Crowds at Public Executions Depended on Attacting Attention

face of a prisoner

Public executions were common in fifteenth through eighteenth century Europe. The size of the crowd at a public execution depended on the extent to which the event attracted attention. Public executions were leading symbolic events for which publicity shaped attendance. Public executions were also central to the rise of competition for attention to printed works.

Like the City Dionysus in fifth-century Athens, penal executions in early modern Europe were civic events. Executions usually occurred at generally established dates in the civic calendar. Executions were organized by civic officials and performed for all to see at a fixed, sanctioned civic location. Civic revenue funded the cost of the execution. A formal civic procession conveyed the person to be executed from a prison to the execution site. The execution site was usually a gallows where the condemned was hung. The execution ritual itself included well-established formal elements, such as last words from the condemned, prayers, psalm-singing, and authorized disposal of the body.

Unlike the City Dionysus in fifth-century Athens, public executions were not presented to a given-sized public. As a civic institution, an execution itself was not a must-attend event. The size of the public attending an execution depended greatly on the circumstances of the case and the extent to which it made news. When a single person with no public reputation was hung at Tyburn for a standard, uncontroversial crime (a man murdering another man of similar social class in a quarrel), the crowd may have been only a few hundred persons. In other circumstances, crowds at Tyburn were said to number in the thousands, or the tens of thousands, or to have reached 100,000 in particularly sensational cases.

The structure of the crowd at public executions indicates aspects of competition for attention. Unlike at a theatre, the crowd attending a hanging at Tyburn was not largely seated in solid, fixed positions (seats) that were allocated according to economic and social relations (ticket prices, social status and group affiliation). While the architecture of theatres held attendees in place and focused their attention on the stage, most of the crowd at public executions moved freely about the site. Persons could engage in vending, shouting, playing, thieving, and other interests unrelated to the hanging. Crowds at public executions prompted elite concern. Elite artists represented the crowd as large, chaotic, and composed mainly of ignorant, brutish, low-class persons.^ Hogarth’s famous print of an execution at Tyburn has a broadside seller at the center-front of the crowded frame. She holds a baby and chants a ballad while facing away from the hanging.

Public executions were associated with competition for attention to printed works. Execution sermons became leading popular books in late seventeenth-century colonial New England. Accounts of crime, criminals, and punishment were also among the most popular printed texts in England from about that time. Broadsides about persons executed for non-political crimes probably existed in England from at least as far back as the mid-sixteenth century. In 1624, when a print syndicate called the “ballad partners” formed, an elite poet satirized the demand for ballads with a reference to a ballad “of some branded slave / Hang’d at Tybourne.”^

By the eighteenth century, English printers competed aggressively with each other to produce execution broadsides. They sold their product wholesale to a large number of highly competitive hawkers or “patterers,” most of whom roamed the streets in search of sales. The wholesale market operated on a cash basis.^ This arrangement eliminated costs of managing credit and gave street-sellers high-powered incentives to make sales. With little concern for truthful representation, printers and sellers fabricated and recycled “last dying speeches.” They worked together to take best advantage of the execution drama:

The last dying speeches and executions are all printed the day before. … The flying stationers {sellers} goes with the papers in their pockets, and stand under the drop, and as soon as ever it falls, and long before the breath it out of the body, they begin bawling out.^

Sheets were sold on the street for as little as a halfpenny. To lessen costs, printers often re-used woodcuts:

“Here you have an exact likeness,” they {sellers} say, “of the murderer, taken at the bar of the Old Bailey!” when all the time it is an old wood-cut that’s been used for every criminal for the last forty years.^ ^

These cheap woodcut images made the broadsides more attractive to persons who had difficulty reading. Some execution broadsides included verses that could be sung (ballads). This feature also increased the value of the broadside to persons who had difficulty reading. Persons could more easily read a song that they had heard. Moreover, singing (chanting) ballads served as an attention-getting marketing mechanism. For broadsides’ competitive success, rapid, low-cost, high-volume production and marketing excellence were more important than artistry of texts and images.

Execution broadsides were highly successful in attracting attention. A visitor to Munich in 1781 observed that death sentences and gallows speeches were sold in the streets in thousands.^ A Londoner recalled that execution broadsides, offered for a halfpenny, had enormous sales in the 1770s and 1780s.^ For one sensational murder trial and execution in 1823, the leading London broadside printer produced perhaps 500,000 broadsides in eight days.^ ^ ^ Two executions in 1849 each reportedly generated 2.5 million execution broadsides. That figure represents, for each case, about one sheet for every four persons ages 15 years old and older in England and Wales about that time. Four other executions in London in the first half on the nineteenth century reportedly generated about 1.65 million broadsides each.^ ^ Execution broadsides were blockbuster hits in the leading popular media of the early nineteenth century.

Public executions and execution broadsides in eighteenth and early nineteenth century England varied enormously in the size of the public that particular instances attracted. Such variation characterizes competition for attention. The executioner, the minister, the guards, and other civic officials had well-bounded roles. They were not positioned to compete with each other for acclaim. Civic officials prepared prisoners to acknowledge guilt, express remorse, and to seek external salvation. Prisoners who remained defiant at their execution challenged the political order as a whole. They did not challenge a similarly situated competitor for acclaim. Public executions were primarily events in competition for attention with other symbolic public works.

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