Crowds Attracted to Public Executions in London

face of a prisoner

Crowds at public executions varied greatly depending on the circumstances of the case. In London from 1725 to 1775, executions occurred at Tyburn about six times per year. In addition to officials, spectators at most executions probably included friends and family of the person to be executed, friends and family of victims, curious onlookers who happened to be in the area, local persons with little else to do, persons with intense interest in seeing executions, and persons with commercial interests in serving crowds at executions. Given that executions occurred about six times a year for year after year, an ordinary hanging probably attracted no more than a few hundred persons. The historical literature has tended to present sensational executions as typical executions. That surely was not the case.

Some executions at Tyburn attracted enormous crowds. One historian has stated, “At Tyburn thousands of people, and often tens of thousands, would crowd around the execution ground to witness the spectacle.”^ The Newgate Calendar stated that 30,000 persons attended the execution of Daniel and Robert Perreau at Tyburn in 1776. Crowds were said to have reached 100,000 for the execution of Arthur Thistlewood and the Cato Street Conspirators in 1820, and nearly 100,000 at Fauntleroy’s execution in 1824.^ ^ Execution broadside sellers indicated that notoriety greatly affected the size of execution crowds.^

Galleries were built to serve crowds attending executions at Tyburn. Hogarth’s “The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn” (1747) shows a wooden gallery on the right. Galleries apparently were not solidly constructed:

at the execution of Dr Henneset for treason in 1758, at which seats went for 2s and even 2s 6d per person, a riot broke out when he was reprieved and many of the seats were destroyed by the patrons who presumably did not get their money back.^

In 1760, a cowkeeper’s widow, known as Mother Proctor, erected galleries on her land and began to rent them out for viewing the Tyburn executions:

‘Mother Proctor’s Pews’ were a lucrative investment: they were said to have brought her more than £500 on the day of Lord Ferrers’s execution alone.^ ^

Three galleries stood at Tyburn in 1785, one of which “was the property of Mr. Mitchel who let out the Gallery on the day of Executions.”^ ^ Unlike seating at a theatre, these galleries were not constructed within an overall theatre plan focusing attention on the central stage.

Crowds at a sensational execution could far exceed the size of the local polity. An execution in 1820 in Clingen (in the German principality of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen) attracted 20,000 spectators. Clingen itself had only 1,000 inhabitants.^ Unlike competition for acclaim, competition for attention has no community boundaries.

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