noble Lord’s arguments went to show that the awful spectacle produced no effect on the 20,000 people who witnessed it; and the admirable and clever novelist (Charles Dickens) took the same view as the noble Lord as to the effect of public executions. Now, there could be no doubt that the spectators at such scenes did not belong to a very refined class, and that much coarseness and want of feeling were displayed by them; but it did not follow that because they indulged in unseemly levity in the public view they were not in the solitude of their own homes impressed by a deterrent influence against the crimes for which they had seen the punishment of death inflicted, and in the belief that that was so he was corroborated by the fact that what was called the criminal or dangerous class, seldom or never committed the crime of murder. They were stopped by something, and that something, he was disposed to think, was the fear of the gallows. Murders were, or almost all, committed by persons who were unknown to Sir Richard Mayne and to the Home Secretary as criminals. He did not agree with those who looked upon murder in the light of Hogarth in The Idle Apprentice, as a progressive crime, or that a youth begun by picking pockets and ended up at the gallows. On the contrary, the criminal class stopped at murder, because they knew and had calculated the consequences of the act.

ibid, 2113–4


Ewart had originally moved for a Select Committee (a panel of M.P.s), but after various procedural twists and turns this was altered to a Royal Commission (an investigative committee including outside experts). If the resolution passed, it would be a victory for the forces of abolition. It would mean that Dickens’s letters still had the ability to do good, two decades after their creation. It would mean that Dickens had helped in a significant way to change the world. Would it pass? Let’s observe the closing words of Charles Neate (1806–1879):


MR. NEATE [Liberal, Oxford] then moved, as a substantive Resolution—

            “That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that she will be graciously pleased to issue a Royal Commission to inquire into the provisions and operation of the Laws under which the Punishment of Death is now inflicted in the United Kingdom, and the manner in which it is inflicted; and to report whether it is desirable to make any alteration therein.”

            Resolution agreed to.

ibid, 2115


            And thus is history made. Some concluding words for my readers: as noted above, Dickens had become more conservative on Capital Punishment, and changed his stand from demanding total abolition (1846) to advocating private executions (1849). He maintained that more achievable and more realistic position for the rest of his life, when he gave the matter any thought at all. In a private letter to his closest friend, he commented on yet another widely famed murderer—Thomas Smethurst, a surgeon and poisoner—and wrote (25 Aug 1859): “I would hang any Home Secretary (Whig, Tory, Radical, or otherwise) who should step in between that black scoundrel and the gallows” [Pilgrim 9:111]. To a Quaker schoolmaster, he wrote (21 Jan 1864): “Distinguish, if you please, in quoting me, between Public Executions and Capital Punishment. I should be glad to abolish both, if I knew what to do with the Savages of civilization. As I do not, I would rid Society of them, when they shed blood, in a very solemn manner but would bar out the present audience.” [Pilgrim 10:345].

            There is a bit of irony in all this, in that Dickens, still alive and active, had no copies of his famous old letters, and did not seem to be much concerned that they were being debated in Parliament (1864). More, when hangings were finally moved inside, that is, when legislation mandated private executions (1868), Dickens again did not seem to have any reaction. He had moved on to other concerns, including his career as a public reader. If he had any thoughts about his long-delayed success as an abolitionist, they have not survived.

            But what is true of all authors must be true for Dickens as well: the writing is larger than the man. While an older Dickens toured Britain and America, enjoying the adulation of thousands, but getting precious few novels done, his past newspaper letters continued to touch the public mind, and to tug at the public’s thoughts. They had what Dickens sometimes called a “sledge-hammer” effect, and even when the original author had half-forgotten the issue, the writings of his younger self helped elevate the conscience of the middle class, and bring round the minds of the nation to follow his lead.

            Dickens died a few more years later (1870). In England, Capital Punishment was eventually abolished altogether (1965). In the United States it was, for a time, judged unconstitutional (1972), but was soon reinstated (1976), and is still practiced, most often by lethal injection. To this very day, Americans are still sometimes hanged.


            This paper is a respectful tribute to the work of Philip Collins, Emeritus Professor of English, University of Leicester, who first located Letter 2, and who did the pioneering study of these writings in chapter 10 of his Dickens and Crime. Interested readers will find much more of value in that source and in all of Professor Collins’s work.

            It should be noted that it was Kathleen Tillotson who first located and reprinted Letter 1. David Cooper first provided the tip that Dickens had been cited in the key debates on Capital Punishment. James Atterbury Davies first located and reprinted Forster’s letters on the Mannings execution. The Letters of Charles Dickens (the Pilgrim Edition) will always be an indispensable source of information about Dickens and the age in which he lived.

            For the loan of rare materials, thanks are due to the Paul L. Boley Law Library at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon; and to the Library of Congress.


Altick, Richard D. English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800–1900. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957.


Blom-Cooper, Louis, ed. Law as Literature: an Anthology of Great Writing in and About the Law. London: Bodley Head, 1961.


Christmas, Rev. Henry. 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. London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1846.


Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.


———. “Dickens and the Edinburgh Review”. Review of English Studies New Series 14 (1963): 167–72.


Cooper, David D. Lesson of the Scaffold: the Public Execution Controversy in Victorian England. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1974.


Davies, James Atterbury. “John Forster at the Mannings’ Execution”. Dickensian 67 (1971): 12–15.


Dickens, Charles. Collected Papers. 2 vols. Nonesuch Dickens. Bloomsbury: Nonesuch Press, 1937.


———. Letters of Charles Dickens (the Pilgrim Edition). General eds. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. 12 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965–2002. [Cited as Pilgrim.]


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Textual Notes

            Letter 1 has been quoted from Tillotson. Letter 2 has been quoted from Blom-Cooper. Letters 3 through 5 have been quoted from Collected Papers. Letters 6 and 7 have been quoted from the Times. All letters appear exactly as printed in these sources and no corrections or alterations have been made, except as noted here. The slightly inconsistent editorial conventions of the four different sources have been preserved.

            The Collected Papers notes that the Daily News gave the name of one law lord as “Tenderden” and substitutes “Tenterden”. In the phrase “ascertained not to have been the real murdered!”, the Collected Papers substitutes for “murdered” the word “murderer”. Both changes are accepted above.

            According to the best authority (Philip Collins, Dickens and Crime, 345), Dickens found his lengthy quote from the Nugent committee in the Aylesbury News, 16 Aug 1845. I have not seen this source.

            Dickens’s second quote from O’Sullivan (a long section from pages 118-20, beginning “There have been cases”) has been very slightly corrected against the source.

            In the excerpts from Hansard’s some typesetting errors have been silently corrected. In the lengthy excerpt from Henry Christmas, most of the quotations from foreign languages have also been silently corrected, often by adding diacritic marks.

 - Beppe Sabatini, Editor

Updated 26 Dec 05


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