Language Paper 2 – Public Hanging, 1849

Charles Dickens, as well as being a novelist, was a dedicated commentator on society. Here he gives his impressions of a public hanging which took place in London in 1849. Strange to think that these events actually used to happen!

I believe that a sight so awful as the wickedness and cheerfulness of the immense crowd collected at that execution could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet1 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 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 were added to these.

the-history-of-hangingWhen 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 Punch2, 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 zest3 to the general entertainment.

p01h21x8When the sun rose brightly – as it did – it shone on thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious4 in their brutal mirth or callousness5, 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 judgment, 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.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity6 could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits.



1 – the wooden frame on which criminals were hanged

2 – the puppet Mr. Punch, who was violent towards Judy in the Punch & Judy shows

3 – enthusiasm

4 – disgusting

5 – lack of care or feeling

6 – cleverness