Civic Organization of Executions in Early Modern Europe

face of a prisoner

Executions in early modern Europe were formally organized public events. Regulations for execution processions in Leipzig in 1769 specified an order for nineteen groups, including the Senior Steward, schoolboys, the court bailiff, and the administrator of the city farms.^ In London, a procession conveyed the persons to be executed from Newgate Prison about three miles through the city center to the Tyburn gallows. The processional event included ringing of the bells of St. Sepulchre Church and the opportunity for the condemned to stop for drinks at local public houses.^ ^

Hanging days usually were chosen with respect to established civic and judicial calendars. In early modern Amsterdam, “justice days,” in which a number of persons sentenced to death would be executed, were scheduled with great care. All hangings occurred on one to four days a year.^ In London prior to 1752, persons sentenced to death were usually hung on the same day at the end of the period of a court’s sessions. In 1752, a law required murders to be hung within two days of sentencing, excluding Sunday. Comparing hangings at Tyburn from 1730-1750 to hangings there from 1755-1775, the median number of hanging days per year increased from 5 to 8, and the median number of hangings per hanging day decreased from 5.5 to 3.3. After 1752, judges could have arranged to group hangings by formally delaying sentencing of a murderer to the day before an established hanging day.

Execution historians differ about the extent to which prisoners accepted punishment and whether execution was a display of state symbolic power or a circumstance of carnival.^ ^ ^ If prisoners accepted punishment, they didn’t do so before an intentional gathering of a large share of the polity. If executions were a display of state power, they weren’t a display of state power before an intentional gathering of a large share of the polity positioned to acclaim the executions. If executions were circumstances of carnival, the extent of participation in that carnival varied enormously. Executions did not involve competition for acclaim. The extent of sensational, widely circulated news of the execution determined the extent to which the execution attracted attention.

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