1853: Nathaniel Mobbs

Add comment November 21st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1853, Nathaniel Mobbs hanged for killing his wife.

Mobbs’s loutish drunken abuse was of Catherine Mobbs was audible to many neighbors at his Whitechapel tenement. On the night before he finally murdered her, he was so far gone that Catherine slept at a neighbor’s to stay clear of him. Nathaniel found her the next morning, and physically dragged her back home; that afternoon, an unusually violent row and the prisoner’s screams of “murder!” brought at least two guests scrambling up the stairs to their door, which Mobbs blockaded with a chest — until the “murder!” cries eerily stopped.

Then, the scuffing sound of furniture being moved.

And Catherine staggered out the door and down the steps, her dress and hair gorging on the horrid effluence of her slashed throat. She didn’t say a word before she dropped dead.

This nasty affair is covered by PlanetSlade.com’s murder ballads series, including a broadsheet (pdf) with testimony by the Mobbs’ neighbors, and the usual hanging ballad.

A U.S. band called South County YouTubed a haunting version of the ballad, although I believe they’ve taken some liberty with the lyrics.

This wasn’t Mr. Mobbs’s only brush with the literary. Charles Dickens, who could not but delight in the juxtaposition of pickpockets risking their own necks plying their craft on gallows-gawkers, fastened on just such an incident at the Mobbs execution. (Even if pickpocketing was no longer a capital crime by 1853.)

At Guildhall, on the 22nd, Charles Clark was charged before Alderman Humphery with Stealing a Watch the previous morning in the Old Bailey. Robert Pollard, the prosecutor, said: I was present yesterday morning at the Execution of the man Mobbs. I was in front of the scaffold, when I felt something at my pocket, and then missed my watch.

Alderman Humphery — I suppose you were there to see the man hung? Were there many persons there?

Witness: Yes, sir, a great man.

Alderman Humphery: Did you miss your watch before the execution or afterwards?

Witness: The condemned man was just coming on the scaffold, and before he was hung I saw the prisoner moving from my side. I followed him; but perceiving me behind him, he ran up St. Clement’s Inn-yards, in Old Bailey, and threw himself on some matting. The watch produced by the officer is mine. It is engraved with my own name.

Prisoner: I did not throw myself down, I fell down.

Alderman Humphery: There is one thing very clear. The awful sight of a man being hung has no fear for you. William Gardiner saw the prisoner, on reaching the top of Clement’s Inn yard, throw himself on some sacks and drop something down the iron grating. The witness went below and found the watch produced.

Prisoner: I never took the watch.

Alderman Humphery: You came out to witness the execution of a fellow creature, but it does not appear to have done you any good, for your intention in being there was to pick pockets evidently. It is quite clear that you committed a highway robbery, and that too under the gallows, an offence that was punished at one time with dath. It is too serious a case for me to deal with summarily, and I shall therefore commit you for trial.

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1707: Jack (Sam) Hall, chimney sweep and robber

1 comment December 17th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.

Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”

It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”

The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**

* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).

** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”

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1860: Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, Bareilly rebel

Add comment February 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, the British hanged Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, a Pashtun leader who when India revolted in 1857 set up a short-lived independent government at Bareilly.*

Having word of the burgeoning rebellion elsewhere on the subcontinent, Bareilly’s native troops mutinied on May 31, 1857. Three captured European civilians were shot that evening; three more followed the next day.

Though Bareilly did not furnish the most spectacular massacre of the rebellion, it was one of several** that became grist for industrial Britain’s burgeoning mass media … and reports of bloody deeds prepared the British public to respond in kind. One Englishman wrote the London Times on June 3 (it was published on July 14): “When this crisis shall have passed, stern and unflinching vengeance on those who have mutinied and been guilty of atrocities, tempered with judicious and gracious clemency to those who were only misled into a willingness to joining them, will, I fondly hope, tend greatly to create and consolidate a lasting loyalty throughout our native troops.”

Other Britons were far more interested in the unflinching vengeance than the lasting loyalty. Outraged at the news that the Governor-General of India was offering mutineers amnesty, one wrote in a private correspondence on October 4,

I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London, or at Camden Town), would be to proclaim to them in their language, that I considered my Holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and that I begged them to do me the favor to observe that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.

That imperial genocide enthusiast was a liberal man of letters known to be downright softhearted when beholding his own countrymen condemned to death singly: Charles Dickens.

After the initial shock of the various risings, Great Britain set about methodically putting down the revolt.

In 1858, it was Bareilly’s turn. Fresh off defeating the most vigorous rebel commander Tantia Tope, the British commander Colin Campbell wrapped up the Indian campaign by marching his Highland regiments “in red coats, kilt, and feather bonnet, under a blazing sun, showing 112 degrees in the shade.”

That wished-for stern and unflinching vengeance marched with them.

Sergeant David McAusland of the 42nd Highland Regiment recalled that during his service in Bareilly during the Rebellion, “three scaffolds and six whipping posts stood outside of the town along side of the jail and there [took place] executions to the number of six every day.” The judge in charge of trials had lost his wife during the conflict, and had told McAusland, “if ever I get the chance of [judging] these Black rebels I will hang a man for every hair that was in my wife’s head.” McAusland responded by asking him how many men he had executed already, “he told me close on 700 well I said if you just continue you will have made good your work and turning to Sergt … Aden I said you mind what Sir Colin [Campbell] said to us at Cawnpore that every man that had a black face was our enemy and we could not do wrong in shooting him so you know how to act here.” (Source pdf, an essay eventually integrated into the author’s book-length study Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914

As the man who had styled himself chief of Bareilly in opposition to British power could scarcely expect to escape such indiscriminate revenge.

“The complicity of this wretched man in the atrocities committed at Bareilly admits of no doubt whatever, and to allow him to escape from the gallows would be an outrage upon the memory of his unhappy victims,” the London Times reported on April 21, 1860, upon receiving (much belated) word of his execution.

* Great Britain’s initial seizure of Bareilly (Rohilkhand) from Khan Bahadur Khan’s ancestors in a 1774 war became part of the impeachment case Edmund Burke leveled against colonial official Warren Hastings. As we’ve seen elsewhere on this site, that remarkable charge also involved a shady execution.

** The largest and most inflammatory, of course, was Cawnpore/Kanpur.

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1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton’s first hanging

Add comment August 22nd, 2013 Headsman

This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”

What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.

He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.

Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.

Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,'” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”


Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.

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1781: Francois Henri de la Motte, French spy

1 comment July 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in history, the French spy Francois Henri de la Motte was hanged at Tyburn — and, only after hanging, his head was cut off and his heart carved out. Old Blighty was going a bit soft: it didn’t do actual drawings and quarterings at this late enlightened date. (Well, just one.)

Those old enemies Britain and France had renewed hostilities over the American Revolution, which France backed to twist the neighboring lion’s tail.

De la Motte was a French expat living in England, in which capacity he supported the statecraft of his native realm by coyly picking up British army and naval dispositions and sending word home of who was going where, when. His intelligence allegedly enabled the French navy to turn an unusually aggressive gambit against the British in an engagement in the East Indies, with the loss of 207 souls.

“In the whole history of mankind, an instance was not to be produced of a more ingenious, able, and industrious spy than Mr. De La Motte,” his prosecutors charged. (There’s an account of the trial here.)

Perhaps this was flattery, since the operation was not defeated by counterintelligence except de la Motte’s own counter-intelligence. The guy dropped a bunch of incriminating notes he had taken on naval movements in a staircase, and they were there snatched up by King George’s true subjects and forthwith sent their owner to Newgate. His English accomplice quickly turned Crown’s evidence

Days after the spy’s ignominious end, General Cornwallis’s army in the American south arrived from Charleston at Yorktown, Va., a deep-water port from which he meant to command the Chesapeake. There, Cornwallis was surrounded by an overwhelming force of both American rebels and their French armies. The British defeat at Yorktown that October clinched independence for the colonies.


De la Motte’s trial — accused perfidious Frenchman in danger of barbaric old-timey punishment — appears to be the model for the London trial against Charles Darnay depicted at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. See if this sketch by noted death penalty skeptic (but also death penalty obsessive) Charles Dickens doesn’t essentially depict Francois de la Motte’s situation:

“What’s coming on?”

“The Treason case.”

“The quartering one, eh?”

“Ah!” returned the man, with a relish; “he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”

“If he’s found Guilty, you mean to say?” Jerry added, by way of proviso.

“Oh! they’ll find him guilty,” said the other.

Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going, between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.

Darnay is acquitted, obviously, as Dickens was only three chapters in and being paid for a novel-length serial.

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1726: William “Vulcan” Gates, Black Act casualty

Add comment March 14th, 2013 Headsman

March 14, 1726, was the hanging date of five men* at the gallows of Tyburn.

We’ll come to the other four of them presently, but our featured case among the group is one Bill Gates — not the Microsoft billionaire, obviously; this fellow was, rather, a victim of the plutocracy.

William Gates was a blacksmith by trade, presumably the source of his outstanding nickname or alias “Vulcan”.

But he also liked to hunt, and that’s how he ended up having his neck pinched.

It was only logical in the early 18th century for hunters like Vulcan to take quarry from the common lands. But these longtime traditional rights were under long-term attack; just a few years before, the “Black Act” dramatically escalated penalties and enforcement mechanisms for “poaching”.

Among other things, the Black Act permitted a suspect to be accused by reading out charges “on two Market Days, and in two Market Towns in the County, where the Offence is committed.” If the named party failed to turn himself in within 40 days, he stood convicted — no trial necessary.

This was Vulcan’s situation exactly. He’d been accused of “being one of the Men that entered Enfield Chace, killed two Deer,” and took some potshots at the gamekeepers. Having not given himself up, the entirety of the short proceeding once Gates was taken was to establish his identity. (A potentially tricky affair in those days, but not in this instance.)

Frequent death-blog litterateur Charles Dickens glossed this story for the literary magazine he founded, All the Year Round, quoting in Vol. 18 the account of the Ordinary of Newgate when Gates and the four who were doomed to die with him “took it into their foolish heads that they would not be hanged.” (I’ve added line breaks to the Dickensian version, for readability.)

The day on which they were executed, when I [the Ordinary] came to Newgate to give them their last exhortations and prayers, they would not allow any person to come near them, having got an iron crow into the prison, with which they had forced out stones of a prodigious bigness, and had made the breach two feet deep in the wall.

They had built up the stones at the back of the door of the condemned hold, so that nobody could get at them. The keepers spoke to them through the door, but they were inflexible, and would by no entreaties yield. I spoke to them also, representing to them how that such foolish and impracticable projects interrupted their repentance, and the special care they should have taken in improving those few moments to the best advantage; but they seemed inexorable.

I said that I hoped they had no quarrel with me. They answered, ‘No, sir, God bless you; for you have been very careful of us.’ Bailey said, that they would not surrender till they either killed or were killed.

It was twelve at night before they began this enterprise; and, to conceal their purpose from the keepers, while part of them were working, the rest sung psalms, that the noise might not be heard.

Sir Jeremiah Morden, one of the present sheriffs of London and Middlesex, came with proper attendance, and, desiring them to open the door, they refused it; upon which they [not the prisoners, but the sheriff and his men] were obliged to go up to the room over the hold, where there is a little place that opens, which is made in case of such disturbances.

This shutter they opened, but the prisoners continuing obstinate, they [the sheriff’s assistants] fired fifteen pistols with small shot among them, not to kill, but to wound and disable them. They retired to the remotest part of the room where the shot could not reach them, yet Barton and Gates, the deer-stealer, were slightly wounded in the arm.

At last Sir Jeremiah Morden spoke seriously to them through the little hole above, desiring them to surrender. Barton asked, ‘Who are you?’ Sir Jeremiah answered, ‘I am one of the principal sheriffs.’

‘Show me your chain,’ says Barton. Sir Jeremiah was so good as to show him his gold chain through the little hole, upon which they consulted, and agreed to surrender.

After this they removed the stones for the back [of the] door, and, the keepers entering, Barton snapped a steel tobacco–box in the face of one of them, which made a little noise like the snapping of a pocket-pistol, and then gave him the box” [saying ‘D-me, you was afraid.’ -Dickens omits this taunting clincher (ed.)]

After this the unctuous Ordinary tried to dog the intended escapees out of any parting sacrament on the grounds that their souls were not adequately prepared, to which the mutineers justly replied that they “been busied otherwise; they said it was only out of a desire of self Preservation … upon which account they desired to be excused.”

The Ordinary is vague on whether he excused them so far as to grant a last absolution. They were never to be excused from the rope.

While we’ve mentioned the singular case of Vulcan Gates, the other four were a more prosaic bunch of convicted burglars. Three of the four denied their guilt to the last. And while it’s nigh-impossible to judge credibility from the few second-hand words of an interlocutor religiously convinced of their culpability, it’s quite an affecting testimony to the scant circumstances needed to doom a fellow under the Bloody Code.

More than likely we’re a little skeptical of Benjamin Jones, who said that he chanced to stumble upon some silver plate in the darkness when stumbling out drunk from his tavern to pick up a whore. Was it just a bit of mutual aid among thieves that Jones accused a different prisoner, one Frazier, who was sick on his deathbed? The Ordinary said that he “ask’d Frazier, if this account was true? who said that it was, and that he had written the full Narrative thereof to Persons of the highest Quality.”

Hmm.

Francis Baily was doomed by the detailed testimony of a fellow-inmate in his same boarding house. He did admit to being a professional robber whose real crimes were quite enough to stretch his neck, but that his particular condemnation was thanks to the perjury of “one of the most infamous, wicked Women in the World who had sworn away his life, as she had the Life of some others, besides several there whom she had got transported and whipp’d &c. Baily pointed the finger at the absconded landlord of the house, the aptly named Matthew Wildman, who was his frequent burglarious partner.

Maybe.

The saddest of the self-proclaimed innocents was William Swift. He was accused along with another man, Lawrence Simpson, of having been part of a gang of highway robbers who committed a couple of muggings one evening. Although it was dark, one woman claimed to have been able to recognize Swift’s face by the light of “a Lamp about 6 Yards off,” and this was enough to seal his fate. Simpson hadn’t been glimpsed so clearly, so he was acquitted.

As for the last fellow at Tyburn that March 14, John Barton didn’t claim any species of innocence at all. Instead, he announced at the scaffold, “I am the Man, who in Company with two or three others, whom he named, particularly one Capel [Bob Cable], who committed the Robbery for which Swift dies.” (Barton had been set to testify at the Swift-Simpson trial, but was disallowed on account of his own pending burglary charges.)

* Seven were originally condemned to die this date; two petty thieves received the crown’s mercy.

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An unspecified Monday: Fagin

1 comment 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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1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain

11 comments November 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1835, John Smith and James Pratt (sometimes reported as John Pratt) were hanged outside Newgate Prison for (in the exhausting fulminations of the Old Bailey trial records) “feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, carnally … commit and perpetrate[d] the detestable, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery.”


Generic gallows image from this Smith and Pratt hanging-day broadside.

These men were the last put to death anywhere in the realm under the ghastly Tudor-era Buggery Act,* and indeed among the last to die at Newgate for any crime other than murder or attempted murder.

“The grave will soon close over me,” Smith allegedly wrote to a friend before his hanging, “and my name [be] entirely forgotten.”

But that’s not altogether true.

Unbeknownst to the sufferers, they were destined for literary preservation by a young writer on the make, one Charles Dickens: Smith and Pratt make an appearance in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, an 1836 compilation of London scenes of which “A Visit to Newgate” is perhaps the best-known.

This piece narrates a visit Dickens paid, according to William Carlton’s “The Third Man at Newgate” (The Review of English Studies, Nov., 1957), on November 5, 1835. Dickens would write in subsequent correspondence that the experience left him “intensely interested in everything I saw.”

Prisons and the threat or reality of execution would loom large in that redoubtable author’s canon. “You cannot throw the interest over a year’s imprisonment, however severe, that you can cast around the punishment of death,” the perspicacious 23-year-old told his publisher.

So too did the still-living apparitions of the condemned Smith and Pratt occupy Dickens’s reflections in “A Visit to Newgate”; they comprise a good third of the essay.

In the press-room below, were three men, the nature of whose offence rendered it necessary to separate them, even from their companions in guilt. It is a long, sombre room, with two windows sunk into the stone wall, and here the wretched men are pinioned on the morning of their execution, before moving towards the scaffold. The fate of one of these prisoners was uncertain; some mitigatory circumstances having come to light since his trial, which had been humanely represented in the proper quarter. The other two had nothing to expect from the mercy of the crown; their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world. ‘The two short ones,’ the turnkey whispered, ‘were dead men.’

Smith and Pratt, of course, were the “dead men.”

Their third companion, otherwise unconnected with them, was a soldier named Robert Swan, convicted of robbery. Swan was indeed reprieved, a few days before the execution. “Boz” sketched the aspect of these men as he observed them:

The man to whom we have alluded as entertaining some hopes of escape, was lounging, at the greatest distance he could place between himself and his companions, in the window nearest to the door. He was probably aware of our approach, and had assumed an air of courageous indifference; his face was purposely averted towards the window, and he stirred not an inch while we were present. The other two men were at the upper end of the room. One of them, who was imperfectly seen in the dim light, had his back towards us, and was stooping over the fire, with his right arm on the mantel-piece, and his head sunk upon it. The other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window. The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face, and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly. His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised, and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall. We passed this room again afterwards. The first man was pacing up and down the court with a firm military step – he had been a soldier in the foot-guards – and a cloth cap jauntily thrown on one side of his head. He bowed respectfully to our conductor, and the salute was returned. The other two still remained in the positions we have described, and were as motionless as statues.

If we have Dickens to thank in part for this unexpected glimpse of these poor fellows in the shadow of death, we also can hardly help but notice that — and this is in keeping with Smith’s forecast of posthumous anonymity — he does not name them, nor breathe a word about their scandalous crime. Only the man destined for the reprieve has animation; Smith and Pratt, immobile and affectless, are … but are little else besides. “Dead men,” like that turnkey said. This is not necessarily implausible, but it is also very pat for the literary construction of “A Visit to Newgate,” and we might be entitled to wonder how close to journalistic accuracy the writer has really come here, or regret the details Dickens has discarded that might have salvaged their humanity for a later readership.

Dickens’ party proceeded from these characters to a tour of the physical cells in which these doomed “statues” passed their last sleepless nights.

A few paces up the yard, and forming a continuation of the building, in which are the two rooms we have just quitted, lie the condemned cells. The entrance is by a narrow and obscure stair-case leading to a dark passage, in which a charcoal stove casts a lurid tint over the objects in its immediate vicinity, and diffuses something like warmth around. From the left-hand side of this passage, the massive door of every cell on the story opens; and from it alone can they be approached. There are three of these passages, and three of these ranges of cells, one above the other; but in size, furniture and appearance, they are all precisely alike. Prior to the recorder’s report being made, all the prisoners under sentence of death are removed from the day-room at five o’clock in the afternoon, and locked up in these cells, where they are allowed a candle until ten o’clock; and here they remain until seven next morning. When the warrant for a prisoner’s execution arrives, he is removed to the cells and confined in one of them until he leaves it for the scaffold. He is at liberty to walk in the yard; but, both in his walks and in his cell, he is constantly attended by a turnkey who never leaves him on any pretence.

We entered the first cell. It was a stone dungeon, eight feet long by six wide, with a bench at the upper end, under which were a common rug, a bible, and prayer-book. An iron candlestick was fixed into the wall at the side; and a small high window in the back admitted as much air and light as could struggle in between a double row of heavy, crossed iron bars. It contained no other furniture of any description.

(Later in the 19th century, this dank vault was improved by conjoining two adjacent chambers to comprise the condemned cell.)

A year after Sketches‘ February 1836 publication, Dickens’ serialized novel of the London underclass Oliver Twist began its run. That story’s heart-wrenching denouement of the thief Fagin awaiting execution in Newgate seems to owe a debt to Dickens’ meditation in Sketches on the dolorous condition of Smith, Pratt, or any doomed prisoner facing death in these awful cells.

“A Visit to Newgate” concludes:

Conceive the situation of a man, spending his last night on earth in this cell. Buoyed up with some vague and undefined hope of reprieve, he knew not why – indulging in some wild and visionary idea of escaping, he knew not how – hour after hour of the three preceding days allowed him for preparation, has fled with a speed which no man living would deem possible, for none but this dying man can know. He has wearied his friends with entreaties, exhausted the attendants with importunities, neglected in his feverish restlessness the timely warnings of his spiritual Fagin in Newgate – Cruikshank consoler; and, now that the illusion is at last dispelled, now that eternity is before him and guilt behind, now that his fears of death amount almost to madness, and an overwhelming sense of his helpless, hopeless state rushes upon him, he is lost and stupefied, and has neither thoughts to turn to, nor power to call upon, the Almighty Being, from whom alone he can seek mercy and forgiveness, and before whom his repentance can alone avail.

Hours have glided by, and still he sits upon the same stone bench with folded arms, heedless alike of the fast decreasing time before him, and the urgent entreaties of the good man at his side. The feeble light is wasting gradually, and the deathlike stillness of the street without, broken only by the rumbling of some passing vehicle which echoes mournfully through the empty yards, warns him that the night is waning fast away. The deep bell of St. Paul’s strikes – one! He heard it; it has roused him. Seven hours left! He paces the narrow limits of his cell with rapid strides, cold drops of terror starting on his forehead, and every muscle of his frame quivering with agony. Seven hours! He suffers himself to be led to his seat, mechanically takes the bible which is placed in his hand, and tries to read and listen. No: his thoughts will wander. The book is torn and soiled by use – and like the book he read his lessons in, at school, just forty years ago! He has never bestowed a thought upon it, perhaps, since he left it as a child: and yet the place, the time, the room – nay, the very boys he played with, crowd as vividly before him as if they were scenes of yesterday; and some forgotten phrase, some childish word, rings in his ears like the echo of one uttered but a minute since. The voice of the clergyman recalls him to himself. He is reading from the sacred book its solemn promises of pardon for repentance, and its awful denunciation of obdurate men. He falls upon his knees and clasps his hands to pray. Hush! what sound was that? He starts upon his feet. It cannot be two yet. Hark! Two quarters have struck; – the third – the fourth. It is! Six hours left. Tell him not of repentance! Six hours’ repentance for eight times six years of guilt and sin! He buries his face in his hands, and throws himself on the bench.

Worn with watching and excitement, he sleeps, and the same unsettled state of mind pursues him in his dreams. An insupportable load is taken from his breast; he is walking with his wife in a pleasant field, with the bright sky above them, and a fresh and boundless prospect on every side – how different from the stone walls of Newgate! She is looking – not as she did when he saw her for the last time in that dreadful place, but as she used when he loved her – long, long ago, before misery and ill-treatment had altered her looks, and vice had changed his nature, and she is leaning upon his arm, and looking up into his face with tenderness and affection – and he does NOT strike her now, nor rudely shake her from him. And oh! how glad he is to tell her all he had forgotten in that last hurried interview, and to fall on his knees before her and fervently beseech her pardon for all the unkindness and cruelty that wasted her form and broke her heart! The scene suddenly changes. He is on his trial again: there are the judge and jury, and prosecutors, and witnesses, just as they were before. How full the court is – what a sea of heads – with a gallows, too, and a scaffold – and how all those people stare at HIM! Verdict, ‘Guilty.’ No matter; he will escape.

The night is dark and cold, the gates have been left open, and in an instant he is in the street, flying from the scene of his imprisonment like the wind. The streets are cleared, the open fields are gained and the broad, wide country lies before him. Onward he dashes in the midst of darkness, over hedge and ditch, through mud and pool, bounding from spot to spot with a speed and lightness, astonishing even to himself. At length he pauses; he must be safe from pursuit now; he will stretch himself on that bank and sleep till sunrise.

A period of unconsciousness succeeds. He wakes, cold and wretched. The dull, gray light of morning is stealing into the cell, and falls upon the form of the attendant turnkey. Confused by his dreams, he starts from his uneasy bed in momentary uncertainty. It is but momentary. Every object in the narrow cell is too frightfully real to admit of doubt or mistake. He is the condemned felon again, guilty and despairing; and in two hours more will be dead.

Lotta books about Dickens

A magistrate with the Dickensian name of Hesney Wedg(e)wood appealed vigorously for clemency for Smith and Pratt — pointing out that the only reason these two had been doomed among the rather many enthusiasts** for this victimless offense was that they were penurious enough to have to pursue their desires in a lodging-house rented by a friend where they were easily spied-upon.

(The testimony lodged against them in court came from the nosy landlord who got suspicious, and with his wife peeped through the keyhole on “Pratt laying on his back with his trowsers below his knees, and with his body curled up—his knees were up—Smith was upon him—Pratt’s knees were nearly up to Smith’s shoulders—Smith’s clothes were below his knees … and a great deal of fondness and kissing.” The landlord burst in on the sodomites and put a stop to the fondness right away.)

“There is a shocking inequality in this law in its operation upon the rich and the poor,” wrote Wedgwood.

It is the only crime where there is no injury done to any individual and in consequence it requires a very small expense to commit it in so private a manner and to take such precautions as shall render conviction impossible. It is also the only capital crime that is committed by rich men but owing to the circumstances I have mentioned they are never convicted. The detection of these degraded creatures was owing entirely to their poverty, they were unable to pay for privacy, and the room was so poor that what was going on inside was easily visible from without. (Quoted here)

* The first executed under the Buggery Act shared his scaffold with Thomas Cromwell almost 300 years before. Although there were no further executions for sodomy after Smith and Pratt in 1835, that penalty remained theoretically available for the “crime” until 1861.

** See this book-length pdf.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Milestones,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Sex

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1789: Joseph-Francois Foulon, corrupt financier, lynched

1 comment July 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date, just days after the Bastille fell, so did the head of widely-loathed ancien regime pol Joseph-Francois Foulon (or Foullon) de Doue.

“This is that same Foulon,” says Carlyle, “named ame damnee du Parlement; a man grown gray in treachery, in griping, projecting, intriguing and iniquity: who once when it was objected, to some finance-scheme of his, ‘What will the people do?’ — made answer, in the fire of discussion, ‘The people may eat grass:’ hasty words, which fly abroad irrevocable, — and will send back tidings!”

Marie Antoinette, eat your cake out.

Foulon’s grass tidings would arrive courtesy of the king‘s July 11, 1789 dismissal of Finance Minister Jacques Necker and attempt to rule through an ultra-royalist government. It was fury over this apparent reactionary coup that led to the storming of the Bastille and catalyzed the French Revolution.

Foulon, now the Controller-General of Finances — and as Carlyle puts it, “a scoundrel; but of unmeasured wealth,” who had gorged himself at the public trough while the kingdom’s finances grew thin, and who was widely suspected of having manipulated the food supply out of cruel rapacity — apprehended the danger and fled town. He even staged a lavish funeral to put about word that he had died suddenly.

But “some living domestic or dependant, for none loves Foulon,” betrayed him (Carlyle’s version) — or by whatever means, the Parisian mob sniffed him out. Then it quickly did to him what the Parisian mob would soon become famous for. “His old head, which seventy-four years have bleached, is bare; they have tied an emblematic bundle of grass on his back; a garland of nettles and thistles is round his neck: in this manner; led with ropes; goaded on with curses and menaces, must he, with his old limbs, sprawl forward; the pitiablest, most unpitied of all old men.”

Carlyle spares little but the most animal pity for Foulon, but the mob did not even muster that. Summoned to be judged at the Hotel de Ville — the Marquis de Lafayette and the new mayor of Paris, Bailly, unsuccessfully attempted to intercede for proper procedure — Foulon found himself instead subject to the revolutionary judgment of the masses.

For Dickens, in A Tale of Two Cities, this incident forms one of the mileposts of the Revolution, when the waiting sans-culottes of Saint Antoine are transfigured, and leads the fictional long-time revolutionary conspirator Defarge to sigh to his even more implacable wife, “At last it is come, my dear!”

“Does everybody here recall old Foulon, who told the famished people that they might eat grass, and who died, and went to Hell?”

“Everybody!” from all throats.

“The news is of him. He is among us!”

“Among us!” from the universal throat again. “And dead?”

“Not dead! He feared us so much—and with reason—that he caused himself to be represented as dead, and had a grand mock-funeral. But they have found him alive, hiding in the country, and have brought him in. I have seen him but now, on his way to the Hotel de Ville, a prisoner. I have said that he had reason to fear us. Say all! Had he reason?”

Wretched old sinner of more than threescore years and ten, if he had never known it yet, he would have known it in his heart of hearts if he could have heard the answering cry.

A moment of profound silence followed. Defarge and his wife looked steadfastly at one another. The Vengeance stooped, and the jar of a drum was heard as she moved it at her feet behind the counter.

“Patriots!” said Defarge, in a determined voice, “are we ready?”

Instantly Madame Defarge’s knife was in her girdle; the drum was beating in the streets, as if it and a drummer had flown together by magic; and The Vengeance, uttering terrific shrieks, and flinging her arms about her head like all the forty Furies at once, was tearing from house to house, rousing the women.

The men were terrible, in the bloody-minded anger with which they looked from windows, caught up what arms they had, and came pouring down into the streets; but, the women were a sight to chill the boldest. From such household occupations as their bare poverty yielded, from their children, from their aged and their sick crouching on the bare ground famished and naked, they ran out with streaming hair, urging one another, and themselves, to madness with the wildest cries and actions. Villain Foulon taken, my sister! Old Foulon taken, my mother! Miscreant Foulon taken, my daughter! Then, a score of others ran into the midst of these, beating their breasts, tearing their hair, and screaming, Foulon alive! Foulon who told the starving people they might eat grass! Foulon who told my old father that he might eat grass, when I had no bread to give him! Foulon who told my baby it might suck grass, when these breasts were dry with want! O mother of God, this Foulon! O Heaven our suffering! Hear me, my dead baby and my withered father: I swear on my knees, on these stones, to avenge you on Foulon! Husbands, and brothers, and young men, Give us the blood of Foulon, Give us the head of Foulon, Give us the heart of Foulon, Give us the body and soul of Foulon, Rend Foulon to pieces, and dig him into the ground, that grass may grow from him! With these cries, numbers of the women, lashed into blind frenzy, whirled about, striking and tearing at their own friends until they dropped into a passionate swoon, and were only saved by the men belonging to them from being trampled under foot.

Nevertheless, not a moment was lost; not a moment! This Foulon was at the Hotel de Ville, and might be loosed. Never, if Saint Antoine knew his own sufferings, insults, and wrongs! Armed men and women flocked out of the Quarter so fast, and drew even these last dregs after them with such a force of suction, that within a quarter of an hour there was not a human creature in Saint Antoine’s bosom but a few old crones and the wailing children.

No. They were all by that time choking the Hall of Examination where this old man, ugly and wicked, was, and overflowing into the adjacent open space and streets. The Defarges, husband and wife, The Vengeance, and Jacques Three, were in the first press, and at no great distance from him in the Hall.

“See!” cried madame, pointing with her knife. “See the old villain bound with ropes. That was well done to tie a bunch of grass upon his back. Ha, ha! That was well done. Let him eat it now!” Madame put her knife under her arm, and clapped her hands as at a play.

The people immediately behind Madame Defarge, explaining the cause of her satisfaction to those behind them, and those again explaining to others, and those to others, the neighbouring streets resounded with the clapping of hands. Similarly, during two or three hours of drawl, and the winnowing of many bushels of words, Madame Defarge’s frequent expressions of impatience were taken up, with marvellous quickness, at a distance: the more readily, because certain men who had by some wonderful exercise of agility climbed up the external architecture to look in from the windows, knew Madame Defarge well, and acted as a telegraph between her and the crowd outside the building.

At length the sun rose so high that it struck a kindly ray as of hope or protection, directly down upon the old prisoner’s head. The favour was too much to bear; in an instant the barrier of dust and chaff that had stood surprisingly long, went to the winds, and Saint Antoine had got him!

It was known directly, to the furthest confines of the crowd. Defarge had but sprung over a railing and a table, and folded the miserable wretch in a deadly embrace—Madame Defarge had but followed and turned her hand in one of the ropes with which he was tied—The Vengeance and Jacques Three were not yet up with them, and the men at the windows had not yet swooped into the Hall, like birds of prey from their high perches—when the cry seemed to go up, all over the city, “Bring him out! Bring him to the lamp!”

Down, and up, and head foremost on the steps of the building; now, on his knees; now, on his feet; now, on his back; dragged, and struck at, and stifled by the bunches of grass and straw that were thrust into his face by hundreds of hands; torn, bruised, panting, bleeding, yet always entreating and beseeching for mercy; now full of vehement agony of action, with a small clear space about him as the people drew one another back that they might see; now, a log of dead wood drawn through a forest of legs; he was hauled to the nearest street corner where one of the fatal lamps swung, and there Madame Defarge let him go—as a cat might have done to a mouse—and silently and composedly looked at him while they made ready, and while he besought her: the women passionately screeching at him all the time, and the men sternly calling out to have him killed with grass in his mouth. Once, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; twice, he went aloft, and the rope broke, and they caught him shrieking; then, the rope was merciful, and held him, and his head was soon upon a pike, with grass enough in the mouth for all Saint Antoine to dance at the sight of.

That grass-stuffed head on a pike was there waiting when the bloody banquet’s digestif arrived later that evening in the form of Foulon’s son-in-law Louis-Jean Bertier de Sauvigny: another government official arrested that day and drug to the same place, for the same fate.


Bertier de Sauvignon, Intendant of Paris, Is Led to His Punishment (Source, specifically image 25)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Infamous,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,Summary Executions

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1780: Five for the Gordon Riots

1 comment July 11th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1780 saw three men and two women hanged at various spots around London for the previous month’s Gordon Riots. They were the first five souls among 19 who would suffer the last extremity of the law for that disturbance.

The eponymous Protestant Lord George Gordon, had inflamed a mob against the 1778 Papists Act, which disencumbered British Catholics of some of their legal disabilities. (In part to pad out the redcoat ranks as the army found itself stretched thin by the American Revolution.)

The Gordon Riots started from Lord Gordon’s march on Parliament to serve it an anti-Catholic petition, and turned into five days of anti-Catholic mayhem before the troops were finally called out to quell it. (The want of a standing professional police force was among the deficiencies London encountered.)


This did not help Britain’s diplomatic overtures towards Habsburg Austria.

But the matter metastasized well beyond a merely sectarian event: a mass rally originating in the working-class Moorfields took an unmistakable class dynamic — assailing Newgate Prison and The Clink, liberating convicts in the process. The latter dungeon would never resume operations. “Crimping houses” for impressed sailors and “sponging houses” imprisoning debtors were also liberated.

Alongside white sailors and day laborers, London’s emerging black population would feature prominently in this affair. A “copper coloured person,” a former slave named John Glover, was observed at the front rank of those torching Newgate. Peter Linebaugh attributes to Glover the incendiary (and, as it turned out, credible) threat, “Damn you, Open the Gate or we will Burn you down and have Everybody out.” (Glover was condemned to death, but reprieved for likely-fatal servitude on the African coast.)

Three of the five executed in London on this date were hanged at Tower Hill, including both women, Mary Roberts and Charlotte Gardiner. Gardiner, like Glover, was an African; she and Roberts had helped sack the house of an Italian Catholic innkeeper.

Although nineteen folks put to death within a month and a half hardly constitutes giving the rioters a pass, it’s somewhat striking in view of the unabashedly anti-authority conflagration in hemp-happy 18th-century England that the death toll wasn’t greater. And it could have been: in a treatment in the December 1997 History Today, Marika Sherwood reports that fully 326 people were tried for some role in the Gordon Riots. But elites’ sense of the situation may well be captured by Edmund Burke’s remark,

If I understand the temper of the publick at this moment a very great part of the lower, and some of the middling people of this city, are in a very critical disposition, and such as ought to be managed with firmness and delicacy.

Less than two score were actually condemned to death for all this mess, and barely half of them were actually executed.


The 19th century writer Charles Dickens set his very first historical novel,* Barnaby Rudge, during the riots, and has his fictitious lead characters among the crops doomed to the scaffold.

(As we have seen several times, Dickens abhorred public executions, a circumstance also apparent in this passage.)

Barnaby would have mounted the steps at the same time — indeed he would have gone before them, but in both attempts he was restrained, as he was to undergo the sentence elsewhere. In a few minutes the sheriffs reappeared, the same procession was again formed, and they passed through various rooms and passages to another door — that at which the cart was waiting. He held down his head to avoid seeing what he knew his eyes must otherwise encounter, and took his seat sorrowfully, — and yet with something of a childish pride and pleasure, — in the vehicle. The officers fell into their places at the sides, in front and in the rear; the sheriffs’ carriages rolled on; a guard of soldiers surrounded the whole; and they moved slowly forward through the throng and pressure toward Lord Mansfield‘s** ruined house.

It was a sad sight — all the show, and strength, and glitter, assembled round one helpless creature — and sadder yet to note, as he rode along, how his wandering thoughts found strange encouragement in the crowded windows and the concourse in the streets; and how, even then, he felt the influence of the bright sky, and looked up, smiling, into its deep unfathomable blue. But there had been many such sights since the riots were over — some so moving in their nature, and so repulsive too, that they were far more calculated to awaken pity for the sufferers, than respect for that law whose strong arm seemed in more than one case to be as wantonly stretched forth now that all was safe, as it had been basely paralysed in time of danger.

Two cripples — both mere boys — one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square. As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied. Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town. Four wretched women,† too, were put to death. In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them. It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

One young man was hanged in Bishopsgate Street, whose aged grey-headed father waited for him at the gallows, kissed him at its foot when he arrived, and sat there, on the ground, till they took him down. They would have given him the body of his child; but he had no hearse, no coffin, nothing to remove it in, being too poor — and walked meekly away beside the cart that took it back to prison, trying, as he went, to touch its lifeless hand.


Gordon himself, an odd duck, had better resources than these poor saps, and repelled a treason prosecution.

However, fate still ordained him a death in Newgate Prison — by illness many years later, after being convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette. By that time, the former Anglican rabble-rouser had converted to Orthodox Judaism, circumcision and all.

* The first of just two historical novels for Dickens; the second, of course, was A Tale of Two Cities.

** We’ve met Lord Mansfield before, articulating the jurisprudence of a slave society. His home was also targeted by Moorsfield rioters.

† Dickens is wrong about “four wretched women” being hanged: Gardiner and Roberts, our day’s pair, were the only two. Evidently, though, these two were arresting enough in the public conscience to forge “memories” of entire cartloads of ladies gone to Tyburn. (n.b.: none of the Gordon Rioters were hanged at Tyburn, either.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Rioting,Women

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