December 24th, 2008 Headsman
Because we executioners are not bereft of sentiment, it is with glad season’s tidings that we remember the veritable rebirth on Christmas Eve of housebreaker John Smith, who was cut down from the Tyburn tree this day in 1705 and revived.
“Though the crimes committed by this man were not marked with particular atrocity, nor his life sufficiently remarkable for a place in these volumes, yet the circumstances attending his fate at the place of execution are perhaps more singular than any we may have to record,” begins the Newgate Calendar, and one can all but see our Marlow setting light to his tobacco as he makes ready to unspool a particularly satisfying yarn.
After John Smith dangled 15 minutes this day at Tyburn, the crowd at his hanging began calling for a reprieve. One gets the impression our narrator may be eliding in a sentence quite an unruly affair; that “the malefactor was cut down” we may well guess, but after a mere 15 minutes? Did the crowd overpower the sentries, or were the officers of the law simply in a Christmas spirit?
There is, too, allusion to his friends’ working to obtain clemency and failing. Family and supporters of the accused intervened at Tyburn in all sorts of meddlesome ways, when they could — pulling the condemned prisoner’s legs to shorten his suffering, or holding his legs up to give him a chance at survival; fighting with anatomists for possession of the corpse, and obviously agitating for mercy at the slightest opportunity. Was it these friends who instigated the crowd’s appeal?
Whether or not Smith’s luck was as dumb as William Duell‘s, they did cut him down, and did revive him “in consequence of bleeding and other proper applications.”
So, what’s it like to be hanged?
When he had perfectly recovered his senses he was asked what were his feelings at the time of execution; to which he repeatedly replied, in substance, as follows. When he was turned off, he for some time was sensible of very great pain, occasioned by the weight of his body, and felt his spirits in a strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. That having forced their way to his head, he as it were saw a great blaze, or glaring light, which seemed to go out at his eyes with a flash, and then he lost all sense of pain. That after he was cut down, and began to come to himself, the blood and spirits, forcing themselves into their former channels, put him, by a sort of pricking or shooting, to such intolerable pain that he could have wished those hanged who had cut him down.
All this violent commotion of the spirit was enough to score a pardon, but not quite equal to the task of reforming the man now known as “Half-Hanged Smith”.
Our narrator relates that he went twice more to the Old Bailey in some danger of his neck, escaping once on a technicality and then again upon the uncommonly timely death of the prosecutor.
Nothing more is henceforth heard of the man, and it is unknown whether he decided to stop tempting fate, or whether officers of the law were in no further mood to tempt the hand of a Providence evidently determined to protect him, or whether some still more mysterious purpose thereafter summoned him away from the worldly cares of the justices.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”
Also on this date
- 1635: Hester Jonas, cunning-woman
- 1941: Eight Russian POWs at Flossenburg
- Unspecified Year: The Robbers of Nordenshaw
- 2008: Nine hanged in Iran
- 1684: Baillie of Jerviswood