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'Grisly': Alistair Carmichael reviews 'Executions'

'Grisly': Alistair Carmichael reviews 'Executions'

Newgate Prison door | © Museum of London

3 min read

This well curated exhibition exploring the history of public execution in London has a few gruesome moments but – thankfully – lacks the horror of contemporary capital punishment

Twenty years ago I travelled to Ohio with a group from Amnesty International to meet Kenny Richey, a Scotsman then on death row there. I left the United Kingdom opposed to the use of capital punishment but without ever having thought about it much. 

The day spent on death row changed all that. I returned home a proselytising campaigner committed to the world-wide abolition of the death penalty.

Wherever it is found capital punishment is not just inhumane but also dehumanising to all who are part of the community that sanctions it. The prison guards and administrators that I met on death row were not bad people. They saw their job as an important part of keeping their community safe but they were blind to the brutality and inhumanity of it. I shall never forget the sergeant in charge of death row showing me his “rogues gallery”: the mug shots of all the men then on death row in Ohio. Directly underneath it there sat pictures of his children playing on swings in their back yard. It was a powerful contrast.

I thought of this as I headed to see Executions, an exhibition currently running at the Museum of London Docklands. As it happened, I need not have worried. The exhibition has a few grisly moments but it lacks the horror of contemporary capital punishment.

If social history or criminology is your thing then this exhibition is worth a visit

The story is told through etchings and sketches rather than in technicolour. It allows the viewer to identify enduring themes that put criminal justice in its wider social and economic context.

Did you know, for example, that execution by decapitation was the preserve of noble men and women convicted of treason out of respect for their “high status”? It was designed to spare them the agonising indignity of death by hanging, drawing, and quartering. Even as the feudal state exacted its revenge and punished its challengers, the niceties of the class system had to be observed.

Likewise the part of the exhibition about the “execution economy” was a reminder that there are always those ready to turn a buck from our morbid curiosity. The punishments may be less severe but I’m A Celebrity is the modern version of this business model.

The exhibition is well put together and tells the story of public execution by mixing description of what was involved with tales of some of its more notable victims. No more than a kilometre from the offices of some of the world’s largest investment banks you can read the sorry tale of Robert Fauntleroy, a banker convicted of embezzlement and forgery, executed in 1824. If social history or criminology is your thing then this exhibition is worth a visit.

The museum itself is quirky. Once you have emerged from the exhibition you can linger over a latte in the coffee shop (I didn’t) or you can browse their Execution merchandise. With Christmas coming who would not want an “execution” tea towel, or even The History of Gibbetting in their stocking?

Mindful of my Ohio experience, I decided to pass. 

Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, justice spokesman and vice chair of the Death Penalty APPG

Location: Museum of London Docklands
Dates: Running until 16 April 2023

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