1693: Francis Winter, at the Whitefriars sanctuary

Add comment May 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1693, Francis Winter was executed for the murder of a London sheriff.

Winter’s hanging takes us back to the last days (in England) of a queer old institution: sanctuary. Dating to centuries before the Norman conquest, this privilege of holy places to confer legal immunity upon fugitives was well into its dotage. In principle and sometimes in practice, a fellow could once upon a time frustrate the pursuit of the law by reaching such a sanctuary. However, most legally recognized sanctuaries had been eliminated with the Reformation.

Among the last of their breed was a dubious district between Fleet Street and the Thames, known as Whitefriars after the Carmelite monastery that had also germinated its zone of sanctuary. Though the Carmelites had been expelled in the 16th century and the right of sanctuary for criminals abolished in general during the 1620s, still Whitefriars held onto this association through the 17th century, gradually accumulating civil refugees such as debtors and an accompanying red light district bustling with taverns, brothels, thieves, and other accoutrements of the urban underbelly.*

This interesting place would come to be nicknamed “Alsatia”, tribute to the continental frontierlands between France and Germany which was controlled at the time by neither and thus perceived as lawless, and its reputation earned a literary profile to match: playwright Thomas Shadwell had a 1688 hit with his cant-heavy** portrayal of Whitefriars rogues (with evocative names like Cheatley, Shamwell, and Scrapeall) in The Squire of Alsatia.


Whitefriars retained its shady reputation long after the end of sanctuary: In William Hogarth‘s 1747 Industry and Idleness prints, the gallows-bound “Idle ‘Prentice” is seized by the authorities at a dive in the district’s Hanging Sword Alley. (Meanwhile, a murdered body is dumped into the cellar in the background.)

By this late date, “sanctuary” was a fading custom and was for that reason defended all the more vigorously by its claimants — all of whom shared a desperate interest in the crown’s maintaining a hands-off policy in “Alsatia”.

“The libertines, the rogues, and the rascals, who frequented its purlieus and committed abuses and outrages on peaceable citizens, made it a notorious place of criminal resort,” one history observes. “Bailiffs and officers of the law were afraid to enter its precincts to serve warrants or make executions.”

Our man Francis Winter was one of these fugitives bold enough to strike fear into the officers of the law.

In 1691, the Temple attempted to seal a gate connecting to Whitefriars. The Alsatians resisted this impediment to their movement, and when sheriffs showed up to control the situation the resistance turned into an outright riot. A lawman named John Chandlor was fatally shot in the fray.

This near-insurrection was far too much disturbance for a state whose tolerance for an open thieves’ district was very near its end. After some months evading arrest, Francis Winter would hang on May 17, 1693 for leading the angry mob. (He may or may not have personally pulled the trigger that killed Chandlor; given the chaotic situation, even contemporaries weren’t sure about it.)

Winter was a Cornish former ship’s captain who had commanded a vessel in England’s war against the Dutch a generation earlier; according to the Newgate Ordinary, Winter had then “behaved himself with a great deal of Candor and Courage.” Financial ruin later in life had driven him to Whitefriars where evidently he still retained the knack for leadership. Despite his offense against the public peace, Winter earned the Ordinary’s regard for accepting his sentence with pious equanimity.

Perhaps in respect for this frame of mind — or more probably, the better to orchestrate the demonstrative spectacle of an execution at the very gates of Whitefriars — Winter was reprieved from a May 8 mass hanging at Tyburn by Queen Mary II. (King William III was away, warring on France.) Then, upon the 17th,

he was put into a Coach at Newgate Stairs, and from thence Conveyed down Old Baily, and over Fleet-Bridge, to the Fryars Gate, in the way to which place, there were several Thousands of Spectators, who thronged to see him, when the Cart was settled under the Gibbet, and he put into it, (which was Erected there on purpose) he stood up, and spake as follows: I have no Publick Declaration to make here, my Thoughts being wholly taken up in the Concerns of my Eternal Welfare, for that is the Work that I am come here to do: Therefore I desire that I may not be interrupted. Then the Minister Prayed with him, and for him, and Recommended him to the Mercy of God, Etc.

The right of sanctuary was fully abolished in 1697.

* One notable denizen was the writer Daniel Defoe, who sought relief from his debts in Whitefriars in 1692.

** Including such charmers as “ready, cole and rhino for money; putt for one who is easily cheated; clear for very drunk; meggs for guineas; smelts for half-guineas; tatts and the doctors for false dice.” (Jonathon Green, The Vulgar Tongue: Green’s History of Slang) One can read the play here.

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1734: Judith Defour, in the Gin Craze

Add comment March 8th, 2016 Headsman

In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. … The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him, through despair, upon committing the most enormous crimes. … The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion; and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess, as one of the advantages of their fortune; and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach, as one of the privileges which belong to their station.

-Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

On this date in 1734, Judith Defour (or Dufour; she was also known as Judith Leeford) was hanged at Tyburn, and afterwards anatomized.

Defour’s four companions in death were (male) robbers, highwaymen and housebreakers, feared but commonplace scourges of London’s propertied. Defour was a different type of terror to panic the moral sense of a metropolis that daily outgrew its denizens’ comprehensions: she throttled her two-year-old daughter “and sold the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat. We parted the Money, and join’d for a Quartern of Gin.”


Maternal care has gone by the wayside in this detail view (click for the full image) of William Hogarth‘s 1751 print “Gin Lane”, a shocking figure who might allude to Judith Defour. This is not Hogarth’s only comment on the gin craze; in his “The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn” there appears to be commerce in Madame Geneva taking place in the cart to the right hand side of the frame.

Gin — short for Geneva, a corruption of the Dutch word jenever which denoted not a city in Switzerland but the potent elixir’s juniper flavoring — boomed in popularity as production advances sank its price in the early 1700s. “Cheap, widely available, and several times stronger than the traditional alcoholic beverages of the English working classes, gin was the first modern drug,” writes Jessica Warner in Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason.* And per-capita consumption of it increased nearly eightfold over the first half of the 18th century.

The specter of rampant alcoholism within the financial means of the working-class terrified the respectable.

“There is that predominant bewitching of naughtiness in these fiery liquors, as strongly and impetuously carries men on to their certain destruction … To recover him from this condition, he must be, as it were, forced into his liberty and rescued in some measure from his own depraved desires: he must be dealt with like a madman and be bound down to keep him from destroying himself,” wrote the Anglican clergyman and scientist Stephen Hales around the same time as Defour suffered. His earnest leap from moral shock to questionable social science inference — and even a proto-eugenics appeal — could have sprung word by word from the pen of a present-day drug warrior.

How many does it reduce to suffer the hardships of the extremest poverty, not only by wasting their substance by the continual drain to satisfy a false, vitiated appetite, but also by so enfeebling and disabling them that they have neither will nor power to labor for an honest livelihood; which is a principal reason of the great increase of the poor in this nation, as also of the much greater number of robberies that are committed of late years than were in former ages …

It is evident that in proportion as the contagion spreads farther and farther among mankind, so must the breed of human species be proportionably more and more depraved, and will accordingly degenerate more and more from the more manly and robust constitution of preceding generations. (Source)

Gin projected existential threats more imminent than the potential mongrelization of the species.

From the standpoint of Great Britain’s national output, gin’s production devoured a growing share of the grain harvest, with the perverse result that distillers keen to reassure lawmakers that their product posed no threat to the bread supply made pains to insist that they brewed their potion using only the lowest-quality crap not fit for consumption. On a more microeconomic level, gin was slated with sapping its adherent’s aptitude for the strictures of gainful employment while siphoning his revenues from more reputable tradesmen of whom, addled by alcoholic thirst, the drukard no longer cared to purchase even the barest essentials.** And the gin-houses, “some thousands of such, more than was ever known before” that popped up all over London came to be viewed as scofflaw cesspools — where the iniquitous planned their next larcenies or disposed of the proceeds from the last.

Cause and effect make a jumble, but as the Gin Craze unfolded every form of disorder, criminality, and social breakdown seemed but a link or two distant from the influence of Geneva.

We don’t know when this dark moon first threw a shadow over Judith Defour — only that she would transform her into a beast.

The daughter of poor and honest French-descended Spitalfields weavers, she was about 30 years old when she hanged. To reconstruct a timetable of her life from the scanty biographical details available us, she went to work by the time she was 10 or 12 years old as the silk winder for another weaver; she worked 11 years for that weaver, a woman, and then four more for a male weaver at which point the Newgate Ordinary says that “she fell into bad Company, and had a Bastard-Child, which died; and then she had another, the unfortunate Child lately murder’d by her.” Reading between the lines, she we might infer that her out-of-wedlock pregnancy was the cause of her dismissal. She had no education, and was not among the weaving industry’s skilled artisans. Hers was a perilous situation.

Did she fall into life’s waiting snares because of gin, or the other way around? The record gives us no indication — only that as she approaches Tyburn’s pall three or four years after her dismissal she is far along in dissipation and her employment prospects appear fleeting and piecemeal. Maybe she was already begging, thieving, or whoring, ills commonly imputed to Gin Lane. Judith’s mother would tell the court that “she never was in her right Mind, but was always roving,” although she was trying to save her daughter’s life when she said this.

In any event, Judith was shuttling her young daughter in and out of a workhouse at this point. On January 29, barely five weeks before her execution, Judith picked up little Mary from the workhouse as was her wont (forging a release order from the church), and brought her along as she went out boozing with a friend named Sukey† — “one of the most vilest of Creatures in or about the Town.”

The girl had been new-clothed at the workhouse, and as day wore on to evening and the gin ran dry, Sukey convinced Judith “to sell the Child’s Clothes, and carry it into the Fields and leave it there.” Maybe the kid would be taken in by some passing stranger, or returned to the workhouse; maybe Judith could retrieve her from the field later that night. Nasty, brutish, and short was this life and the only thing that mattered at that moment was the next drink. But in the attempt to silence the whimpering toddler they “ty’d a linen Rag very hard about the Child’s Neck, to prevent its crying out, which strangled her.” Then they walked away and sold those clothes for drink.

[S]he said, she was very sorry for what was done, that she never was at Peace since it happened, that she scarce desired to live; and therefore she made a voluntary Confession she had been always of a very surly Disposition, and untractable Creature, a Despiser of Religion, negligent in her Duty to God and Man, and would take no good Advice of her Friends, nor of any good or sober People. She drank and swore much, and was averse to Virtue and Sobriety, delighting in the vilest Companies, and ready to Practice the worst of Actions. She acknowledged the Justice of her Sentence, and died in Peace with all Mankind.

-The Ordinary of Newgate

The always-recommended BBC In Our Time podcast covers the Gin Craze here.

* We have previously featured Jessica Warner in connection with another of her books, about hanged American Revolution terrorist John the Painter.

** “Those that keep large numbers of cows near the town will tell you, that they have not had near the demand for their milk, and have been forced to sell off some part of their stock; which they attribute to mothers and nurses giving their children gin.” -Reformer Thomas Wilson, quoted in Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madame Geneva.

† Short for Susanna. This period also gives us the Beggar’s Opera and the most famous literary character of that name, Sukey Tawdry.

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1750: James Maclaine

Add comment October 3rd, 2015 Headsman

Gentleman highwayman James MacLaine hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1750.

The debauched son of a Presbyterian minister, MacLaine wasted first an inheritance and later a dowry on expensive clothes, gambling, and ladies of easy virtue; want, however, was his ticket to the immortality of the gallows when he joined fellow penniless gentleman William Plunkett to seek his revenue on the roads. (Inspiring the 1999 film Plunkett & Macleane — which uses one of several alternate spellings available for our man’s surname.)

For several months in 1749-1750 they prowled the environs of a lawless London, and notably Hyde Park, with the exaggerated courtesy demanded by romance of their profession. They found noteworthy prey: once, they stole a blunderbuss from the Earl of Eglington, though Eglington survived to suffer a noteworthy murder years later; in November 1749, they robbed M.P. Horace Walpole, even skimming his face with a pistol-ball that was inches wide from depriving posterity of the gothic novel.*

When caught** by mischance, the mannered† Maclaine became the object of public celebration, much to the bemusement of Walpole — who professed no ill will for his assailant but wondered that “there are as many prints and pamphlets about him as about the earthquake.”

Three thousand people are reported to have turned up on a sweltering summer Sunday to pay their admiration to the rogue, not excluding the very cream of society. Walpole teased his friends, court beauty Lady Caroline Fitzroy (wife of the Earl of Harrington) and her sidekick Miss Elizabeth Ashe, for presenting themselves among these masses to starfuck this latter-day Duval. “I call them Polly and Lucy,” he wrote, alluding to female conquests of the outlaw Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, “and asked them if he did not sing,”

Thus I stand like the Turk with his doxies around.


(Via the British Museum)

Maclaine did not have to borrow Macheath’s ballads, for he was celebrated with verse dedicated all to him — like this “Jemmie Maclaine”, to the tune of Derry Down:

Ye Smarts and ye Jemmies, ye Ramillie Beaux,
With golden cocked hats, and with silver laced clothes,
Who by wit and invention your pockets maintain,
Come pity the fate of poor Jemmy Maclaine,

Derry down derry, etc.

He robb’d folks genteely, he robb’d with an air,
He robb’d them so well that he always took care
My lord was not hurt and my Lady not frighted,
And instead of being hanged he deserved to be knighted!

Derry down derry, etc.

William Hogarth‘s 1751 print cycle The Four Stages of Cruelty, one skeleton overseeing the operating theater where a hanged criminal is dissected is subtly labeled — Macleane.

* Walpole once remarked of the ubiquity of violent crime in London that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going to battle.”

** Plunkett was never apprehended; it’s alleged that he ultimately escaped to North America.

† Although our man “has been called the gentleman highwayman,” the player-hating Ordinary of Newgate wrote, “and his dress and equipage very much affected the fine gentleman, yet to a man acquainted with good breeding, that can distinguish it from impudence and affectation, there was little in his address or behaviour, that could entitle him to that character.”

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1751: James Field, pugilist

1 comment February 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1751, Irish boxer James Field was hanged at Tyburn.

He had ditched his criminal record in Dublin for the burgeoning London metropolis and hung out a shingle at a pub on Drury Lane. (Perhaps he knew the Muffin Man.)


“dustmen, scavengers, flue-fakers, gardeners, fish-fags, and brick-layer’s labourers … the Hibernian was relating the ill usage he had been subjected to, and the necessity he had of making a hasty retreat from the quarters he had taken up” (Description of Drury Lane … from 1821. Close enough.)

Field soon developed a blackhearted reputation in London, and because he was a big bad boxer on the brute squad, constables were known to “fail to recognize” him the better to get home safe to dinner.

Even in a city without a professional police force, though, that’s a thin reed to rest one’s liberty upon. Eventually the mighty British Empire marshaled the marshals necessary to run Field to ground for a violent heist. This time, his hulking build clinched his sure identification, and he earned the hemp for his felonies.

Field lives on in William Hogarth‘s anti-animal cruelty engravings Four Stages of Cruelty, published later in 1751. He’s the model for the hanged corpse being carved apart in the dissection theater in the last plate.

Second Plate:

In Hogarth’s Second Stage of Cruelty, a small poster in the background advertises a James Field bout against George Taylor.
Fourth Plate:

In Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, the hanged corpse laid out for dissection (and dog food) is modeled on James Field.

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1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist

9 comments November 16th, 2011 Headsman

“Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me.”

Jack Sheppard

On this date in 1724, the hangman finally got Jack Sheppard.

Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no prison could hold.

It had become possible in his time to ride criminal notoriety into celebrity: Jack Sheppard, a mere 22 at his death, proved as adept with that quicksilver element during his personal annus mirabilis of 1724 as he was with a lockpick.

Sheppard’s world had him fitted to wield a hammer better than thieves’ tools — but at about age 20, a young man awash in the illicit liberty of London’s underbelly, he ditched the square carpenter to whom he was apprenticed to live free by his wits.

Peter Linebaug’s The London Hanged finds in Jack Sheppard’s career and his runaway popularity an important marker of the capital city’s “refusal of subordination: — contra Foucaultian discipline, which “makes the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful.”

An important meaning of liberation … [consisted of] the growing propensity, skill and success of London working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in. This tendency I have dubbed ‘excarceration’ because I wish to draw attention to the activity of freedom in contrast to its ideological or theoretical expressions…

This lithe youth is most famous for his literal talent for freedom: four times in 1724 he escaped from custody in ever more dramatic fashion.

He busted out through the ceiling of St. Giles Roundhouse. He rappelled with a bedsheet rope down the 20-foot wall of Clerkenwell Prison with his lover.

This sort of thing won the enterprising rogue growing folk hero status. The vaunted Sheppard “made such a noise in the town, that it was thought the common people would have gone mad about him, there being not a porter to be had for love nor money, nor getting into an ale-house, for butchers, shoemakers and barbers, all engaged in controversies and wagers about Sheppard.”*

It also drew the unwanted attention of 1720s London’s Jabba the Hutt: “thief-taker” Jonathan Wild, who managed a vast thieving cartel enforced by Wild’s willingness to turn in non-participants in his ingenious cover role as the city’ preeminent lawman. That’s some protection racket.

Sheppard, to the fame of his memory, scorned obeisance to the crime lord as much as to any guild carpenter and worked for no man but himself. A vengeful Wild shopped him to the authorities.

This time, Sheppard was actually condemned to death for burglary but broke prison again, using yet another classic ruse: the “disguised in smuggled women’s clothes.”

Back on the lam, he posted a cocky letter to his executioner “Jack Ketch” giving his regrets at not having joined two fellow-sufferers on the scheduled hanging date. (September 4.)

I thank you for the favour you intended me this day: I am a Gentleman, and allow you to be the same, and I hope can forgive injuries; fond Nature pointed, I follow’d, Oh, propitious minute! and to show that I am in charity, I am now drinking your health, and a Bon Repo to poor Joseph and Anthony. I am gone a few days for the air, but design speedily to embark, and this night I am going upon a mansion for a supply; its a stout fortification, but what difficulties can’t I encounter, when, dear Jack, you find that bars and chains are but trifling obstacles in the way of your Friend and Servant

JOHN SHEPPARD

London’s finest were determined to put an end to this character’s preposterous run of prison breaks, so when they caught him the fourth time Sheppard found himself loaded with manacles and chained to the floor of a special strongroom in Newgate Prison. Get out of that, Jack.

Somehow, Jack got out of it.

On the night of Oct. 14, Sheppard authored the sublimest breakout in Newgate’s voluminous annals. Picking the locks of his fetters with a small nail, our acrobat scurried up a chimney, picked, prised, or otherwise passed a succession of locked doors in the dead of night, paused to rest on the condemned pew of the gaol chapel, forced a grille, reached the roof, and threw another homemade rope over the wall to scamper down to safety.

And then “he promptly went forth and robbed a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane of a sword, a suit of apparel, snuff boxes, rings, &c., and suddenly made a startling appearance among his friends, rigged out as a gentleman from top to toe.”

There’s no doubt but that Jack had showmanship, but at a certain point he could have done with just the tiniest measure of discretion. But then, this was a man writing his own legend. Sure, he could have put his head down and tried to disappear into some nameless Puritan settlement in the New World. (His distraught mother kept telling him to get out of the country.) He traded those dull and toilsome years for the fame of generations: his candle burned at both ends.

When next Sheppard was detained, it was towards his apotheosis. It was the only time he would be arrested and fail to escape.

A throng of thousands mobbed London’s route to execution this date, almost universally supporting the ace escapologist. And Sheppard very nearly had for them the piece de resistance in his career of magical disappearances: it was only at the last moment before boarding the fatal tumbril that Sheppard’s executioners found the penknife their prey had secreted on his person, evidently intending to cut his cords and spring from the cart into the safety of the surging crowd. What an exploit that would have been.


Detail view (click for full image) of George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Sheppard’s death for William Ainsworth‘s Victorian novel about the legendary criminal. More of these illustrations here.

This indomitable soul has enjoyed a long afterlife as a subversive hero.

A celebrity in his own time, his execution-eve portrait was taken by the Hanover court painter himself, James Thornhill. Sheppard is a very likely candidate as an inspiration for the criminal Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera completed just a few years after his death; likewise, his abandoned apprenticeship makes him the most apparent model for Hogarth‘s “idle prentice” plates.

A century later, prolific historical novelist William Ainsworth** claimed the convict-martyr for an 1839 retelling. This popular potboiler — read it free online here — came in for a spate of 19th century social panic when it was learned that a notorious servant-on-master murder had been carried out by a young man who had recently read it. A two-decade ban on public plays based on the Jack Sheppard novel ensued.

For as much as Jack Sheppard is romanticized in his remarkable individual characteristics, his story has always had a class undertow that raises the hackles of the powerful — and is celebrated by the people who menace that power. Linebaugh, again:

Jack Sheppard, housebreaker and gaol-breaker, was once the single most well-known name from eighteenth-century England. His fame spread across oceans and the centuries. When the bandit Ned Kelly was alive, the Australian press was full of comparisons between him and Sheppard. At the same time on the other side of the globe in Missouri, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to the Kansas City Star signed ‘Jack Sheppard’. In England his name cut deep into the landscape of popular consciousness. Henry Mayhew noted that Cambridgeshire gypsies accepted Sheppard stories as the archetype of ‘blackguard tales’. Among English sailors anyone with the surname of ‘Sheppard’ was automatically called ‘Jack’. Within the Manchester proletariat of the 1840s his name was more widely known than that of the Queen herself. One of these lads said, ‘I was employed in a warehouse at 6s. 6d. a week, and was allowed 6d. of it for myself, and with that I went regularly to the play. I saw Jack Sheppard four times in one week.’

The oral history of Sheppard has maintained his memory within human contexts where books were scarce and working-class resources for an independent historiography were non-existent. Moreover, that memory was kept in contexts of social struggle in which a continuity, if not a development, with earlier moral and political conflicts was suggested.

* cited in Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, December 2006

** Ainsworth is also known for a novel about Sheppard’s near-contemporary, highwayman Dick Turpin.

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