Tyburn’s Tree: public hanging in England, by Jacob Hughes (the post that is, of course)

Public execution is often portrayed as though it was to some extent a theatrical performance, however, to what extent is this true? Did it have deeper, profound effects on the audience? 

Public execution was treated by many as a kind of festival. Many gathered to mock authority and glorify the criminal being executed. This was something which shocked governments, execution was supposed to punish the victim and display justice. However, crowds were not always seeing it this way, instead seeing it was an occasion to be celebrated. Such celebrations were especially prevalent at the notorious Tyburn, roughly on the site of the modern Marble Arch. The hangings which took place here attracted thousands of spectators each week. People would pay for seats in galleries, pubs and upper-storey rooms in houses for the best views. No less remarkable is the fact that Tyburn ceased to be a place of execution in 1783 because the massive crowds began to disturb the wealthy and fashionable Oxford Street and environs, not because it undermined the objective of execution or offended other feelings.

Whilst places like Tyburn Tree are obvious examples of people’s enjoyment of public executions, Dutch historian Peter Spierenburg explains another side to the coin. Initially, the objective of the public execution was to suppress emotions in the public by displaying such a violent act. This however began to change when people began to assimilate themselves with the victims of execution. This was especially true of ten broadsheet ballads, sometimes sold on behalf on the victims’ families, which expressed contrition, but also invited sympathy.This, therefore, added a psychological and physical disgust of the execution. Even at Tyburn, the assimilation towards the victim caused members of the crowd to pull at the victim’s legs, as a method to reduce their suffering.

In short, Tyburn was a place of slow, horrible death, but also of a kind of collective psychology-drama.

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