(Thanks to James Boswell for the guest post. The Dr. Johnson biographer was a ravenous gallows-haunt whom we have encountered repeatedly in these pages; even in his guise as a barrister, Boswell personally lost a client to the hangman. No fool when it came to content repurposing, Boswell in 1768 wrote the Publick Advertiser about the March 23, 1768 double hanging of John Gibson and Benjamin Payne; then, in 1783, he recycled the entirety of this bygone letter to extend his musings on the spectacle of public executions, for the occasion of Tyburn’s abolition. We reprint here the 1783 article, a comment within a comment, within the very comment that is this dreary site. -ed.)
THE question, Whether society has a right to punish individuals, especially to the extent of death, which is well denominated in Latin “ultimum supplicium — the last or utmost punishment,” has been treated with great attention and ingenuity by a number of casuists in law and in morals. And of late it has been discussed with elegant ability by the Marquis di Marco, an Italian nobleman of Mantua, whose performance well becomes that celebrated city, while it shews that in modern times the descendants of those whom we are taught from our early years to admire, are yet worthy of admiration. So that we may quote from Addison‘s beautiful letter from Italy,
And still I seem to tread on classick ground.
It is indeed a question which resolves into the powerful and irresistible plea of necessity; since we are sure society could not exist without such a right. But the exercise of it, no doubt, admits of much modification, in which the wisdom and humanity of legislators has a wide field. Another Italian nobleman has done himself great honour by his admirable work “Delle de litte e delle pene,” which Voltaire has illuminated with some additional rays; and I can with pleasure mention, to the credit of our own nation, Mr. Eden‘s Principles of Penal Law.
These cursory remarks are only meant to serve the purpose of introducing into the collection of my Hypochondriack Essays, another of my former writings, which is, I think, well suited to my present title.
April 25, 1768.
To the Printer of the Publick Advertiser
THAT the people of England possess that quality called good-nature, will not be denied by any man whose mind is not fretted by some real ills, or clouded by some fanciful ones. But it must also be acknowledged that the people of England are, of all nations in the world, the most desirous of feeing spectacles of cruelty. Bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and even throwing at cocks, were for many and many a year the delight of the English; and it is not long since assemblies of good-natured people were deliberately held to see their fellow-creatures beat, bruise, and sometimes actually kill each other.
Though the desire of seeing spectacles of cruelty has peculiarly prevailed in England, it has more or less been the passion of mankind in all ages and countries. Hence the various satires against it by poets; hence the various attempts to account for it by philosophers. Lucretius, who was both a poet and a philosopher, refers it to self-love, as we may see from that celebrated passage,
Suave mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis.
He thinks that men love to behold scenes of distress, that they may hug themselves in security, and relish more their own safety and ease, by comparing themselves with those who are suffering. Though I, as well as every rational and virtuous man, must think that Lucretius is in general a very false and a very hurtful writer; yet I must candidly own that he is often ingenious and just in his observations. In the present case he certainly has a great deal of merit; though I would be for compounding his system with that of the Abbe du Bos, who accounts for our desire of seeing spectacles of cruelty from the universal wish that we all have to be moved; that is, to have our souls agitated; for to be sure there is nothing so irksome to a man of lively sensations, as to have his faculties thrown into a kind of torpor, so that in Shakespeare’s words,
They cream and mantle like a standing pool
This will more fully account for what I am endeavouring to explains and will make human nature appear not so grossly selfish as Lucretius paints it.
Of all publick spectacles, that of a capital execution draws the greatest number of spectators. And I must confess that I myself am never absent from any of them. Nor can I accuse myself of being more hard-hearted than other people. On the contrary, I am persuaded that nobody feels more sincerely for the distresses of his fellow-creatures than I do, yor would do more to relieve them. When I first attended executions, I was shocked to the greatest degree. I was in a manner convulsed with pity and terror, and for several days, but especially nights after, I was in a very dismal situation. Still, however, I persisted in attending them, and by degrees my sensibility abated; so that I can now see one with great composure, and my mind is not afterwards haunted with frightful thoughts: though for a while a certain degree of gloom remains upon it. I can account for this curiosity in a philosophical manner, when I consider that death is the most aweful object before every man, who ever directs his thoughts seriously towards futurity; and that it is very natural that we should be anxious to see people in that situation which affects us so much. It is true indeed that none of us, who go to see an execution have any idea that we are to be executed, and few of us need be under any apprehension whatever of meeting with that fate. But dying publickly at Tyburn, and dying privately in one’s bed, are only different modes of the fame thing. They are both death; they are both that wonderous, that alarming scene of quitting all that we have ever seen, heard, or known, and at once passing into a state of being totally unknown, to us, and in which we cannot tell what may be our situation. Therefore it is that I feel an irresistible impulse to be present at every execution, as I there behold, the various effects of the near approach of death, according to the various tempers of the unhappy sufferers, and by studying them I learn to quiet and fortify my own mind.
I shall never forget the last execution I saw at Tyburn, when Mr. Gibson, the attorney, for forgery, and Benjamin Payne, for an highway robbery, were executed. Poor Payne was a thin young lad of twenty, in a mean dress, and a red night-cap, with nothing to discriminate him from the many miserable beings who are penitent and half dead with fear. But Mr. Gibson was indeed an extraordinary man. He came from Newgate in a coach, with some friends attending him. I met the mournful procession in Oxford-road; and I declare that if I had not been told it, I should not have known which was Mr. Gibson. He was drawn backwards, and looked as calm and easy as ever I saw a man in my life. He was dressed in a full suit of black, wore his own hair round and in a natural curl, and a hat. When he came to the place of execution he was allowed to remain a little in the coach. A signal was then given him that it was time to approach the fatal tree. He took leave of his friends, stepped out of the coach, and walked firmly to the cart. He was helped up upon it, as he was pinioned and had not the free use of his arms. When he was upon the cart, he gave his hat to the executioner, who immediately took off Mr. Gibson’s cravat, unloosed his shirt neck, and fixed the rope. Mr. Gibson never once altered his countenance. He refreshed his mouth by sucking a sweet orange. He shewed no stupid insensibility; nor did he affect to brave it out like those hardened wretches who boast that they die hard. He appeared to all the spectators a man of sense and reflexion, of a mind naturally sedate and placid. He submitted with a manly and decent resolution to what he knew to be the just punishment of the law. Mr. Moore, the Ordinary of Newgate, discharged his duty with much earnestness, and a fervour for which I and all around me esteemed and loved him. Mr. Moore seems worthy of his office, which, when justly considered, is a very important one, if administering divine comfort to multitudes of miserable beings, be important. Poor Payne seemed to rely on that mercy which I trust has not been refused him — Mr. Gibson seemed truely devout; and, in short, from first to last, his behaviour was the most perfect that I ever saw, or indeed could conceive of one in his unhappy circumstances. — I wish, Sir, I may not have detained you too long with a letter on subjects of a serious but I will not fay of a gloomy cast, because from my manner of viewing them I do say that they become matters of curious speculation, and are relieved of their dreary ideas. I am, Sir,
Your constant reader,
After an interval of fifteen years, I have little to add to this occasional essay. But I cannot but mention in justification of myself, from a charge of cruelty in having gone so much formerly to see executions, that the curiosity which impels people to be present at such affecting scenes, is certainly a proof of sensibility not of callousness. For it is observed, that the greatest proportion of the spectators is composed of women; and I do not apprehend that my readers will impute a barbarous severity to the fair sex, though it is common for lovers to represent them as metaphorically cruel. But in the one case they are cruel to others to be kind to themselves, by avoiding what is disagreeable to them. Whereas in the other case the pleasure must be from the sufferings of others independent of any such reference. That there, however, is such a pleasure I am afraid is true; and in support of my opinion, I bring no less authority than Edmund Burke, who maintains it in his Treatise on the Sublime and Beautiful. Yet let it not be supposed that this pleasure arising from agitation, prevents the finest feelings and effects of compassion; I am sure it does not.
As the great Justinian nobly expressed himself, I should wish that as mild punishments as are consistent with terrour were always inflicted. It is indeed astonishing how men have been found willing and able to execute some of the horrible sentences which have been put in execution upon some criminals. One shudders to think of them; and I shall not wound the minds of my readers by reciting particulars. They who wish to be shocked, or to gratify a monstrous curiosity, may read the tortures of Ravaillac or Damiens. A mode of death which strikes terrour into spectators, without excruciating the unfortunate objects of legal vengeance, seems to be the most eligible. I, therefore, think that the faces of those who are hanged should not be covered, as in Britain, but exposed, as is the custom upon the continent, that the distortions may be seen, which covered or uncovered must take place. I also think that the punishment of throwing criminals from the Tarpeian rock in ancient Rome was a very judicious one. But the best I have ever discovered is one practised in Modern Rome, which is called “Macellare –to butcher.” The criminal is placed upon a scaffold, and the executioner knocks him on the head with a great iron hammer, then cuts his throat with a large knife, and lastly, hews him in pieces with an ax; in short, treats him exactly like an ox in the shambles. The spectators are struck with prodigious terrour; yet the poor wretch who is stunned into insensibility by the blow, does not actually suffer much.
But, indeed, death, simple death, when slowly and solemnly inflicted, will be fully sufficient to answer the purposes of publick punishment, as is very well demonstrated by Dr. Mandeville, in An Essay upon the Increase of Robberies, in which he has written with a very different spirit from that which prompted his very shrewd, lively, and entertaining, but dangerous Fable of the Bees.