Monday, October 30, 2023

Simon Devereaux's "Execution, State and Society in England, 1660–1900"

Simon Devereaux is Associate Professor of History at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Execution, State and Society in England, 1660–1900, and reported the following:
Readers of Execution, State and Society will find little to read on page 99, but much to contemplate. The page contains two images of executions at Tyburn: the first from 1678, the second from 1747. The contrast between the two goes to the heart of the book’s central argument – that the emergence of a particularly intensive urban culture in England after 1660 explains changing attitudes towards the nature and purposes of capital punishment in that country. The 1678 image suggests that the people then attending London executions were respectable and properly attentive to the sad but necessary example of the gallows. Hogarth’s image from seventy years later suggests a meaningless ritual now staged before a raucous plebeian mob. There’s no compelling reason to believe that either image presents the literal reality of Tyburn executions in their respective times. The contrast between the two simply bespeaks the emergence of a self-consciously urbane critique, not so much of execution itself, as of the sorts of people who, in a swiftly and massively growing London (by 1747, the largest city in Europe), were now believed to be the principal audience for such displays. The belief that the Tyburn execution ritual was now devoid of moral or practical purpose, in turn, would inspire the adoption of an entirely urbanized execution ritual staged immediately outside Newgate prison in 1783, the dramaturgy of which would be adopted in virtually all other English towns by 1830. Where continental cities responded to execution crowds by pushing executions further and further beyond the bounds of respectable urban areas, the rulers of a distinctively urbanized England adopted an execution ritual conducted in the heart of the nation’s many large cities and towns. Execution, State and Society explains why the people who made such decisions thought the new urban ritual might work and its, at best, only qualified success.
Learn more about Execution, State and Society in England, 1660–1900 at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue