Re-reading for the umpteenth time Oliver Twist I finally paid attention to something I’d ignored in the prologue by Philip Horner to the Penguin Classics edition (2002). This refers to Dickens’ publicly expressed opinions on capital punishment and how they should colour our reading of Fagin’s paradoxically unseen public execution.

Intriguingly, both Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray attended the hanging in 1840 of one François Courvoisier, a valet who had murdered his aristocratic master. Anticipating Foucault’s seminal Discipline and Punish, Thackeray gives a very direct testimonial of the loss of effectiveness of public executions. He describes in his article “Going to see a man hanged” ( how the 40,000 members of the crowd enjoyed the proceedings as a grim holiday. Deeply shocked by the scene, Thackeray closed his eyes and thus missed the prisoner’s actual death. When he writes that “I came away down Snow Hill that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done,” he sounds as appalled by the callousness of the crowd towards Courvoisier’s ugly punishment as by the state’s cruel assassination of a citizen. Do read the whole text, it is certainly a magnificent chronicle.

Dickens, Horner informs us, first manifested his negative view of capital punishment in a letter of 1845 to Macvey Napier, editor of the prestigious Edinburgh Review. Do read the letter ( and see how for Dickens the death penalty “produces crime in the criminally disposed, and engenders a diseased sympathy—morbid and bad, but natural and often irresistible—among the well-conducted and gentle,” as all feel its fascination. Dickens also worries that the rabble that attends executions may be tempted to read them as martyrdom rather than exemplary punishment and, so, glamorise crime. Gentlemen are supposed to feel horror, though Thackeray and Dickens were actually among the pioneers to turn the tide against public executions, and not really representative of their (professional) middle-class background.

Horner mentions in passing a set of letters to the editor on capital punishment that Dickens wrote in 1846, as he revised Oliver Twist. Have a look at:

and read Beppe Sabatini’s extensive analysis. Basically, as he says, “Dickens had become more conservative on Capital Punishment, and changed his stand from demanding total abolition (1846) to advocating private executions (1849).”

Returning to the theme he had failed to develop for Napier’s Edinburgh Review, and in view of the popular craze for a series of executions, Dickens finally published his opinions in the Daily News after his own very brief editorship. The letters, which amount to more than 13,000 words, are quite a substantial consideration of the matter, although, essentially, they expand on the arguments advanced to Napier. Dickens writes “in no spirit of sympathy with the criminal” but believes that “a firm and efficient stand may be made against the punishment of Death.” He disputes vehemently the reality of last-minute repentance and religious reformation, questions the right of the state to kill, and, a well-known argument today, prefers that “hundreds of guilty persons should escape scot-free” rather than kill a single innocent by mistake.

The second letter refers directly to Courvoisier’s execution. Like Thackeray, he describes an “odious” mob: “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes.” In the third letter, Dickens insists that the gallows is no deterrent at all, whether the crime is impulsive or deliberate. Stopping to consider what he calls hate crimes, and we call domestic violence, he claims that the threat of the gallows is by no means women’s ultimate defence but even “that which lures and tempts him on.” Dickens further argues that since executions are no good to prevent crime, they should be stopped. With impeccable logic, he rejects the eye-for-an-eye argumentation, claiming that if we obey the Mosaic law in this, perhaps “it would be equally reasonable to establish the lawfulness of a plurality of wives on the same authority.”

In 1849, after attending a second execution, that of Frederick and Maria Manning, Dickens wrote two more letters, in this case to The Times. In the second he defends for the first time, private rather than public execution “within the prison walls.” Sabatini explains how the report of the Royal Commission (1864-6) “leading to new legislation in 1868” which ended public executions borrowed some arguments from Dickens himself. The last persons executed in Britain (always by private hanging) were murderers Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans, in 1964. The death penalty, Wikipedia confirms, “was abolished in all circumstances in 1998” all over Britain. Just yesterday.

Dickens finished Oliver Twist in 1839, before he attended Courvoisier’s hanging. Now I need to think why he showed in this novel a negative attitude regarding the application of the death penalty to Fagin (as it is obvious from the fact that his execution is not narrated) whereas, in contrast, he imagined for the murderer Sikes an accidental public hanging in the course of his getaway. Fagin, remember, has killed none but clearly prompts Sikes to kill Sikes’ own disloyal girlfriend Nancy and is condemned as an accessory to the crime.

Is this a case of poetic justice? Or is this, rather, hypocrisy? Let the novelist do what the judge should never do…

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  1. Oh well, I think they are two vastly different, though related, issues. Surely one may be against capital punishment while at the same time killing off baddies “symbolically” —especially in the way Sykes gets killed by Divine providence or by a devilish unconscious compulsion…. Surely the alternative to have baddies in fiction or film end up in prison by decree would be pushing political correctness too far… And, the argument against the death penalty (100 culprits vs. one innocent etc.) is a faulty one since it would apply also to life imprisonment, or to long imprisonmente itself, e.g. “better let 100 criminals go free rather than risk the possibility that an innocent person should spend 20 years in prison….” etc. Less of an evil (or more of an evil, depending on the prison) but my point is that the reasoning is not watertight there. Anyway the post is, an interesting and thought-provoking read, as always.

  2. Yes, indeed, they are different issues but Dickens pulls very often a similar trick: supporting a certain view and then use melodrama even if it is against that view. As for the death penalty, like you I find the ‘innocent person’ argument complicated, particularly in flagrant cases like that monster in Ohio who kept the three poor girls kidnapped for years. I don’t believe in his suicide, by the way, I assume someone took justice in their hands…

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