In England, it had been commonplace for people to attend public executions for hundreds of years. Particularly during the 18th- and 19th- century reign of the Bloody Code, a set of laws that made 200 crimes punishable by death. A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larsen, as many as 5,000 people would attend your average public hanging in London.
But the mid-1800s brought the proliferation of an innovation that made it so people wouldn’t have to wait until there was local execution about the train. And what quickly followed the expanding British railway system were train excursions. Thomas Cook, the founder of the eponymous travel agency, arranged his first train excursion a trip to a teetotal rally.
But even this was preceded by an excursion that ran between the two Cornwall towns of Wadebridge and Bodmin so that visitors could witness the execution of William and James Lightfoot. The performance of the brothers attracted roughly 20,000 spectators, approximately 3,000 of which had arrived via the train excursion.
The popularity of these grisly displays was undeniable. On November 13, 1849, 30,000 people were in attendance at the execution of Marie and Frederick Manning. As was routinely the case, these weren’t tens of thousands of solemn-faced onlookers overcome by an all-too-human morbid curiosity. These were rowdy occasions that brought out the worst in attendees. Charles Dickens was so fundamentally disturbed by the behavior of the spectators that had come to watch the hanging of the Mannings that he wrote a letter to The Times condemning the practice.
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. They use to be solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution.
England’s final public hanging would come just over 20 years later in 1869.