This newspaper article provides a sensationalised, dramatic account of the public executions at Newgate and the crowds that gathered there. It is written by Thomas Miller, a Lincolnshire-born poet, writer and basket maker, who was regarded by his contemporaries as a ‘working-class poet’. Appearing here in the 26 February 1848 issue of the Illustrated London News, it was later published as part of a collection in Picturesque Sketches of London, Past and Present (1852).
Like other contemporary writers, Miller argues that public execution is not only an ineffective deterrent – ‘we can see that the exhibition they are awaiting has for them no terrors’ – but may actually encourage it. He claims that ‘…instead of repenting, they are more likely to go and take away life – thus following the example which the law itself has set before their eyes’.
Stereotyping the lower classes
Although we probably all share Miller’s horror at this practice, the article is problematic for its sweeping statements about the people in the crowd. He classifies them as a homogenous ‘mob’, a word loaded with negative meaning. He disputes that all of the men, women and children are involved in ‘Pocket-picking, fighting, drunkenness, and profanity in almost every form’.
Even worse, Miller suggests that there is an implicit link between morality and social class by supposing that the crowd are exclusively from the less affluent portions of society.
What does the illustration portray?
Depicting a swollen, squabbling crowd, the accompanying illustration reinforces the article’s content. All vie for a good view of the execution platform, in shadow at the far right end of the crowd, as women fight, pickpockets lurk, children run riot, and alcohol is consumed in an air of frenzy. To the left people sit in the windows of the coffee-houses and taverns, as described by Miller. A broadsides seller stands to the right of the foreground, his hands clutching sheets of ‘last dying speeches’. There is also a seller of ‘ginger pop’, which associates the scene with the theatre and other popular leisure pursuits and thereby emphasises the perverse merriment of the crowd.
The Illustrated London News was highly regarded for the realism and accuracy of its illustrated reports but, as with any form of image-making, they were liable to bias, censorship or exaggeration.