1769: Six felons at Tyburn, keeping away thoughts of death

Add comment October 18th, 2016 Headsman

Six Britons — Joseph Stackhouse, William Litchfield, John Anning, Joseph Godwin, Joseph Simpson, and George Low, Lowe, or Law — hanged together at Tyburn on this date in 1769, notwithstanding some public anticipation of a late reprieve for the well-connected Simpson.

Their individual tragic passions are little enough notable from centuries’ distance among the forests noosed at the dread Triple Tree, but they give us an excuse to drop in on our slightly gallows-obsessed friend, the barrister and scribbler James Boswell.

Best known, of course, for chumming around with Samuel Johnson and recording the latter’s every bon mot for posterity, Boswell attended this hanging (a regular pastime of his) and used it as the hook to elicit some Johnsonian musings on the terrors of death and the great indifference of the living to same.

I 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 were 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 it 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.”

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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