HOW MANY made the one-way journey from the Tower of London and Newgate Prison to Tyburn? According to Alfred Marks, author the grim, 115-year-old tome entitled Tyburn Tree, the answer is – a lot.
“Of this crowd there exists no census, we can but make a rough estimate of the number of those who suffered a violent death at Tyburn: a moderate computation would place the number at fifty thousand.”
Many more came to watch.
“The long road [was] thronged with spectators flocking in answer to the invitation of the State to attend these spectacles, designed to cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror.”
As the two major political parties vie with each other for the coveted title “Toughest On Crime”, the worrying question arises: How many New Zealanders would turn out to witness the public execution of convicted felons in 2023?
If it was the State issuing the invitation, the answer would, almost certainly, be – a great many. Tens of thousands would likely gather to see the guilty punished if public executions were, once again, officially sanctioned. With somewhere between a quarter and a half of the population believing that capital punishment is an effective and morally justifiable deterrent to murder, attracting a crowd would not be a problem. But, would the gruesome spectacle still retain the power to “cleanse the heart by means of pity and terror” in 2023 that it is said to have possessed in 1723?
That phrase – “cleanse the heart” – is difficult for those living in the Twenty-First Century to interpret. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp its meaning is to watch the American movie Dead Man Walking – one of the best cinematic examinations of capital punishment ever produced. In the light of what the film allows us to learn about its guilty protagonist, his execution is indubitably a mixture of pity and terror, and the audience’s hearts are purged of these powerful emotions by the overwhelming nature of the experience. The Ancient Greeks called it the moment of “catharsis” – from the Greek katharsis, meaning to cleanse or purify.
This was exactly the effect which the authorities of 300 years ago were seeking to elicit from the “drama” of a public execution. The judicial killing of felons was not simply a matter of the state exacting retribution. Executions were carried out in public because only by allowing the public to participate in the fear and the horror of the criminal’s demise, could its own fear and horror be expunged.
That the whole bloody business strikes us as barbaric and morally indefensible is because the modern state no longer accepts that its duty extends to dispensing therapeutic fear and horror for the benefit of its citizens. Our justice and correction systems strive to treat those that fall into their bureaucratic clutches as broken – not bad – individuals. Even where capital punishment endures – as in the United States – the execution of felons is hidden away from public view, and justified in terms of deterring future crime. (Even if, in Texas, it more resembles state-sanctioned sadism than justice.)
And yet, the past still contrives to intrude, even in these modern executions. From the safety of the prison’s viewing-room, the relatives of the victim/s are permitted to witness the demise of their loved one’s killer. Even in 2023, that all-important moment of catharsis is still recognised as the right of the wronged. When the fear and horror, the pity and terror, of victim and slayer alike, finally meet and merge in Death’s dark shadow.
Alfred Marks ends his dismal history with the very modern observation that while honouring the religious martyrs who died at the stake, and upon the gallows, “let us not forget the thousands of martyrs for whom no one has claimed the crown of martyrdom – the martyrs to ferocious laws, not seldom put in force against the innocent, the martyrs to cruel injustice, to iniquitous social conditions. Thousands have had the life choked out of them at Tyburn on whom pity might well have dropped a pardoning tear: to whom compassion might well have stretched out a helping hand.”
They might have – and sometimes they do. But, in the imagination of too many of us the Tyburn Tree still looms, its hideous fruit made sinfully palatable by the deadly, holy, communion of a heart-cleansing catharsis.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 August 2023.