Tag Archives: 1750s

1758: Not Florence Hensey, Seven Years’ War spy

The French spy Florence Hensey was due to die at Tyburn on this date in 1758. As it happened, the only violence done there was to the spectators.

A well-traveled Irish Catholic, Hensey had a prosperous London medical practice when he made an offer to a former colleague in France to share intelligence on war preparations at the outset of the England-vs.-France Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

Upon being accepted into the ranks of salaried moles, Hensey set his industry to forming acquaintances at establishments where parliamentarians and their clerks met and gossiped, transmitting the resulting nuggets to France by way of Germany in lemon juice ink concealed within letters bearing nothing but everyday pleasantries. Eventually clerks suspicious at the volume of such superficially trivial exchanges being imposed upon the international post got nosy and found out the real story.

Hensey’s treachery was obvious, ongoing, and in the midst of wartime. He should have died for it, but on that very morning he was spared that miserable fate. The Newgate calendar professes “much surprise at the extension of royal mercy” considering numerous other precedents to the contrary.

De la Motte, the particulars of whose case we shall hereafter give, was “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” for the same kind of offence which Hensey committed; and in still more recent times, numbers have suffered death for similar treason; and yet we have to observe, without finding any especial reason for it, that Doctor Hensey was pardoned. If granted from political motives, it must have been in fear of Spain; an unworthy impulse of the ministers of a far greater and more powerful nation.

Indeed, the Spanish connection appears to be the best explanation for Hensey’s unexpected reprieve: he had a brother in the retinue of a Spanish ambassador who was able to exercise his empire’s diplomatic channels in the doctor’s service. (Spain was on the sidelines at this moment, and Britain keen to keep her there; the Spanish finally joined the war on France’s side very late in the game, in 1762.)

This gambit, however, came as quite a nasty surprise to the ample and bloodthirsty crowd that had turned up at Tyburn.

The awful procession to Tyburn, intended to impress the multitude with sentiments of reverence for the laws of their country, produced a very contrary effect; and the eager and detestable curiosity of the populace, to witness executions, became a source of considerable emolument to certain miscreants, who were in the habit of erecting scaffolds for spectators; many of these scaffolds were substantial wooden buildings, and erected at every point from whence a glimpse of the execution could be obtained; the prices for seats varied according to the turpitude or quality of the criminal: — Dr. Hensey was to have been executed for High Treason in 1758, the prices of seats for that exhibition amounted to 2s. and 2s. 6d.; but, in the midst of general expectation, the Doctor was most provokingly reprieved.

As the mob descended from their stations with unwilling steps, it occurred to them, that, as they had been deprived of the intended entertainment, the proprietors of the seats ought to return the admission-money; which they demanded in terms vociferous, and with blows offensive, and in short, exercised their happy talent for rioting with unbounded success. On this occasion a vast number of these erections were destroyed.

Hensey spent a couple more years in Newgate, then was released into obscurity; presumably he left the realm to his brother’s custody.

1753: George Robertson, prick

We are indebted to the redoubtable medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris for the substance of this post, which she brought to our attention on her blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. Fans of the macabre, and particularly of the recurring medicinal theme here at Executed Today, are sure to enjoy her book The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine — or her “Under the Knife” video series.

We (and Dr. Fitzharris) enter these sensitive parts via a bit of junk preserved at the Royal College of Surgeons: the severed penis which long ago inhabited, along with the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the trousers of a highway robber named George Robertson.

Neither bacterium nor reader will be surprised to discover that when Robertson and a couple of other hard men knocked down James Holland in Mansfield Street to dispossess him of his hat and his wig, the pestilential thief resided at “a bawdy-house” (per the evidence of his perfunctory trial).

We don’t know the ins and outs of what this specimen got up to when Robertson had his liberty — only that its condition was so obvious that it interested the doctors. With nary a care for patient privacy, the Ordinary of Newgate emitted to the public that Robertson felt “so ill with the foul Disease, as not to be able to walk, and wished himself dead, because he had no Money or Friend to put him in the Hospital.”*

Agony though it might have been to our dissolute footpad, such cocks excited the physicians.

Dr. Fitzharris directs our attention to A Treatise on the Venereal Disease, by Robertson’s contemporary, the surgeon John Hunter. Hunter might well have fondled this very todger in his own day; as we learn from this turgid treatise, he and his colleagues found in the engorged members of the hung a penetrating scientific tool. The eightfold execution in the spring of 1753 that Hunter references below might be a previous Tyburn hanging date, of February 12, 1753. (That hanging included Robertson’s accomplice John Briant or Bryant: no word on the condition of John Briant’s John Thomas.)

Till about the year 1753 it was generally supposed, that the matter from the urethra in a gonorrhoea arose from an ulcer or ulcers in that passage; but from observation it was then proved that this was not the cafe. It may not be improper to give here a short history of the discovery of matter being formed by inflammation without ulceration.

In the winter 1749, a child was brought into the room used for dissection, in Covent Garden, on opening of whose thorax a large quantity of pus was found loose in the cavity, with the surface of the lungs and the pleura furred over with a more solid substance similar to coagulable lymph. On removing this from those surfaces they were found intire. This appearance being new to Dr. Hunter, he sent to Mr. Samuel Sharp, desiring his attendance, and to him it also appeared new. Mr. Sharp afterwards in the year 1750, published his Critical Enquiry, in which he introduced this fact, “That matter may be formed without a breach of substance;” not mentioning whence he had derived this notion. It was ever after taught by Dr. Hunter in his lectures ; we however find writers adopting it without quoting either Mr. Sharp or Dr. Hunter. So much being known, I was anxious to examine whether the matter in a gonorrhoea was formed in the same way. In the spring of 1753 there was an execution of eight men, two of whom I knew had at that time very severe gonorrhoeas. Their bodies being procured for this particular purpose, we were very accurate in our examination, but found no ulceration, the two urethras appeared merely a little blood-shot, especially near the glans. This being another new fact ascertained, it could not escape Mr. Gataker, ever attentive to his emolument, who was then attending Dr. Hunter’s lectures, and also practising dissection under me. He published, soon after in 1754, a treatise on this disease, and explained fully, that the matter in a gonorrhoea did not arise from an ulcer, without mentioning how he acquired this knowledge; and it has ever since been adopted in publications on this subject. Since the period mentioned above, I have constantly paid particular attention to this circumstance, and have opened the urethra of many who at the time of their death had a gonorrhoea, yet have never found a fore in any ; but always observed that the urethra near the glans was more blood-shot than usual, and that the lacunae were often filled with matter.

* As usual, the Ordinary plied the condemned while they languished in Newgate. However, he broke with his usual practice and did not make the trip to Tyburn for this triple execution, “because as they all three died Roman Catholicks, I did not choose to attend, to give them the Opportunity of turning their Backs upon me, as a Protestant Minister, which I knew they must do if I did.”