The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868

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Oxford University Press, 1996 - History - 634 pages
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Hanging people for small crimes as well as grave, the Bloody Penal Code was at its most active between 1770 and 1830. Some 7,000 men and women were executed on public scaffolds then, watched by crowds of thousands. Hanging was confined to murderers thereafter, but these were still killed in public until 1868. Clearly the gallows loomed over much of social life in this period. But how did those who watched, read about, or ordered these strangulations feel about the terror and suffering inflicted in the law's name? What kind of justice was delivered, and how did it change? This book is the first to explore what a wide range of people felt about these ceremonies (rather than what a few famous men thought and wrote about them). A history of mentalities, emotions, and attitudes rather than of policies and ideas, it analyses responses to the scaffold at all social levels: among the crowds which gathered to watch executions; among 'polite' commentators from Boswell and Byron on to Fry, Thackeray, and Dickens; and among the judges, home secretary, and monarch who decided who should hang and who should be reprieved. Drawing on letters, diaries, ballads, broadsides, and images, as well as on poignant appeals for mercy which historians until now have barely explored, the book surveys changing attitudes to death and suffering, 'sensibility' and 'sympathy', and demonstrates that the long retreat from public hanging owed less to the growth of a humane sensibility than to the development of new methods of punishment and law enforcement, and to polite classes' deepening squeamishness and fear of the scaffold crowd. This gripping study is essential reading for anyone interested in the processes whichhave 'civilized' our social life. Challenging many conventional understandings of the period, V. A. C. Gatrell sets new agendas for all students of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture and society, while reflecting uncompromisingly on the origins and limits of our modern attitudes to other people's misfortunes. Panoramic in range, scholarly in method, and compelling in argument, this is one of those rare histories which both shift our sense of the past and speak powerfully to the present.

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User Review  - zecucumber - LibraryThing

While one's initial reaction to Gatrell's work may be emotional, positive, and, perhaps, disbelief, when one explores the historical foundations for his arguements, they turn out to be quite flawed ... Read full review

The hanging tree: execution and the English people, 1770-1868

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

"The law to take its course...launched into eternity." Dry words to describe the anguish of public death by hanging, the preferred punishment in England from 1770 to 1868. One could hang for forgery ... Read full review


Measuring the subject
Pressures on structures
Hanging People
Death and the Scaffold Crowd
3 Carnival or Consent?
Scaffold Culture and Flash Ballads
Broadsides and the Gallows Emblem
The Prerogative of Mercy and the Practices of Deference
The Stories of Sarah Lloyd and Eliza
Piety and Benevolence
Fabricating Opinion
Appealing for Justice
A Microhistory
The Judges
Qualities of Justice
The King in his Council

Watching from Curiosity
Anxiety and Defence
Executing Social Others
Executing Traitors
Opinion and Emotion
Mercy and Mr Peel
Ending the Spectacle
Appendix r The Petition Archive
General Index

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About the author (1996)

V. A. C. Gatrell is University Lecturer and Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. He is editor of Robert Owen: A New View of Society (Pelican, 1971) and Crime and Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500 (Europa, 1980), and a well-known author of numerous articles in social and economic history. He lives in Cambridge.

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