Francois Courvoisier was hanged in May 1840 for the murder of his employer Lord William Russell. Courvoisier murdered Russell in his sleep by cutting his throat in cold blood, with the intention of looting the house and making it appear as if a bungled robbery had been committed by persons unknown. The case generated huge public interest at the time, particularly among the middle and upper classes who considered the murder to be a warning sign of the untrustworthiness of domestic servants. A vivid account of Courvoisier’s hanging was recorded by novelist William Makepeace Thackeray who attended the grisly event, in which he highlighted the many genteel spectators who also attended.
In this astonishingly detailed broadside, probably published to coincide with Courvoisier’s execution in July 1840, full details of the case are given, from the discovery of the murder though to the fatal conclusion of the court case. Executions were relatively rare events by the 1830s. Sheets such as this were sold on the street and around the gallows in their thousands and became highly prized as souvenirs among the general public.
Courvoisier was hanged before a crowd of about 30,000, including Charles Dickens – who responded intensely, saying he’d never thought he could have ‘felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious’. In the same letter, he says that ‘It was so loathsome, pitiful, and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as [Courvoisier], or worse; being very much the stronger, and shedding around it a far more dismal contagion.’
During the 19th century, gruesome murders and public executions were often reported in printed sheets such as the one displayed here. Known as ‘broadsides’ or ‘street literature’, they were sold by street peddlers, and purchased to paste on to walls or to read (or sing) aloud to others. Execution broadsides were produced on cheap paper and illustrated with crude woodcuts. They typically included an account of the crime committed, the conviction and punishment of the criminal, an illustration of the hanged offender and, often, a ballad or moralising hymn. Images of the gallows were frequently re-used, the printers filling in the appropriate number of dangling bodies depending on the number of criminals hanged. These macabre sources are a reminder of the sensationalism surrounding crime in this period. Public executions were still seen as a form of entertainment, often attracting crowds of thousands.