When did people stop attending public executions in Britain?

Why did many western nations begin moving gallows away from public viewings? Historian Greg Jenner explains…

An 18th-century public execution and crowd

In past centuries, public executions of criminals had several purposes. Public executions were a deterrent, a vengeful enactment of moral justice and a morbid form of entertainment but in the 19th century, many western nations began moving their gallows behind grey prison walls.

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Why this decision was taken is hotly debated, but it wasn’t due to dwindling public interest.

On the contrary, crowds in Victorian Britain were often rowdy mobs, and in 1868, the last man to be publicly executed in Britain – an Irish bomber named Michael Barrett – was booed by 2,000 people as he swung from the gallows at Newgate.

For campaigners like Charles Dickens, such a furore was uncivilised and cruel, and his protests likely contributed to the change in the law.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, historian and author Greg Jenner.

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This article was taken from the June 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine