A Tale of Two Executions
Charles Dickens wrote a letter to The Times in 1849 after having witnessed what was dubbed the ‘hanging of the century’. It was a novel and interesting case which could have been picked as a scene out of a play rather than scripted from mundane reality. It was the first husband and wife execution in 150 years; exciting stuff. Mr and Mrs Manning were hanged for murdering a friend for his money and then burying him under the kitchen floor. Dickens joined a crowd of 30,000 to witness the affair but was soon disgusted by the reaction of the audience and joyous nature of the ‘day out’ which undermined it as an act of justice.
It is interesting to read his letter in the light of today’s spectacle of Gaddafi’s death on the front pages. Of course the contexts and significance of the cases are incomparable. But the essence of Dickens’ criticisms may still hold weight.The entertainment value of flaunting gruesome images to spectators with a curious hunger for torture porn has not changed.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have any pictures for proof of his death, but is splashing such images on the front pages of national newspapers without any warning really necessary?
Despite our sense of moral betterment that apparently moved with the times, the same grisly excitement still pervades when people pass around mobile phones relishing in watching videos of Gaddafi’s last moments.There’s a difference between informing and entertaining; between satisfaction for the people of Libya and taking pleasure in the unfolding drama.
Perhaps the tendency to revel in what Dickens might call “brutal mirth” at the fascinating case of Gaddafi – the “odd-ball until the end” – distracts us from the point, not the nature, of his death.
Charles Dickens to the Editor of The Times, Letters. Nov. 13, 1849
I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from day-break until after the spectacle was over… I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators.
When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of ‘Mrs. Manning’ for ‘Susannah’, and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly-as it did-it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil.
When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.