London’s ‘Execution Economy’: Gruesome Exhibition Records 5,000 Public Deaths | death penalty

IIt used to be said that London’s streets were not paved with gold, but in fact they were covered in blood – the blood of tens of thousands of people executed by the state for crimes ranging from treason to petty theft.

For over 700 years, public executions in the capital — often intended as a deterrent to criminal activity — were watched by huge crowds, creating an “execution economy” based on a thirst for gruesome detail and a physical hunger born of hours of anticipation.

The waistcoat is said to have been worn by Charles I at his execution. Photo: Museum of London

By the end of the 18th century, more than 200 crimes were punishable by death. London’s courts ordered the deaths of more people than courts in the rest of the country combined.

“Public executions have been embedded in London’s landscape, culture, society and economy,” said Beverley Cook, the curator of Executions, a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands which opens on Friday. “They were a very visible part of Londoners’ life for many centuries, with some events attracting tens of thousands of people.”

From the first public execution in 1196 to the last in 1868, the exhibition tells the stories of people who were executed and the impact on society. It contains engravings, paintings, death sentences, the last letters of the condemned, clothing, shackles, a gallows and the diary of the Governor of Newgate Prison where condemned prisoners were held.

A sling was “probably the most difficult object to exhibit because of the contemporary connotations,” Cook said.

No place in the City of London is more than 500 meters from a site where gallows once stood, according to the exhibition. People were confronted with the decomposing bodies of executed criminals hanging in gallows cages, the heads of traitors on spikes above London Bridge and body parts displayed at city gates.

Execution methods went well beyond hanging. Traitors were hanged, dragged and quartered – dragged from prison to the execution site, hanged nearly dead, then castrated, gutted, decapitated and quartered.

Members of the nobility were often simply beheaded out of respect for their high status. Burning was the standard punishment for heresy, designed to instill fear in people who questioned the teachings of the church. Boiling to death was rare and usually reserved for poisoners.

Ax from Newgate Prison
The ax from Newgate Prison was used to execute the five conspirators who plotted to kill the Prime Minister and MPs in 1820. Photo: /Museum of London

A list of 5,000 people – names, ages, crimes and places of execution – who were publicly executed is the result of meticulous research conducted for the exhibition. Among the traitors, murderers, and muggers are many people executed for petty crimes such as pickpocketing, burglary, and shoplifting.

One was Ambrose Newport, 21, who was executed in 1731 for “stealing a bay mare.”

A gallows cage in which the corpses of criminals were rotted in 18th-century London.
A gallows cage in which the corpses of criminals were rotted in 18th-century London. Photo: Museum of London

Perhaps the most famous of those executed before a public audience was Charles I, who was convicted of “treason and other high crimes” and beheaded in 1649 at the Banqueting House in Whitehall before “a crowd of men and women”.

Among the items on display is an intricately woven silk waistcoat that the king is said to have worn at his execution. The cause of visible stains on the garment has not been finally clarified.

The spectators who flocked to the gallows and other execution sites to witness the spectacle of state-sanctioned death provided opportunities for others to make money. Window views and bleacher seats were rented out to the wealthy; the poor stood for hours, depending on the season, fortified with beef, mutton, eel, and fruit pies.

Execution “broadpages,” costing about a penny, were sold across the country, describing the crime and death in everyday street language. They were written in advance, with their authors sometimes being surprised by a last-minute grace period.

“Murder is undoubtedly a very shocking crime; nonetheless, since what has been done cannot be undone, let us make our living from it,” wrote a broadside seller in 1861.

At this point, the death spectacles were coming to an end. Some argued that public execution days were disrupting London’s economy, and social reformers questioned the morality of watching people die. Transport to the colonies and new Victorian prisons offered alternative punishments.

On May 26, 1868, the last public execution took place in London. Michael Barrett was an Irish Republican convicted of his involvement in an explosion at the Clerkenwell House of Detention. He repeatedly protested his innocence. Three days later, public executions were abolished, although the death penalty remained in place until 1969.

The issues raised in the exhibit aren’t just of historical oddity, Cook said. Many of his themes will be “surprisingly familiar” to people today. “The struggle to protect an urban population from crime and the ongoing problems of poverty, population growth, discrimination and domestic violence.”

And she added: “55 countries still have the death penalty in their statute books. We don’t want visitors to think this is the end of the story.” The final part of the exhibition features a video interview with Paul Bridges, Chair of Amnesty’s Anti-Death Penalty Project.

The execution will open at the Museum of London Docklands on Friday October 14, with admission from £12

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