I’ve been waiting for this exhibition for a loooonnnnngggg time – it was originally scheduled for October 2020, then obviously Covid happened – but as luck would have it, it finally opened just in time for Halloween 2022. Because let’s face it, as much as I love ghosts and monsters and all things folkloric and supernatural, there’s nothing quite so scary as actual historical events, especially horrific state-sanctioned ones. Those of a more delicate disposition can at least take comfort in the fact that once English methods of execution became standardised in the early modern period, although none of them were particularly pleasant ways to die, at least we weren’t using some of the even more brutal methods that were popular on the Continent (if you are curious about those, I recommend checking out The Faithful Executioner, which is a fascinating book, but I read it once and that was enough. It is fairly nightmare-inducing).
Because I was so excited about seeing this exhibition, I booked tickets as soon as they were released at the start of August, which I realised upon arriving was definitely not necessary, as there were only about five other visitors in the whole exhibit (which I’m certainly not complaining about). “Executions” runs until the 16th of April, so you’ve got plenty of time to see it if you’re not a keen bean early booker like me. Admission is £15 or £7.50 with Art Pass.
Most special exhibitions at the Museum of London Docklands are free (as are the permanent collections), so I was expecting quite a lot for my admission fee, and as you’ll see, I think the museum delivered. I think the last (and first) time I saw a paid exhibition here was about fourteen years ago, shortly after I moved to the UK. It was on Jack the Ripper, and it was really excellently done, so much so that I’ve thought of it often in the years since, and this exhibition felt poised to be more of the same from the atmospheric configuration of their galleries. Normally their free exhibitions are confined to one half of their gallery space, but for this they’d opened the entire gallery and built various walls and other scenery to guide us through the exhibition on a journey that felt like we were heading to be executed ourselves, or at least to be spectators at an execution, which really was an excellently creepy effect.
Apart from the opening section, which talked about the different methods of execution in England in some detail (the most horrible by far was boiling, though only a handful of people suffered this fate – Henry VIII, lover of cruel and unusual punishments, made this the punishment for poisoners during his reign, but his son Edward VI rescinded it as soon as he took the throne), I wouldn’t say this was a particularly graphic exhibition – it dealt more with how the justice system worked, the people who were being executed, and the role executions played in society at large – so you’d probably be ok seeing this even if you’re a little bit squeamish. I was initially most excited to see some of the artefacts that I knew would be on display here, like the shirt and gloves that Charles I allegedly wore to his execution (though the museum pointed out that this cannot be verified, only that the clothing is from the correct time period and sufficiently sumptuous to have belonged to royalty), and the bell that was rung before every execution at Newgate (below), but I ended up getting sucked into the atmosphere of the exhibition and just enjoying the progression.
“Executions” primarily focused on the early modern period through to the mid-19th century, when public executions were banned, so much of the time period they covered was during the infamous Georgian “Bloody Code” when over 200 offences, most of them relatively minor, were punishable by death. Because of this, many of the people being executed were highly sympathetic figures – there were lots of poor people found guilty of petty theft who were just trying to make ends meet – which made reading their stories even sadder. Due to so many people being condemned to death in this era, reprieves were also fairly common (though not common enough); like so much else in life, they were mainly a result of a person being well-connected or at least able to get a decent number of signatures on their petition, and the results of their petitions would be announced to everyone in the condemned cell at any given time, which seems especially cruel. Those whose petitions failed would have to watch the lucky few rejoicing; or, in one case where thirty-eight women were reprieved but two men were condemned to hang, the lucky majority.
We walked through all the stages a prisoner would have gone through leading up to their execution (which in the Georgian period often took place only two days after their trial, so they didn’t have much time to prepare their souls), from their sentencing, failed petitions, last letters to their families, final church service (where they were forced to stare at a coffin to contemplate their soon-to-be fate, though I highly doubt they needed a reminder), to their chains being removed and replaced with a cord pinioning their arms in place, leaving their hands free to pray (this was later replaced by a belt that held everything down, as leaving a prisoner’s arms free led to some unpleasant struggles with the executioner on the scaffold), and finally the last cart-ride to the gallows. The “execution room”, which I was honestly dreading a little bit after the build-up (dreading in the sense that the gloomy environs had me thinking I might actually be walking towards my death), was very immersive, containing a grass and dirt floor, the sounds of women singing a ballad that would have been sung by the crowds at executions, and screens showing little animations of people on the scaffold reading out their last words. Apparently they worked with a dialogue coach to make sure the last words were spoken with accents that would have been found in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and those were some interesting accents, which was maybe not the part I was meant to be focusing on, but fascinating nonetheless.
Once we’d managed to survive our time on the scaffold, we passed into a room containing broadsheets about some of the more notorious criminals, which I spent quite a bit of time reading. These were usually printed the night before the executions, which meant they were often inaccurate, including the very much invented “last words” of the person being executed, and since last minute reprieves were quite common (so last minute in one case that the man had already been hanging for five minutes when it got there, so had to be hastily cut down and revived. Fortunately, this was in the days of short drop hangings, when it could take up to twenty minutes to die, because if it was a long drop hanging, it would have been much too late for the poor man), sometimes broadsheets were made describing an execution that never even happened! I also loved (if that’s the right word), the sketches done of the faces of dissected criminals, which described their crime and the results of the post-mortem in very neat handwriting.
The exhibition continued with talking about the toll executions took not only on the condemned themselves (obviously), but on the people who were left behind, and included stories of grieving family members, the love tokens prisoners made to give to their friends and families, and the memento mori the bereaved created. It also spoke about the way ordinary people would have been affected simply by walking through London, which would have had many grisly adornments in the 17th and 18th centuries, like heads on spikes, bodies on gibbets, and sometimes even quartered limbs sticking up from the tops of bridges and buildings, which can’t have been a pleasant sight. “Executions” concluded on a slightly more positive note by discussing how the increase in transportation led to a decrease in executions, followed by the end of public executions, and finally the end of the death penalty altogether (in the UK at least).
In case you couldn’t tell, despite the grim and grisly subject matter (or knowing me, maybe because of it), I absolutely adored this exhibition. It was so interesting, and I hope I’m not doing it a disservice by lumping it in with spooky season, because even though it certainly was creepy, it was also quite affecting and highly informative. Highly recommend seeing this one if you have a chance! 4.5./5.