To the Bloody End 

Dorian Cole, WPAMC ’24

A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory…Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the ‘right’ to use violence.

Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”1
Figure 1: Memorial to Tyburn Tree, the site of the famous wooden gallows.

Executions, an exhibit at the Museum of London Docklands, is appropriately eerie. Black walls and darkened rooms feel apt for the subject matter and the soft yellow light makes the experience feel candlelit. (These choices also help to preserve the almost entirely print-based exhibit from the damaging effects of light). As I entered the dark hallways, I noticed a cart full of magnifying glasses. It struck me as an odd offering, but within the exhibit, I began to wish I had taken one. The prints on display are small and the lighting isn’t doing them any favors. It’s an environment that forces you to look closely in order to see anything at all. It demands your attention; I spent longer in these rooms than I meant to. 

The exhibit is propelled by two major arguments. The first is the notion that public execution was an act of political theater. As curator Jackie Keily states in her introduction to the exhibit catalogue, “authorities relied on the spectacle [of public execution] to deter crime and rebellion and to demonstrate the ultimate power of the Crown, Church and state over the life and death of its citizens.”2 By the end of the 18th century, there were so many crimes that could be punished by public executions that these laws became known as the “Bloody Code.” And with each of these executions, the state reasserted control over its subjects by confirming a monopoly on violence that might otherwise be frustrated by the existence of criminality.

Figure 2: The thief Jack Sheppard sits in his prison cell awaiting his execution. Portrait drawn by Sir James Thornhill, 1724.

The exhibit’s second argument lies in its framing of the public reaction to this political theater: in print culture, in songs, and in the spectacle of the act itself, executions were received as entertainment. If state violence was a political performance, it was one that was readily accepted and even cheered by its audience. The London Docklands’ website warns that the exhibit should only be attended by children over twelve because “there are human remains on display and content which may not be suitable for young children,” but, of course, children in the 18th century were exposed to this imagery every day.3 The history of public execution is all broadsides and bones. This exhibit contains both, but the bones themselves are an afterthought. They appear only after the denouement, a somber video intercutting the last words of penitent silhouettes with a folk song about the chimneysweep-turned-highwayman Jack Hall that is monstrously effective at arousing sympathy for the condemned. The display of one such condemned man’s remains directly following this is a serious misstep. To engage with those remains risks replicating the gruesome voyeurism that defined public execution. Besides, you don’t need to see the bones to sense the bodies piling up.

Unfortunately, the exhibit’s pearl-clutching disavowal of execution as entertainment (even as it provides a history of execution for your entertainment at the low, low price of £13) obfuscates a central reality. The state’s justified monopoly on violence was not immutable, in part, because executions–their heroes and their villains–were a form of popular culture. Figures like Jack Sheppard, who escaped prison four times before he was executed, challenged the conventional relationship between crime and punishment. The crowd that watched Sheppard die did not cheer, they wept, and plays written about him had to be shut down for fear they would generate more crime. Meanwhile, the public execution of King Charles I created a martyr so powerful he inspired merchandise.4 Despite the state’s best efforts, these men couldn’t die right. In the public consciousness, they were not executed but murdered–a dangerous distinction.

It’s odd visiting an exhibit about public execution in England, where the death penalty hasn’t been in effect since 1964. Every wall veritably screams thank God we don’t do this anymore. At home, in America, a man was executed yesterday. Another is scheduled to be executed tomorrow. “Should it really matter so little for the ethical demands on politics,” Max Weber asked in 1919, “that politics operates with very special means, namely, power backed up by violence?”5 To this, I add a follow-up, “How much violence can we take before we stop cheering?”

Figure 3: The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn. Engraving by William Hogarth, 1747.

1 Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. and trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), 77-128.

2 Executions: 700 Years of Public Punishment in London, ed. Jackie Keily (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2022), 7.

3 “Executions,” Museum of London Docklands, accessed March 8, 2023,

4 In the case of Charles I, the state attempting to assert a monopoly on violence was parliament, not the crown. Thus, the necessity of ensuring that monopoly, and specifically ensuring that Charles as a competing head of state didn’t have access to violence himself, was heightened.

5 Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation.”

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