The death penalty has been an instrumental aspect to British culture for centuries. During the middle ages, people were boiled alive, burned at the stake and hung, draw and quartered.
- Boiling – Henry VIII passed statute 22 which made boiling a legal form of the death penalty. It was first enacted to punish a man named Richard Rice, who poisoned many people and killed two. A chronicle at the time reported: “He roared mighty loud, and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead; and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work.”
- Burned at the stake – Examples of such executions were found as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries for the crime of herecy. Mary I brought the stake into mainstream use during her reign, burning hundreds of religious heretics alive. Death by burning was eventually abolished by King Charles II in 1676. There were two main ways in which people died at the stake.The first was when numerous people were executed at the same time, and the large fire would poison the convicts with carbon monoxide. When this happened, the prisoners would pass out and die, long before any substantial burning to the body occurred. However, when a person was burned at the stake alone, the fire was too small to induce enough carbon monoxide to make the prisoner loose consciousness. The person would then slowly burn until death occurred from either heatstroke, shock, the loss of blood, or the thermal decomposition of vital body organs.
- Hanged, drawn and quartered – Records indicate that this execution method began during the reign of King Henry III in the 13th century for people convicted of high treason. It became an official penalty in England years later in 1851 for men convicted of high treason. Women who were found guilty of this crime were not subject to being hanged, drawn and quartered, but burned alive at the stake instead. The convicts were strapped to a wooden panel and drawn by horses to their place of execution. They were then hanged until they were close to death, when they would be emasculated, disembowelled,beheaded and quartered. The body pieces were then often placed on display in popular places, such as the London Bridge as a warning to others contemplating high treason.
The Bloody Code
The Bloody Code was a system of laws and punishments in England between 1688 and 1815. It was given the name retrospectively, due to the high number of executions that were carried out during its time. When the code was first brought into practice in 1688, there were a total of 50 crimes on the statute book which were punishable by death. By then end of the 18th century, that number had risen to 220 offences.
The vast majority of the laws of the Bloody code surrounded on the defence of property, which predominantly protected the higher classes of aristocrats and members of the gentry. Whilst the social elite claimed that the higher classes were subject to the same laws and punishments as everyone else, the records show a very different story. Over 99% of the executions which were carried out under the Bloody Code were the poorest members of society, and therefore the lowest classes.
During the trail of the accused, they would be faced by a jury drawn up from people from the local community. As the majority of guilty verdicts ended in execution, even for petty crimes, the members of the jury were sympathetic to those standing trial. As most of the cases revolved around property, the jury would refuse to value the property at its full value. By diminishing the value of the property, they were reducing the seriousness of the crime, often saving lives.
To ensure the death penalty served as a deterrent to crime, all executions were carried out in the public eye. Public executions played a large role in English society. Large crowds would gather outside the prison walls and rejoice in merriment at the occasion. This was not the expected reaction, as the executions were meant to send a moral message or prevailing justice, not turn into a carnival atmosphere. Crowds would cheer at the condemned, taunting them as they faced their deaths. The death penalty was supported by the vast majority of the country, including the influential newspapers, the public, and the Church of England.
The intellectual elite strongly opposed of the death penalty as a whole, claiming it to be a barbaric punishment in which the public revelled. Gradually, as the Victorian era emerged, a new age of reformation swept over the country. A new classification system was created, designed to punish criminals according to the seriousness of their crime, as opposed to treating them all with the same severity. In 1823, the Judgement of Death Act 1823 was brought in to action, abolishing the death penalty for crimes which were not deemed as capital offences.
As the threat of death was removed for many crimes, the crime rate in England scored during the 19th century. As rape was no longer a capital offence, the conviction rate rose from 5% to 18%. Not only was the treat of death removed for the rapists, but the jury itself was more likely to convict, now knowing they were not sending people to their deaths. In addition to this, the industrial revolution brought in a serge of immigrants, to London in particular, resulting in cramped conditions amongst the poor. The fear of crime was rampant though out society, but without the death penalty, and the ending of transportation, the need for prisons began clear.
The Victorians expanded their jails into prisons during the 1840s, with the notion of both punishment and reform. During this time, the death penalty was still in use, and executions were still being held in the public eye. Writers such as Charles Dickens spoke openly about his disagreement, particularity about what type of people the executions draw in:
“The spectators include two large classes of thieves—one class who go there as they would go to a dog-fight, or any other brutal sport, for the attraction and excitement of the spectacle; the other who make it a dry matter of business, and mix with the crowd, solely to pick pockets. Add to these, the dissolute, the drunken, the most idle, profligate, and abandoned of both sexes—some moody ill-conditioned minds, drawn thither by a fearful interest—and some impelled by curiosity; of whom the greater part are of an age and temperament rendering the gratification of that curiosity highly dangerous to themselves and to society—and the great elements of the concourse are stated.”
Eventually, it was realised that executions could be carried out inside prisons, instead of outside. In 1868, the last public execution took place on an Irish republican, Michael Barrett. As he was hanged, the merry crowd sang the song ‘Champagne Charlie’ by Alfred Lee and George Leybourne.
Gallows in Prisons
When the gallows were taken into prisons, the state demanded order and structure to the process. The executions themselves would be carried out by professional hangmen, who had new limits placed on the amount of alcohol they could drink the night before. They were also ordered to stay in the prison overnight, to ensure they kept to their alcoholic limits. Structure was also brought to the actual method of execution. Whilst hanging remained the preferred method, specific measurements were carried out, to ensure the hanging went as smoothly and quickly as possible.
This meant that the slow strangulation over 30minutes was no longer appropriate, and studies carried out showed that this happened because the rope was too short. It was also discovered that if the rope was too long, the convict would be decapitated; the rope had to be just the right length, according to the criminal’s weight and height. The specific figures were used as a standard in England, and managed to silence the death penalty critics for decades. They deemed the death penalty a quiet, moral affair in which no one rejoiced in or danced about. Both sides of the argument had won, for the time being.
Nazi War Criminals
Executions in prison carried on in Britain through the first half of the 20th century without much change or opposition, until the end of Word War II. The Nuremberg War Crime Trials were held between 1945 to 1949. Those deemed to be major war criminals were tried first, ending in October 1946. Those which were held after this were for the ‘less important’ war criminals, which ended in 1949.
The first trials at Nuremberg were specified for a total of 24 senior Nazi members, including Hermann Göering, Kaltenbrunner, Ernst and Baldur von Schirach. The public, the media and even many politicians of Britain, and around the world, were calling for the execution of the war criminals.
Albert Pierrepoint, a British executioner was sent to the trials in 1945 on behalf of the British occupation authorities. The public were exstatic to see ‘one of their own’ handing out justice to the Nazi officers, and soon, Pierrepoint became the only celebrated executioned in Britain. His work in Germany threw him into the spotloght, showing him on televised programmes such as Newsnight. He gave advice on hanging, explaining the correct method, and explained how it had gone wrong so many times before. (Including during the Nazi war criminals’ execustions by all acounts.)
The public had a macarbe fascination with Pierrepoint. For many years, executions were carried out behind closed doors, with very few details being released. People had become dettatched to the idea of the death penalty, as it seldom played a role in their lives. When the Nazi War Trials began, it thrust the idea of execution onto the public, offering them redemption for the atrocities caused during the war.
Post World War II
The 1950’s brought much disaproval in Britain in regards to the death penalty. Whilst people were happy for the nazi war criminals to be executed, they were getting unhappy with the continued use of the gallows afterwards.
In November 1952, 19 year old Derek Bentley and 16 year old Christopher Craig were caught by police attempting to burgle the warehouse of the Barlow & Parker confectionery company in Croydon. Craig was armed with a Colt New Service .455 Webley calibre revolver, and Bentley carried a sheath knife and a knuckle-duster. Reports claim that Bentley was restrained by poilice relatively easily and quickly, but his acomplice Craig escaped onto the surrounding roof. A policeman asked Craig to “hand over the gun, lad”, and Bentley added “let him have it Chris.” Craig fired the gun and hit the officer int he shoulder. A short while later, several police officers were sent to the roof. The first to reach the area was Police Constable Sidney Miles, who was instantly shot in the head by Craig. After using up all of his ammunition, Craig jumped off the roof onto a nearby greenhouse, when he fractured his spine and left wrist.
Both Bentley and Craig were charged with murder in December 1952. During this time, murder was still a capital offence, but Craig was only a minor, meaning that he could not be sentenced to death. Bentley was scheduled to be executed on 30th December 1952, but this was postponed to allow time for an appeal. There was a huge public outcry at the ‘injustice’ carried out on Bentley, and the public and media demanded the young man notbe put to death. Their arguemtns were that whilst the killing occurred, Bentley was already in police custody, and that his cry of “Let him have it, Chris” was him simply telling his friend to give up. After numerous psychological tests, it became clear that Bentley was ‘illiterate and of low intelligence, almost borderline retarded’, which added to the public outrage and sympathy for the condemned young man.
On 28th January 1953, Derek Bentley was hanged for murder at Wandsworth Prison, by Albert Pierrepoint. Large protests took place outside of the prison, and arrests were made when angry citizens began smashing the prison property. Bentleys death stirred a deep resentment of the death penalty, and forced the public and the media alike to question it entirely. Newspapers pointed out its contradictions and flaws, demonstrating to the public that the death penalty was not compatible with the British culture or its laws.
Homicide Act of 1957
Questions arose regarding different classifications of murder, and whether the death penalty was a suitable sentence for all circumstances. In 1955, the case of Ruth Ellis highlighted, once again, the public and the press’ discontent at the over-active use of the death penalty. Ellis was a young woman who shot her lover to death during an argument, and although she was clearly guilty of murder, the public were highly sympathetic of her case. They saw her as a heartbroken young woman, who did not plan to hurt her lover, but acted in haste.
Despite pleas and appeals, Ellis was hanged on 13th July 1955, by Albert Pierrepoint. Her case was the catalyst which ultimately began the anti-death penalty campaign, leading to the Homicide Act of 1957. This new act differentiated the different forms of murder, and their applicable punishments. Crimes of passion and provocation would no longer be met with the death penalty, which was not reserved for capital murders only. During the late 1950’s, the execution rates in Britain plummeted to 5-6 hangings per year, but despite this, much confusion still surrounded the sentence.
The Homicide Act complicated the reasoning of the death penalty, treating convicts differently for the same crime. In one example, published in an English newspaper, the article showed that two men committed very similar crimes. One man was sentenced to time in imprisonment, the other was executed. The lines between the classifications were blurring, and it became clear that the death penalty was unworkable in Britain.
Suspension of Executions
In 1964, Labour MP Sidney Silverman submitted a private members bill to parliament, proposing a suspension of all executions for the next five years. On December 21st of that year, Parliament debated the bill, and the entire country sat and watched their television eagerly awaiting the decision. The bill was passed 200 votes to 98, showing a clear favour within parliament. From this moment, murder was punishable by a mandatory life sentence, as a condition of the abolishment of the death penalty.
However, despite this, many members of the public were not content with the abolition of the death penalty, and demanded it be brought back for murders considered to be heinous. In particular, In October of 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were arrested for the brutal murders of five children.
There was a huge public demand for the pair to be executed, due to the horrific nature of their crimes, and the ages of their victims. They wanted Brady and Hindley to hang for their crimes, but the government refused, and the deadly couple were each sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1969, parliament voted in favour of permanently abolishing the death penalty for murder, but continued its use of people convicted of arson in royal dock yards, treason and piracy.
Abolishing the Death Penalty
In 1971, the death penalty was removed from the arson offence, followed by treason and piracy in 1988. In October 2003, the UK agreed to prohibit the use of the death penalty for all circumstances, including that of war crimes.