“The old Tories and the Clergy are my friends; and, thank God! I'm a staunch Tory, too. I hate changes. What have changes done?” — the hangman in volume II

When Reynolds, who also attacks the idea of debtors prisons, attacks capital punishment in The Mysteries of London he doesn’t take the easy way to do so and place an innocent character in the condemned man cell. Instead he takes Bill Bolter, a brutal, violent man — really his version of Dickens's Sykes — who has no redeeming qualities other than that he is human. In fact Reynolds tells us that when his children are brought to say farewell, Bolter only acts decently “because he was ashamed to appear so unfeeling and brutal as he knew himself to be, in the presence of the Ordinary, the Governor, the Sheriffs.” For Reynolds, the radical thinker, the main point is that “We cannot give life: we have no right to take it away.” He has other arguments, too, the chief ones being that public executions corrupt and brutalize those who witness them and that in Victorian England, the law that punishes murders “is all in favour of the wealthy, and reserves its thunders for the poor and obscure who have no powerful interest to protect them.”

When prison chaplain assured the condemned man that “it was not even then too late to acknowledge his errors and save his soul,” the narrator then asks,

If God could thus forgive him, — why could not Man? . . . Of what use was the death of that sinner?. . . Oh! why could not the life of that man — stained with crime and red with blood though it were — have been spared, and he himself allowed to live to see the horror of his ways, and learn to admire virtue? He might have been locked up for the remainder of his existence: bars and bolts in English gaols are very strong; there was enough air for him to be allowed to breathe it; and there was enough bread to have spared him a morsel at the expense of the state!

We cannot give life: we have no right to take it away.

For the radical Reynolds, capital punishment provides a perfect emblem of the political, legal, and judicial systems in Victorian England, which he believes exist chiefly to keep down the masses and thereby ensure the prosperity and power of the rich. As he explains in a powerful harrangue worthy of the great Victorian sages, Carlyle and Ruskin:

But the Law is vindictive, cowardly, mean, and ignorant. It is vindictive because its punishments are more severe than the offences, and because its officers descend to any dirtiness in order to obtain a conviction. It is cowardly, because it cuts off from the world, with a rope or an axe, those men whose dispositions it fears to undertake to curb. It is mean, because it is all in favour of the wealthy, and reserves its thunders for the poor and obscure who have no powerful interest to protect them; and because itself originates nearly half the crimes which it punishes. And it is ignorant, because it erects the gibbet where it should rear the cross, — because it makes no allowance for the cool calculating individual who commits a crime, but takes into its consideration the case of the passionate man who assassinates his neighbour in a momentary and uncontrollable burst of rage, — thus forgetting that the former is the more likely one to be led by reflection to virtue, and that the latter is a demon subject to impulses which he can never subdue.

Related material


Reynolds, George W. M. The Mysteries of London. vol 1. Project Gutenberg EBook #47312 produced by Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team from images available at Google Books. Web. 2 August 2016.

Last modified 26 September 2016