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

Helen Rutherford, Clare Sandford-Couch

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

29 Downloads (Pure)


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, the 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’. The 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.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExecution Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain
Subtitle of host publicationFrom Public Spectacle to Hidden Ritual
EditorsPatrick Low, Helen Rutherford, Clare Sandford Couch
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9780429318832
ISBN (Print)9780367332457
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sept 2020

Publication series

NameRoutledge SOLON Explorations in Crime and Criminal Justice Histories


Dive into the research topics of 'George Vass: the making and un-making of a criminal monster'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this