Archive for June 27th, 2009

1777: William Dodd, mind wonderfully concentrated

3 comments June 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1777, they hanged the macaroni parson at Tyburn.

High-living, Cambridge-educated vicar William Dodd achieved this emasculating nickname for his frippery — macaroni (or maccaroni) being 18th century slang for a sort of outrageous continental metrosexual.*

He came particularly in for public ridicule when he was caught trying to bribe his way to a lucrative ecclesiastical position, financial hardship from his lifestyle having driven him to the desperate need for a pay hike. (In sorer straits later, he would sum up his life: “my greatest evil was expense. To supply it, I fell into the dreadful and ruinous mode of raising money by simonies. The annuities devoured me.”

Playwright Samuel Foote skewered the recently-humiliated Dodd on the stage in The Cozeners as “Dr. Simony,” described in the scrambled boast of “Mrs. Simony”:

not a more populous preacher within the sound of Bow-bells: I don’t mean for the mobility only … with a cambric handkerchief in one hand, and a diamond ring on the other: and then he waves this way and that way; and he curtsies, and he bows, and he bounces, that all the people are ready to — but then his wig, madam! I am sure you must admire his dear wig … short, rounded off at the ear, to show his plump cherry cheeks, white as a curd, feather-topped, and the curls as close as a cauliflower…

Then, my doctor is none of your schismatics, madam; believes in the whole thirty-nine! and so he would if there were nine times as many.

Three years after Foote’s cruel pen gave Dodd’s name immortality, the divine himself was (so he should think) ushered into eternity, after he got caught passing a forged bond against the revenues of his onetime student Lord Chesterfield.

Condemned to die for the offense,** a longer-than-usual lag from sentence to execution gave Dr. Simony leave to follow that classic Calvary of errant clerics with a mien of pious self-flagellation that helped his case raised a public outcry for clemency.

Samuel Johnson was among thousands of Britons who petitioned for mercy, and in Johnson’s case, went a bit further to ghost-write a piece in Dodd’s name, “The convict’s address to his unhappy brethren”. It was when the litterateur’s hand was suspected behind this prose† that Johnson made his quotable, tweetable remark,

“Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Dr. Johnson, nevertheless, was the true author, and the old scribbler used it to express some of his particular opinions on the proper staging of gallows-theater.

It is the duty of a penitent to repair, so far as he has the power, the injury which he has done. What we can do, is commonly nothing more than to leave the world an example of contrition. On the dreadful day, when the sentence of the law has its full force, some will be found to have affected a shameless bravery, or negligent intrepidity. Such is not the proper behaviour of a convicted criminal. To rejoice in tortures is the privilege of a martyr; to meet death with intrepidity is the right only of innocence, if in any human being innocence could be found. Of him, whose life is shortened by his crimes, the last duties are humility and self-abasement. We owe to God sincere repentance; we owe to man the appearance of repentance.—-We ought not to propagate an opinion, that he who lived in wickedness can die with courage.‡

William Dodd (together with another criminal, John Harris) had occasion to do just that this day in 1777. Dodd became the last person hanged for forgery at Tyburn.

Updated: According to Wendy Moore, there was an posthumous attempt at resuscitation, which was known to work sometimes.

Dodd, himself a big death penalty opponent from his former public perch, gave a sermon the very year of his eventual death titled The Frequency of Capital Punishments Inconsistent with Justice, Sound Policy and Religion, critiquing “voluntary destruction” of human life and its inconsistency with “the humane and benevolent spirit which characterizes the present times.”

He was also — which helps explain the revival attempt — a big supporter of the Humane Society, which sought to apply the developing science of the Enlightenment to the problem of resuscitating the (near-)drowned. (The Royal Humane Society’s motto today is lateat scintillula forsan, “a small spark may perhaps lie hid.”)

Dodd preached an enthusiastic sermon to this body in 1776, expansively anticipating its work for analogous “various other kinds of sudden and accidental death” such as “malefactors executed at the gallows, [which] would afford opportunities of discovering how far this method might be successful in relieving such as may have unhappily become their own executioners by hanging themselves.” Dodd’s own engagement with both the medical and the theological questions at stake in resuscitation surely conditioned his own anticipation under the noose that, if revived, he might live on as a “renovated being.”

(Dodd’s involvement with the Humane Society is detailed in Kelly McGuire’s “Raising the Dead: Sermons, Suicide, and Transnational Exchange in the Eighteenth Century,” Literature and Medicine, Spring 2009.)

It was, surely, an astounding time to live; no less so, to die. And the mysterious border between the two might be re-engineered by human ingenuity.

As Lord Byron (a man with his own fascination for the scaffold) wrote in Don Juan,

What opposite discoveries we have seen!
(Signs of true genius, and of empty pockets.)
One makes new noses, one a guillotine,
One breaks your bones, one sets them in their sockets;

Bread has been made (indifferent) from potatoes;
And galvanism has set some corpses grinning,
But has not answer’d like the apparatus
Of the Humane Society’s beginning
By which men are unsuffocated gratis:
What wondrous new machines have late been spinning!

* The lyrics of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (“stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”) may be the most recognizable modern-day relic of this lexicon.

** Dodd made a groveling plea to the jury in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, at one point bold enough to appeal to injury his death would inflict upon those who lent him money: “I have creditors, honest men, who will lose much by my death. I hope, for the sake of justice towards them, some mercy will be shown to me. ”

† Dodd could write a little himself; he had a theological tract and a commentary on Shakespeare already to his name, and at Newgate cranked out Thoughts in Prison, a collection of sub-Villon poetry.

‡ In an addendum that would have warmed the cockles of the Roberts court, Johnson-as-Dodd also opined,

Every man reposes upon the tribunals of his country the stability of possession, and the serenity of life. He therefore who unjustly exposes the courts of judicature to suspicion, either of partiality or error, not only does an injury to those who dispense the laws, but diminishes the public confidence in the laws themselves, and shakes the foundation of public tranquility.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Theft

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