There was an interesting programme on Radio 4 this afternoon about Herman Melville's connections with England - in particular Liverpool, where he lived for a month in 1839, having set sail from New York as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. The programme was, unfortunately, presented by the Liverpool poet Paul Farley, whose hushed, awe-struck Scouse monotone - the epitome of the contemporary 'poetic' voice - is very trying on the ear. Still, he had mustered some interesting material - including the rather startling fact that both Melville and Charles Dickens were among the spectators at a public execution in London in 1849.
I knew Dickens had something of a morbid fascination with public hangings, but it was a surprise to learn that Melville also attended this one - which was the first double hanging of a husband and wife since 1700. He and Dickens had been among a vast crowd of 30,000 attracted by this novelty, and by the lurid nature of the couple's crime. Frederick and Marie Manning - a shifty publican and a Swiss-born former lady's maid - had murdered a wealthy friend who was also Marie's lover, stolen what they could of his money, then double-crossed each other. A broadsheet account of their crimes reportedly sold something like two and a half million copies (and Dickens had Marie Manning in mind when he wrote the character of Hortense in Bleak House).
Melville recorded in his diary that he and a companion paid half a crown each for a good rooftop view of the hanging. It was, he concluded, 'all in all, a most wonderful, horrible, & unspeakable scene'. Dickens, who was with his friend the illustrator John Leech and also secured a good viewpoint, expressed himself at much greater length in a forceful and highly indignant letter to The Times, describing and deploring the behaviour of the crowd in the most colourful terms, and calling for executions to be conducted in private rather than in public: '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,' etc, etc.
There was surely an element of humbug - or perhaps of disguising from himself his own guilty pleasure - in Dickens's indignation, but no doubt his letter played a part in the eventual abolition, nearly 20 years later, of public hangings. The fact that not one but two great novelists should have been present as paying spectators at a public hanging one November morning in 1849 should remind us that the past is indeed a foreign country.