Hanging as public entertainment

Public hangings drew huge crowds in the early 19th century. This is one man’s recollection of the spectacle that surrounded executions.
Public hangings were a source of popular entertainment until 1868 when an Act of Parliament ordered that all executions should in future take place behind prison walls. Even then they remained lucrative for printers who could rush out a broadsheet with a usually fictional account of the criminal’s “last dying speech” within a few hours.

The following account was given by the radical printer, journalist and newspaper editor William Edwin (W E) Adams (1832-1906) in his memoirs.

Hanging as entertainment, mid-19th century

Homicides were probably fewer, but executions were more common, at the beginning than at the end of the [19th ] century. Men and women were hung for almost trivial offences – hung in batches, too, after almost every assize. My grandmother used to talk of five or six poachers being hung together around in front of Gloucester gaol. Townsend, the noted Bow Street runner, giving evidence before a Committee of the House of Commons in 1816, testified to these grim facts:- “We never had an execution wherein we did not grace that unfortunate gibbet at the Old Bailey with less than ten, twelve, sixteen, or twenty wretches – I may say forty, for in the year 1783, when Serjeant Adair was Recorder, there were forty hanged at two executions.” The gaoler of Newgate, being asked by the Recorder a few years later how many could be executed at one time on a new gallows, complacently replied: “Well your worship, we can hang twelve upon a stretch, but we can’t hang more than ten comfortable.” The hangings in those days, and till long after, were always done in the open, the contention being that the gallows, like the gibbet, was a great “moral teacher.” I happened to be passing Newgate Street a few minutes after nine o’clock one morning in 1857. Suddenly the street was filled with the most villainous-looking characters I ever saw in a single crowd. They were laughing and shouting and jostling each other as they hurried along – a great stream of gaol-birds. Whence had they come? Enquiries elicited the information that they had just been enjoying an execution – fresh from the teaching of the gallows. Similar spectacles drew similar crowds to the county gaols all over the country.

We in Cheltenham always knew when [the executioner William] Calcraft had been at work from the cries of the dealers in patter literature. Our local Catnach was Thomas Willey, a printer of ballads and broadsheets. Mr Willey was always ready with a “last dying speech” for every criminal who was executed at Gloucester. It was generally the same speech, altered to suit the name and circumstances of the new culprit; and it was invariably adorned with a ghastly woodcut showing the figure of a man or a woman, as the case might be, dangling from a gallows. The passage leading to Willey’s printing office was crowded on the morning of an execution with an astonishing collection of ragamuffins and tatterdemalions, greasy, grimy, and verminous. Soon they were bawling their doleful wares all over the town. Where they came from was as much a mystery to the inhabitants as whither they disappeared when the last dying speech had been sold. But penny papers and recognised reporters drove the flying stationers from the streets. [William] Marwood by this time had succeeded Calcraft – Marwood, who told a party of pressmen who had met to compliment him that he should die happy when he had hung a reporter.

Source: Memoirs of a Social Atom by W E Adams (Hutcheson & Co, 1903)