Types of Punishment - Hanging
Hanging Platform - Short Drop
Hanging was the most severe punishment for serious offences. It was a common punishment.
What crimes carried this sentence?
During the 18th century, the number of crimes punishable by hanging rose to about 200. Some, such as treason or murder, were serious crimes, but others were what we would think of as minor offences. For example, the death sentence could be passed for picking pockets or stealing food.
These were the kinds of crime likely to be committed by people in most need, at a time when many families lived in poverty. Towards the end of the 1700's, the number of people hanged for petty crimes was causing public unrest.
In 1823, Sir Robert Peel reduced the number of offences for which convicts could be executed by over 100. In 1830, Lord John Russell abolished the death sentence for horse stealing and housebreaking.
It was not only the public that felt the sentences were unnecessarily harsh. You will notice in the records that, at the start of the 19th century, the death of a prisoner was often recorded after the guilty verdict, but the actual sentence was transportation or imprisonment. This happened because the magistrates felt that the compulsory death sentence was too harsh.
For about 60% of offences punishable by the death sentence, the magistrates recorded that it had been carried out, then gave a less serious punishment. As the century went on, the number of people sentenced to be hanged decreased. Between 1801 and 1837, 13 executions took place in Bedford, but between 1838 and 1878 there were only 4. Despite this, between 1800 and 1900, of the 3524 people sentenced to hang in England and Wales, only 1353 were for murder.
How was the sentence carried out?
Death by Hanging could only be ordered by the Assize judges (the equivalent of today's Crown Court) - where more serious offences would be tried.
At the start of the Victorian Period, executions were still carried out in public. In Bedfordshire this was outside the gaol. Executions were public spectacles. The atmosphere could sometimes be quite festive, although riots occasionally broke out.
There was often sympathy for the person about to be hanged and the crowd would jeer the hangman. The reputed dying speeches of the condemned person (usually made up) were printed and sold, at great profit, to the gathered crowd.
At this time, the type of gallows used and the short drop resulted in death by strangulation, which could take several minutes before the victim lost consciousness.
As the century progressed, it was realised that such a public spectacle did not deter criminals but encouraged troublemakers and allowed thieves easy pickings from the pockets of onlookers.
The Prisons Act of 1868 made it mandatory that all future executions were to take place within the prison walls. Sarah Dazley was the last woman to be publicly executed outside Bedford Gaol; you can read her story in the extended case studies.
From around 1874 onwards, the authorities also looked for more humane ways of treating the condemned and different methods for hanging that ensured a quicker, less painful death.
To see the effect a hanging had on other prisoners at a gaol see Oscars Wilde's The Ballad of Reading Gaol in the Gaols Section.