1830: George Cudmore, posthumous book-binding

1 comment March 25th, 2015 Headsman

George Cudmore was on March 25, 1830 executed at Devon County Gaol, the present-day site of Exeter Prison.

Wanting to run off with his mistress, Cudmore slipped his wife a lethal dose of the 19th century’s prolific domestic assassin, arsenic. But suspecting the foul play, the surgeon opened Grace Cudmore’s belly and found the incriminating powder. At trial, Cudmore was convicted of the murder while the mistress, Sarah Dunn, was acquitted — somewhat to her own surprise.

The man’s strange last request was for Dunn to witness his hanging — grandly justified as a means to scare straight his ex-lover’s amoral libido. (Dunn already had four children out of wedlock at this point.) Exeter’s Western Times (March 27, 1830) reported that the ghastly sight of her Cudmore’s strangling on the rope “sunk [Dunn] down, and violent hysterics deprived her for awhile, of any further consciousness.”

More strange by far than the man’s late turn to righteousness was the disposal of his remains.

Condemned to the post-mortem terror of dissection, part of Cudmore’s skin was flayed, tanned, and eventually used to cover a book — an 1852 edition of The Poetical Works of John Milton.


Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

Paradise Lost

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1789: Skitch, amidst the tears of thousands

Add comment April 3rd, 2011 Headsman

London Times, April 14, 1789:

Exeter, April 8. Friday last were executed at Heavitree-gallows, William Snow, alias Skitch, for breaking the house of Richard Adams, in the parish of Romansleigh, and stealing a quantity of plate thereout; and James Waybourn, for robbing farmer Stokes, near Bickley-wood. They were perfectly resigned to their fate; yet it was with difficulty that Waybourn was induced to answer any questions respecting his guilt.

The behaviour of Skitch manifested how little there is in the approach of death, when the human mind is brought into a calm and pious disposition, by serious meditation on the attributes of an all powerful and gracious Deity. He declared that day to be the happiest of his life; and exhorted the spectators to avoid his errors. He had hung but a few seconds, when the rope slipped from the gallows, and he fell to the ground. It is impossible to describe the feelings of the multitude at the thought of his being again suspended; yet was this painful interval less afflicting to the magnanimous sufferer than to the spectators. Skitch heard their sorrowful exclamations, and said, with an air of compassion, “Good people, be not hurried; I can wait a little:” and the executioner wishing to lengthen the rope, which had slipped, Skitch calmly waited till Waybourn was quite dead, when the rope was taken from the deceased’s arms, in order to compleat the execution of Skitch, who was a second time launched from the cart amidst the tears of thousands.


An overgrown gravestone in a Heavitree church cemetery. (cc) image from HayneZ.

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1719: Nicholas Horner, a minister’s son

3 comments April 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1719, Nicholas Horner was hanged for his highwayman career.

Actually, he was lucky to have made it to his thirties, having dodged the noose thanks to the old man after his first condemnation.

THIS unhappy wretch was the younger son of the minister of Honiton, in Devonshire, and was a very wild untoward child even from infancy. However, his indulgent father, in order to provide for him, bestowed as much learning upon him as qualified him to be clerk to an attorney … but he soon falling into extravagant company, and addicting himself very much to drunkenness and whoredom, ran away from his master before he had served him three years, and betook himself to the highway in order to support himself in the pursuit of those vices. He had such ill luck, nevertheless, in his new profession, as to be taken in the very first robbery he attempted to commit, and accordingly … brought to trial and condemned. However, his father made such interest for him at Court that Queen Anne, who was always known to have a great veneration for the clergy, in consideration of his father’s being one of that order, was prevailed upon to grant him a pardon, upon condition of his being transported out of her Majesty’s dominions, and not settling in any part of Europe for the term of seven years, within six months after his going out of jail.

The Newgate text then indulges a picturesque excursion to the hinterlands, with Horner shipped to India and his English wife being carried off by the Hindoos, then obliged to undergo self-immolation when her Indian husband died.

We rejoin Horner having returned home to find his parents dead. He quickly blew his inheritance and “had again recourse to the highway.”

A slow-moving highway, since his stickup schtick took some time to unfold.

One day, being upon his rambles in quest of prey, and coming up with a rich farmer — “Well overtaken, friend,” said Horner; “methinks you look melancholy: pray what may be your affliction? If you are under any misfortunes by crosses and losses in the world, perhaps it may be in my power to relieve you.” The farmer very frankly replied: “Ah! dear sir, were I to say that I have had any losses in the world, I should be telling a great lie; for I have been a thriving man all my lifetime, and should want for nothing had I but content. But indeed I have crosses enough, through a damned scolding wife at home … Wherefore, could any man tell me a remedy that would cure it, I have a hundred pounds about me in gold and silver which I would freely give him with all my heart for so great a benefit as I should receive by taming this confounded shrew.”

At the mention of the agreeable name of a hundred pounds Horner pricked up both his ears and answered: “Sir, I will first tell you the ingredients which enter into the composition of a scold, and the cause of a distemper being truly known, ’twill be the more easy to complete the cure. You must understand, then, that Nature, in making an arrant scold, first took of the tongues and galls of bulls, bears, wolves, magpies, parrots, cuckoos and nightingales, each a like number; the tongues and tails of vipers, adders, snails and lizards, six apiece; aurum fulminans, aqua fortis and gunpowder, of each one pound; the clappers of seventeen bells and the pestles of thirty apothecaries’ mortars. These being all mixed together, she calcined them in Mount Strombolo, and dissolved the ashes in water taken just under London Bridge at three-quarters’ flood; she then filtrated the whole through the leaves of Calepine’s Dictionary, to render the operation more verbose, after which she distilled it a second time through a speaking trumpet, and closed up the remaining spirits in the mouth of a cannon.

“Then she opened the graves of all newly deceased pettifoggers, mountebanks, barbers, coffee-men, newsmongers and fishwives from Billingsgate, and with the skin of their tongues made a bladder, which she covered over drum-heads, and filled with storms, tempests, whirlwinds, thunder and lightning; and in the last place, to make the whole composition the more churlish, she cut a vein under the tongue of the dog-star, extracting from thence a pound of the most choleric blood, and then, sublimating the spirits, she mixed them up with the foam of a mad dog, and putting all together in the fore-mentioned bladder stitched them up therein with the nerves of Socrates’ wife.”

“A damned compound indeed this is,” rejoined the farmer. “Surely it must be impossible at this rate for any man to tame a scold.” “Not at all,” continued Horner; “for when she first begins to be in her fits, which you may perceive by the bending of her brows, then apply to her a plaster of good words; after that give her a wheedling potion, and if that will not do, take a birch rod and apply the same with a strong arm from shoulder to flank, according to art; that will infallibly complete the cure.” The farmer, being very well pleased with the prescription, not only gave Horner many thanks, but a good treat at the next inn they came to. Afterwards they rode on together again, and when they came to a convenient place, said Horner: “Will you be pleased to pay me now, sir, for the good advice I have given you?” “I thought, sir,” answered the farmer, “that the treat I gave you in return was sufficient satisfaction.” “No, sir,” quoth Horner, “you promised a hundred pounds, and, d–n me, sir,” continued he, presenting a pistol to his breast, “deliver your bag this instant, or you are a dead man.” At this rough compliment the farmer delivered it to him; but not without a hearty curse or two, and swearing withal that his wife should pay dearly for it the first time he tried the experiment of the birch rod upon her.

Evidently some kind-hearted fellow-bandit, or a target with appointments to keep, or something, helped tighten up Horner’s delivery.

Not long after this exploit Horner met with a gentleman upon Hounslow Heath, whom he saluted with the terrifying words: “Stand and deliver.”

(whew.)

Whereupon the person assaulted gave him what money he had about him, amounting to about six guineas, and said to him: “Truly, sir, you love money better than I do, to venture your neck for it.” “I only follow the general way of the world, sir,” quoth Horner, which now prefers money before either friends or honesty, yea, some before the salvation of their souls; for it is the love of gold that makes an unjust judge take a bribe; a corrupt lawyer plead a wrong cause in defiance of truth and justice; a physician kill a man whom he pretends to cure, without fear of hanging; a surgeon keep a patient long in hand, by laying on one plaster to heal, and two to draw his wound. ‘Tis gold that makes the tradesman tell every day a thousand lies behind the counter, in putting off his bad wares; ’tis that makes the butcher blow his veal, the tailor covet so much cabbage, the miller take toll twice, the baker wear a wooden cravat, and the shoemaker stretch his leather as he does his conscience. In short, ’tis that makes gentlemen of the pad, as I am, wear a Tyburn tippet, or old Storey’s cap, on some country gallows, which all of our noble profession value no more than you, sir, do the losing of this small trifle of six guineas.”

Social criticism of this sort is often put into the mouths of the Newgate Calendar’s evildoers, and in particular its gentleman robbers; note the very close parallel of this last critique to that supposedly uttered by James Withrington.

It is, in fact, essential to the highwayman archetype, and an identity real-life highwaymen intentionally played to — the gentleman thief (mirrored by contemporaries in the Golden Age of Piracy), who here opposes, and there merely parallels, the ascendant order of capitalism.

The complexity of 18th century England’s relationship to the highwayman, filtered through a blossoming mass media, has much exercised later historians: where does a pattern of speech like this fit in its milieu? Can one find in a highwayman’s travesty of bourgeois values, with Linebaugh, an expression of class resistance, or is he merely a failed satirist? Does he truly oppose — or does the futile romance of the road waste genuine opposition on escapism?*

The qualities of resistance, satire and escapism were well-known to the 18th century. That century’s smash theatrical hit, The Beggar’s Opera, staged the noble rogue’s critique to packed houses, and to the dismay of the moralistic element.

Since laws were made for every degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company,
Upon Tyburn Tree!
But gold from the law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
‘Twould thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree!

Decades later, highwaymen like Paul Lewis were still humming this tune en route to the gallows and self-consciously playing “Macheath”.

Nicholas Horner was hanged before The Beggar’s Opera debuted, but he — either the man or the character — had more sharp words for another keystone of propriety, holy wedlock. Whether this is the voice of the robber or his interlocutor, we may venture (given the shrew-taming digression above), that it’s someone whose domicile was less than blissful.

Horner overtook, beyond Maidenhead Thicket, a young man and a young woman who were going to be married at Henley-upon-Thames, with a couple of bridesmen and bridesmaids.

These he presently attacked … [and] demanded also the wedding-ring, for which the intended bridegroom entreated him yet more earnestly than for his money; but Horner being resolutely bent upon having it, they delivered it to him; whereupon he said: “You foolish young devils, do you know what you are going about? Are you voluntarily going to precipitate yourselves into inevitable ruin and destruction, by running your heads into the matrimonial noose with your eyes open? Do you know it is an apprenticeship for life, and a hard one too? You had better be ruled by me, and take one another’s words; and if you do, you’ll find in taking my counsel that it is the best day’s work you ever did since the hour of your birth.”

Ah, for the days when intercity transit entailed the omnipresent prospect of a gentlemanly robbery.

Let’s conclude on a light note — since we know the end of the story, after all — and picture whether this escaped mugging constituted news-you-can-use for broadsheet readers of a thespian bent.

Not long after this exploit a lady of distinction, being alone in the stage-coach … was informed by the coachman … that if her ladyship had any things of value about her, it would be her best way to secure them as well as she could, for he saw several suspicious fellows scouting up and down the heath … [T]he lady put her gold watch, a purse of guineas and a very fine suit of laced head-cloths under her seat. This done she dishevelled her hair in a very uncouth manner all over her head and shoulders, by which time Horner had ridden up to her, and presenting a pistol into the coach demanded her money.

Hereupon the lady … [acted] the part of a lunatic, which she did to the life, for opening the coach door and leaping out, and taking Horner by one of his legs, she shrieked out in a most piteous and lamentable shrill voice: “Ah! dear Cousin Tom, I am glad to see you. I hope you will now rescue me from this rogue of a coachman, who is carrying me, by that villain my husband’s order, to Bedlam for a madwoman.” “D— me,” replied Horner, “I am none of your cousin; I don’t know you. I believe you are mad indeed, so Bedlam is the fittest place for you.” “Ah! Cousin Tom,” said the lady again, “but I will go along with you; I won’t go to Bedlam.” She then clung close to Horner and his horse, and counterfeited lunacy with such dexterity that he really thought it natural, and asked the coachman: “Do you know this mad b—h? “Yes,” replied the coachman, “I know the lady very well she is sadly distracted, for she has torn her head-cloths all to pieces and thrown them away as we came along; and I am now going with her by her husband’s orders to London, to put her into a madhouse, where she may be cured; but not into Bedlam, as she supposes.” “E’en take her then along with you to the devil, if you will,” said Horner in a passion, “for I thought to have met with a good purchase, and I find now there is nothing to be got of this mad toad.” So he set spurs to his horse and rode away as fast as he could, for fear of being plagued any more with her, for she seemed mighty fond of her cousin, and ran a good way after him; but after he was gone out of sight she was better pleased with his absence than his company, and got safe to London.

* The issues at stake, and the literature on them, are explored at length in Andrea McKenzie’s “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly December 2006, Vol. 69, No. 4, Pages 581–605.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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1885: Not John “Babbacombe” Lee, the man they could not hang

6 comments February 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1885, a most inexplicable thing occurred on the gallows of Exeter.

It was there that John Lee, nicknamed “Babbacombe”, made his peace with his maker and faced hanging for the murder of an elderly spinster a few months before.

Lee still protested his innocence. He was not generally believed.

We’ll let Charles Hoy Fort, that renowned chronicler of the impossible, take it from here*:

It was a scene of the mechanism and solidity of legal procedure, as nearly real as mechanism and solidity can be.

Noose on his neck, and up on the scaffold they stood him on a trap door. The door was held in position by a bolt. When this bolt was drawn, the door fell —

John Lee, who hadn’t a friend, and hadn’t a dollar —

The Sheriff of Exeter, behind whom was Great Britain.

The Sheriff waved his hand. It represented Justice and Great Britain.

The bolt was drawn, but the trap door did not fall. John Lee stood with the noose around his neck.

It was embarrassing. He should have been strangling. There is something of an etiquette in all things, and this was indecorum. They tinkered with the bolt. There was no difficulty. whatsoever, with the bolt: but when it was drawn, with John Lee standing on the trap door, the door would not fall.

Something unreasonable was happening. Just what is the procedure, in the case of somebody, who is standing erect, when he should be dangling?

Three times they made the attempt. Three times the door failed to open — even though the apparatus performed perfectly when tested without the prisoner.

Lee was returned to his cell by the bewildered authorities, and Home Secretary William Vernon Harcourt commuted his sentence to penal servitude.

Eventually released in 1907, John Lee milked his bizarre celebrity by giving public declamations of his unaccountably aborted Calvary — and continued to maintain his innocence.

After this mighty stroke of — well, was it divine intervention? — that claim carried a lot more weight. Lee’s innocence is hardly an established fact, but the circumstantial nature of the evidence against him looks much weaker now than it did in 1885. The BBC’s Inside Out even speculates that Lee’s own lawyer did the deed.

But does one really care, by now? The principals are long dead and buried. What remains is that brief and timeless encounter with the uncanny.

The British band Fairport Convention cast a look back on Babbacombe Lee with an entire 1971 album.

There’s also a 2001 book, The Man They Could Not Kill (nothing to do with the Boris Karloff movie of the same title), whose online promotional site offers a bounty of information about the case.

* From Fort’s book Wild Talents.

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