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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1811: Thomas White and John Newbolt Hepburn of the Vere Street Coterie

1 comment March 7th, 2011 Headsman

Two centuries ago today, two men were hanged at Newgate Prison for buggery as a result of one of 19th century England’s most notorious anti-gay police raids.

Brits whose sexual palate ran beyond the stiff upper lip braved the force of the law to frequent molly houses, private clubs catering to homosexuality, cross-dressing, and the like.

In 1810, bobbies* busted mollies at one such establishment at the White Swan in London’s Vere Street. A press which evidently preferred its nicknames as vanilla as its coition dubbed these apprehended sodomites the Vere Street Coterie.

According to Phoenix of Sodom, a lasciviously queer-loathing account of the Coterie’s misadventures and of “the vast geography of this moral blasting evil” infesting London,

The fatal house in question was furnished in a style most appropriate for the purposes it was intended. Four beds were provided in one room – another was fitted up for the ladies’ dressing-room, with a toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c. A third room was called the Chapel, where marriages took place, sometimes between a “female grenadier”, six feet high and a “petit maitre” not more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! There marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of “bridesmaids” and “bridesmen”; the nuptials were frequently consummated by two, three or four couples, in the same room, and in the sight of each other. The upper part of the house was appropriated to youths who were constantly in waiting for casual customers; who practised all the allurements that are found in a brothel, by the more natural description of prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with wretches of the lowest description.

It seems the greater part of these quickly assumed feigned names, though not very appropriate to their calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal Merchant; Miss Selina a Runner at a Police Office; Blackeyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a Butcher; Lady Godiva, a Waiter; the Duchess of Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Duchess of Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion, and a very natural one, that the prevalency of this passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings only: but this seems to be, by Cook’s account, a mistaken notion; and the reverse is so palpable in many instances, that Fanny Murry, Lucy Cooper, and Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf Tyre-Smith: the latter of these monsters has two sons, both very handsome young men, whom he boasts are full as depraved as himself. These are merely part of the common stock belonging to the house; but the visitors were more numerous and, if possible, more infamous, because more exalted in life.

This intriguing little window into proto- or pre-gay culture opens to us at some cost to its participants, six of whom were confined to the pillory where the dangerous mob (“chiefly consisting of women”) bombarded them

with tubs of blood, garbage, and ordure from their slaughter-houses, and with this ammunition, plentifully diversified with dead cats, turnips, potatoes, addled eggs, and other missiles … They walked perpetually round during their hour [the pillory swivelled on a fixed axis]; and although from the four wings of the machine they had some shelter, they were completely encrusted with filth … On their being taken down and replaced in the caravan, they lay flat in the vehicle; but the vengeance of the crowd still pursued them back to Newgate, and the caravan was so filled with mud and ordure as completely to cover them.

Worse was to come.

Not arrested on the initial bust or included on the pillory, a 16-year-old regimental drummer named Thomas White was snitched out by a fellow-drummer for having also been a White Swan regular … and in fact, “an universal favourite … very deep in the secrets of the fashionable part of the coterie.”

The stool pigeon’s motivation was the usual in such cases: said pigeon was also making a bit on the side from the Coterie, and he had a mind to avoid his own self being completely covered with mud and ordure and dead cats and turnips.

This James Mann’s report to his superior officer, and subsequent testimony to the magistrates, got White and his partner in vice Ensign John Hewbolt Hepburn hanged for sodomy.

Our correspondent in Phoenix of Sodom notes the presence among that “vast concourse of people” who witnessed their deaths several nobles whom he clearly takes to be a vanguard of that homosexual agenda, “the Duke of Cumberland, Lord Sefton, Lord Yarmouth, and several other noblemen.” No word on Miss Sweet Lips or Blackeyed Leonora.

Merrie Olde England would go on issuing hempen discharges to gay soldiers for years to come.

As a footnote, the Rev. John Church, who might be the earliest openly homosexual Christian minister in England, was rumored to have performed gay marriages at the club.

* Okay, technically, “bobbies” didn’t yet exist.

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1856: William Bousfield, Calcraft’d

5 comments March 31st, 2010 Headsman

Until the very end of public hanging in 1868 and thereafter in prisons, hangmen were unreliable executioners…

In nearly every year the grim chronicle of bungled executions and lackadaisical hangmen was extended … [William] Calcraft the hangman simply miscalculated the drops required to effect a speedy death. In office since 1829, Calcraft was ‘a mild-mannered man of simple tastes, much given to angling in the New River, and a devoted rabbit fancier’. Nice to rabbits, he had a casual way with people. He hanged them like dogs, it was said. Another dismal apotheosis was reached in the Newgate execution of William Bousfield in 1856. The night before his execution Bousfield* tried to kill himself in his condemned cell by throwing himself into the fire; next morning [March 31, 1856] he had to be carried to the scaffold swathed in bandages. Calcraft was nervous; he had received a letter threatening his assassination. He pulled the bolt to let the drop fall and disappeared hastily into the prison. Astonishingly, Bousfield drew himself up and lodged his feet on the side of the drop. Pushed off by a turnkey, he again found the side of the drop; and yet again. He was defeated only when Calcraft was summoned back to drag on his legs and ‘the strangulation was completed’. In front of an angry crowd, Bousfield gurgled his way to death as church bells rang to celebrate the end of the Crimean War.

After this debacle, they started pinioning the prisoners’ legs to prevent them getting a foothold on the scaffold, removing any hope of preservation to the inscrutable hand of Providence.

* Charles Dickens scribbled a few rambling thoughts on the subject of Bousfield’s trial.

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1900: Ada Chard Williams, the last woman hanged at Newgate

Add comment March 6th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1900, Ada Chard Williams was hanged for murdering an infant girl.

A baby farmer, Williams took in unwanted children for money … money that went a lot further when the child died. The milestone nature of her hanging in the yard of Newgate Gaol, which would be closed two years later,* was entirely unforeseen at the time.

Justice moved fast in the Williams case, as evidenced by the London Times blurbs covering the case.**

Monday, December 11, 1899

POLICE COURTS. — At the South-Western, William Chard Williams, 41, and Ada Chard Williams, 24, his wife, were remanded, charged with the wilful murder of a child entrusted to their care, and whose body was found in the Thames at Battersea with the skull battered in. The female prisoner said they were perfectly innocent of the charge. The child was delivered by her to another woman and was then quite well.

Saturday, December 30, 1899

POLICE-COURTS. — At the South-Western the charge against William Chard Williams, 41, and his wife, Ada Williams, 24, of the murder of a child named Selina Jones, 21 months old, which had been entrusted to their care, was further investigated. Mr. Bodkin, who prosecuted for the Treasury, stated the facts of the case as already published, and added that the bodies of two other children tied up in the same way as that of the child Jones had been found in the Thames in July last, and the suggestion of the prosecution was that they had been put in the river by the prisoners. After some evidence had been given the prisoners were again remanded.

Saturday, January 20, 1900

POLICE-COURTS. — At the South-Western, William and Ada Chard Williams, man and wife, were finally examined and committed for trial charged with the murder of Selina Jones, an illegitimate child, 21 months old, which had been entrusted to their care.

Monday, February 19, 1900

CENTRAL CRIMINAL COURT. — Before Mr. Justice Ridley, the trial was concluded of William Chard Williams, 41, clerk, and Ada Chard Williams, 24, his wife, charged with the murder of an illegitimate child named Selina Ellen Jones, 21 months old, which had been entrusted to the care of the female prisoner in August last. On September 27 its body was found in the Thames in a condition which indicated that it had been stunned and strangled before being put into the river. The jury found the female prisoner guilty, and she was sentenced to death. The male prisoner was acquitted.

Wednesday, March 7, 1900

EXECUTION AT NEWGATE. — Ada Chard Williams, 24 years of age, who was convicted at the Central Criminal Court of the wilful murder of Selina Ellen Jones, a child which had been placed in her care, was executed at Newgate yesterday morning. There were present at the execution Lieutenant-Colonel Milman, Governor of Newgate and Holloway Prisons, Mr. Under-Sheriff Metcalfe, representing the High Sheriff of the county of London, Dr. Scott, medical officer of Newgate and Holloway, and other officials. Billington was the executioner. An inquest was subsequently held in the Sessions-house, Old Bailey, before Mr. Langham, Coroner for the City. Lieutenant-Colonel Milman gave evidence, stating that the execution was carried out satisfactorily. Death was instantaneous. The prisoner made no confession. The jury returned the usual verdict.

* Male executions were transferred to Pentonville Prison and female executions to Holloway Prison thereafter.

** With the exception of the last, these items are all from the Times index summarizing its news articles, and not the articles themselves.

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1839: William John Marchant

1 comment July 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1839, a spooked 18-year-old servant was hanged at Newgate Prison for murdering fellow-servant Elizabeth Paynton.

A good Chelsea lad with no rap sheet, Marchant slashed Paynton’s throat with a razor when they were left alone, fled, but was so pursued by guilt that he gave himself up and pleaded guilty. Awaiting death, he lamely told his distraught parents

the upper house-maid and the cook went out, leaving [Marchant] with the deceased in the house by themselves. The cook, as she was leaving the house, dared him to get possession of a riband or pair of garters which the deceased had displayed before the servants in the kitchen in jest, and threatened to inflict some ludicrous punishment upon him if he did not … [Marchant] improperly endeavoured to obtain possession of the garters, but she resisted him, and at length slapped his face, called him some ill names, and said she would get him out of his situation for his rudeness. He then ran to fetch a razor to cut the garters and get them into his own possession, and he then had not the least intention of killing her or perpetrating any other offense … but when he did return with the razor in his hand he was seized, as he says, with a sudden and unaccountable impulse, which he could not define, and in a paroxysm of insanity in a moment, and without premeditation, he cut her throat.

(In a later telling, he dropped the garter cover story and copped to a more distinctly identifiable attempted rape, with the murder precipitated by its object’s threat to have him sacked.)

As the London Times remarked on the hanging,

It is difficult, perhaps, to hold him out as an example to other erring youth; for, as he neither appears to have been a drunkard, nor given up to licentious courses, his crime is of so extraordinary a character, that it is hardly possible any other, by following the same course, should terminate his career by the same shameful death … there [may] be no occasion to read a lesson to those who in ordinary cases might be seduced to commit a similar offence.

The dearth of instructional opportunity (and the fact that “the crowd was not great”) did not obstruct London’s enterprising gallows-foot entrepreneurs from cranking out multiple broadsides,* complete with cookie-cutter didactic poem. This sort of thing was standard fare for the day’s forgettable petty villains, not merely its crimes of the decade.

All ye who pity my sad fate,
With sorrow most sincere,
Unto the truth which I will state,
I pray you lend an ear.
Condemned in scorn and shame to die
My doom is most severe,
‘Tis but a few short days since I
Just reached my eighteenth year.

My face is all beset with woe,
My cheeks are worn with care,
My eyes are parch’d and sunk with Grief,
That once so sparkling were.
Strange horrors chill my every vein,
A voice most wild and true,
Whispers to this distracted brain,
Thy hand Elizabeth slew.

At this my very heart doth bleed
With grief, remorse, and guilt
To think upopn the ruthless deed,
The blood which I have spilt;
For never since that hour have I
One moment’s comfort knew,
And poor Elizabeth’s murdered corpse
Is ever to my view.

Behold my days are like a flower,
That blooms at break of day,
Cut down and withered in an hour,
And vanished away.
Lament, lament, to see me die
All ye who do me view,
A poor, heartbroken, wretched lad,
Must bid this world adieu.

Vain, are my lamentations, vain
These unavailing sighs,
Girm [sic] death is hastening apace,
I must prepare to die.
Heaven grant none may hereafter be
Like luckless me undone,
But always strive with humble mind,
The tempters snare to shun.

* From Harvard University’s collection.

Update: The Times Archive Blog flags another interesting bit of this story: the newspaper’s hectoring the doomed footman’s chaplain for excessive “enthusiasm.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

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1820: The Cato Street Conspirators

Add comment May 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1820 — which was not yet a red-letter day on the leftist calendar — five radicals were hanged at Newgate Prison for a plot to overthrow the government.

A British government that had tilted from reactionary after the French Revolution to furiously repressive after defeating Napoleon was energetically at work stamping out the wide-ranging upheaval convulsing the isles.

This day’s conspirators plotted to overturn the authoritarian rule of Lord Liverpool by murdering his ministers at a dinner party. Next steps:

????

Revolution!

This excellent plot was hatched by none other than a government informant, who planted the idea among the circle and arranged their arrest when they took the bait. Already-notorious subversive Arthur Thistlewood was the jewel in the crown’s crown, particularly after having slain an arresting officer in the fray when the trap was sprung.

Ten were condemned to death, five of those sentences commuted to transportation — leaving Thistlewood to hang* along with John Brunt, James Ings, Richard Tidd and the Afro-Caribbean tradesman William Davidson. The crowd was reportedly vocally supportive of the condemned.


The Cato Street Conspirators hanged. As represented at the bottom of the scaffold: the dead men were cut down after their execution and posthumously beheaded.

It was in the aftermath of this shocking affair that Byron completed his work on a long-ago Venetian putsch, Marino Faliero, with such stirring reflections upon the blood sacrifice of liberty as

They never fail who die
In a great cause: the block may soak their gore:
Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs
Be strung to city gates and castle walls —
But still their Spirit walks abroad. Though years
Elapse, and others share as dark a doom,
They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts
Which overpower all others, and conduct
The world at last to Freedom.

Still, even from the safety of Italy, the rakish rebel had a gentleman’s disdain for these lowborn butchers overpowering anything at all.

What a set of desperate fools these Utican conspirators seem to have been. As if in London, after the disarming acts, or indeed at any time, a secret could have been kept among thirty or forty. And if they had killed poor Harrowby — in whose house I have been five hundred times, at dinners and parties; his wife is one of ‘the Exquisites’ — and t’other fellows, what end would it have answered? ‘They understand these things better in France’, as Yorick says, but really, if these sort of awkward butchers are to get the upper hand, I for one will declare off. I have always been (before you were, as you well know) a well-wisher to, and voter for reform in parliament; but ‘such fellows as these, who will never go to the gallows with any credit’ … and make one doubt of the virtue of any principle or politics which can be embraced by similar ragamuffins. I know that revolutions are not to be made with rose water, but though some blood may, and must be shed on such occasions, there is no reason it should be clotted; in short, the Radicals seem to be no better than Jack Cade or Wat Tyler, and to be dealt with accordingly.

They were. Archive.org has the free text of An authentic history of the Cato-Street conspiracy; with the trials at large of the conspirators, for high treason and murder; a description of their weapons and combustible machines, and every particular connected with the rise, progress, discovery, and termination of the horrid plot. With portraits of the conspirators, taken during their trials, by permission, and other engravings.

Here’s a topical YouTube mashup combining the stylings of the band Cato Street Conspiracy with video of a different executed conspirator against the English government.

* “The men died like heroes. Ings, perhaps, was too obstreperous in singing ‘Death or Liberty’, and Thistlewood said, ‘Be quiet, Ings; we can die without all this noise.'”

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1789: Catherine Murphy, Britain’s last burning at the stake

55 comments March 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1789, Catherine Murphy was led past the hanging bodies of her husband and their other male codefendants at Newgate Prison, secured to a stake, and put to the last burning at the stake in English history.

The convicted coiners — counterfeiting rated as high treason at the time — were the last heirs to gender-specific execution methods before the Treason Act of 1790 gave coin-shaving ladies equal access to the halter.

Though Murphy thereby earned an unenviable historical footnote, the de facto practice on the scaffold had long since been changed to spare lawmen the spectacle of a woman roasting to death. Murphy, in fact, was killed by hanging — and the “burning” part of the sentence only imposed upon her corpse. (This, however, was still more than enough: NIMBYing prison neighbors appalled by the stench of burning flesh had lent their support to the Treason Act’s reforms.)

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1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimator

10 comments January 18th, 2009 dogboy

It’s not too often that a typical convicted murderer becomes a source for not just law, but also literature and science. George Foster (sometimes spelled George Forster despite few, if any, contemporaneous spellings as such) managed just that on this date in 1803, and his legacy lives on to this day.

Foster’s case was, in the annals of capital punishment, unremarkable.

He was accused in the drowning of his wife and youngest child in the Paddington Canal, one of the many canals being improved at the time to connect various parts of England by water. Foster was found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to hang at Newgate Prison on 18 Jan 1803.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Foster was executed; minutes later, he was a science experiment.

Professor Giovanni Aldini was the nephew of biological electricity guru Luigi Galvani, and he wanted to electrify a body. Galvani had shown that frog legs responded to electricity, twitching when current was passed through the muscle, and he was in academic competition with his associate and sometime dissident Alessandro Volta over why this occurred. Galvani claimed that an electrical fluid flowed through the corpse, activating the muscles; Volta said that the cells passed electrical signals between one another. It was this latter assertion that led to the development of Volt’s first battery, a voltaic pile.* Aldini was convinced that his uncle was right about electrical fluid, but he was keen on Volta’s ideas for creating portable electricity.

His stated reason for delving into what was known as galvanic reanimation was to aid the recently drowned, who, he said, might be resuscitated. Galvani leaned on some earlier experience with beheaded victims in Bologna, as well as animal experiments, to convince British government agents of the viability of the plan. As one witness to those events stated:

A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature. In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to apply it at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.

Which is not to say it was really difficult to get permission.

Aldini’s experiments were a very public roadshow demonstration of Galvani’s ideas. London’s Royal College of Surgeons was, at that time, fascinated with the boundaries of life and death, and Aldini was more than happy to offer his services. As well, the 1751 (or 1752) Murder Act would not allow hanged criminals to be buried, and their corpses were often used for scientific discovery. Foster’s body, which had hung for an hour in slightly sub-zero temperatures, was the first complete corpse Aldini acted upon, but he wasn’t the first to get a chance.**

The Newgate Calendar summarizes the events:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.


An illustration of Aldini’s experiments with executed corpses. His notes of George Foster record that “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.” (cited in Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters)

Aldini’s act was yet another public showcase of strange new technologies, this time sparking the imaginations of the Brits. Within a generation, Scottish experimenters were performing similar feats, and the College of Surgeons had, after further attempts similar to Aldini’s, revived the heart of another convicted murderer, John Bellingham. It was the first recorded heart shock revival in modern medical history.† (Even today’s scientists turn to electricity to instantiate life’s precursors in trying to solve the riddle of abiogenesis.)

But even more than that was the effect these results had on popular culture, where Mary Shelley, well aware of Aldini’s work (as well as that of Erasmus Darwin, a proponent of evolution well before the concept of “natural selection” was framed by his more famous grandson), used the idea of reanimation — such as was attempted on her husband’s first wife after she drowned — to inspire her signature characters, Victor Frankenstein and his “monster.”

As a cultural icon, Frankenstein did exceedingly well. Considered a true Gothic novel, the story was remade for stage as early as 1887, turned into a variety of films which were subsequently parodied (c.f. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Treehouse of Horror II”, The Re-Animator, etc.), retold on radio, brought up in song, and re-written in novels.

Galvanization was never mentioned directly in that book, but the studies at the College of Surgeons were clearly an inspiration. And galvanization transcended that book, striking a chord in the public imagination. It continued to pop up in publication for decades after the Aldini/Foster event, for instance in the 1836 illustration “A Galvanized Corpse”, in which the editor of the Washington Globe, Francis Preston Blair, is shown being “galvanized” by two demons, who represent the interests of Andrew Jackson.

* The Voltaic pile was originally used to disprove Galvani’s fluids theory. However, the two were largely non-adversarial, so Volta actively advanced Galvani’s name through the word “galvanism” and, by the time of Foster’s death, “galvanize.” The term “galvanized” metal refers to a conductive element coated with something non-conductive and dates from the late 1830s. Volta, of course, is the recognizable source of the the electrical potential unit of the “Volt.”

** Indeed, the College of Surgeons was receiving all hanging victims from London since 1752, and most were put through rigorous postmortems. Such scientific experimentation is also often blamed for the revival of Patrick Redmond in 1767, who received a windpipe incision following his hanging in Cork, Ireland; Redmond, however, was documented as hanging for just nine minutes, only slightly longer than the average person takes to die if deprived of oxygen.

† Those interested in the history of cardiology in general should take a look at Louis J. Acierno’s The History of Cardiology; those interested in the use of human remains in medical science should seek out Human Remains: Dissection and Its Histories by Helen MacDonald.

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1783: The first hangings at Newgate Prison

15 comments December 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1783, London’s colorful penal history moved across town.

For centuries, public executions had been carried out at the storied Tyburn gallows, a ribald, rambunctious affair that involved carting the doomed from Newgate Prison through teeming city streets, by way of ale house pit stops.

The Tyburn era drew to a close late in the 18th century. Five weeks before, its last victim swung there.


The former hanging grounds of Tyburn, sketched by William Capon in 1785. The gallery still standing was privately erected, to sell tickets to spectators eager for a view.

Little more than a month later, the curtain raised and the trap fell on a new chapter for the London hanged.

Henceforth, the processional would be dispensed with, and the condemned simply walked across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a public gallows just outside the prison.

These were still public executions, and hardly eliminated the carnival atmosphere as this c. 1789 sketch will attest:

But it marked a move towards, if not altogether to, a version of the death penalty more familiar to modern eyes. For one thing, the prison itself became the site of punishment, absent the elaborate and occasionally dangerous theater of the trip to Tyburn; at Newgate, they were regularized, an extension of the frightful dungeon, and as the crowd itself was controlled and separated from the elevated platform, the natural next step would be at last to withdraw inside the prison’s walls.

At the same time, there is a technological advance towards “scientific” hangings geared to minimize suffering: the ‘New Drop’.

This system, whereby a trap sprung beneath the prisoner’s feet suspended him on the gallows, was not strictly new — a form of it had been used at Tyburn as early as 1760, though not repeated.* But the new drop (still just a variety of short drop, where strangulation is likely) marks a distinct shift towards a mechanistic punishment, clearly removed from the sometimes fraught physical confrontation between a prisoner and a hangman attempting to force him or her from the cart, and an antechamber into the grim 19th century science of reckoning hangman’s drops for the precise effect of snapping (without severing) the neck.

Of course, progress always has its detractors.

74-year-old Samuel Johnson groused at the “innovation” of leaving Tyburn:

[T]hey object that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators; If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public were gratified by a procession and the criminal was supported by it.

Approaching the matter from a very different perspective, Lord Byron found the Italian beheadings of Mastro Titta “altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence.”

* In the correspondence of an early 19th century Secretary of the Admiralty, we have confirmation of this in a letter of Sir Peter Laurie, available from Google Books here and here. Laurie reports that “something like a drop in hanging criminals”

was not adopted as the general mode of execution till 1783, when ten felons were executed on the 9th of December in that year for the first time in front of Newgate, on a new drop or scaffold hung with black … The gallows used at Tyburn was purchased by a carpenter who, having no sentiment in his composition, converted it into stands for beer butts in the cellars of a public house called the “Carpenter’s Arms” in Adam Street.

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1824: Henry Fauntleroy, choked on debt

7 comments November 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1824, the last Englishman to hang for forgery, met his fate at Newgate prison.

Henry Fauntleroy making his defense. From this Harvard gallery (part of the university’s Crimes Virtual Collection) of the period’s hanging press, including a Fauntleroy broadsheet (huge image, with a generic-looking merchant type as the criminal).

In a celebrated affair of the time, Fauntleroy was found to have inherited from his father a partnership in the foundering London bank Marsh, Sibbald & Co.

Desperate to keep the concern alive by maintaining a front of normalcy, Fauntleroy serviced its obligations by forging powers of attorney authorizing him to sell stock that he was supposed to merely be holding for investors.

Ever the diligent clerk, Fauntleroy made a ledger of the fraudulent transactions, plainly footnoted:

In order to keep up the credit of our house, I have forged powers of attorney for the above sums and parties, and sold out to the amount here stated, and without the knowledge of my partners. I kept up the payments of the dividends, but made no entries of such payments in our books.

The more things change

Fauntleroy, of course, didn’t have the reach of the Smartest Guys in the Room; what he did by foul means the collapse of his firm might have (more or less) accomplished by what economists regard as fair.

The firm, said the defendant, was in quite a fix.

I was only twenty-two years of age, and the whole weight of an extensive but needy Banking establishment at once devolved upon me, and I found the concern deeply involved in advances to builders and others … and the necessity of making further advances to those persons to secure the sums in which they stood indebted.

Translation: If you owe the bank £100, you’ve got a problem; if you owe the bank £100,000,000, the bank has a problem.

It took a lot less than that to run Marsh, Sibbald & Co. into the ground.

In this perplexed state the house continued until 1810, when its embarrassments were greatly increased, owing to the bankruptcies of Brickwood and others, which brought upon it a sudden demand for no less a sum than 170,000 £ … About 1814, 1815, and 1816, from the speculations with builders and brickmakers, & others, in which the house was engaged, it was called upon to provide funds to near 100,000 £, to avert the losses which would otherwise have visited it from these speculations. In 1819, the most responsible of our partners died, and we were called upon to pay over the amount of his capital, although the resources of the house were wholly inadequate to meet so large a payment. During these numerous and trying difficulties the house was nearly without resources, and the whole burthen of management falling upon me, I was driven to a state of distraction, in which I could meet with no relief from my partners, and, almost broken-hearted, I sought resources where I could, and so long as they were provided, and the credit of the house supported, no inquiries were made, either as to the manner in which they were procured, or as to the sources from whence they were derived.

In almost Dickensian fashion, our malefactor reacted more violently to allegations that the embezzlement had been effected in pursuit of a debaucherous lifestyle than he did to the criminal charge itself; if his version of bourgeois rectitude and endemic financial criminality further to the crumbling facade of his enterprise rings true, the ascetic clerk’s mortal penalty on behalf of his crummy bank will be a timely reminder of the pleasures one ought to seek before life withdraws them (or at least — just ask Robert Rubin! — of the invaluable utility of the limited liability company).

Having thus exposed all the necessities of the house, I declare that all the monies temporarily raised by me, were applied, not in one instance for my own separate purposes or expenses, but in every case they were immediately placed to the credit of the house in Berners-street, and applied to the payment of the pressing demands upon it. This fact does not rest on my assertion, as the transactions referred to are entered in the books now in the possession of the assignees, and to which I have had no access since my apprehension. These books, I understand, are now in Court, and will confirm the truth of my statement; and to whatever account all the sums may be entered, whether to that of Stock, of Exchequer Bills, or to my private account, the whole went to the general funds of the Banking-house.

Parliament abolished the death penalty for forgery in 1832. According to Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, a factor in the legislation was jurors’ increasing unwillingness to convict those accused of the crime knowing that it could lead to hanging. (See much testimony to that effect from the period’s lawyers and bankers here.)

A rumor circulated after Fauntleroy’s death — having something to do with the fame of the criminal, and something to do with what was reportedly his corpse’s unnaturally undamaged condition after the execution — that he had contrived to survive the hanging by slipping a silver tube down his throat, then absconded to live abroad.

Though evidently baseless as a factual matter, the legend is paid tribute by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, with a mysterious banker named “Fauntleroy” whose backstory would have elicited a knowing wink from many a reader in his time … and ours.

After Fauntleroy had thus spent a few empty years, coruscating continually an unnatural light, the source of it — which was merely his gold — began to grow more shallow, and finally became exhausted. He saw himself in imminent peril of losing all that had heretofore distinguished him; and, conscious of no innate worth to fall back upon, he recoiled from this calamity with the instinct of a soul shrinking from annihilation. To avoid it, — wretched man! — or rather to defer it, if but for a month, a day, or only to procure himself the life of a few breaths more amid the false glitter which was now less his own than ever, — he made himself guilty of a crime. It was just the sort of crime, growing out of its artificial state, which society (unless it should change its entire constitution for this man’s unworthy sake) neither could nor ought to pardon. More safely might it pardon murder. Fauntleroy’s guilt was discovered. He fled …

The wreck of his estate was divided among his creditors: His name, in a very brief space, was forgotten by the multitude who had passed it so diligently from mouth to mouth. Seldom, indeed, was it recalled, even by his closest former intimates. Nor could it have been otherwise. The man had laid no real touch on any mortal’s heart. Being a mere image, an optical delusion, created by the sunshine of prosperity, it was his law to vanish into the shadow of the first intervening cloud. He seemed to leave no vacancy; a phenomenon which, like many others that attended his brief career, went far to prove the illusiveness of his existence.

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