This post was written in response to Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch’s weekly Flash Fiction Challenge
February 16, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a watcher. Respond by February 21, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published February 22). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Here’s my take:
Watching the Hanging
‘We’re going to Horsemonger Lane, Boys,’ said Fagin.
Dodger pulled away. ‘Ain’t nothing there except Southwark prison.’
‘A public hanging!’ said Fagin.
When they arrived, the street was teaming with watchers, howling, screeching and yelling like animals.
Oliver gasped. The place was crawling with thieves and prostitutes fighting and shouting obscenities.
‘Might as well get some work done. Look, there’s a fancy looking toff over there,’ said Fagin, pointing to Charles Dickens.
‘Bet I can half inch his bread and honey,’ bragged Dodger.
‘Watch the hanging carefully, boys,’ warned Fagin. ‘Remember, if you get caught you’ll be brown bread.’
Some words explained:
Toff (Victorian slang) = rich man
Half inch (cockney slang) = pinch (London/UK slang) = steal
Brown bread (cockney slang) = dead
The former flash fiction was inspired by a real event, which took place in London in 1849.
Dickens attended the execution of Mr. And Mrs. Manning, convicted of murdering a friend and stealing his money, on November 13, 1849 at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark.
It was called the “Hanging of the Century” at the time because it was the first husband and wife execution in 150 years. Dickens and a huge crowd of rowdy, blood-thirsty Londoners (between 30 and 50 thousand) watched the public execution, performed outside the prison.
Dickens wrote a scathing letter to The Times condemning the crowd, which can be read at the end of this post.
There were thousands of public hangings in the UK in the 19th century (more figures here). It was indeed a harrowing practice, meant to deter possible criminals, although it actually had the opposite effect. Pickpockets, prostitutes, and all types of petty criminals gathered around the event to carry out their illicit jobs. The police were enormously relieved when public hangings were abolished in England and Scotland, in 1868, because they drew huge crowds and greatly altered public order.
Public executions, and other types of punishment, have been part of most world cultures over the centuries. Looking back always makes me think what a long way we’ve come in Europe, from being the bloodthirsty barbarian spectators at the Roman coliseum, through public punishments such as whippings, the stocks, the pillory, to abolishing capital punishment altogether from our legal system in the 20th century.
Conclusion: violence does not deter violence, it breeds violence.
I’ve learnt over time, that all problems have simple solutions, or none at all:
If there’s a solution, Education is almost always the answer.
It’s a simple solution, but it’s not cheap to organise and offer or easy to train teachers and reach students, nevertheless it’s always worthwhile and rewarding.
Children without an education, like Oliver and Dodger in Victorian England, stood a 50% chance of being hanged or imprisoned, as Dodger will no doubt be in the future, as Bill Sykes and Fagin were, or ‘saved’ by a kinder, more socially conscious society, who will educate them and enable them to lead criminal free lives, like Oliver.
I’ve also included Dickens’ letter condemning the event, below.
Some people at the time, and even today, unbelievably accuse him of being bloodthirsty himself, for watching the hanging. Well, that’s like accusing a war correspondent of enjoying a war; a bit of twisted logic, I’d say.
Dickens’ letter to The Times Nov. 13, 1849
I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from day-break until after the spectacle was over… I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of ‘Mrs. Manning’ for ‘Susannah’, and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly-as it did-it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.
I love that Dickens wrote to make the world a better place, and campaigned for civil rights and a more socially conscious society in his private life, too. How can anyone not admire him?