A deadly obsession in Victorian London

When 40,000 Londoners watched a man hang for slitting an aristocrat's throat in May 1840, opponents of the death penalty railed at the barbarity of the punishment. So why, asks Clare Walker Gore, were they also beguiled by the ghastly spectacle?

An illustration of a public execution at Newgate, London, late 18th century. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1840, one grisly case dominated the news in London. On the morning of 6 May, Lord William Russell was found murdered in his bed in his fashionable Mayfair residence, his throat apparently cut in his sleep. Suspicion soon fell upon Russell’s 23-year-old Swiss valet, François Courvoisier, a young man of previously good character, who vehemently protested his innocence. The three-day trial took a sensational turn when a new witness, a Madame Piolaine, came forward on the second day with vital new evidence: a parcel Courvoisier had deposited with her, containing silverware stolen from Lord Russell’s household. Courvoisier was found guilty and sentenced to death.

As many as 40,000 people turned out to watch his hanging two weeks later, on 6 July. The case seems to have captured the popular imagination, offering all the thrills of a Newgate novel brought to horrifying life: a murdered aristocrat, a guilty foreigner, a trial full of twists and turns and an eventual confession that seemed straight out of a stage melodrama, with its story of petty theft and trivial resentment escalating, at horrifying speed, to cold-blooded murder.

Want to read more?

Become a BBC History Magazine subscriber today to unlock all premium articles in The Library

Unlock now