During the Spring of 1846, when a new edition of Oliver Twist was appearing in monthly parts, Charles Dickens wrote a series of five long letters on capital punishment to the Daily News. By this time public feeling against the death penalty, which had been building steadily during the second quarter of the 19th century, was at its height. Dickens had been intending to contribute to the debate for some time, but two particularly controversial recent murder trials finally prompted him to write. He was just one of many prominent opponents, who included his close friend the dramatist and journalist Douglas Jerrold, the historian Thomas Carlyle and the novelist William Thackeray.
What were Dickens’s arguments?
In the first letter of the series, published on 23 February, Dickens discusses two of the most frequent questions: whether the death penalty encouraged repentance and reform, and whether fallible human beings were justified in imposing such an irrevocable punishment. In reply to the first, Dickens argues that the interval between sentence and execution is far too short and stressful to allow for serious contemplation, whatever religious believers and idealists might like to believe. His response to the second is equally firm. Citing the recent case of the Irishman Bryan Seery, who had been executed for killing his landlord despite extremely questionable evidence and his own persistent protestations of innocence, Dickens declares: ‘The barest Possibility of mistake is sufficient reason against the taking of a life which nothing can restore.’
In the second of Dickens’s letters on capital punishment, published on 28 February 1846, this time his views are more personal as he considers the effect of capital punishment on society in general, and on the crowds attending public executions in particular.
The execution of Courvoisier
Dickens’s most striking evidence comes from his own observations at the execution of François Courvoisier, a Swiss valet who had been hanged on 6 July 1840 for the murder of his employer Lord William Russell. The case had attracted enormous attention and a crowd estimated at 40,000 watched the execution. It included Thackeray, who expressed his disgust in ‘Going to see a man hanged’ (Fraser’s Magazine, August 1840), and Dickens himself, who had attended on an impulse and was haunted by the experience for years to come. ‘I did not see one token in all the immense crowd ... of any one emotion suitable to the occasion,’ he now writes. He continues,
No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes ... It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse.
Dickens concludes that there is a ‘horrible fascination’ attached to capital crimes and the condemned prisoner. Under the influence of relentless press coverage, sensational reporting and a deluge of cheap souvenirs in the form of execution handbills and Newgate ballads, criminals become celebrities and even good and sensible people are swept up in an horrifying atmosphere of ‘depraved excitement’.