Date of Award
Languages & Literature
Rev. Robert Butko
The psychology and. punishment of murderers has always been a subject of interest for Dickens. Many of his articles and novels contain references to his attitudes regarding the all-too-frequent use of capital punishment in English law. As a philanthropist Dickens feels a deep concern for the lack of emotions witnessed and the inconceivable wickedness of the crowd during an execution. Through his opposition to capital punishment he hopes to develop a public conscience within society so that such a disgusting display could never happen again. Before one begins a discussion of Dickens’s crusade against the death penalty, it is important to know a brief history of the subject. According to The Oxford Companion to Law capital punishment is the infliction of death by a legal public authority as a punishment. The death penalty was recognized by such ancient systems as Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite. Ancient Hebrew law prescribed death for homicide and for some religious and sexual offences, including kidnapping, bearing false witness, sexual immorality, witchcraft, idolatry, blasphemy, and sacrilege. Greek law regarded homicide, treason, and sacrilege as capital. Roman law recognized he death penalty but regarded hard labor and banishment as lesser capital punishments, since banishment involved a serious loss of civil status.
Under this "Bloody Code" trivial or venial offenders were often hanged; at Chelmsford a man was hanged in 1814 for cutting down a cherry tree; a boy aged nine in 1851 for setting fire to a house. However, many of these offenders found guilty escaped detection or prosecution because either the police system was inefficient or juries were appalled at the thought of blood on their hands wnen such a savage punishment might be carried out for a trivial crime.
Public executions were surely one of the most revolting spectacles of the "good old days"; most of all because of the half-drunk mobs that crowded around the hanging bodies and the sporting gentlemen who bet and drank champagne as they watched the spectacle from more comfortable 9 hired balcony seats. Oftentimes both the victim and the executioner were drunk and occasionally the job was bungled resulting in the hanging of the criminal two or three times. Afterwards the crowd streamed toward the corpse because it and the scaffold were believed to have powers of healing. Dickens was appalled by what he saw at such executions and fought for the abolition of these public horrors.
Ringbloom, Signe, "Dickens And Capital Punishment" (1984). Languages and Literature Undergraduate Theses. 57.