1759: Catharine Knowland, the last to hang on the Tyburn Tree

Add comment June 18th, 2016 Headsman


The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia. (via)

On this date in 1759, Catharine Knowland became the last fruit of the Tyburn Tree.

Dating to the Elizabethan age, the triangular triple gallows had long secured its place in death penalty iconography.

Over the years its sturdy limbs ushered to the hereafter London’s most hated criminals and her most beloved; dashing outlaws; steely regicides; holy martyrs — in ones and twos, or in heavy crops of up to 24.

By the time of the Bloody Code, what had once been an outlying village was being absorbed into the city, and as we come to our scene in the mid-18th century was a place of rising respectability decreasingly at home with the sordid task appointed to it — and with the disorderly revel thereby invited. Neighbors were pushing to send away the gallows.


William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747). The execution itself is barely visible, swallowed up in a disordered throng.

In little more than a generation’s time, public executions would indeed be removed from Tyburn altogether. But the tree itself did not quite make it to the end of Tyburn’s famous run.

That evil structure’s last client emerged around midnight on the night of April 16. Returning home late from a night of boozing and/or whoring, one Richard Ireland rounded onto Drury Lane where — he told the court — Catharine Knowland

bid me stop, and asked me where I was going; I said, what is that to you; she took hold on the skirt of my coat, and catch’d hold of my watch and pull’d it from my pocket; I made a struggle with her; then up came a man and said, You scoundrel dog, what business have you with my wife, and down he knock’d me; I was sensible and got up directly and pursued her.

The watch was worth 40 shillings, which meant it was worth a thief’s life.

Knowland unsuccessfully tried to plead her belly, a common enough ploy, but it seems her situation excited some sympathy beyond the ordinary for on this day of her death, “When she came to Tyburn, all the Cross-Beams were pulled down; so she was tied up on the Top of one of the upright Posts, and hung with her Back to it.” (London Public Advertiser, Tuesday, June 19, 1759.)

By that summer, beams and posts alike had been demolished — replaced by a smaller, portable structure, to begin public hangings’ a century-long shrinkage from the raucous mobs under the Tyburn Tree until the spectacle at last vanished behind prison walls altogether.

On this day..

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

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1705: John “Half-Hanged” Smith Half-Hanged

5 comments December 24th, 2008 Headsman

Because we executioners are not bereft of sentiment, it is with glad season’s tidings that we remember the veritable rebirth on Christmas Eve of housebreaker John Smith, who was cut down from the Tyburn tree this day in 1705 and revived.

“Though the crimes committed by this man were not marked with particular atrocity, nor his life sufficiently remarkable for a place in these volumes, yet the circumstances attending his fate at the place of execution are perhaps more singular than any we may have to record,” begins the Newgate Calendar, and one can all but see our Marlow setting light to his tobacco as he makes ready to unspool a particularly satisfying yarn.

After John Smith dangled 15 minutes this day at Tyburn, the crowd at his hanging began calling for a reprieve. One gets the impression our narrator may be eliding in a sentence quite an unruly affair; that “the malefactor was cut down” we may well guess, but after a mere 15 minutes? Did the crowd overpower the sentries, or were the officers of the law simply in a Christmas spirit?

There is, too, allusion to his friends’ working to obtain clemency and failing. Family and supporters of the accused intervened at Tyburn in all sorts of meddlesome ways, when they could — pulling the condemned prisoner’s legs to shorten his suffering, or holding his legs up to give him a chance at survival; fighting with anatomists for possession of the corpse, and obviously agitating for mercy at the slightest opportunity. Was it these friends who instigated the crowd’s appeal?

Whether or not Smith’s luck was as dumb as William Duell‘s, they did cut him down, and did revive him “in consequence of bleeding and other proper applications.”

So, what’s it like to be hanged?

When he had perfectly recovered his senses he was asked what were his feelings at the time of execution; to which he repeatedly replied, in substance, as follows. When he was turned off, he for some time was sensible of very great pain, occasioned by the weight of his body, and felt his spirits in a strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. That having forced their way to his head, he as it were saw a great blaze, or glaring light, which seemed to go out at his eyes with a flash, and then he lost all sense of pain. That after he was cut down, and began to come to himself, the blood and spirits, forcing themselves into their former channels, put him, by a sort of pricking or shooting, to such intolerable pain that he could have wished those hanged who had cut him down.

All this violent commotion of the spirit was enough to score a pardon, but not quite equal to the task of reforming the man now known as “Half-Hanged Smith”.

Our narrator relates that he went twice more to the Old Bailey in some danger of his neck, escaping once on a technicality and then again upon the uncommonly timely death of the prosecutor.

Nothing more is henceforth heard of the man, and it is unknown whether he decided to stop tempting fate, or whether officers of the law were in no further mood to tempt the hand of a Providence evidently determined to protect him, or whether some still more mysterious purpose thereafter summoned him away from the worldly cares of the justices.


And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

Update: Courtesy of Anthony Vaver’s captivating Early American Crime, it looks like Smith was eventually sentenced to penal transportation to the Virginia colony.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Not Executed,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn

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1783: John Austin

12 comments November 3rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1783, highwayman John Austin was hanged at Tyburn for robbing and murdering John Spicer on the road to London.

The village Tyburn on the outskirts of London had been used for public hangings dating to the 12th century. Though not the only site of executions in London, it was the iconic one. Situated at the modern intersection of Edgware and Bayswater Roads on the northeast corner of Hyde Park, the distinctive “Tyburn tree” — a triangular gallows capable of hanging over twenty prisoners simultaneously — made a foreboding landmark round which teemed thousands of spectators on execution days. Some 1,200 people were executed on this singular device.

Public executions typically began four kilometers away at Newgate Prison, where the condemned were loaded into ox carts for a two-to-three-hour procession through public streets now at the very core of London, perhaps including stops at public ale houses.


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While Tyburn carved its niche during England’s age of religious bloodletting, its social role had changed significantly by the 18th century. Most of the doomed were offenders against property, often executed for stealing negligible sums or else reprieved for transport to the New World or, later, Australia. Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged intriguingly suggests that hangings of this era were an assertion of nascent capitalism, violently throwing off the remains of feudal labor relations. (Summarized more thoroughly in this friendly review.)

Even that formative age was receding. Once a neighboring village, Tyburn had been swallowed up by the city; a generation before Austin’s death, residents of the now-upscale neighborhood had successfully pushed for the removal of the macabre “Tyburn tree”.

Austin was hanged, instead, on a portable gallows, a typical penitent imploring heavenly mercy and taking 10 minutes to strangle to death — the very last execution at that somber and storied crossroads.

Here’s the story of the Tyburn hangings from London writer Peter Ackroyd:

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Common Criminals,England,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft,Tyburn

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