1769: Six at Tyburn, “most of them, sir, have never thought at all”

Add comment October 18th, 2019 Headsman

The sixfold Tyburn hanging on this date in 1769 — all six men condemned for non-homicide property crimes.*

The acquitted Giuseppe Baretti.

We notice them best for their proximity to an altogether more prominent trial: that of the Italian emigre and scholar Giuseppe (Joseph) Baretti, which would take place two days later, on Friday, October 20.** A society fixture whose gift to posterity was setting down (or inventing) that legendary murmur of the beaten-but-unbowed Galileo, “eppur si muove”, Baretti had lived in London for many years and was well-known to the local elites … but in these days he would fear for his stately neck on account of stabbing a man to death during an October 6 brawl in the Haymarket.

This street and the district to which it gave its name lay a quarter-mile to the west of Coventry Garden (op. cit.) and was part of the same vast zone of street prostitution and other underbelly delights. What the great linguist meant to get up to ’round “Hell Corner” will have to be guessed at but in the course of his business he smacked a woman — after, so Baretti said, “she clapped her hands with such violence about my private parts, that it gave me great pain.” Upon this outrage, several young toughs accosted him, and where the innocent reader might perceive chivalry, Baretti’s defenders asserted a common setup for calculated mayhem. “It is a common case there, I am sorry to say it,” a judge testified. “There is seldom a woman that attacks a man, but they have two or three men behind them, ready to pick your pocket, or to knock you down.” Baretti knifed one of this gaggle, mortally.

Joining the local magistracy in Baretti’s corner was fellow dictioneer Samuel Johnson, who presented himself at the Old Bailey to offer evidence on behalf of his colleague.

Doctor Johnson. I believe I began to be acquainted with Mr. Baretti about the year 53 or 54. I have been intimate with him. He is a man of literature, a very studious man, a man of great diligence. He gets his living by study. I have no reason to think he was ever disordered with liquor in his life. A man that I never knew to be otherwise than peaceable, and a man that I take to be rather timorous.

Q. Was he addicted to pick up women in the street?

Dr. Johnson. I never knew that he was.

Q. How is he as to his eye-sight?

Dr. Johnson, He does not see me now, nor I do not see him. [both men were nearsighted -ed.] I do not believe he could be capable of assaulting any body in the street, without great provocation.

Johnson, however, was sanguine about his timorous pal’s potential execution. The very eve the big trial — and the day after the hanging that provides the excuse for this post — Johnson plied his gallowsshadowing familiar James Boswell with this unsentimental appraisal of human fellow-feeling:

l mentioned to him that I had seen the execution of several convicts at Tyburn, two days before, and that none of them seemed to be under any concern. JOHNSON. “Most of them, sir, have never thought at all.” BOSWELL. “But is not the fear of death natural to man?” JOHNSON. “So much so, sir, that the whole of life is but keeping away the thoughts of it.” He then, in a low and earnest tone, talked of his meditating upon the awful hour of his own dissolution, and in what manner he should conduct himself upon that occasion: “I know not (said he), whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between GOD and myself.”

Talking of our feeling for the distresses of others; — JOHNSON. “Why, sir, there is much noise made about it, but it is greatly exaggerated. No, sir, we have a certain degree of feeling to prompt us to do good: more than that, Providence does not intend. It would be misery to no purpose.” BOSWELL. “But suppose now, sir, that one of your intimate friends was apprehended for an offence for which he might be hanged.” JOHNSON. “I should do what I could to bail him, and give him any other assistance; but if he were once fairly hanged, I should not suffer.” BOSWELL. “Would you eat your dinner that day, sir?” JOHNSON. “Yes, sir; and eat it as if he were eating with me. Why, there’s Baretti, who is to be tried for his life to-morrow, friends have risen up for him on every side; yet if he should be hanged none of them will eat a slice of plum-pudding the less. Sir, that sympathetick feeling goes a very little way in depressing the mind.”

I told him that I had dined lately at Foote’s, who showed me a letter which he had received from Tom Davies,† telling him that he had not been able to sleep from the concern he felt on account of “This sad afair of Baretti,” begging of him to try if he could suggest any thing that might be of service; and, at the same time, recommending to him an industrious young man who kept a pickle shop. JOHNSON. “Ay, sir, here you have a specimen of human sympathy; a friend hanged and a cucumber pickled. We know not whether Baretti or the pickle man has kept Davies from sleep: nor does he know himself. And as to his not sleeping, sir; Tom Davies is a very great man; Tom has been upon the stage, and knows how to do those things: I have not been upon the stage, and cannot do those things.” BOSWELL. “I have often blamed myself, sir, for not feeling for others as sensibly as many say they do.” JOHNSON. “Sir, don’t be duped by them any more. You will find these very feeling people are not very ready to do you good. They pay you by feeling.”

* One burglar, one forger, and four highway robbers.

** The Old Bailey Online web page puts the trial date on October 18, which is flatly erroneous; it appears to be an algorithm’s conflation for a package of various proceedings spanning “Wednesday the 18th, Thursday the 19th, Friday the 20th, Saturday the 21st, and Monday the 23d of October.”

† A Scottish bookseller, writer and actor, Tom Davies introduced Boswell and Johnson.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Theft

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