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Home » ‘Going to see a man Hanged’. William Makepeace Thackeray.

‘Going to see a man Hanged’. William Makepeace Thackeray.

An excerpt published in Frasers Magazine. July 1840.

[The condemned man] bore his punishment like a man, and walked very firmly. He was
dressed in a new black suit, as it seemed: his shirt was open. His arms were tied in front of
him. He opened his hands in a helpless kind of way, and clasped them once or twice
together. He turned his head here and there, and looked about him for an instant with a wild
imploring look. His mouth was contracted into a sort of pitiful smile. He went and placed
himself at once under the beam, with his face towards St. Sepulchre’s. The tall grave man in
black twisted him round swiftly in the other direction, and, drawing from his pocket a night-
cap, pulled it tight over the patient’s head and face. I am not ashamed to say that I could
look no more, but shut my eyes as the last dreadful act was going on which sent this
wretched guilty soul into the presence of God.

I must confess, then that the sight has left on my mind an extraordinary feeling of terror and
shame. It seems to me that I have been abetting an act of frightful wickedness and violence,
performed by a set of men against one of their fellows; and I pray God that it may soon be
out of the power of any man in England to witness such a hideous and degrading sight. Forty
thousand persons (say the Sheriffs), of all ranks and degrees, — mechanics, gentlemen,
pickpockets, members of both Houses of Parliament, street-walkers, newspaper-writers,
gather together before Newgate at a very early hour; the most part of them give up their
natural quiet night’s rest, in order to partake of this hideous debauchery, which is more
exciting than sleep, or than wine, or the last new ballet, or any other amusement they can
have. Pickpocket and Peer each is tickled by the sight alike, and has that hidden lust after
blood which influences our race. Government agrees that for certain crimes it is necessary
that a man should be hanged by the neck. Government commits the criminal’s soul to the
mercy of God, stating that here on earth he is to look for no mercy; keeps him for a fortnight
to prepare, provides him with a clergymen to settle his religious matters and on a Monday
morning, at eight o’clock, this man is placed under a beam, with a rope connecting it and
him; a plank disappears from under him, and those who have paid for good places may see
the hands of the Government agent, Jack Ketch, coming up from his black hole, and seizing
the prisoner’s legs, and pulling them, until he is quite dead — strangled.

There is some talk of the terror which the sight of this spectacle inspires, and of this we have
endeavoured to give as good a notion as we can in the above pages. I fully confess that I
came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder
I saw done. As we made our way through the immense crowd, we came upon two little girls
of eleven and twelve years: one of them was crying bitterly, and begged, for Heaven’s sake,
that some one would lead her from that horrid place. This was done, and the children were
carried into a place of safety. We asked the elder girl — and a very pretty one — what brought
her into such a neighbourhood? The child grinned knowingly, and said, “We’ve koom to see
the mon hanged! ” Tender law, that brings out babes upon such errands, and provides them
with such gratifying moral spectacles!