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Revisiting the Hanging Tree: Gatrell on Emotion and History

NCJ Number
British Journal of Criminology Volume: 40 Issue: 1 Dated: Winter 2000 Pages: 1-13
Randall McGowen
Date Published
13 pages
This article reviews the relationship between punishment and culture, and a major book on the subject.
In 1994 V.A.C. Gatrell published "The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868." Though the book has been widely cited by historians, its complex argument about the relationship between punishment and culture has been too little understood. The work has also failed to win the wider audience it deserves among social scientists. This review attempts to explicate Gatrell’s thesis, making clear the psychoanalytic assumptions that guide his investigation. It also evaluates his claims about the impact and meaning of a revolution in sensibility in connection with the decline in the use of of capital punishment and the eventual disappearance of the execution from public view. Even as it acknowledges the striking importance of his historical research, this essay raises questions about the causal explanation Gatrell offers for the remarkable transformation he describes. The book is important for all students of punishment. It establishes definitively the singular place of death among penal practices. Note, references