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An A-Z of Executions

For centuries, capital punishment was part of everyday life, as shown by this alphabetical guide to a very British way of death

A … is for ASPHYXIATION

ALAMY X6, GETTY IMAGES X8, SHUTTERSTOCK X1

Hanging was the preferred method of execution in England from early Anglo-Saxon times, but it was neither efficient nor painless. Deaths were drawn out, with the condemned hanging until they suffocated. Over time, the method evolved, and in 1783 ‘new drop’ gallows were first used at London’s Newgate Prison, whereby the condemned – often many at a time – fell through a trapdoor. Around a century later came the ‘long drop’, where the prisoner’s height and weight were used to determine the length and rate of drop, to ensure a swift death from a broken neck rather than asphyxiation.

B … is for BODY SNATCHERS

Body snatchers were also called ‘resurrectionists’; Knox’s popularity rose after his link to Burke and Hare was revealed

A lucrative profession for criminals in 17th- and 18th-century Britain was body snatching. Freshly interred corpses would be dug up from cemeteries and sold, in most cases, to medical schools for anatomical study. Oddly, the snatching itself was not illegal, but dissecting a body was. That changed with the Anatomy Act of 1832, prompted by the trial of William Burke and his execution in 1829. He and his partner, William Hare, progressed from removing corpses to committing murder in their attempt to ensure a supply to sell to Edinburgh physician Robert Knox. Burke was hanged in front of 25,000 people. His corpse, fittingly, was dissected.

“BURKE AND HARE WENT FROM REMOVING CORPSES TO COMMITTING MURDER”

C … is for CODE

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About BBC History Revealed

“Don’t let every little feeling be read in your face and seen in your manner.” Queen Victoria certainly took her own advice. But her personal feelings have since been revealed through her diaries and letters, and this issue we ask the celebrated historian Lucy Worsley how these private words have shed light on Victoria’s life and deeds. Plus: the tale of how modest Oxford don JRR Tolkien was inspired to create Middle Earth, an ancient Athenian whodunnit, our A-Z of executions, the most brilliant beards in history, and more.