1707: Jack (Sam) Hall, chimney sweep and robber

1 comment December 17th, 2016 Headsman

Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.

Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”

It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”

The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**

* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).

** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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Themed Set: The Ballad

8 comments July 5th, 2009 Headsman

The ballad and the scaffold go together like Jack and Ketch.

Narrative popular poetry, the ballad lyricizes precisely the sort of public spectacle and collective drama that brings the crowds to Tyburn. And with identifiable sub-genres like the murder ballad and the outlaw ballad, it only stands to reason that there’d be hanging ballads too.

It’s such a perfect marriage that balladeers hardly feel constrained to wait on flesh-and-blood hangings for inspiration but readily memorialize (frequently in the first-person voice of the doomed) a fictional, idealized crime where all the pathos and tragedy can be arranged just so.

Of course, it’s also the artist’s prerogative to just fictionalize real-life source material.

“Sam Hall,” for instance, was adapted in the mid-19th century from a ballad about the 1707 hanging of Jack Hallfinding in common between these two very different times “the social need to believe that it was possible to face death with such insouciance.”

If not all such rise to the literary level of, say, “The Ballad of the Hanged Man,” ballads’ demonstrable popular appeal has made them the metrical vehicle of choice for the crime du jour. Naturally, when the ballad opera conquered the stage, its first subject was the gallows-bound criminal underworld.

Whether commemorating doomed revolutionaries or doomed criminals, the ballad remains a part of our collective memory-shaping to give we who remain behind purchase on the timelessness of those launched into eternity.

Join Executed Today as we explore a few ballad-worthy events in the rich history of the death penalty.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

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