By the mid-19th century public executions were relatively uncommon spectacles. Only murderers received the death penalty after 1830 in Britain, the majority of whom were men. The sight of a murderess on the gallows was therefore the source of much public fascination and horror. This bill refers to the execution of Catherine Foster who was hanged at Bury St Edmunds jail in April 1847 at the age of only 17. Foster was condemned for killing her new husband of only a few months by lacing his dumplings with arsenic.
This poster is unusual as it reflects the growing dissatisfaction among politicians and the legal profession with capital punishment by the early Victorian period. Although public executions remained highly popular events among the general public (over 10,000 people attended Foster’s hanging) campaigners began to express concern that any moral lessons to be gained were lost on the excitable and insensible crowds who came to watch. Greater sensitivity and squeamishness of these events among the political elite eventually led to executions being conducted inside prisons after 1868, although the death penalty itself remained in place in for many decades to come.