Whether public executions produce any good impression on their habitual witnesses, or whether they are calculated to produce any good impression on the class of persons most likely to be attracted to them, is a question, by this time, pretty well decided. I was present, myself, at the execution of Courvoisier. I was, purposely, on the spot, from midnight of the night before; and was a near witness of the whole process of the building of the scaffold, the gathering of the crowd, the gradual swelling of the concourse with the coming-on of day, the hanging of the man, the cutting of the body down, and the removal of it into the prison. From the moment of my arrival, when there were but a few score boys in the street, and those all young thieves, and all clustered together behind the barrier nearest to the drop—down to the time when I saw the body with its dangling head, being carried on a wooden bier into the gaol—I did not see one token in all the immense crowd; at the windows, in the streets, on the house-tops, anywhere; of any one emotion suitable to the occasion. No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes. I should have deemed it impossible that I could have ever felt any large assemblage of my fellow-creatures to be so odious. I hoped, for an instant, that there was some sense of Death and Eternity in the cry of ‘Hats off!’ when the miserable wretch appeared; but I found, next moment, that they only raised it as they would at a Play—to see the Stage the better, in the final scene.Disgust is always warring with sympathy and pity in Dickens, so his reaction, though complicated, isn't all that surprising. What is surprising is the way that Dickens's account echoes the closing line of Lord Byron's graphic and gruesome account of an execution he witnessed, sent from Venice in a letter to his publisher and friend, John Murray, on May 30th, 1817:
Of the effect upon a perfectly different class, I can speak with no less confidence. There were, with me, some gentlemen of education and distinction in imaginative pursuits, who had, as I had, a particular detestation of that murderer; not only for the cruel deed he had done, but for his slow and subtle treachery, and for his wicked defence. And yet, if any one among us could have saved the man (we said so, afterwards, with one accord), he would have done it. It was so loathsome, pitiful, and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse; being very much the stronger, and shedding around it a far more dismal contagion.
The day before I left Rome I saw three robbers guillotined. The ceremony--including the masqued priests--the half-naked executioners--the bandaged criminals--the black Christ and his banner--the scaffold--the soldiery--the slow procession--& the quick fall rattle and heavy fall of the axe--the splash of the blood--& the ghastliness of the exposed heads--is altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty "new drop" and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence. Two of these men--behaved calmly enough--but the first of the three--died with great terror and reluctance--which was very horrible--he would not lie down--then his neck was too large for the aperture--and the priest was obliged to drown his exclamations by still louder exhortations--the head was off before the eye could trace the blow--but from an attempt to draw back the head--notwithstanding that it was held forward by the hair--the first head was cut off close to the ears--the other two were taken off more cleanly;--it is better than the oriental way--& (I should think) than the axe of our ancestors.--The pain seems little--& yet the effect to the spectator--& the preparation to the criminal--is very striking & chilling.--The first turned me quite hot and thirsty--& made me shake so that I could hardly hold the opera-glass (I was close--but was determined to see--as one should see everything once--with attention) the second and third (which shows how dreadfully soon things become indifferent), I am ashamed to say, had no effect on me--as a horror--though I would have saved them if I could."If any one among us could have saved the man . . . he would have done it;" "I would have saved them if I could." The latter--Byron's line--unforgettable, I first came across as the title of a short story by Leonard Michaels that brilliantly incorporates Byron's account; it alone is sufficient reason to seek out Michaels's Collected Stories.
What's unexpected--though perhaps not from the mercurial Byron--is that his response to an earlier execution, the first he'd ever seen, is callous to the point of disregard: in a letter to his friend Thomas Moore of May 20th, 1812, he wrote:
On Monday, after sitting up all night, I saw Bellingham launched into eternity, and at three the same day, I saw *** launched into the country.From which point he continued to matters of less gravity, closing with a line that clearly shows the hanging made no impression on him:
I meant to have written you a long letter, but I find I cannot. If any thing remarkable occurs to me, you will hear it from me--if good; if bad, there are plenty to tell it.We do, fitfully, seem to make some progress as a civilization: the cessation of public execution of criminals as entertainment--and of robbers at all--is at least one way in which we can claim to have bettered our ancestors.