George Vass: the making and un-making of a criminal monster

Rutherford, Helen and Sandford- Couch, Clare (2020) George Vass: the making and un-making of a criminal monster. In: Execution culture in Nineteenth Century Britain: from public spectacle to hidden ritual. Routledge, London ; New York, pp. 136-155. ISBN 9780367332457, 9780429318832

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This chapter explores how emotion was used to construct and deconstruct a narrative around the living body of a criminal, George Vass, a murderer who was to be the last man hanged in public in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1863. During his trial and sentence, contemporary newspaper accounts focused on Vass’s lack of emotional response, many describing Vass as without feeling, a bad character: a ‘monster’, in effect. However, by the time of his execution, the press in Newcastle began to ‘humanize’ or ‘re-humanize’ him as an emotional being, describing Vass as a ‘wretched young man’, nervous, caring, and making spiritual preparations for death.

In considering, through a legal historical lens, the perception and attribution of emotion as mediated or constructed in contemporary newspaper accounts, this chapter contributes to the growing field of studies into law and emotion. It suggests that emotions were deliberately employed in the newspaper rhetoric, which was performative, constructing a narrative and shaping a criminal subject, presented to the public as ‘Vass’. This chapter concludes that exploring the connection between a nineteenth-century criminal trial and its expected or perceived emotional effect upon the individual reveals the significant role of the reporting of emotion in reinforcing the norms of the criminal justice system.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: L900 Others in Social studies
M900 Other in Law
Department: Faculties > Business and Law > Northumbria Law School
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Depositing User: John Coen
Date Deposited: 02 Jun 2020 08:57
Last Modified: 30 Mar 2022 03:30

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