108. Executions!

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

Welcome to Histories of the Unexpected where we demonstrate how everything has a history and how those histories link together in unexpected ways.

For this episode let us join the man who can squeeze the truth out of history like a garrotte, Professor James Daybell, and the Albert Pierrepoint of historical execution, Dr Sam Willis, as they expertly and swiftly dispatch the unexpected history of executions!

Our two hooded headsmen will lead you gently by the hand on this particularly gruesome journey through the history of state sanctioned death and capital punishment, from North Korea and modern day public executions by machine gun or flame thrower to the blood eagles featured in Norse literature, from the heads hanging or impaled upon London’s Traitors Gate to ancient Persia and the horror of scaphism using milk and honey, from the court-martial and execution of Admiral Byng to the martyrdom of Lady Jane Grey, and from Newgate Gallows and the execution of notorious murderers ‘Country Tom and Canterbury Bess’ in 1635 to the criminal prosecutions and death sentences of animals in early modern France, compose yourself, pray to your Gods, for your journey is about to end here…

According to Amnesty International, at the end of 2018, 106 countries had abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes, with a recorded figure of 690 executions in 20 countries for the same year. This figure represented a fall of thirty one percent when compared to 2017 and, for Amnesty International, records the lowest figure of executions in the past decade. However, caution should be exercised when comparing numbers in this way as certainly for China the exact extent of the use of capital punishment remains a state secret, and therefore classified. Concentrating on figures in this way removes us somewhat from the actual reality of what those numbers represent – humans; real lives and real deaths at the hands of state bodies. States have always held a monopoly on judicial violence, and whilst many have now stepped away from incorporating capital punishment into law, its use throughout history has been well documented. In England the coercive force of the gallows has been extensively researched; the ‘Bloody Code’ was a name given to the legal system, enacted during the latter part of the seventeenth century and continuing into the beginnings of the nineteenth. This ‘Code’ made over two hundred crimes, many of them property related, subject to capital punishment; pick-pocketing a handkerchief, shoplifting, or sheep rustling for example. However, whilst these crimes may have carried the death penalty, those charged did not always face the executioner. The accused was more likely to drop if the crime was actual murder, than for crimes such as wounding or violent theft. Capital death rates during this period did not mushroom, as local areas exercised restraint and caution in handing down such draconian sentences; less than a fifth of all capital convictions during this period were carried out. Local courts held some autonomy and, in many cases related to property crime, sentences could be mitigated and even the value of the property could be ‘re-assessed’ to one lower than that required for a capital conviction. By the early nineteenth century the death penalty was removed as a punishment for those convicted of pick pocketing, and by 1861, via the Offences Against the Persons Act, it was restricted to murder and high treason. The reluctance to implement the ‘Bloody Code’ suggests that not only was there a change in attitudes from this period on-wards towards capital punishment but that the reach of a centralised state did indeed only penetrate so far.

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