Necessary, Evil and Contagious: Public Execution and the Construction of the English Crowd, 1800-1868

In: RePresenting Magic, UnDoing Evil: Of Human Inner Light and Darkness
Author: Stephen Banks

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Foucault has asserted the importance of execution in reconstituting the power of the sovereign. Execution, he argued, sustained a justice system predicated upon seeing and learning - with the executioner as tutor. The chapter discusses the abolition of public execution in England in 1868 and considers the different strands in the preceding debate. Traditionalists continued to assert the power of example. Abolitionists, opponents of capital punishment per se, argued that capital punishment usurped divine function and denied the ever present potential of grace. However, there was a third strand in the debate. Intra-mural executionists denied the value of the seen example and feared the violence that they alleged it might unleash. Influenced by phrenology and by the miasmic theory of disease they asserted that evil could be approximated to a species of contagion transmitted through the senses. To men of sensibility the violence implicit in execution was negated by reflection upon the virtuous purposes for which it was performed. However, the coarse imitative qualities of lower orders, defective in their resistance to vice, ensured that the sight of state violence provided no instruction. Instead execution induced violent imitative acts divorced from their original moral setting. Thus, the author argues, when intra-mural execution was adopted it was not as a consequence of increased humanitarianism but rather as a result of an increasing suspicion of the nature and the culture of the lower orders. It marked but one further step towards the recasting of popular culture as either the actual repository of national evil or at the very least the miasma in which it could take root and flourish.