February 21st, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1803, during an era ruled by an Empire’s rough assertion of security against instability abroad, Britain hung its liberal-minded former governor of Belize — along with six others — for treason.
This ought-to-be-memorable occasion lies half-lost in time’s shifting sands, retrieved in part only by the oddity of being the last sentence of drawing and quartering handed down in Britain. (The sentence was moderated to simple hanging and posthumous beheading.)
Guest-posted here with permission is the prologue to his The Unfortunate Colonel Despard. (A chapter on Despard’s remarkable marriage to a black woman is also available on MikeJay.net.) Following the prologue is an Executed Today interview with the author.
The day Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was executed was one of the most dramatic, and strangely forgotten, in British history. In this, as in much else, his death mirrored his life.
He was to be publicly hung, drawn and quartered for high treason, a punishment which had barely been carried out in London within living memory. Its most vivid associations were still with the Jacobite rebellions over fifty years before: the days when the British state’s greatest fear had been that a Catholic monarch might seize the throne. Those days were now long gone and, many thought, the old ceremony with them; Despard, as it turned out, would be the last person on whom the sentence would ever be passed. As specified by the Lord Chief Justice, the Colonel and his six confederates were ‘to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are quite dead, then to be cut down and your bowels taken out and cast into the fire before your faces; your heads to be taken off and your bodies quartered’.
Intimations of the drama had already begun to transform the city the day before: Sunday 20 February 1803. At first light, carpenters had begun to assemble scaffold and gallows, large enough to accommodate the seven men, on the roof of Surrey County Jail in Horsemonger Lane, just south of the Thames in Southwark. The jail was a plain barracks-style building, recently constructed to replace the old prison which had been torn down in the Gordon Riots some twenty years before. The roof had been built flat for precisely this purpose, and this was the first occasion for its use. The main gates of the jail opened to admit seven plain wooden coffins.
According to contemporary witnesses, even as the preparations began, ‘vast multitudes of people immediately began to assemble’. It was noted that the throng consisted ‘chiefly of the lowest of the vulgar’, but that, unusually for a public execution, ‘a considerable number of persons of genteel appearance were observable’. The forces of law and order, too, were out in unprecedented force. Every single member of the Bow Street police patrol, the other London patrols at Queen Street, Marlborough Street and Hatton Gardens, and a ‘numerous tribe’ of petty constables from the outlying London boroughs, were placed on duty. The jail and its surrounds were emphatically staked out, surrounded by a cordon two officers deep. All ‘the public houses and other places of resort for the disaffected’ bristled with police. A detachment of mounted Horse-Guard cavalry clopped into Horsemonger Lane; all the infantry regiments in the city, at the Tower of London and Knightsbridge Barracks, were placed on the highest alert. The head keeper of the jail was issued with six sky rockets, each containing a pound of explosives, ‘to be let off as a signal to the military, in case of any disturbance’. London’s entire martial forces were instructed not to leave their posts until the danger was past.
The impending execution had dominated the news all week. The Times had led its news pages with testy dismissals of the rumours which were spreading around the city: that Despard and his confederates were being cruelly chained together, that they were being tortured for their confessions, that a last-minute reprieve was in the air. It was beginning to dawn on the authorities that the graphic medieval ritual they had scheduled might be counterproductive, inflammatory and unpredictably dangerous. The Police Magistrate of Southwark had expressed grave concerns, pointing out that the question which had been on the common people’s lips during the week was ‘When are these poor men to be murdered?’. It had been hard, apparently, even to find labourers prepared to erect the scaffold. When the warrant for the execution was issued on the morning of 20 February, it became clear that these anxieties had led to a change in the sentence. Exercising their statutory discretion, the magistrates announced: ‘we have thought fit to remit part of the sentence, viz. the taking out and burning their bowels before their faces, and dividing the body severally into four parts’. Despard would now be drawn –- to the place of execution on a carriage without wheels –- hung until dead, and then beheaded. The Observer commented with relief that ‘the cutting out of the heart of the malefactor, quartering &c is very humanely and properly to be dispensed with’.
On the day of the execution, 21 February 1803, the pace quickened long before dawn. ‘A vast number of police officers’ were soon massively outnumbered by the spectators streaming through the bitter cold and darkness. Southwark was a hard area to police at the best of times, a hinterland to the city of London proper dominated by the unedifying activities which were prohibited across the Thames. A warren of timber shacks among the marshy waste ground and garbage landfills, it had long been a teeming red light district; in recent times it had become dominated by malodorous and insanitary industries — distilleries, tanneries and vinegar mills — which were forced south of the river by City of London edicts. It also had a long history of insurrection. In 1381, Wat Tyler had led the Peasant’s Revolt through the same streets; in 1450, Jack Cade had set up camp here with his Kentish rebel army. Despard’s sentence of high treason had more powerful resonances with this period than it did with the freshly-minted nineteenth century. Most of the crowd had never seen a treason execution; now, jostling to witness one, they were passing shops selling roller-skates, umbrellas, toothbrushes, matches, alarm clocks, condoms, Twining’s Tea and Pears’ Soap. Part of the appeal of the spectacle must have been this lurid collision of the old and the new; part, also, the uncertainty on all sides as to whether the crowd had really assembled only to stand and watch. It was widely rumoured that the execution would not take place as scheduled — or, if it did, that the main event would turn out to be an entirely unscheduled one. The people of London had rioted countless times over much less — and, given the nature of Despard’s alleged crime, there were an unknown number among the crowd who might attempt to turn a riot into a full-scale revolution.
The character of execution crowds seems, as with most crowds, to have been largely in the eye of the beholder. For many, they were simply the scum of society: crude, vulgar, leering, gawping, sadistic. For others, though, they were the salt of the earth, good men and true come to witness and legitimise the exercise of state power. Despite the rough spectacle that they presented, they were often visibly civic-minded: rescuing stranded children, or crying ‘shame’ if one of their number insulted a woman. The beholder’s view of such crowds tended to reflect their attitude to public execution itself, as the most graphic and visceral demonstration of the ultimate power of the state. There were many who were already campaigning for its abolition on the grounds, as one put it, that ‘the real effect of these scenes is to torture the compassionate and harden the obdurate’. There were many more, though, who thronged to such occasions in high spirits. Their hilarity and ribaldry –- the proverbial ‘gallows humour’ – may have been heartless mockery, but it may also have been a response to the unspoken but unmissable tension between the pomp and solemnity of the occasion and ghastly reality of the act.
This tension reached its high water mark with Despard’s execution. There had been a long observed trend in Britain towards public disrespect at hangings: the victim cheered, the executioner and officials booed and mocked. But the crime of high treason placed an unprecedented focus on the legitimacy of the act a focus sharpened still further by the fact that the majority of the onlookers believed Despard to be innocent of it. He had been accused and convicted of a shocking, cold-blooded plot to overthrow the state, an accusation which he had consistently and calmly denied. Now, at the moment of the state’s cold-blooded retribution, he had a final chance to speak the case for his defence. Part of the unique appeal of executions was always that the victims, in the moments before their death, might say anything; it was often the only time that the unspeakable could be spoken in public. But if Despard chose to speak the unspeakable, it would be more than a howl of rage, a fruity obscenity or a cheeky quip. The danger he posed might yet be far from over.
The bell of St.George’s Church began tolling at five, and continued for about an hour. By the time it finished, every conceivable vantage point was packed solid. It was estimated that there were twenty thousand people jammed into the carriageway of Horsemonger Lane and spilling onto every nearby roof and patch of open ground ‘that afforded the least prospect’. It was evident, too, that this was no ordinary gallows crowd, just as it was no ordinary hanging. The packed observers were almost completely silent: ‘no tumult, no disorder appeared among the multitude … all was stillness and expectation of the approaching event’. For the massed guards and officers, this must have been considerably more unnerving than the unruly mob which they had feared. It might be an expression of uncertainty, of a crowd unsure of the tone of the event, and too diffident to break the silence. But it could equally, and perhaps more plausibly, be read as a mute but chilling sign of pre-arranged intent.
Inside Surrey County Jail, as the prison bell struck seven, Despard was invited into the chapel for a service of last rites. He politely refused the invitation, and remained in his cell. At seven thirty, his arms were bound with ropes and he was led out into the walled and enclosed prison yard. He was still a colonel, and still entitled to wear the uniform of his rank, but he appeared instead in his favourite dark greatcoat and boots, bare-headed, without wig or powder. His solicitor was waiting for him outside his cell and, manoeuvering around his ropes, he shook hands with him ‘very cordially’.
Awaiting Despard in the prison yard was a very strange sight indeed. Two horses were harnessed to a small cart which contained two trusses of clean straw, and whose floor rested directly on the ground. Behind the cart stood the Sheriff of Surrey; behind him a fully-robed priest, and behind the priest the head keeper of the jail, Mr.Ives, solemnly holding a white wand. Behind Ives stood a line of high constables, and behind them a line of duty policemen. Bringing up the rear was the executioner, holding up a drawn sword.
The quartering and dismembering had been waived, but there had never been an execution for high treason without the victim first being drawn through the streets to the scaffold. It was integral to the ceremony, but today it was out of the question. The ritual was intended to allow the people to vent their feelings towards the traitor, to abuse him and spit on him; today, though, no-one was minded to test how the ominously silent crowd outside would react if Despard was paraded among them. Apart from anything else, the packed streets made it logistically impossible. It had hastily been decided to switch the ritual to the privacy of the prison yard.
Outside the yard, the traditional gallows humour may have been conspicuously absent, but Despard himself was unable to keep a straight face at the display of furtive pomp that confronted him. ‘Ha! ha!’, he laughed, ‘what nonsensical mummery is this?’ The solemn procession was not programmed to respond. Despard was ushered into the cart, seated backwards on the straw bales and, as the dawn spread grey over the prison walls, bumped around the cobbled yard until it was deemed that the drawing had been completed. There was to be no thwarting of justice, but neither would the ancient ritual of drawing a traitor survive that morning’s embarrassment and ridicule. Despard, though powerless against it, had nevertheless passed a sentence of death on the sentence itself.
On this day..
- 1944: Missak Manouchian and 21 French Resistance members, l'Affiche Rouge - 2017
- 1719: Patrick Carraghar and Two Arthur Quinns - 2016
- 1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson's electoral dirty laundry - 2015
- 1862: Nathaniel Gordon, slave trader - 2014
- 1946: Cristino Garcia, Spanish Republican and French Resistance hero - 2013
- 1934: Augusto Cesar Sandino, national hero - 2012
- 1930: Eva Dugan, her head jerked clean off - 2011
- 1951: Charlie Gifford, politician-killer - 2010
- 1942: Mykhailo and Olena Teliha, Ukrainian artists - 2009
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