Capital Punishment in the Victorian Era and Dickens’ View on Public Executions and Solitary Confinement

According to “Common Misperceptions: The Press and Victorian Views of Crime” by Christopher Casey, Britain’s criminal law had been the subject of intense criticism for its inequities. It underwent a reform throughout the 1820s and 1830s that was meant to make punishment less harsh and more certain, therefore more equitable. These reforms started with the establishment of London’s Metropolitan Police in 1929 followed by similar police forces, then the repeal the death penalty for crimes that did not seem to warrant it. The police forces were supposed to raise the expectation that criminals would be caught, and that reasonable punishments would increase conviction rates, thus the justice system would be more efficient. According to every measure of the time, much of it being published the press, crime was on the decline in Britain after 1850— and even possibly before 1830. Nonetheless, the entire population, even those people who were supposed to know better, believed that crime was on the rise. This was the result of the media manipulating public perception causing a Victorian preoccupation with crime. The nineteenth-century media created a culture more well-informed about violent crime than any society of the previous century. People read about crime and violence and heard about it from family and friends almost every day. In January 1863, The Times noted, “The dangerous classes seem to be getting the better of society. . . .Under the influence of philanthropic sentiments and a hopeful policy, we have deprived the law of its terrors and justice of its arms.” According to media scholars, crime news has always been known to increase the fear of crime because newspapers inevitably present a skewed version of reality even under the best of circumstances. Therefore, despite governmental reforms that actually decreased the threat of violent crime at the time, the sensationalism of this journalism fostered terror in Victorian England.

Dickens believed that public executions were inhumane and an outrage. In many of his works Dicken’s discusses the vileness of public executions. He was most appalled by the reactions of the crowd, or lack thereof. He believed that by watching an execution people were failing to recognize the humanity of the person being executed, and therefore denying their own humanity. In the 1840’s, Dickens witnessed several executions by which he was disturbed and distressed. In his writing, he uses public execution to attempt to move people, and he uses his own repulsion for public punishment into some of his most iconic works, including Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. He writes “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.” Dickens’s views on capital punishment are first seen in a series of letters to the Daily News in 1846, and in letters to the Times in 1849. In the beginning, he argued to completely get rid of public executions, but later voiced his desire that any executions deemed necessary be carried out privately in front of only a few legally appointed witnesses. He argues too, that the threat of capital punishment questions the law by glamorizing the criminal, and creating sympathy for them, rather than the victim. His question was, which was the greater wrong of society, the spectators or the criminal?

Isolation became a very popular method many prisons constructed after the Auburn Prison in New York and the Cherry Hill Prison in Philadelphia. Several hundred European jails followed the model of solitary confinement and hundreds of thousands of inmates were forced to be inflicted with isolation. Charles Dickens visited Cherry Hill Prison, which was reported to have high numbers of cases with people with mental illnesses. Moreover, prisoners were strictly enforced to be isolated and spend all their time in their cells where they did their work. It was believed that by being isolated, the prisoners could spend their time turning their thoughts to God to atone for their crimes; many thought this would be beneficial because when they came back to society, people thought they would return as a “cleaned Christian citizen.” People who defended the prison argued that their mental illnesses was not because of their solitary confinement. It was widely believed at the time that this was caused by the belief that many people had that masturbation caused insanity. A physician of Cherry Hill noted, “the cases of mental disorder occurring in this Penitentiary are, with a few exceptions, caused by masturbation, and are mostly among the colored prisoners.” Thus, defenders of the prison didn’t believe isolation could be the cause of their mental illnesses and this demonstrates the racism that was prevalent too. Furthermore, death rates were reported to be high here and a high number of cases with insanity occurred as a result. Dickens was disturbed by this, as well. He recalls, “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment… inflicts upon the sufferers… I hold this slow and daily tampering… to be worse than any torture of the body.” Hence, Dickens condemned the practice of this isolation and thought it to be inhumane.

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