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.

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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.

Was the case a harbinger of revolutionary violence, with servants turning against their masters and murdering them in their beds? Was it true that Courvoisier had been reading the bestselling Newgate novel Jack Sheppard, his morals warped by immoral popular fiction? If this apparently respectable young valet, with his years of service in aristocratic households and impeccable references, could harbour murderous intentions towards his master, was anyone safe? No wonder a huge crowd turned out to see the public spectacle of violence intended to lay the matter to rest. “Blood for blood,” as one ballad grimly put it, “will be required.”

A disgusted response

Not everyone would have agreed. One spectator who did not espouse that sentiment was Richard Monckton Milnes, a radical young MP who had already voted against the death penalty in parliament. You might think that Milnes’s attitude to the Courvoisier case would be straightforward. After all, he went to see the execution accompanied by his old friend William Makepeace Thackeray, whose disgusted response to the spectacle, ‘On Going to See a Man Hanged’, has become famous for making a powerful case against the death penalty.

But when Milnes’s library was bequeathed to his old Cambridge college, Trinity, in 2015, a curious discovery was made. Among a treasure-trove of valuable items, there was an album that Milnes had made to commemorate Courvoisier’s trial and execution. Into it, he pasted not only Thackeray’s essay, but a selection of ballad sheets, broadsides, cuttings from The Newgate Calendar, and a selection of gruesome mementoes. The collection runs the gamut from the morally earnest to the morbidly fascinated, opening a window onto mid-Victorian attitudes to crime and punishment which are every bit as conflicted as our own.

The album opens with a commemorative photograph and autograph of the hangman, William Calcraft. Throughout his long career, which saw him carry out the last public hangings in England, Calcraft was a controversial figure: his ‘short-drop’ method of hanging seems to have been more crowd-pleasing than efficient, frequently causing victims to strangle slowly until Calcraft pulled on their shoulders or legs, as he did in Courvoisier’s execution. There is nothing to suggest this in the image in the album (shown opposite), in which he cuts a reassuring figure, with his dignified pose, full beard and respectable outfit of morning coat, waistcoat and watch-chain. The album’s next exhibit is still more grisly: a lock of Courvoisier’s hair, preserved beneath netting (shown below).

Given his own opposition to the death penalty, we might expect Milnes to have been horrified by commemorative items that turned both hangman and murderer into celebrities. Should we see their inclusion in this album as ironic, or as indicating a lurking fascination with the business of public execution and its enormous popularity as a spectacle?

Mad or wicked?

Such conflicted feelings are very much in evidence in the account of the case given in The Newgate Calendar, six pages of which are bound into the album. Rather than emphasising Courvoisier’s foreign origins, or attempting to cast him as mad, or simply wicked, the writers seem to suggest that he is an ordinary man who for reasons unknown succumbed to a momentary impulse. The account of his time in prison emphasises his good character, suggests that he was reading, not a scandalous Newgate novel, but the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible. The writer claims that when Courvoisier’s acquaintances were interviewed, they “concurred in expressing their surprise that a person with a mind so constituted as his appeared to be, could on a sudden swerve from the path of moral rectitude and become a murderer”. As if to pile on the agony before we watch him die, we are told that his dignified behaviour and “steady conduct… almost banished from the minds of those that kept watch and ward over him, that he was a convicted murderer”.

These musings don’t prevent the writers from then offering lurid detail of Courvoisier’s last sufferings, the “quivering of the flesh”, and then the “severe struggles” in which “the hands were slightly convulsed, and his legs considerably bent and drawn upwards”, before the executioner ended it all by pulling on his legs.

Having emphasised the Christian conduct of the condemned man, with his “reliance on pardon and mercy”, and offered a picture of a totally unmerciful crowd, who greet his appearance on the scaffold with “hootings, hissings, yells and whistling”, the writers inevitably have to address the question of whether the spectacle of this man’s death is something that ought to be so widely and so keenly witnessed. This was a delicate matter, one might have thought, since they themselves have reproduced this same spectacle for their readers. In the end, they hedge their bets. They offer a prim condemnation of the “matrons and maidens” who chose to witness the spectacle, suggesting that their “morbid curiosity” to see “the writhing struggles of a dying man” is “to say the least… ‘unfeminine’”. Immediately afterwards, however, they express their hope that “the fate of this wretched young man will have a good moral tendency on the minds of all who fill high and responsible situations as servants”.

This potent but queasy mixture of satisfaction that justice has been done, and sorrow at the unforgiving attitude of the spectators, also runs through the cheap commemorative broadsides and ballads that Milnes pasted into his album. The broadsides all include a large image of the hanging, accompanied by a regretful account of the crowd who wanted to watch it. As one writer puts it: “Every spot was crowded with spectators, and when the culprit was brought to the drop, no person seemed to pity him.” Juxtaposing the melodrama of Courvoisier’s wicked deed and heartfelt penitence with the remorselessness of the audience before which he had to perform his death scene, these broadsides offer their readers the chance to be the sympathetic spectators that Courvoisier lacked, recreating the spectacle so that we can react to it differently.

Too hideous to contemplate

The final item in Milnes’s album is Thackeray’s article for Fraser’s Magazine, ‘Going to See a Man Hanged’, which Milnes has annotated to identify himself as the mystery MP, the “Mr X—”, who suggested the expedition to Thackeray. The placing of Thackeray’s article in pride of place perhaps suggests that this is, in Milnes’s view, the last word on the matter – or it may testify to his pride in having inspired a friend from his student days, who was to become one of the most celebrated novelists of the period, to write an article espousing his own view on capital punishment.

The positioning of the article, after the repetitive broadsides and ballads, certainly sharpens its point. The stark illustration of the empty gallows – which gave Thackeray what he describes as “a kind of dumb electric shock” – forms a striking contrast to the gory illustrations of the broadsides, in which the gallows is always depicted complete with corpse. As Thackeray tells it, the hanging becomes something too hideous to contemplate directly.

The pages of lively description of the crowd, their gossiping and good-humoured shoving, their drunken misbehaviour and clucking disapproval, make explicit what is implicit in everything that we have seen and read so far: that public hanging is a form of mass entertainment. The sudden change of tone as the prisoner is brought out onto the scaffold is all the more striking for the jollity of the foregoing pages. After a break in the writing, Thackeray resumes with a new seriousness, to depict a “sickening, ghastly, wicked scene”. The moment of execution itself is not depicted. We hear the “awful, bizarre” noise of the crowd, but turn away from the moment of death: “I am not ashamed to say that I could look no more, but shut my eyes as the last dreadful act was going on.”

The justification offered by the broadsides and ballads – that the hanging provides an improving moral lesson on the consequences of crime, and a morally satisfying equivalence between crime and punishment – is trenchantly dealt with. Thackeray tells us, with grim sarcasm, that “for the last 14 days, so salutary has the impression of the butchery been upon me, I have had the man’s face continually before my eyes… I feel myself ashamed and degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight”. In case we miss the point, he elaborates: “I fully confess that I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done.”

It could be argued that everything in Milnes’s album leads up to this final condemnation of the hypocrisy and cant surrounding public executions, illustrating the perverse mixture of enjoyment and revulsion fed to the public through the popular press. Seen in this light, the album becomes a bitterly effective piece of propaganda, casting public execution as a degrading spectacle, which captivates and corrupts all who witness it, including the compiler himself, a principled opponent of the death penalty.

While the spectacle commemorated here is one that has long been outlawed, the uneasy fascination with crime and punishment, the unsettling mixture of moral outrage and prurient interest, the suggestion of revelling in lurid detail on the pretext of fully expressing the horror, is grimly relevant today. Before we dismiss this album as a quaintly Victorian artefact, perhaps we should look at crime reporting today, and the justifications the press provide for supplying ever more lurid details of criminal cases. Milnes’s album may be foreign to us in some ways, but in others, it is distressingly familiar.

Clare Walker Gore is junior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. She was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker for 2015–16.

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This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine