Francis Courvoisier was employed as a valet to Lord William Russell, an infirm and deaf 70-year-old member of the British aristocracy, having joined his service early in 1840 at the age of 23. On the morning of 6 May 1840 Russell’s maid rose from her quarters to discover the house in disarray and the grisly sight of her master lying in bed with his throat cut. Circumstantial evidence quickly led police to name his three household servants as their primary suspects, among them Courvoisier, whose property was searched and incriminating blood-stained items discovered. Courvoisier was quickly tried for the murder of Russell, and condemned largely on the evidence of a witness who identified him at trial as the owner of a parcel that had been left at a London hotel found to contain Russell’s silver plate.
On the morning of Monday 6 July 1840, Courvoisier was hanged before a crowd of about 30,000, including Charles Dickens – who responded intensely, saying he had 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.