Steven Wilf


A mid-eighteenth-century traveller noted with surprise that parents in London regularly took their children to watch hangings. Upon returning home, the children would be whipped so that they would remember the spectacle. Yet by the 1780s, such literal dependence upon the visual as part of punishment was in retreat. Increasingly, the criminal justice system relied on what remained unseen but imagined. This essay explores how eighteenth-century England discovered the importance of imagination in criminal punishment. It traces the remaking of London's public execution ritual from a spectacle that sought to maximize the number of spectators to its abandonment of large-scale public processions. The sources that have been drawn upon are different from those used for most legal history: stillborn reform proposals, manuscripts left by the architect of Newgate Prison, fabulous and frightening images of punishment conjured up by private citizens, voyeuristic drawings of hangings, and the sketchy notes of administrative figures who hoped to set boundaries for voluble execution crowds.

Such fragmentary and obscure sources, aesthetic theory, and the inner world of imagination may not seem significant for shaping the development of criminal legal process. Yet punishment is a cultural construction. Not simply the boundaries of criminality - what activities are criminalized or how seriously society will punish offenders - but the very representational quality of punishment itself becomes the outer garb of criminal law. The problem is how the symbolic meaning of public executions and other punitive rituals should be interpreted.