V is for Velveteen

In early 1846, Dickens was, for a very short time, editor of The Daily News which in February reported the appearance, in his brown velveteen jacket, of one Thomas Wicks who had shot and murdered his master, James Bostock. Mr Wicks, aged 21, seems to have been a bit of a dandy. The newspaper described his carefully arranged hair with a curl over each ear as well as his velvet ‘shooting jacket’ – he had obviously dressed for the trial. He bowed to the court with ‘the air of an actor who looks upon himself as a star of considerable magnitude’, and ‘displayed himself to the court, so long, that at length the jailor touched his arm and reminded him that his business was with the bench.’


Dickens resigned his editorship in February, but continued to contribute articles, especially on the subject of capital punishment. He wrote three letters arguing for the abolition of capital punishment. He believed it was against the laws of God and that the spectacle created vice and violence in the crowd. Moreover, he argued, it was not a deterrent. He cited the case of Thomas Wicks whom he said had attended three executions. The Daily News reported that Wicks had occupied a front seat at a window facing the gallows ‘for which he had paid a somewhat high rent.’ Not put off his own capital crime, then.


Thomas Wicks was executed on March 30th, 1846. Some in the crowd cried ‘Shame!’ for there had been some doubt about his sanity, but an appeal was refused.


Of murder and madness, Dickens wrote that even if the evidence against the prisoner seemed incontrovertible, ‘If I could, by any reasonable special pleading with myself, find him mad rather than hang him, I think I would.’


Dickens recognised that the case for abolition would never prevail and he continued to argue at least for  executions in the privacy of the gaol.

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