December 21 was an execution date at Tyburn in 1692, with eleven men and women put to death.
They were, as usual, physically escorted on the 21st — and spiritually escorted in the days leading up to that black date — by the Ordinary of Newgate.
We have often referred to this character and, in the present series, cited him repeatedly.
But who was the Ordinary of Newgate? Why is he so omnipresent in our English hanging narratives?
This clergyman was appointed to London’s stinking prison to tend to the souls of its inmates, particularly those condemned to die.
Under the tenure of Samuel Smith, the Ordinary of Newgate began in about 1684* to put out a regular broadsheet published the day after London’s eight or so annual hanging-days. Laboriously titled The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn, it was sold by street-peddlers for (at first) a penny.
A typical Ordinary’s account by Smith had a three-act arc:
- An account of the honored clergyman’s own sermonizing, even the literal day-by-day exhortations and their progress (or not) in bringing the condemned round to a satisfactory spiritual state. The Account for December 21, 1692, for instance, begins:
THE Ordinary preacht several Sermons to the Condemed Criminals being Twenty One. The first was on the Lord’s-Day immediately before their Condemnation on the Monday following, from this Text, viz. The 19th. Psalm, the 12th. Verse. Who can understand the Errors of his Life? Cleanse thon me from my secret Faults. The Observation from the Words was this, That the smallest Sins even Errors in Opinion and Infirmities in our Obedience to God’s Laws, ought to be repented of, as needing pardoning Mercy.
- Biographical thumbnails of the condemned, of no regular format but often remarking the person’s age, profession, birthplace, and life circumstances … and always attentive to whether s/he had come by repentance. This is Samuel Smith’s take on one of the 11 hanged today:
Robert Marshal: Condemned for Murthering William Curtys, in White-Chappel. He pretended now, as formerly, that he is blind, and Begged under that Disguise. But being denied Relief by Curtys, Marshal, with his Begging-staff, in both his Hands, struck him on the Head, and made a Fracture in his Skull, of which he died; and he immediately attempted to run away. He confessed on Tuesday, that though his Sight was not strong enough for Labour, yet he could see his Way, in Walking, so as to go safely. He was born in Jamaica, bred up a Sea-man . He was unwilling to give any Account of his Life, being very obstinate.
- The scene at Tyburn itself, with the Ordinary’s prayers and the public behavior and confessions of the doomed.
They were fervently exhorted to Confess their Faults, the Effects of which had brought them to such disgrace: After which the Ordinary took great pains with them in Prayer, and other suitable Applications, to bring them to a sense of the near approaches of Death; to which they adher’d, and joined in the Prayers; and singing of a penitential Psalm in as fervent a manner as could be reasonably expected from Persons of so mean Education, as were the most of them. They lamented their dismal Fall, desiring all Spectators of such a Tragedy to be warn’d by them, &c.
As to the Particulars of their Confessions. they did not much enlarge themselves; only the Blind Man was penitent, and desired all Persons to take warning by him; owning that he could see; hoping God would forgive him all his Offences, &c.
In the 18th century these hang-day reports would expand even further.
For historians these records, formulaic as they are, remain “a unique and inestimable source of knowledge of the poor people who were hanged.” (Linebaugh).
For the Ordinary’s contemporaries, they were something else besides: the voice of authority on “the Malefactors,” their usual submission, the facts of their lives and the expected public lessons of the crimes and punishments.** Certainly the Ordinary was at pains to assert his “official” status; in the Account at issue for this date’s hanging, he appends the notice,
Whereas there formerly have been, and still are, several False Accounts in Print, in relation to the Condemned Prisoners; and particularly, this very Session, that Robert Marshal, the Blind Beggar, was Executed two Days since; which is utterly false: The Ordinary thinks it necessary to acquaint the World, (to prevent the like for the future,) that no true Account can be given of the Condemned Prisoners Behaviour, Confessions, and Last Dying Speeches, which is not Attested under his own Hand.
Accept no substitutes!
The Ordinary had good reason to defend his position, for the Ordinary’s own livelihood depended upon his marketing his black-bordered pamphlets. This was naked entrepreneurship, direct to Smith’s pocket, and his product stood in competition with every other scandal-sheet hawker crowding the gallows.
Nor was the printed word the only way to monetize the office of Ordinary. In an environment when many people were condemned to death and many were pardoned, Smith was accused of shaking down prisoners to intervene for more lenient treatment.
For instance, in this wonderfully vicious send-off to the cleric after he died in 1698, satirist Thomas Brown accuses Smith (in the bolded passage) of taking payola to help illiterate prisoners claim benefit of clergy — an anachronistic legal mechanism wherein a condemned first-time offender could escape the noose by showing that he could read. (The loophole was reformed in 1706 to eliminate the reading test entirely, although this also came with making many offenses no longer “clergyable” at all.)
An Elegy on that most Orthodox and Pains-taking Divine, Mr. Samuel Smith, Ordinary of Newgate, who died of a Quinsey, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, the 24th of August, 1698.
Tyburn, lament, in pensive sable mourn,
For from the world thy ancient priest is torn.
Death, cruel death, thy learn’d divine has ended,
And by a quinsey from his place suspended.
Thus he expir’d in his old occupation,
And as he liv’d, he dy’d by suffocation.
Thou rev’rend pillar of the triple-tree,
I would say post, for it was prop’d by thee;
Thou penny-chronicler of hasty fate,
Death’s annalist, reformer of the state;
Cut-throat of texts, and chaplain of the halter,
In whose sage presence vice itself did faulter:
How many criminals, by thee assisted,
Old Smith, have been most orthodoxly twisted?
And when they labour’d with a dying qualm,
Were decently suspended to a psalm?
How oft hast thou set harden’d rogues a squeaking,
By urging the great sin of Sabbath-breaking;
And sav’d delinquents from Old Nick’s embraces,
By flashing fire and brimstone in their faces?
Thou wast a Gospel Smith, and after sentence
Brought’st sinners to the anvil of repentance;
And tho’ they prov’d obdurate at the sessions,
Couldst hammer out of them most strange confessions,
When plate was stray’d, and silver spoons were missing,
And chamber-maid betray’d by Judas kissing.
Thy christian bowels chearfully extended
Towards such, as by their Mammon were befriended.
Tho’ Culprit in enormous acts was taken,
Thou would’st devise a way to save his bacon;
And if his purse could bleed a half pistole,
Legit, my lord, he reads, upon my soul.
Spite of thy charity to dying wretches,
Some fools would live to bilk thy gallows speeches.
But who’d refuse, that has a taste of writing,
To hang, for one learn’d speech of thy inditing?
Thou always hadst a conscientious itching,
To rescue penitents from Pluto’s kitchen;
And hast committed upon many a soul
A pious theft, but so St. Austin stole:
And shoals of robbers, purg’d of sinful leaven,
By thee were set in the high road to heaven.
With sev’ral mayors hast thou eat beef and mustard,
And frail mince-pies, and transitory custard.
But now that learned head in dust is laid,
Which has so sweetly sung, and sweetly pray’d:
Yet, tho’ thy outward man is gone and rotten,
Thy better part shall never be forgotten.
While Newgate is a mansion for good fellows,
And Sternhold‘s rhimes are murder’d at the gallows;
While Holborn cits at execution gape,
And cut-purse follow’d is by man of crape;
While Grub-street Muse, in garrets so sublime,
Trafficks in doggrel, and aspires to rhime;
Thy deathless name and memory shall reign,
From fam’d St. Giles’s, to Smithfield, and Duck-lane.
But since thy death does general sorrow give,
We hope thou in thy successor will live.
Newgate and Tyburn jointly give their votes,
Thou may’st succeeded be by Dr. Oates.
* There are irregular Smith accounts from the late 1670s (he took over the position in 1675) as he felt out the genre, but he only institutionalized the periodical in the mid-1680s.
** Smith and all the Ordinaries harp endlessly on what amount to “gateway crimes”: idleness, drunkenness, bad company, and especially (as our satirist observes) breaking the Sabbath. They’re constantly inveigling prisoners to warn the execution crowd against these vices.