Progressive accounts of the English encounter between capital punishment and modernity have made much of the abandonment c. 1783-1800 of lengthy processions to customary sites on urban peripheries and their replacement with drop systems on elevated platforms in front of, or over the gatehouses of county gaols. Processions, it was felt, served little useful purpose, were expensive and sometimes disorderly; and rough strangulation with minimal drop unedifying to witness. Centralising and shortening the execution process while physically distancing and diminishing the personal and performative elements of the ritual introduced economies of scale, and emphasised anonymity and institutional authority over criminal agency. In a small footnote to this progressive narrative however, historians have noted the parallel survival of a dwindling number of hangings at the scene of crime. Given the comparatively high cost, the rudimentary apparatus and the lengthy, highly personal and associative nature of the execution performance, spectacles of this kind have been difficult to reconcile with broad brush approaches to ‘modernity’. Accordingly, they have not been taken seriously by historians of crime.
This essay is the first detailed attempt to consider the practice over the course of the long eighteenth century, and to enumerate, map and explore its practice and purpose through a number of empirical case studies. It identifies 198 people put to death at crime scenes in England after 1720 - a small but steady proportion of the whole - and finds little evidence for decline before the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The last in London, more than 30 years after the abandonment of Tyburn, occurred in 1817; the last provincial instance (in rural Somerset), as late as 1830. Their survival, it is argued, is anachronistic only within a narrow definition of ‘modernity’ in which meta-narratives of uniformity and institutional progress in the criminal law are privileged over all else. But this is simplistic. At the same time that capital punishment was being formalised and centralised in county towns throughout the country, the popular growth of associationism, ‘feeling’, and sensibility in other fields of culture allowed crime scene executions to appear both affective and exemplary. This is certainly true of the empathic and pathetic popular literature surrounding some rural hangings in the early nineteenth century, in which strong significance may be found in place and familial reflection, but it can also be seen in mid eighteenth century reportage in which the polite orderliness of the ceremony stands in stark contrast to contemporary representations of dehumanised crowds at Tyburn.
Viewed as exhibitions of sympathy then, crime scene executions may be seen as part of the so-called ‘civilising process’ rather than an awkward contravention of it. The chronology of their decline fits quite closely with that of the pillory but the rationale is different. The pillory outlived its usefulness because its crowd was uncontrollable and the spectacle ‘unimproving’. Crime scene hangings by contrast tended to have the desired effect, but their expense proved their undoing. By the close of the Napoleonic Wars, the uniformity of execution practices in most counties allowed the Crown to create a uniform allowance to Sheriffs of £2.00 per felon, a sum somewhat out of touch with inflation, even for quick and simple executions at the gaol. Sheriffs complained but were told higher cravings had been tolerated in the previous century only because ‘government was not yet thought stable and the times were perilous.’ In the modern world, sheriffs were told, cravings in excess of £2.00 were permissible only in anticipation of serious disorder and attempted rescue – phenomena which should not, of course, be expected. The signal was clear enough – costly crime scene executions in orderly rural communities would no longer be subsidised by the State.
Were crime scene hangings worth persevering with nevertheless? The answer was yes, where spatial context retained the power to alter normal rules of association. Crowds at crime scene hangings were less easily regarded as dysfunctional because their very presence actively changed the spatial politics of a place, confronting and suspending its customary reading as social, domestic, and familial and turning it, temporarily but horribly, into a place of judgment, reform, and retribution. And their impact may still be traced through site-specific popular memory.