Posts filed under 'Tyburn'

1777: Rev. Benjamin Russen, child rapist

1 comment December 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1777, crying out “Stand clear! Look to yourselves! I am the first hypocrite in Sion!”, a clerical schoolmaster was hanged at Tyburn for raping one of his charges.

Ann (or Anne) Mayne testified that the reverend had raped her when she was 9 and 10 years old (the girl was only 10 at the time of the trial). Russen ducked similar charges leveled by three other girls. Rachael Davis, for instance,

said, he lay upon her; but she did not declare, that he entered her body: I told the parties, that no one need be bound over, for it did not appear capital, as she did not say her body was entered.

Result: acquittal. (I’m sure you’ll feel good about entrusting your Bethnal-Green charity school child to Rev. Russen after that.)

Three acquittals out of four ain’t bad.

But it only took one conviction to hang him.

The Old Bailey Online record of Russen’s trial is full of dickering over penetration degrees, and of course, hymen breakage (or lack thereof).

According to this Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown,* the judge in the Mayne case

left it to the jury whether any penetration were proved; for if there were any, however small, the rape was complete in law. The jury found him guilty, and he received judgment of death. But before the time of execution, the matter being much discussed, the learned Judge reported the case to the other judges for their opinions, whether his direction were proper. And upon a conference it was unanimously agreed … that the direction of the Judge was perfectly right. They held, that in such cases the least degree of penetration is sufficient, though it may not be attended with the deprivation of the marks of virginity. It was therefore properly left to the jury by the Judge, and accordingly the prisoner was executed.

* Part of Edward Hyde East’s project in this Treatise is to argue against a standard still used in some jurisdictions that ejaculation was required to constitute a rape. See Passion and Power: Sexuality in History.

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1541: Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, the Queen’s lovers

2 comments December 10th, 2009 Headsman

Indictment:

That Katharine, queen of England, formerly called Kath. Howerd, late of Lambyth, Surr., one of the daughters of lord Edmund Howard, before the marriage between the King and her, led an abominable, base, carnal, voluptuous, and vicious life, like a common harlot, with divers persons, as with Francis Derham of Lambeth and Hen. Manak [Manox] of Streteham, Surr., 20 and 24 May 32 Hen. VIII., and at other times, maintaining however the outward appearance of chastity and honesty. That she led the King by word and gesture to love her and (he believing her to be pure and chaste and free from other matrimonial yoke) arrogantly coupled herself with him in marriage. And the said Queen and Francis, being charged by divers of the King’s Council with their vicious life, could not deny it, but excused themselves by alleging that they were contracted to each other before the marriage with the King;* which contract at the time of the marriage they falsely and traitorously concealed** from the King, to the peril of the King and of his children to be begotten by her and the damage of the whole realm. And after the marriage, the said Queen and Francis, intending to renew their vicious life, 25 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., at Pomfret, and at other times and places, practised that the said Francis should be retained in the Queen’s service; and the Queen, at Pomfret, 27 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., did so retain the said Francis, and had him in notable favour above others, and, in her secret chamber and other suspect places, spoke with him and committed secret affairs to him both by word and writing, and for the fulfilling of their wicked and traitorous purpose, gave him divers gifts and sums of money on the 27 Aug. and at other times.

Also the said Queen, not satisfied with her vicious life aforesaid, on the 29 Aug. 33 Hen. VIII., at Pomfret, and at other times and places before and after, with Thos. Culpeper,† late of London, one of the gentlemen of the King’s privy chamber, falsely and traitorously held illicit meeting and conference to incite the said Culpeper to have carnal intercourse with her; and insinuated to him that she loved him above the King and all others. Similarly the said Culpeper incited the Queen. And the better and more secretly to pursue their carnal life they retained Jane lady Rochford, late wife of Sir Geo. Boleyn late lord Rochford, as a go-between to contrive meetings in the Queen’s stole chamber and other suspect places; and so the said Jane falsely and traitorously aided and abetted them.

On this date in 1541, Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham paid the penalty for their indiscretions; the former queen would see her lovers’ severed heads mounted on pikestaffs on London Bridge as she was rowed to the Tower.

The onetime court favorite Culpeper was beheaded for cuckolding the royal person, and that’s no more than one would expect. But the political pull-less Dereham — who had slept with (and possibly “pre-contracted” to wed) the willing young Kate before she meant anything to the king — enjoyed the full measure of the traitor’s torture: hanged, emasculated, eviscerated, and dismembered, all of it basically for having failed to anticipate that his little conquest would one day grow up to turn the monarch’s head.

What a time to be alive.

* Catherine Howard’s confessional letter to Henry VIII … desperately attempting to limit her indiscretions to the time before her marriage:

I, your Grace’s most sorrowful subject and most vile wretch in the world, not worthy to make any recommendation unto your most excellent Majesty, do only make my most humble submission and confession of my faults. And where no cause of mercy is given on my part, yet of your most accustomed mercy extended unto all other men undeserverd, most humbly on my hands and knees do desire one particle thereof to be extended unto me, although of all other creatures I am most unworthy either to be called your wife or subject.

My sorrow I can by no writing express, nevertheless I trust your most benign nature will have some respect unto my youth, my ignorance, my frailness, my humble confession of my faults, and plain declaration of the same, referring me wholly unto Your Grace’s pity and mercy. First, at the flattering and fair persuasions of Manox, being but a young girl, I suffered him a sundry times to handle and touch the secret parts of my body which neither became me with honesty to permit, nor him to require. Also, Francis Derehem by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose, and obtained first to lie upon my bed with his doublet and hose, and after within the bed, and finally he lay with me naked, and used me in such sort as a man doth his wife, many and sundry times, and our company ended almost a year before the King’s Magesty was married to my Lady Anne of Cleves and continued not past one quarter of a year, or a little above.

Now the whole truth being declared unto Your Majesty, I most humbly beseech you to consider the subtle persuasions of young men and the ignorance and frailness of young women. I was so desirous to be taken unto your Grace’s favor, and so blinded by with the desire of worldly glory that I could not, nor had grace to consider how great a fault it was to conceal my former faults from your Majesty, considering that I intended ever during my life to be faithful and true unto your Majesty ever after. Nevertheless, the sorrow of mine offenses was ever before mine eyes, considering the infinite goodness of your Majesty toward me from time to time ever increasing and not diminishing. Now, I refer the judgment of my offenses with my life and death wholly unto your most benign and merciful Grace, to be considered by no justice of your Majesty’s laws but only by your infinite goodness, pity, compassion and mercy, without which I acknowledge myself worthy of the most extreme punishment.

** Early the next year, parliament declared, “to avoid doubts in future” — read: “retroactively legislated” — that “an unchaste woman marrying the King shall be guilty of high treason.” This also made anyone who knew about said unchastity guilty of (at least) misprision of treason for failing to report it.

Surviving letter from Howard to Culpeper:

Master Culpeper,

I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.

Yours as long as life endures,
Katheryn.

One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it.

Though this letter is far from conclusively inculpatory, Culpeper confessed that he “intended and meant to do ill with the queen and that in like wise the queen so minded to do with him.”

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1661: Oliver Cromwell, posthumously

26 comments January 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this anniversary date of King Charles I’s beheading, the two-years-dead corpse of the late Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was hung in chains at Tyburn and then beheaded, along with the bodies of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton.

The great-great-grandnephew of ruthless Tudor pol Thomas Cromwell rose higher than any English commoner, high enough to be offered the very crown he had struck off at Whitehall. Oliver Cromwell declined it in sweeping Puritan rhetoric just as if he hadn’t spent weeks agonizing over whether to take it.

“I would not seek to set up that which Providence hath destroyed and laid in the dust, and I would not build Jericho again.”

The House of Stuart never could rebuild its Jericho while the Lord Protector ran the realm* — thirteen years, writes Macaulay, “during which England was, under various names and forms, really governed by the sword. Never, before that time, or since that time, was the civil power in our country subjected to military dictation.”

“Cromwell lifting the Coffin-lid and looking at the body of Charles I”, by Hippolyte (Paul) Delaroche — a French painter with an affinity for English execution scenes. The painting is based on an apocryphal but irresistible legend, also used by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a tedious short story.

And not only England. Cromwell’s prodigious depredations in Ireland — justifiably or not — remain a source of bad blood.

The English Commonwealth foundered after Cromwell’s death, however, and restoration of the monarchy — a rock, as it turned out, on which the Puritans’ bourgeois revolution could erect its colossus — came with the price of a few examples being made.

Of course, “executing” dead guys displays about as much strength as it does sanitation, and for all Charles II‘s demonstrative vengeance, the politically circumscribed throne he resumed was very far from his father’s dream of absolutism. Between the late dictator and the new king, the future belonged to the corpse clanking around on the gibbet.

When the able Charles II followed Cromwell into the great hereafter, his brother James II promptly fumbled away the crown with his anachronistic insistence on royal authority and his impolitic adherence to Catholicism.**

In the emerging England of the century to come, the divine right would depart the Stuarts for another dynasty more amenable to the rising authority of the parliament whose sword Oliver Cromwell once wielded.

* Resources on the particulars of Cromwell’s career, the English Civil War, et al, are in plentiful supply online. This BBC documentary is a very watchable overview: part I; part II; part III; part IV.

** James II remains England’s last Catholic monarch.

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1705: John “Half-Hanged” Smith Half-Hanged

5 comments 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.”

Update: Courtesy of Anthony Vaver’s captivating Early American Crime, it looks like Smith was eventually sentenced to penal transportation to the Virginia colony.

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1747: Mary Allen and Henry Simms, Gallows Lovers

1 comment June 17th, 2008 Headsman

(Thanks to Laura James of CLEWS, one of the best crime blogs going, for this guest post — published first at True Crime Magazine; some links have been updated.)

Gallows Love

When Oscar Wilde allegedly gestured at the garish wallpaper in his cheap Parisian hotel room and announced with his dying breath, “Either it goes or I go,” he was exhibiting something beyond an irrepressibly brilliant wit. Freud, you see, wasn’t whistling “Edelweiss” when he wrote that gallows humor is indicative of “a greatness of soul.” The quips of the condemned prisoner or dying patient tower dramatically above, say, sallies on TV sitcoms by reason of their gloriously inappropriate refusal, even at life’s most acute moment, to surrender to despair.

–Tom Robbins, “In Defiance of Gravity”

The Ordinary’s Accounts are some of the earliest true crime stories written in English. Their popularity came at the same time the masses learned to read, and some think there was a cause-and-effect relationship there — Englishmen learned their letters when there were some bloody good murder stories that made the exercise worthwhile.

The Accounts were, in essence, press releases issued by the Newgate prison in London after each execution to give lessons to posterity and to stimulate respect for the criminal laws. Those from the 1740s-1750s are online here.

The authors of these accounts were required to speak to the condemned every day for the weeks between the conviction and execution. They chronicled the confessions and behavior of men and women doomed to die, focusing largely on the personal history of each criminal, their crimes, and questions of faith.

In 1747, an Ordinary recorded the extraordinary story of a shoplifter named Mary Allen and a highwayman named Henry Simms, whose love was born in gaol and lasted to the gallows.

Mary Allen was 26 years old and through shoplifting had “gathered together a large Quantity of Goods of various Kinds, very near sufficient to have furnished a Shop, which it seems was her Intent; which Goods were found in a Room in Park-street.”

The Ordinary did not like Mary. She didn’t want to talk to him because she would have no speeches made about her when she was dead. He thought she was surly, obstinate. She also said it was grief enough to her parents that she was being executed, and she didn’t want to add to their afflictions with her dying quotes. The Ordinary thought it a pity she didn’t think of her parents before she embarked on her criminal career.

Since she wouldn’t speak to him, the Ordinary was forced to record his observations of her. He noted that she was of

[A] turbulent Spirit, and frequently quarrelled with her Fellow-Prisoners, and being the weaker Vessel, frequently came off damaged. When she was tried she had two black Eyes, which she got in a Quarrel; and when she went to the Place of Execution, she had a black Eye, received but a few Days before in another Skirmish. During her Confinement she contracted a great Fondness for Gentleman Harry.

Henry “Gentleman Harry” Simms, aged 30, was an orphan turned highwayman and pimp, known for his large Cutlass and his dandy clothes, and in the Ordinary’s words he was

[As] famous a Thief as ever yet adorn’d the Gallows. The Money he gain’d by Robbing he generally spent among the Whores about Covent-Garden, and as he generally wear very genteely dress’d, they gave him the Title of Gentleman Harry.

While under Sentence of Death, his fertile Brain was continually contriving Schemes in hopes to save his Life. He wrote several Letters to the Secretaries of State, and even to his Majesty himself.

While under Sentence he … still seemed found of the gay Part of Life, having a Number of Ladies coming frequently to see him, and did not appear so much concerned as one in his Circumstances should be.

What occupied Gentleman Harry in his last days was his fellow sufferer Mary Allen. They fell in love and spent their last days in intimacy (though the Ordinary also noted that “they sometimes fell out, when Simms generally beat her.”)

And on the final day, Mary Allen and Gentleman Harry indulged in hugs and kisses and hand-holding until their last moments on earth and met death with a defiant embrace.

THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT of the Behaviour, Confession, & Dying Words of […] MALEFACTORS Who were executed at TYBURN On Wednesday the 17th of JUNE, 1747.

At the PLACE of EXECUTION.

THE Morning of their Execution, after going up to Chappel, where they all behaved very devoutly, they were brought down into the Press-Yard, had their Fetters knock’d off, and was then convey’d to Tyburn … Simms was cleanly dress’d in a White Fustian Frock, White Stockings, and White Drawers; and just as he got into the Cart at Newgate, threw off his Shoes. Being arrived at the Place of Execution, some Time was spent in Devotion, in which they all most heartily joined.

SIMMS … owned the Robbery of Mr. Smith in the Borough.

ALLEN Wept a good deal, and own’d the Robbery for which she died.

And they all went off the Stage calling to the Lord to have Mercy on their Souls.

Just before they were turn’d off, Simms and Allen saluted each other; and then joyning Hands, went off, taking hold of each other.

This is all the Account given by me, JOHN TAYLOR , Ordinary of Newgate.

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1763: Hannah Dagoe, violently

4 comments May 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1763, Hannah Dagoe did it her way in “an extraordinary and unprecedented scene” at Tyburn.

A “strong, lusty”* Irish woman, her crime of theft does not much enthrall us, but her behavior on the way to the gallows would have done many a condemned wretch proud:

On the road to Tyburn she showed little concern at her miserable state, and paid no attention to the exhortations of the Romish priest who attended her. When the cart, in which she was bound, was drawn under the gallows, she got her hands and arms loose, seized the executioner, struggled with him, and gave him so violent a blow on the breast that she nearly knocked him down. She dared him to hang her; and in order to revenge herself upon him, and cheat him of his dues,** she took off her hat, cloak and other parts of her dress, and disposed of them among the crowd. After much resistance he got the rope about her neck, which she had no sooner found accomplished than, pulling out a hand kerchief, she bound it round her head and over her face, and threw herself out of the cart, before the signal was given, with such violence that she broke her neck and died instantly.

(Updated with a fortuitous connection not noted in first passing.)

Somewhere amid that ample throng cheering on the unexpected fisticuffs under the scaffold was notable scribbler James Boswell, he of The Life of Johnson.

Boswell had come along to the spectacle to see another, less pugilistic victim of the hanging party, Paul Lewis, a respectable clergyman’s son and former Navy officer taken to highway robbery. (The third member of the doomed party was stockbroker and forger John Rice.) Boswell’s diary records the happenstance encounter with Lewis and Hannah “Deigo” that led him to Tyburn’s shadow.

TUESDAY 3 MAY.

I walked up to the Tower in order to see Mr. Wilkes† come out. But he was gone. I then thought I should see prisoners of one kind or other, so went to Newgate. I stepped into a sort of court before the cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in, but stood in the court, where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. Mr. Rice the broker was confined in another part of the house. In the cells were Paul Lewis for robbery and Hannah Diego for theft. I saw them pass by to chapel. The woman was a big unconcerned being. Paul, who had been in the sea-service and was called Captain, was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was dressed in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver, with his hair neatly queued and a silver-laced hat, smartly cocked. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said, “Very well”; quite resigned. Poor fellow! I really took a great concern for him, and wished to relieve him. He walked firmly and with a good air, with his chains rattling upon him, to the chapel.

Erskine and I dined at the renowned Donaldson’s, where we were heartily entertained. All this afternoon I felt myself still more melancholy, Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud. Poor Lewis was always coming across me. I felt myself dreary at night, and made my barber try to read me asleep with Hume’s History, of which he made very sad work. I lay in sad concern.

WEDNESDAY 4 MAY.

My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it, although I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the Lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. I also wished to see the last behaviour of Paul Lewis, the handsome fellow whom I had seen the day before. Accordingly I took Captain Temple with me, and he and I got upon a scaffold very near the fatal tree, so that we could clearly see all the dismal scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.

The Macheath imagery, if not the melancholy, evidently stuck with the dutiful scribe, who found himself still minded of the Beggar’s Opera hero two weeks later while out on the pull.

I then sallied forth to the Piazzas in rich flow of animal spirits and burning with fierce desire. I met two very pretty little girls who asked me to take them with me. “My dear girls,” said I, “I am a poor fellow. I can give you no money. But if you choose to have a glass of wine and my company and let us be gay and obliging to each other without money, I am your man.” They agreed with great good humour. … We were shown into a good room and had a bottle of sherry before us in a minute. I surveyed my seraglio and found them both good subjects for amorous play. I toyed with them and drank about and sung “Youth’s the Season” and thought myself Captain Macheath; and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority. I was quite raised, as the phrase is: thought I was in a London tavern, the Shakespeare’s Head, enjoying high debauchery after my sober winter. I parted with my ladies politely and came home in a glow of spirits.

* London Evening Post, May 3-5 1763.

** The executioner was entitled to claim his clients’ clothing.

† Distantly related to namesake and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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1733: William Gordon, almost cheating death

Add comment April 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1733, English highwayman William Gordon was hanged at Tyburn (along with three thieves unconnected to him) for stealing a hat, wig, watch and ring while “in a state of intoxication.”

Gordon is hardly notable as a criminal at a time and place hangings were ubiquitous. But the Newgate Calendar relates that he came within a whisker’s breadth of making himself very notable indeed in the history of hangings; indeed, since punching a hole in one’s own neck is far less desperate than the straits of a man expecting the rope, it’s a bit surprising that this relatively favorable experiment didn’t find more imitators.

Mr. Chovot, a surgeon, having, by frequent experiments on dogs, discovered, that opening the windpipe, would prevent the fatal consequences of being hanged by the neck, communicated it to Gordon, who consented to the experiment being made on him. Accordingly, pretending to take his last leave of him, the surgeon secretly made an incision in his windpipe; and the effect this produced on the malefactor was, that when he stopt his mouth, nostrils, and ears, air sufficient to prolong life, issued from the cavity. When he was hanged, he was observed to retain life, after the others executed with him were dead. His body, after hanging three quarters of an hour, was cut down, and carried to a house in Edgware road., where Chovot was in attendance, who immediately opened a vein, which bled freely, and soon after the culprit opened his mouth and groaned. He, however, died; but it was the opinion of those present at the experiment, that had he been cut down only five minutes sooner, life would have returned.

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1741: Jenny Diver, a Bobby Darin lyric?

11 comments March 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1741,* at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.

Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.

What the Newgate Calendar reads as ingratitude, the modern reader might more sympathetically see as the allure of a burgeoning city for a teenager full of dreams.

Dreams may nurture the spirit, but flesh must have bread. Like countless others through time — indeed, like countless other clients of Tyburn — Jenny found metropolis less than convivial to aspirations of honest labor.

Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.

The Newgate Chronicle bursts with almost doting memoirs of her agile fingers, like this one:

[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above mentioned in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.

Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.

Not neglecting also to celebrate the gang’s more Sting-like ruses, like this hilarious turn of the tables on a credulous cuckolder:

Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town.

The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.

Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.

The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.

The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.

Alas to say, they all can’t come off like clockwork. Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies.

Finding little to recommend colonial Virginia, she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, however: one is saddened to find her in her last adventure nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act: perhaps those nimble hands, now pushing 40, had finally slowed down.

Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 (unrelated) victims.

It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:

In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.


Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.

About That Name

We also have a modern context** for the name “Jenny Diver” as one of several women mentioned in the song “Mack the Knife”:

This song is an English riff on a German tune from The Threepenny Opera, concerning its principal male character, the highwayman Macheath. (Possibly inspired by the recently-executed Jack Sheppard.)

The Threepenny Opera updated the 18th-century Beggar’s Opera, a satiric (and extraordinarily popular) production setting operatic tropes among society’s whores, criminals and castoffs.

The sequence of female names Bobby Darin rattles off in this version of “Mack the Knife” all draw from these operas: Suky (sometimes Sukey or Sukie) Tawdry and Jenny Diver are underworld women in The Beggar’s Opera who set Macheath up for arrest; Lucy Brown is The Threepenny Opera‘s version of the original character Lucy Lockit, who under either name is the daughter of a law enforcement officer in love with Macheath who helps him escape.†

One might suppose such a fortuitous connection of Jenny Divers was a calculated one, but it seems both the character’s name and the thief’s were independently and coevally drawn from the rich vein of English thieves’ cant.

Strictly coincidental.

“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years, according to Philip Rawlings, so it was a natural sobriquet for an expert thief … and for an author (whose script is chock full of suggestively-named characters — Wat Dreary, Molly Brazen, Jemmy Twitcher) conjuring such a character. There’s no direct evidence indicating that either the cutpurse or the dramatist knowingly cribbed from the other.

A pity it was for the real Jenny that art and life couldn’t imitate one another more strongly.

PLAYER. But, honest Friend, I hope you don’t intend that Macheath shall be really executed.

BEGGAR. Most certainly, Sir.—-To make the Piece perfect, I was for doing strict poetical Justice—-Macheath is to be hang’d; and for the other Personages of the Drama, the Audience must have suppos’d they were all hang’d or transported.

PLAYER. Why then Friend, this is a downright deep Tragedy. The Catastrophe is manifestly wrong, for an Opera must end happily.

BEGGAR. Your Objection, Sir, is very just, and is easily remov’d. For you must allow, that in this kind of Drama, ’tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about—-So—-you Rabble there—-run and cry, A Reprieve!—-let the Prisoner be brought back to his Wives in Triumph.

* 1740, according to the original documentation; 1741 by modern reckoning, since the new year’s onset was at the time not recognized on January 1.

** There’s still another Jenny Diver reference in the literate comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

† The fourth name of the sequence originally was Polly Peachum, Lucy’s rival for Macheath’s affections — but when Louis Armstrong made the first popular recording of Mack the Knife, he ad-libbed the line “Look out for Miss Lotte Lenya!” referring the actress who played Polly Jenny in both the original German production and the then-current Broadway importation, and who also happened to be present at Armstrong’s recording. Darin’s subsequent (and eventually canonical) version followed that lead and replaced the original name outright.

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

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1388: Thomas Usk, leaving “The Testament of Love”

3 comments March 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1388, royal retainer Thomas Usk was convicted in a one-day trial of treason and immediately drawn, hanged and beheaded at Tyburn.

The man’s end was savage: cut down alive to savor his beheading, which took nearly 30 strokes of the sword. And by all odds, this minor character’s demise would have had scant legacy as one more drop in the ocean of Albion’s blood long-ago spilt.

It was Usk’s misfortune to enter the political arena during a violently evolving political crisis in the 1380’s, when the boy-king Richard II and the English nobility struggled for power. A self-taught scrivener, Usk comes to posterity’s notice in the train of London mayor John Northampton. He was arrested for this association, and having no aspiration to become “a stinking martyr,” obligingly switched to the king’s side and informed on his former master.

This act of faithlessness made Usk (among many others) a marked man when the nobles’ faction gained a decisive upper hand after the Battle of Radcot Bridge and sat in what history records as the Merciless Parliament. Many were executed or forced into exile.

Usk would number among the victims, but before being launched into eternity — as the euphemism went — with the rope, he touched eternity from his prison cell by writing The Testament of Love (several versions linked here).

Long attributed wrongly to Usk’s contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, the Testament — regrettably not available in anything like its original form — consists of the imprisoned author’s dialogue with Love, who descends as a spirit into his dungeon to counsel him as he pines for the affection of the (presumably) symbolic woman “Margaret”. The work is reminiscent in its dialectal style of that produced by another client of the executioner — BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy.

ALAS! Fortune! alas! I that som-tyme in delicious houres was wont to enjoye blisful stoundes, am now drive by unhappy hevinesse to bewaile my sondry yvels in tene! … witless, thoughtful, sightles lokinge, I endure my penaunce in this derke prison, caitived fro frendshippe and acquaintaunce, and forsaken of al that any word dare speke.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,England,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,Politicians,Public Executions,Treason,Tyburn

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1581: Edmund Campion, Ralph Sherwin and Alexander Briant

11 comments December 1st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1581, three English Catholic martyrs were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, casualties of the bloody confrontation between religious and secular power of the English Reformation.

Edmund Campion — later sainted — was the towering figure among them and the great attraction for those that thronged the Tyburn scaffold on a rain-drenched Friday.

A brilliant Oxford scholar once tipped as a possible future Archibishop of Canterbury, Campion abjured his Anglican holy orders in favor of Rome — a mortal peril in Elizabethan England.

He slipped away to Ireland, then to the continent and safety. But at age 40, after nearly a decade abroad, the missionary zeal of the converted called him back to Albion as part of a secret Jesuit mission. Hunted from the day he set foot back in Britain, he survived a year on the run, an underground minister to an illicit faith.

Though priestly investiture alone technically made him capitally liable, a government with millions of Catholic citizens grappled for some firmer ground upon which to condemn the renowned intellectual. Since Campion succumbed neither to torture nor to blandishments, nor to the surreal interludes when he was hauled out of his dungeon and made to debate with the Crown’s theologians, he was finally convicted on the strength of made-to-order witness testimony to the effect that his mission had some vague upshot of undermining Queen Elizabeth’s hold on her subjects.

In effect, it was very much like convicting him for his faith: the Anglican-Catholic conflict had crystallized, and dozens of priests would follow the route of Campion in the years to come. Between a mutually implacable state and church, either flesh or soul must burn.

Not a few of those who trod the martyr’s path would take inspiration from the beatific Jesuit — as young Henry Walpole, whose own route to Calvary is said to have begun when he was spattered by Campion’s blood this day and come full circle to his own execution 15 years later. Walpole’s embrace of martyrdom fairly glows from his proscribed tribute to Campion:

Hys fare was hard, yet mylde & sweete his cheere,
his pryson close, yet free & loose his mynde,
his torture great, yet small or none his feare,
his offers lardge, yet nothing coulde him blynde.
O constant man, oh mynde, oh vyrtue straunge,
whome want, nor woe, nor feare, nor hope coulde chaunge.

Yee thought perhapps, when learned Campion dyes,
his pen must cease, his sugred townge be still.
But yow forget how lowd his deathe yt cryes,
how farre beyond the sownd of tounge or quill.
yow did not know how rare and great a good
yt was to write those precious guiftes in bloode.

That famous eloquence was Campion’s legacy, so overwhelmingly so that he presents in the lineup of men who might have written Shakespeare.

His best-know work was “Campion’s Brag”, the scornful nickname his foes gave to an apologia he produced while underground in England … and to whose steady words Edmund Campion proved true this day:

[B]e it known to you that we have made a league — all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practices of England — cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery [to Catholicism], while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God, it cannot be withstood. So the Faith was planted: so it must be restored.

But Protestant England did withstand the enterprise. The generation to come saw Catholic ideas and writing put to withering siege, Campion’s not least among them. For all the tribute of history to the man of Christlike fortitude, it is by no means apparent that the enjoyments of Tyburn and the kindred “practices of England” did not, after all, lay a cross heavier than English Catholics could bear.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Tyburn

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