The L.P. Hartley saw about the past as a foreign country might roll a few eyes at the neighborhood history department, but one cannot dispute that the march of time has fundamentally altered many particulars of our everyday life.
Public executions are among the phenomena that ancestor generations once reckoned a routine fixture of the world, but for most of us are little but the stuff of fantastic nightmares. It requires an act of conscious imagination to project oneself into a world where expiring convicts propped up on breaking-wheels are just a part of the scenery — as in this absurd episode from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
This date’s entry arrives courtesy of the pen of intrepid 17th century English diarist Samuel Pepys, whose faithful daily journals frequently record the public deaths occurring here and there like so many matinees.** Pepys at one level is a very accessible figure as he hustles through bourgeois banalities; that people are strung up and butchered around him and the fact rates nothing but a stray subordinate clause rudely injects that foreign past into his narrative.
On October 23, 1668, Pepys worked the day’s hanging right into an industrious calendar of business and social calls. (He attended Tyburn in the company of a surgeon, which made it a possible business trip for his companion.) Like the rest of us, Pepys wound up so pinched for time that he ran late and ended up missing the execution full stop, but he didn’t let the snafu perturb his day one bit.
Up, and plasterers at work and painters about my house. Commissioner Middleton and I to St. James’s, where with the rest of our company we attended on our usual business the Duke of York. Thence I to White Hall, to my Lord Sandwich’s, where I find my Lord within, but busy, private; and so I staid a little talking with the young gentlemen: and so away with Mr. Pierce, the surgeon, towards Tyburne, to see the people executed; but come too late, it being done; two men and a woman hanged, and so back again and to my coachmaker’s, and there did come a little nearer agreement for the coach, and so to Duck Lane, and there my bookseller’s, and saw his moher, but elle is so big-bellied that elle is not worth seeing. So home, and there all alone to dinner, my wife and W. Hewer being gone to Deptford to see her mother, and so I to the office all the afternoon.
After which Pepys turns as if to the our guilty-pleasure TMZ bookmark, and begins gossiping about the bawdy shenanigans of the royal court.
** Viz., the regicides as a successful sequel to the Charles I show:
I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition … Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross.