Description

Public executions remained a central component of the criminal justice system throughout the 18th century, employed to impress on the watching multitude the mighty power of the law in action. Executions for various felonies remained remarkably familiar events for most people, occurring several times a year up and down the country.

This image is drawn from a compendium of famous 18th-century felony cases, and highlights how public executions were deemed suitable punishment for rich and poor alike. The image shows the exectution of William Boyd, the 4th Earl of Kilmarnock, on Tower Hill in August 1746 for his part in the Jacobite uprisings. Although a peer of the realm, Boyd was nevertheless executed as a common criminal in front of several thousand spectators; over 1,000 guards were employed to keep the peace. Unusually, Boyd was beheaded by an axeman: this was an ancient form of execution which by the 18th century was rarely used and generally only employed to distinguish the criminal as a member of the aristocracy. Beheading in England was discontinued shortly after the events depicted here, in favour of executions by hanging.

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