1721: Jean-Pierre Balagny, Cartouche lieutenant 1723: The first London executions under the Waltham Black Act

An unspecified Monday: Fagin

December 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On an unspecified Monday in what seems to be an unspecified autumn of the 1830s, Charles Dickens had hanged one of his most memorable characters: Oliver Twist‘s Jewish pickpocket-magnate Fagin.*

The prolific English scribbler who conjured Fagin had keen empathy for the man or woman on the scaffold, leading him to contribute some of literature’s most poignant execution scenes.

Detail view (click for the full image) of the condemned Fagin in his cell, from an 1867 edition of Oliver Twist/

This from the serialized novel that hit print from 1837 to 1839 is no exception.

Dickens does not stage Fagin’s actual hanging; the writer’s predilection is for the mind of the doomed as it reaches the precipice, and let the reader fill in the final details.

And in Fagin’s case, that mind belongs to a complex character for whom the reader likely has some empathy: despite Fagin’s villainy, he’s also the orphan Oliver’s surrogate father-figure and said urchin’s ticket out of the anonymous desperation of the urban poor.

As for the date, the murder committed by Fagin’s partner-in-crime Bill Sikes occurs in “autumn” (chapter 47) — probably early autumn since the relatively proximate chapter 38 is in “summer”. That murder precipitates Sikes’s death and Fagin’s capture almost immediately: though the ensuing juridical sequence is not directly, or even indirectly, delineated, the narrative’s sense certainly suggests that Fagin was prosecuted with all speed. A sequence of arrest-trial-execution in London at this period could easily take place within just a few weeks.**

This doomed wretch in his final hours is sketched in Oliver Twist‘s second-last chapter, “Fagin’s Last Night Alive”. (Text via Project Gutenberg.) It surely draws on Dickens’ 1835 visit to Newgate’s condemned cells.


The court was paved, from floor to roof, with human faces. Inquisitive and eager eyes peered from every inch of space. From the rail before the dock, away into the sharpest angle of the smallest corner in the galleries, all looks were fixed upon one man—Fagin. Before him and behind: above, below, on the right and on the left: he seemed to stand surrounded by a firmament, all bright with gleaming eyes.

He stood there, in all this glare of living light, with one hand resting on the wooden slab before him, the other held to his ear, and his head thrust forward to enable him to catch with greater distinctness every word that fell from the presiding judge, who was delivering his charge to the jury. At times, he turned his eyes sharply upon them to observe the effect of the slightest featherweight in his favour; and when the points against him were stated with terrible distinctness, looked towards his counsel, in mute appeal that he would, even then, urge something in his behalf. Beyond these manifestations of anxiety, he stirred not hand or foot. He had scarcely moved since the trial began; and now that the judge ceased to speak, he still remained in the same strained attitude of close attention, with his gaze bent on him, as though he listened still.

A slight bustle in the court, recalled him to himself. Looking round, he saw that the juryman had turned together, to consider their verdict. As his eyes wandered to the gallery, he could see the people rising above each other to see his face: some hastily applying their glasses to their eyes: and others whispering their neighbours with looks expressive of abhorrence. A few there were, who seemed unmindful of him, and looked only to the jury, in impatient wonder how they could delay. But in no one face—not even among the women, of whom there were many there—could he read the faintest sympathy with himself, or any feeling but one of all-absorbing interest that he should be condemned.

As he saw all this in one bewildered glance, the deathlike stillness came again, and looking back he saw that the jurymen had turned towards the judge. Hush!

They only sought permission to retire.

He looked, wistfully, into their faces, one by one when they passed out, as though to see which way the greater number leant; but that was fruitless. The jailer touched him on the shoulder. He followed mechanically to the end of the dock, and sat down on a chair. The man pointed it out, or he would not have seen it.

He looked up into the gallery again. Some of the people were eating, and some fanning themselves with handkerchiefs; for the crowded place was very hot. There was one young man sketching his face in a little note-book. He wondered whether it was like, and looked on when the artist broke his pencil-point, and made another with his knife, as any idle spectator might have done.

In the same way, when he turned his eyes towards the judge, his mind began to busy itself with the fashion of his dress, and what it cost, and how he put it on. There was an old fat gentleman on the bench, too, who had gone out, some half an hour before, and now come back. He wondered within himself whether this man had been to get his dinner, what he had had, and where he had had it; and pursued this train of careless thought until some new object caught his eye and roused another.

Not that, all this time, his mind was, for an instant, free from one oppressive overwhelming sense of the grave that opened at his feet; it was ever present to him, but in a vague and general way, and he could not fix his thoughts upon it. Thus, even while he trembled, and turned burning hot at the idea of speedy death, he fell to counting the iron spikes before him, and wondering how the head of one had been broken off, and whether they would mend it, or leave it as it was. Then, he thought of all the horrors of the gallows and the scaffold—and stopped to watch a man sprinkling the floor to cool it—and then went on to think again.

At length there was a cry of silence, and a breathless look from all towards the door. The jury returned, and passed him close. He could glean nothing from their faces; they might as well have been of stone. Perfect stillness ensued—not a rustle—not a breath—Guilty.

The building rang with a tremendous shout, and another, and another, and then it echoed loud groans, that gathered strength as they swelled out, like angry thunder. It was a peal of joy from the populace outside, greeting the news that he would die on Monday.

The noise subsided, and he was asked if he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon him. He had resumed his listening attitude, and looked intently at his questioner while the demand was made; but it was twice repeated before he seemed to hear it, and then he only muttered that he was an old man—an old man—and so, dropping into a whisper, was silent again.

The judge assumed the black cap, and the prisoner still stood with the same air and gesture. A woman in the gallery, uttered some exclamation, called forth by this dread solemnity; he looked hastily up as if angry at the interruption, and bent forward yet more attentively. The address was solemn and impressive; the sentence fearful to hear. But he stood, like a marble figure, without the motion of a nerve. His haggard face was still thrust forward, his under-jaw hanging down, and his eyes staring out before him, when the jailer put his hand upon his arm, and beckoned him away. He gazed stupidly about him for an instant, and obeyed.

They led him through a paved room under the court, where some prisoners were waiting till their turns came, and others were talking to their friends, who crowded round a grate which looked into the open yard. There was nobody there to speak to him; but, as he passed, the prisoners fell back to render him more visible to the people who were clinging to the bars: and they assailed him with opprobrious names, and screeched and hissed. He shook his fist, and would have spat upon them; but his conductors hurried him on, through a gloomy passage lighted by a few dim lamps, into the interior of the prison.

Here, he was searched, that he might not have about him the means of anticipating the law; this ceremony performed, they led him to one of the condemned cells, and left him there—alone.

He sat down on a stone bench opposite the door, which served for seat and bedstead; and casting his blood-shot eyes upon the ground, tried to collect his thoughts. After awhile, he began to remember a few disjointed fragments of what the judge had said: though it had seemed to him, at the time, that he could not hear a word. These gradually fell into their proper places, and by degrees suggested more: so that in a little time he had the whole, almost as it was delivered. To be hanged by the neck, till he was dead—that was the end. To be hanged by the neck till he was dead.

As it came on very dark, he began to think of all the men he had known who had died upon the scaffold; some of them through his means. They rose up, in such quick succession, that he could hardly count them. He had seen some of them die,—and had joked too, because they died with prayers upon their lips. With what a rattling noise the drop went down; and how suddenly they changed, from strong and vigorous men to dangling heaps of clothes!

Some of them might have inhabited that very cell—sat upon that very spot. It was very dark; why didn’t they bring a light? The cell had been built for many years. Scores of men must have passed their last hours there. It was like sitting in a vault strewn with dead bodies—the cap, the noose, the pinioned arms, the faces that he knew, even beneath that hideous veil.—Light, light!

At length, when his hands were raw with beating against the heavy door and walls, two men appeared: one bearing a candle, which he thrust into an iron candlestick fixed against the wall: the other dragging in a mattress on which to pass the night; for the prisoner was to be left alone no more.

Then came the night—dark, dismal, silent night. Other watchers are glad to hear this church-clock strike, for they tell of life and coming day. To him they brought despair. The boom of every iron bell came laden with the one, deep, hollow sound—Death. What availed the noise and bustle of cheerful morning, which penetrated even there, to him? It was another form of knell, with mockery added to the warning.

The day passed off. Day? There was no day; it was gone as soon as come—and night came on again; night so long, and yet so short; long in its dreadful silence, and short in its fleeting hours. At one time he raved and blasphemed; and at another howled and tore his hair. Venerable men of his own persuasion had come to pray beside him, but he had driven them away with curses. They renewed their charitable efforts, and he beat them off.

Saturday night. He had only one night more to live. And as he thought of this, the day broke—Sunday.

It was not until the night of this last awful day, that a withering sense of his helpless, desperate state came in its full intensity upon his blighted soul; not that he had ever held any defined or positive hope of mercy, but that he had never been able to consider more than the dim probability of dying so soon. He had spoken little to either of the two men, who relieved each other in their attendance upon him; and they, for their parts, made no effort to rouse his attention. He had sat there, awake, but dreaming. Now, he started up, every minute, and with gasping mouth and burning skin, hurried to and fro, in such a paroxysm of fear and wrath that even they—used to such sights—recoiled from him with horror. He grew so terrible, at last, in all the tortures of his evil conscience, that one man could not bear to sit there, eyeing him alone; and so the two kept watch together.

He cowered down upon his stone bed, and thought of the past. He had been wounded with some missiles from the crowd on the day of his capture, and his head was bandaged with a linen cloth. His red hair hung down upon his bloodless face; his beard was torn, and twisted into knots; his eyes shone with a terrible light; his unwashed flesh crackled with the fever that burnt him up. Eight—nine—then. If it was not a trick to frighten him, and those were the real hours treading on each other’s heels, where would he be, when they came round again! Eleven! Another struck, before the voice of the previous hour had ceased to vibrate. At eight, he would be the only mourner in his own funeral train; at eleven—

Those dreadful walls of Newgate, which have hidden so much misery and such unspeakable anguish, not only from the eyes, but, too often, and too long, from the thoughts, of men, never held so dread a spectacle as that. The few who lingered as they passed, and wondered what the man was doing who was to be hanged to-morrow, would have slept but ill that night, if they could have seen him.

From early in the evening until nearly midnight, little groups of two and three presented themselves at the lodge-gate, and inquired, with anxious faces, whether any reprieve had been received. These being answered in the negative, communicated the welcome intelligence to clusters in the street, who pointed out to one another the door from which he must come out, and showed where the scaffold would be built, and, walking with unwilling steps away, turned back to conjure up the scene. By degrees they fell off, one by one; and, for an hour, in the dead of night, the street was left to solitude and darkness.

The space before the prison was cleared, and a few strong barriers, painted black, had been already thrown across the road to break the pressure of the expected crowd, when Mr. Brownlow and Oliver appeared at the wicket, and presented an order of admission to the prisoner, signed by one of the sheriffs. They were immediately admitted into the lodge.

‘Is the young gentleman to come too, sir?’ said the man whose duty it was to conduct them. ‘It’s not a sight for children, sir.’

‘It is not indeed, my friend,’ rejoined Mr. Brownlow; ‘but my business with this man is intimately connected with him; and as this child has seen him in the full career of his success and villainy, I think it as well—even at the cost of some pain and fear—that he should see him now.’

These few words had been said apart, so as to be inaudible to Oliver. The man touched his hat; and glancing at Oliver with some curiousity, opened another gate, opposite to that by which they had entered, and led them on, through dark and winding ways, towards the cells.

‘This,’ said the man, stopping in a gloomy passage where a couple of workmen were making some preparations in profound silence—’this is the place he passes through. If you step this way, you can see the door he goes out at.’

He led them into a stone kitchen, fitted with coppers for dressing the prison food, and pointed to a door. There was an open grating above it, through which came the sound of men’s voices, mingled with the noise of hammering, and the throwing down of boards. There were putting up the scaffold.

From this place, they passed through several strong gates, opened by other turnkeys from the inner side; and, having entered an open yard, ascended a flight of narrow steps, and came into a passage with a row of strong doors on the left hand. Motioning them to remain where they were, the turnkey knocked at one of these with his bunch of keys. The two attendants, after a little whispering, came out into the passage, stretching themselves as if glad of the temporary relief, and motioned the visitors to follow the jailer into the cell. They did so.

The condemned criminal was seated on his bed, rocking himself from side to side, with a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man. His mind was evidently wandering to his old life, for he continued to mutter, without appearing conscious of their presence otherwise than as a part of his vision.

‘Good boy, Charley—well done—’ he mumbled. ‘Oliver, too, ha! ha! ha! Oliver too—quite the gentleman now—quite the—take that boy away to bed!’

The jailer took the disengaged hand of Oliver; and, whispering him not to be alarmed, looked on without speaking.

‘Take him away to bed!’ cried Fagin. ‘Do you hear me, some of you? He has been the—the—somehow the cause of all this. It’s worth the money to bring him up to it—Bolter’s throat, Bill; never mind the girl—Bolter’s throat as deep as you can cut. Saw his head off!’

‘Fagin,’ said the jailer.

‘That’s me!’ cried the Jew, falling instantly, into the attitude of listening he had assumed upon his trial. ‘An old man, my Lord; a very old, old man!’

‘Here,’ said the turnkey, laying his hand upon his breast to keep him down. ‘Here’s somebody wants to see you, to ask you some questions, I suppose. Fagin, Fagin! Are you a man?’

‘I shan’t be one long,’ he replied, looking up with a face retaining no human expression but rage and terror. ‘Strike them all dead! What right have they to butcher me?’

As he spoke he caught sight of Oliver and Mr. Brownlow. Shrinking to the furthest corner of the seat, he demanded to know what they wanted there.

‘Steady,’ said the turnkey, still holding him down. ‘Now, sir, tell him what you want. Quick, if you please, for he grows worse as the time gets on.’

‘You have some papers,’ said Mr. Brownlow advancing, ‘which were placed in your hands, for better security, by a man called Monks.’

‘It’s all a lie together,’ replied Fagin. ‘I haven’t one—not one.’

‘For the love of God,’ said Mr. Brownlow solemnly, ‘do not say that now, upon the very verge of death; but tell me where they are. You know that Sikes is dead; that Monks has confessed; that there is no hope of any further gain. Where are those papers?’

‘Oliver,’ cried Fagin, beckoning to him. ‘Here, here! Let me whisper to you.’

‘I am not afraid,’ said Oliver in a low voice, as he relinquished Mr. Brownlow’s hand.

‘The papers,’ said Fagin, drawing Oliver towards him, ‘are in a canvas bag, in a hole a little way up the chimney in the top front-room. I want to talk to you, my dear. I want to talk to you.’

‘Yes, yes,’ returned Oliver. ‘Let me say a prayer. Do! Let me say one prayer. Say only one, upon your knees, with me, and we will talk till morning.’

‘Outside, outside,’ replied Fagin, pushing the boy before him towards the door, and looking vacantly over his head. ‘Say I’ve gone to sleep—they’ll believe you. You can get me out, if you take me so. Now then, now then!’

‘Oh! God forgive this wretched man!’ cried the boy with a burst of tears.

‘That’s right, that’s right,’ said Fagin. ‘That’ll help us on. This door first. If I shake and tremble, as we pass the gallows, don’t you mind, but hurry on. Now, now, now!’

‘Have you nothing else to ask him, sir?’ inquired the turnkey.

‘No other question,’ replied Mr. Brownlow. ‘If I hoped we could recall him to a sense of his position—’

‘Nothing will do that, sir,’ replied the man, shaking his head. ‘You had better leave him.’

The door of the cell opened, and the attendants returned.

‘Press on, press on,’ cried Fagin. ‘Softly, but not so slow. Faster, faster!’

The men laid hands upon him, and disengaging Oliver from his grasp, held him back. He struggled with the power of desperation, for an instant; and then sent up cry upon cry that penetrated even those massive walls, and rang in their ears until they reached the open yard.

It was some time before they left the prison. Oliver nearly swooned after this frightful scene, and was so weak that for an hour or more, he had not the strength to walk.

Day was dawning when they again emerged. A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.


* Fagin was named for a workman named Bob Fagin, who showed a few tricks of the trade when the boy Dickens did his own turn in a workhouse.

** For instance, the the London Burkers in 1831 and Benjamin Courvoisier in 1840 were each condemned to death less than two months after their arrests, and each hanged within days of sentence.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Fictional,Hanged,History,Jews,Murder,Popular Culture,Theft,Uncertain Dates

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