Brought to the Scaffold": Pepys, Smith, and Voltaire on Public Executions


In early October of 1660, the diarist Samuel Pepys got up in the morning and headed out to Charing Cross to spend a pleasant day with friends and

to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; 


which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again.

Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross. From thence to my Lord’s, and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters.

I think one of the hardest things for the 21st century to understand about earlier eras is how it was possible for perfectly normal people to go see a man hanged, drawn, and quartered (which is to say, hanged until nearly dead, then disembowelled, and then torn into four parts), joke about it, and then go out for a quick meal of oysters. But Pepys and others of his era seem to have thought of a public execution as just another diverting public spectacle that any well-informed London citizen would want to go see. Pepys’s diary records his attendance at about a dozen or so public executions in the decade it covers. 

Executions were so much a matter of popular entertainment that accounts of them, and of the crimes that lead to them, were wildly popular, inexpensively printed, mass produced reading material in the 18th century. Known as Newgate Calendars, these collections of stories of crimes and punishments were meant to serve a moral purpose--to “scare the reader straight”--but were certainly also consumed for entertainment and for the pleasant frisson that accompanies today’s true crime shows and podcasts.

Even the gentle, sympathetic Adam Smith seems to think of executions as a fairly run of the mill business, writing that:

When an inhuman murderer is brought to the scaffold, though we have some compassion for his misery, we can have no sort of fellow-feeling with his resentment, if he should be so absurd as to express any against either his prosecutor or his judge. The natural tendency of their just indignation against so vile a criminal is indeed the most fatal and ruinous to him. But it is impossible that we should be displeased with the tendency of a sentiment, which, when we bring the case home to ourselves, we feel that we cannot avoid adopting. (TMS II.1.3.2)

While Smith, unlike Pepys, acknowledges the misery inherent in facing death by execution, he in no way permits that sense of compassion to overwhelm his need for justice and his adoption of the sentiments of the prosecutor and judges. (Smith’s friend, David Hume, argued that hanging allows observers to sympathize with the condemned, but that executions by torture leave one “too overcome with horror” to feel anything else.)

All of this makes Voltaire’s disgust with the public execution of Jean Calas--recounted in his Treatise on Toleration--particularly interesting. Voltaire was famously revolted by the execution of Calas. I thought I remembered Voltaire’s discussion making a particular issue of the torture and violence that marked public executions like Calas’s. But revisiting the text, I found that Voltaire’s outrage is reserved almost exclusively for the injustice of Calas’s conviction and for the neglect of law and the judicial bias displayed. That Calas was broken on a wheel (you can find a detailed description of the process here) is distressing for Voltaire, particularly given his age and ill health, but the brutal method of execution and its public display are not Voltaire’s primary concerns. Calas’s execution is the occasion for Voltaire to “examine whether religion should be charitable or barbarous” and to excoriate judicial injustices, not for a consideration of the barbarousness of public executions as a whole.

But we should not feel too smug, here in the 21st century, where executions are performed behind closed doors before a carefully controlled group of observers. We are not beyond the living memory of lynchings and the sale of postcards commemorating them. And we are in the midst of a peak of interest in true crime tales--whether as short-form docuseries or as long running podcasts like My Favorite Murder. Are we any less interested in the grisly details of crimes and their punishments than Pepys and his friends? Are we any less inclined to treat them as entertainment, even as we move the process out of the public eye? 


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