Friday, July 20, 2007

Why did Canada abolish public hanging?

Between the years of 1850 and 1870, public executions ended in countries such as the German states, the Netherlands, Austria, and Spain, as well as England and Canada.

The end of public hangings in Canada under Act 32-33 Victoria chapter 29 brought relief to the general public but I was surprised to find that this was not because they disagreed with the death penalty (though some did), but largely because of the crowds that came to watch the executions.

(above: The public hangings of Samuel Lount and Peter Mathews, King and Toronto Streets, Toronto, 1838 [from: James Edmund Jones, Pioneer Crimes and Punishment, Toronto: George N. Morang, 1924])

People argued that public hangings should end for many reasons, and the 'hanging crowd' was a significant reason. People complained about rowdy crowds that showed up to watch hangings. When public hangings ended in England, the Times of London reported:

We shall not in the future have to read how, the night before the execution, thousands of the worst characters in England, abandoned women and brutal men, met beneath the gallows to pass the night in drinking in buffoonery, in ruffianly swagger and obscene jest.

Many polite Victorians felt that ending public hangings would advance civilization and they themselves felt uncomfortable watching hangings; at the same time they found the rowdy crowds' fascination with death, obscene language and gestures, and disrespect for authority embarrassing.
Many also felt that death wasn't solemn enough: the carnival-like atmosphere among the crowds that watched the executions prevented people from being dettered to commit crimes. It was also argued that by watching hangings, people were familiar with death and would no longer value human life or feel compassion towards others.

What I was most surprised to find that was by ending public hangings, the perpetuation of the death penalty was actually ensured. If people did not have to deal with the crowd, they would no longer have a reason to protest hangings. By making the hangings private, the death penalty could continue.


UWHistory said...

Dear Carling,

As the Editors-in-Chief of the University of Waterloo's first annual Undergraduate History Journal, we would like to thank you for your essay about Survival at Auschwitz. Dr. Bruce nominated your paper for our journal, and we have accepted it!

Could you please contact us for more information at We'd be happy to give you more details at that time.

Once again, congratulations. We enjoyed reading your essay.


Denis Clark
Andrew Kloiber
University of Waterloo Undergraduate History Journal

P.S. Our apologies for contacting you on your blog. We didn't have any of your personal contact information.

Andy Walpole said...

One of the reasons public executions were ended in England was because the crowd had a tendency to cheer the hanged man rather than booing him.
Anyway, interesting blog and keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Disturbing. I work with an Arab man who told a group of us at work that when he was a child, his father took him to a public execution in the Middle East. He said the man being executed kneeled down, clasped his hands behind him and leaned forward. The executioner whacked his head off at the neck with a machete. His head rolled around on the ground such that the man's face was positioned such that his still blinking eyes could see his headless body, at least until his brain finally died. He ended that statement with a shrug, "That's the way it's done there." Then he went on yakking about something else while we were all still contemplating what he just said and trying not to look shocked. Is it any wonder the world is such a mess when humans use someone else's death as entertainment?????

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