When Oscar Wilde allegedly gestured at the garish wallpaper in his cheap Parisian hotel room and announced with his dying breath, “Either it goes or I go,” he was exhibiting something beyond an irrepressibly brilliant wit. Freud, you see, wasn’t whistling “Edelweiss” when he wrote that gallows humor is indicative of “a greatness of soul.” The quips of the condemned prisoner or dying patient tower dramatically above, say, sallies on TV sitcoms by reason of their gloriously inappropriate refusal, even at life’s most acute moment, to surrender to despair.
–Tom Robbins, “In Defiance of Gravity”
The Ordinary’s Accounts are some of the earliest true crime stories written in English. Their popularity came at the same time the masses learned to read, and some think there was a cause-and-effect relationship there — Englishmen learned their letters when there were some bloody good murder stories that made the exercise worthwhile.
The Accounts were, in essence, press releases issued by the Newgate prison in London after each execution to give lessons to posterity and to stimulate respect for the criminal laws. Those from the 1740s-1750s are online here.
The authors of these accounts were required to speak to the condemned every day for the weeks between the conviction and execution. They chronicled the confessions and behavior of men and women doomed to die, focusing largely on the personal history of each criminal, their crimes, and questions of faith.
In 1747, an Ordinary recorded the extraordinary story of a shoplifter named Mary Allen and a highwayman named Henry Simms, whose love was born in gaol and lasted to the gallows.
Mary Allen was 26 years old and through shoplifting had “gathered together a large Quantity of Goods of various Kinds, very near sufficient to have furnished a Shop, which it seems was her Intent; which Goods were found in a Room in Park-street.”
The Ordinary did not like Mary. She didn’t want to talk to him because she would have no speeches made about her when she was dead. He thought she was surly, obstinate. She also said it was grief enough to her parents that she was being executed, and she didn’t want to add to their afflictions with her dying quotes. The Ordinary thought it a pity she didn’t think of her parents before she embarked on her criminal career.
Since she wouldn’t speak to him, the Ordinary was forced to record his observations of her. He noted that she was of
[A] turbulent Spirit, and frequently quarrelled with her Fellow-Prisoners, and being the weaker Vessel, frequently came off damaged. When she was tried she had two black Eyes, which she got in a Quarrel; and when she went to the Place of Execution, she had a black Eye, received but a few Days before in another Skirmish. During her Confinement she contracted a great Fondness for Gentleman Harry.
Henry “Gentleman Harry” Simms, aged 30, was an orphan turned highwayman and pimp, known for his large Cutlass and his dandy clothes, and in the Ordinary’s words he was
[As] famous a Thief as ever yet adorn’d the Gallows. The Money he gain’d by Robbing he generally spent among the Whores about Covent-Garden, and as he generally wear very genteely dress’d, they gave him the Title of Gentleman Harry.
While under Sentence of Death, his fertile Brain was continually contriving Schemes in hopes to save his Life. He wrote several Letters to the Secretaries of State, and even to his Majesty himself.
While under Sentence he … still seemed found of the gay Part of Life, having a Number of Ladies coming frequently to see him, and did not appear so much concerned as one in his Circumstances should be.
What occupied Gentleman Harry in his last days was his fellow sufferer Mary Allen. They fell in love and spent their last days in intimacy (though the Ordinary also noted that “they sometimes fell out, when Simms generally beat her.”)
And on the final day, Mary Allen and Gentleman Harry indulged in hugs and kisses and hand-holding until their last moments on earth and met death with a defiant embrace.
THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT of the Behaviour, Confession, & Dying Words of […] MALEFACTORS Who were executed at TYBURN On Wednesday the 17th of JUNE, 1747.
At the PLACE of EXECUTION.
THE Morning of their Execution, after going up to Chappel, where they all behaved very devoutly, they were brought down into the Press-Yard, had their Fetters knock’d off, and was then convey’d to Tyburn … Simms was cleanly dress’d in a White Fustian Frock, White Stockings, and White Drawers; and just as he got into the Cart at Newgate, threw off his Shoes. Being arrived at the Place of Execution, some Time was spent in Devotion, in which they all most heartily joined.
SIMMS … owned the Robbery of Mr. Smith in the Borough.
ALLEN Wept a good deal, and own’d the Robbery for which she died.
And they all went off the Stage calling to the Lord to have Mercy on their Souls.
Just before they were turn’d off, Simms and Allen saluted each other; and then joyning Hands, went off, taking hold of each other.
This is all the Account given by me, JOHN TAYLOR , Ordinary of Newgate.