Wonderful, horrible, unspeakable, 1849
Two literary giants standing near one another…
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…
Last week we stood at the shoulder of a bystander to the execution of Thomas Cranmer in 1556. In that case, the unknown eyewitness ‘J.A.’ was opposed to Cranmer’s Protestant theology but showed great sympathy for his situation. Alas, down the ages executions were often popular spectacles, and not by any means watched with such human feeling. However, this week I give you another sympathetic bystander, this time very well known, and writing almost three centuries later.
The theme of execution – which I won’t pursue further after this week! – is pertinent at the moment because the Museum of London Docklands has a new exhibition, Executions, running until 16th April 2023. (You can learn more about the history of capital punishment in Britain in an article by my friend Nell Darby in the latest issue of the magazine I edit, Discover Your Ancestors, including her review of the exhibition. And while I’m here, I thoroughly recommend Nell’s newsletter about the history of private detectives, Secret Sleuths.)
Back to our story, and this time not a religious execution but a criminal one, and apparently the first time a husband and wife had been executed together since 1700. The couple in question were pub landlord Frederick George Manning and his wife Marie (née de Roux), a lady’s maid born in Switzerland. Marie also had a relationship with a well-off Docklands tax collector and money lender, Patrick O’Connor, and she and her husband cooked up a plot to murder him (it became known as the Bermondsey Horror). They invited him for dinner on 9th August 1849, shot him and buried him under the kitchen flagstones, then Marie went to his home and stole his money and shares – but an eagle-eyed policeman spotted something odd about the flagstones, which led to their capture (after the couple had tried to double-cross one another), trial and eventual execution on the roof of the gate at Horsemonger Lane Gaol on 13th November 1849.1
It has been claimed that the crowd which turned up to witness this forlorn occasion was the largest ever at a public hanging – hard to prove, of course, but apparently there were tens of thousands of people, as well as literally millions of broadside pamphlets printed to share the gory details with the nation at large (the picture below comes from one of them). And in that crowd was a 37-year-old novelist soon to hit the peak of his writing career, by the name of Charles Dickens (1812–1870). I give you his letter to The Times published the next day… (and read on to encounter another famous writer who was there).2
Sir,—I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.
I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest, and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself.
[Dickens refers to Sir George Grey, then Home Secretary. He was later a contributor to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1864–66 – hangings only became private (i.e. behind prison doors) in 1868.]
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. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly—as it did—it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.
I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when, in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season, we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not a time to think of this one, and to root it out.
I am, Sir, your faithful servant,
Devonshire terrace, Tuesday, Nov. 13
Of course, one might ask why Dickens went in the first place – but he had a journalist’s eye with a fascinating for all “phases of London life”. The experience certainly stayed with him, for he based Mademoiselle Hortense in Bleak House (1852–3) on Marie Manning.
Astonishingly, another literary giant of the age was present at the Mannings’ execution, in the shape of Herman Melville (1819–1891), at this point also well established (he would publish Moby-Dick two years later), who was visiting from New York. His diary3 recounts visits to various theatres and the National Gallery and there we read in his entry for 13th November:
…walked over Hungerford Bridge to Horsemonger Lane, Borough, to see the last end of the Mannings. Paid half a crown each for a stand on the roof of a house adjoining. An innumerable crowd in all the streets. Police by hundreds. Men & women fainting.—The man & wife were hung side by side—still unreconciled to each other—What a change from the time they stood up to be married, together! The mob was brutish. All in all, a most wonderful, horrible, & unspeakable scene.
I can’t find any evidence that Dickens and Melville ever met (Melville certainly read Bleak House), but they were only yards apart on this grisly occasion.
Some online accounts miss out some key parts of this letter. I have reproduced it in full via the Times Digital Archive.