Banning public executions was hailed by the Daily Telegraph as an end to 'a fragment of medieval barbarism,' was this a reasonable assessment?

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Banning public executions was hailed by the Daily Telegraph as an end to 'a fragment of medieval barbarism,' was this a reasonable assessment?   

   In May 1868 Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act which abolished the practice of public executions in the United Kingdom. Instead the Capital Punishment Amendment Act required that all prisoners sentenced to death shall now be executed within prison walls and their bodies should also be buried within the grounds of the prison. The fenian Michael Barrett who was convicted for his involvement in the Clerkenwell prison bombing in 1867 was the last prisoner to be publically executed  in Britain in May 1868. Two days later the new capital punishment bill was passed and the so called 'Spectacle of the Scaffold' was over. The Daily Telegraph described the banning of public executions as an end to 'a fragment of medieval barbarism'. There was much debate in the nineteenth century and there is still debate in recent times between historians such as V. A. C. Gatrell, David Cooper and Randall McGowan over the decision by Parliament to abolish public executions in 1868. To an extent it is reasonable to describe the abolishment of public executions as an end to 'a fragment of medieval barbarism' as to execute prisoners in a brutal way such as hanging in front of the general public is barbaric, uncivilised and backward. However it has to be noted that although public executions were banned, condemned prisoners still suffered the same brutal death of hanging within prisons walls up until 1965. This essay will assess the themes of how humane banning public executions was, the role of the crowd, the civility of public executions, individual cases such as the Edith Thompson case and miscarriages of justice.

   Firstly it is important to assess how humane the decision to ban public executions actually was. Various historians such as David Cooper and Leon Radzinowicz would agree with the Daily Telegraph's assessment that the abolishment of public executions was an end to 'a fragment of medieval barbarism'. Cooper states that by banning public executions 'another landmark in the more humane treatment of criminals was reached in the United Kingdom'. However this was not the end of the death penalty in the United Kingdom. It should be noted that the executions of condemned prisoners still continued within prisons walls well into the twentieth century, and capital punishment for murder was not abolished in the United Kingdom until 1965 through the passage of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act by Parliament in 1965. Between 1868 and 1965 over six hundred condemned prisoners were executed in England and Wales. It is also important to note that these executions were mostly carried out through hanging the condemned prisoner. So while executions were moved within prison walls, prisoners were still executed using the same method and suffered in the same way as they did in public executions. In some cases prisoners suffered even worse in private. Horror stories of brutal and botched executions started to leak out of prisons. One example of this is the execution of Robert Goodale by hangman James Berry in November 1885, in which the hanging went so wrong that the noose decapitated the condemned prisoner. Therefore this clearly contrasts with Cooper's argument that moving executions within prison walls was a more humane approach as prisoners still suffered in the same way as they did before and in some cases such as Robert Goodale's arguably suffered a worse fate. Overall it is clear to see that banning public executions in the United Kingdom was not all that humane, as the same brutal and barbaric practice of hanging prisoners remained, the only difference was that it was now done in private rather than in public.

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   It is also important to examine the role of the crowd in public executions. Public executions were big events in nineteenth century Victorian Britain and often the number of people gathered in front of the gallows to watch the hanging reached well into the thousands. This has led to public hangings being dubbed the 'Spectacle of the Scaffold'. McGowan states that the crowds at public executions were 'monstrous' and  approached the event in the 'wrong frame of mind'. This is true to a large extent as there has been various reports of disorder and rioting at public executions, and ...

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