The Canon: The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868. By V.A.C. Gatrell

August 12, 2010

I was a postgraduate when I read V.A.C. Gatrell's utterly gritty - and illustrated! - account of public hangings as a social and political ritual enacted over and over under England's "bloody code". During the century his study covered, 7,000 men and women were executed on public scaffolds in a spectacle intended as entertainment and deterrent. Crowds of 100,000 crammed London's Tyburn Hill; men and women "dangled outside Newgate prison 20 at a time". The book twanged a raw nerve in the body politic - not just of the horror of hanging but the sublimation of our impulses to indulge that horror publicly.

Gatrell was no wuss. He explored the psychology of the crowd, the hangman and the hanged (juxtaposing "Making a day of it" and "Dying bravely" as chapter subtitles). Authoritatively, over its 600 pages, The Hanging Tree swung between narrative and theory, breaking taboos not only of content but also form. He set Hogarth's image of the woman orange-seller at Tyburn alongside a critical reading of the "last dying speech" hawked by the orange-seller's peddler companion, evidence that refracted state repression but also charivari. He appropriated what was then the new concept of microhistory by piecing together narratives pertaining to a single hanging. He presented a canvas from evidence that earlier historians asserted couldn't be stitched: art, law, literary criticism, anthropology, psychology and forensics were all welcome aspects. It can be argued (and was, by me, from my spot in dissertation hell) that Gatrell's work achieved a kind of transdisciplinarity.

In the way of all great historical studies, The Hanging Tree attracted heated derision for its arguments about the nature of change over time and the reasons for it. Gatrell's thesis, that the decline in capital punishment was the harbinger of a revolution in cultural sensibility, the marker of a newly secure empire, drew fire. So did his assessment of competing class interests. He was, perhaps inevitably, vulnerable to a charge of essentialism, of seeing the English class system as a static monolith rather than a protean shape-shifter. Regardless, in the years since its first publication in 1994, the text has altered the way that historians and criminologists consider crime and punishment. Its influence also explicitly inspired at least one novel featuring a Newgate hangman willing to accept bribes from the condemned to tug on their legs and thereby kill them quickly.

How can I convey the reverence of my postgrad self for the rock stars who were the discipline's leading lights? This work was a startling departure from what I was used to respecting: the view of social history as the province of moderate liberal white guys with a sense of noblesse oblige who, concomitantly, struggled with their anxiety over past representations of good order. A historian of V.A.C. Gatrell's stature (I wouldn't then have presumed to refer to the man as "Vic", even in the third person) encouraging me, his reader, to consider the evidence and see if I agreed with him - wow. This was, and remains, a provocative and deeply interesting invitation.

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