• This was mistakenly entered in the hard copy of the calendar as the 15th February… one day out. Oops.•
“Thomas Dunk, formerly of Bath, late a soldier in his majesty’s foot guards, now nineteen years old… being tired of the army, he solicited his discharge, determined to work at his trade; which proving very dull, he was easily led on to seek money in an unlawful way, for the supply of his necessities. And at the instance of Thomas Marshal, whom he unfortunately got acquainted with, when a soldier, he, in company with him, committed several robberies, for one of which he suffered.
Soon after his being apprehended, he was sent to Newgate, where he, with several others, formed a design to break the goal open, and set the prisoners at liberty; which they partly executed, and would in a very short time have compleated, were it not for the great attention, and watchful care of the master of the prison, to whom the thanks of the public in general, but more particularly of this city, is justly due, not only upon this account, but for his constant assiduity in discharging every part of his duty with justice to his employ, charity and humanity to the wretched criminals who come within his limits. Neither are his servants and turnkeys unworthy of notice, for their secresy and prudent behaviour till the particulars concerned were detected. Some of whom, notwithstanding the mercy and lenity of our most gracious sovereign, are found to be respites from death, not under confinement only for transportation, but full with sanguine hopes of a free pardon, from the pity and compassion of the best of princes, whose mercy and goodness is universally extended, not to his faithful, true, and loving subjects alone, but to those who, by transgressing both the laws of God and man, have forfeited their title to that life, which no mortal man on earth can restore.
This scheme of a general goal delivery, was first planned and attempted in manner following: while the goal smith was fixing and putting a lock on the door of an uninhabited room, one of the parties (under the pretence of curiosity) took the key to look at, and while the smith was at his work, with one of the turnkeys present, he, without the knowledge or notice of either, quickly took off the impression, by which afterwards a key was made, which admitted him and the accomplices (of whom Dunk was one, whose mother, as he confessed, brought in a small crow or tool of iron, for the said purpose) into this apartment, at convenient and fit times for their design, where they filed and cut almost every bar in the window, through which their escape was intended, and would have been accomplished, were it not for the divine favour and protection of almighty God, who always brings to light the hidden things of darkness, and by just and wise providence doth bring sin to shame and punishment, disappointing the hopes of wicked men, visiting their sins upon them in this present life, that he may deter others from their evil ways, and save their souls in the day of our Lord Jesus.” (John Wood, Ordinary of Newgate, 1770).
“After the execution a great disturbance happened, in consequence of a hearse being placed near the gallows, in order to receive the body of Dunk the soldier, which some of his comrades imagining was sent there by the surgeons, they knocked down the undertaker and after beating his men, drove off with the body along the New Road, attended by a prodigious concourse of people till they came to Gray’s-inn-lane, where they buried the corpse, after first breaking its legs and arms, and throwing a large quantity of unslacked lime into the coffin and the grave.” (Annual Register, February 1770)
From at least 1500s, until 1783, Tyburn was London’s main arena for public hangings. Today Marble Arch occupies the place feared and hated like no other in early modern London.
“Death by hanging, like most kinds o f death in the eighteenth century, was public. Not isolated from the community or concealed as an embarrassment to it, the execution of the death sentence was made known to every part of the metropolis and the surrounding villages. On the morning of a hanging day the bells of the churches o f London were rung buffeted. The cries of hawkers selling ballads and ‘Last Dying Speeches’ filled the streets. The last preparations for death in the chapel at Newgate were open to those able to pay the gaoler his fee. The malefactor’s chains were struck off in the press yard in front of friends and relations, the curious, the gaping and onlookers at the prison gate. The route of the hanging procession crossed the busiest axis of the town at Smithfield, passed through one of the most heavily populated districts in St Giles’s and St Andrew’s, Holborn, and followed the most-trafficked road, Tyburn Road, to the gallows. There the assembled people on foot, upon horseback, in coaches, crowding near-by houses, filling the adjoining roads, climbing ladders, sitting on the w all enclosing Hyde Park and standing in its contiguous cow pastures gathered to witness the hanging. By the eighteenth century this crowd had become so unruly that the ‘ hanging match’ became well known to foreign visitors and English alike as both a principal attraction of the town and a periodic occasion of disturbance.
The efficacy of public punishment depends upon a rough agreement between those who wield the law and those ruled by it. Whipping, ducking and the pillory, like public hangings, depended upon the public infliction of ignominy, execration and shame. As hangings were attended with disruptions, threatened rescues, disorders, brawls and riot, by the time of the eighteenth century order at them rested less upon community consensus in the justice of the sentence or in the manner of its execution than by the force of arms and the spectacular terror in the panopoly of a state hanging.”
By the spectacle and terror of public hangings, the authorities were trying to overawe the teeming disorderly lower classes, to impress on them that rebellion, crime, dissent would end badly, that the power of the state was so great and over-arching that to oppose it was futile.
Although this was the intention, resentment, resistance and subversion from below was constantly undermining the shock and awe of public executions. One notable aspect of this was the struggle to keep the bodies of the executed ‘felons’ out of the hands of the dissecting surgeons.
Eighteenth century anatomists struggled to get hold of bodies to dissect. And more and more hospitals in London were being to train students in dissection. Advances in medicine were sprouting all over the place, resulting in pressure for scientific investigation of the human body.
All of which led to an explosion in the demand for corpses. Legally it was difficult to obtain nice warm dead bodies. By a law passed in Elizabethan times and renewed by Charles II the Royal College of Physicians was allowed the bodies of six executed criminals a year, and the Company of Barber-Surgeons were allotted four, for anatomical dissection. Other hospitals and private medical schools had to rely on illegal and dangerous methods – graverobbing, physically fighting the agents of the Company and the College to grab their corpses; or hanging about outside Newgate Prison on a hanging day, offering to buy the bodies of the condemned. A considerable trade in bodies existed.
“With the advance in understanding of anatomy and the corresponding development of private trade in corpses, we can find in the early eighteenth century a significant change in attitude towards the dead human body. The corpse becomes a commodity with all the attributes of a property. It could be owned privately. It could be bought and sold. A value not measured by the grace of heaven nor the fires of hell but quantifiably expressed in the magic of the price list was placed upon the corpse. As a factor in the production of scientific knowledge, the accumulated rituals and habits of centuries of religion and superstition were swept aside. Bernard de Mandeville, himself trained as a physician, but known mainly for demonstrating that ‘private vices are public virtues’ in The Fable of the Bees, wrote a series of articles for the British Journal in the months before Jonathan Wild was hanged in 1725. Addressed to ‘men of business’, they provide the first utilitarian defence in eighteenth-century England of the dissection of condemned criminals.”
Repeated petitions and complaints from the Royal College and the Barber-Surgeons Company, that they just couldn’t get enough bodies, couldn’t pay enough to compete with their rivals, eventually persuaded the government to legislate to increase their ration. The 1752 ‘Murder Act’ introduced dissection as part of the sentence. This was not only a generous concession to the need for medical advance, but was an attempt to introduce an extra deterrent:
“It is become necessary that some further Terror and peculiar Mark of Infamy be added to the Punishment.” Provision was made for dissection as an added punishment after death; and for denying Christian burial to murderers.
“The combined demands o the Physicians and the Surgeons on one hand and the surgeons of the schools and the hospitals on the other produced an intolerable situation to the ‘loose and disorderly Persons’ gathered beneath the gallows’ tree, whose violence against all types of surgeons intensified. Such were the factors causing the disturbances at Tyburn. The relative peace which settled at the gallows after mid-century resulted from the partial satisfaction of the interests of all parties. The Physicians, as appears from their records, ceased to obtain bodies from Tyburn by the third decade o f the century. After 1752 the Company of Surgeons received a regular supply of them.”
From the perspective of the poor, the people who ended up on the gallows, this ignominy was too much. : “the simple, direct desire for a decent Christian burial, with its concern for order, propriety and the peaceful translation of the soul from this life to the next. Hanging removed a man by violence from this life. At least his soul should be allowed to enter the next in peace.”
“So obvious was the need for proper treatment of the dead for the peaceful departure to an afterlife that it hardly needed to be mentioned. Exceptional and unusual beliefs, however, required stating and do survive in the evidence. Some regarded the resurrection of the flesh in ways quite different from those of the Church of England…. The belief that the dead possessed the power ‘to come again’ was the last revenge of the dead upon the living; as such, it provides us with indications not only about the popular conception of death but also of popular notions of justice.”
“No evidence has come to light to show that the Tyburn crowd thought that somehow the dissection of felons impaired the specific powers of the spirits of the dead to return to the living. However, a belief in life after death, especially in the forms which we have described, was connected with beliefs about justice, the law and the value of life. In these cases therefore the added humiliation of the surgeon’s scalpel to the hangman’s noose rendered the injustice of the law all the more loathsome.”
The condemned appealed to friends, family and wider that their bodies should be saved from the agents of the surgeons… Riots, pitched battles and running fights erupted around the gallows and the hospitals, as crowds fought to rescue the corpses of the hanged from the surgeons knife.
Condemned felons appealed for help through “five kinds of solidarities” – their family, personal friends, fellow workers, the Irish and sailors – though these overlapped, of course, and divisions were often transcended in the general passion of struggle.
Samuel Richardson writing in 1740 described a Tyburn riot:
“As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters, and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed . . . and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at.”
This final act of friendship, of family feeling, of workplace or national solidarity, became a matter of honour and pride as well as solidarity. Just as workers, and some masters, joined a friendly society to save against the danger of lay-offs, sickness or death, the struggle against the surgeons reflected “solidarity in the face of death”. Thus “brick-makers came out to defend the bodies of two felons with several years of good standing in the trade against the surgeons, when bargemen came down from Reading to guard one of their own at his hanging, when the Hackney coachmen rallied to keep the body of a fellow coachman ‘ from being carried off by Violence’, or when the small cottagers and market people of Shoreditch surrounded the tumbril of Thomas Pinks their neighbour in the village, ‘declaring they had no other Intention, than to take Care of the Body for Christian burial’ ”.
The Irish, also appealed to each other, and sailors to their fellow seamen, and since the Irish formed 16 percent of those hanged at Tyburn in the eighteenth century, and sailors around 25 percent, these were no idle allegiances.London’s Irish were generally among the City’s poorest, and already disposed to violence and collective disorder; sailors too were usually skint, to the fore in crowd trouble and riotous occurrences, and also hated the medical profession: “For one, hospitals were used as crimping houses [where men were kidnapped for the armed forces] and detention centres for impressed and runaway sailors. For another, the chief killer of seamen was neither combat nor the hazards of the ocean, but diseases (‘ black vomit’ , ‘ague’ , ‘ship fever’ and ‘the bloody flux’) which were made worse by the tetanus and gangrene caused by the ships’ surgeons. Tobias Smollett, who sailed as a surgeon’s mate to the bloody action at Carthagena (1741), ‘was much less surprised that people should die on board than that any sick person should recover’. In eighteenth-century sailors’ slang the surgeon was called ‘crocus’, an elision of ‘croak us’, meaning to ‘kill us’.
On occasions, crowds gathering at Tyburn to rescue the bodies of the hanged threatened order to the point where hundreds of constables and soldiers were mobilised to prevent them.
But it could cost you – “John Miller was captured and incarcerated in Clerkenwell New Prison for attempting to rescue the body of his friend George Ward from the surgeons. John Clark lost his life for trying to save the body of his friend. He had been to Tyburn ,’ he said, ‘ to assist in carrying off the Body of my Friend, Joseph Parker from the Surgeons, and was seen by the Prosecutor.’ ” He was also condemned to hang.
Beyond the simple defence of the bodies of the dead, there was also always the hope of reviving the corpse. “During the first half of the eighteenth century the cause of death at Tyburn was asphyxia, not dislocation of the spine. A broken neck was decisive. Asphyxia, however, could result in temporary unconsciousness if the knot was tied, or the noose placed around the neck, in a particular fashion. incomplete hangings without fatal strangulation were common enough to sustain the hope that resuscitation (‘resurrection’ as it was called) would save the condemned. In the sixteenth century ‘resurrections’ were so frequent and the costs incidental to them so substantial that the Barber-Surgeons ruled that the expenses thus entailed should be borne by those who brought the body to the ‘Thanatomistes’. William Petty in the seventeenth century attained considerable notoriety when he began to anatomize Anne Green, a murderess, and found that she revived under his scalpel.” John “half-hanged” Smith lived ten years after reviving post-hanging in 1709. In 1724, when famous prison escaper and hero of London’s poor was hanged, a crowd attempted to seize his body to save it from the surgeons, amongst whom were a group of Sheppard’s mates who had promised him they would grab his body and attempt to revive him – a plan that failed when during the riot the hall containing his body, obtained by the surgeons, was surrounded by a crowds. However, some ‘gentlemen’ did rescue his body and he was buried (though his resurrection was prevented).
To the modern mind, there does come the occasional complaint, reading the above – rescuing hanged bodies for proper burial is all very well, but why didn’t the crowd do more to rescue the condemned while they were, er, still alive…?
It’s complicated… Apart from the massive armed force often wheeled out to ensure hangings took place – it is also true that numerous attempts to rescue prisoners did take place, more often when people were arrested, or in aiding escape attempts from Newgate and other prisons; easier to achieve than escape on a hanging day. On occasion the crowds did mob the hangman and beat him up, at least once preventing the execution.
However, a complex set of mores was at work; did the majority in the London crowds accept execution in itself? Was a distinction was made between accepting the death sentence as the righteous judgement of the law and the cutting up of their corpses, which was perceived as crossing a line? There seems to be some evidence that this was the case. But the London crowds were never homogenous, and a wide range of opinion thronged the streets, often evolving and swinging one way and another.
As said earlier, many superstitious people may have believed that the spirits of the dead could exact revenge on the living – but the ‘mobility’ were also capable of embodying that spirit of vengeance themselves., on behalf of the deceased:
“Cornelius Saunders, blind from birth, came to London from Amsterdam at the age of ten in 1740. For years he lived from hand to mouth in the outer eastern and northern parishes of London. In the spring and summer he was casually employed by street carters to call out vegetables and greens. He assisted the white coopers in making wash-tubs during the winter and autumn months; not regular work certainly, but it earned him a few pence and perhaps meals and drink. Even a scratch-as-scratch-can existence if implanted in a network of permanent acquaintances and membership in particular neighbourhoods had its own kind of security. He lodged in Lamb Street, Spitalfields, where he did domestic duties in the household of Mrs White, a victualler, in return for a place to sleep and the important perquisite of the empty wooden packing crates. These he supplied to the coopers in the Minories who remade them into wash-tubs, bathing-tubs, casks and household containers. In the summer of 1763, while fetching salmon kits from Mrs White’s basement he came across her cache of savings, some thirty guineas hidden in a shoebox, and stole it. Blind Cornelius Saunders was well known in the neighbourhood ; so the next day when he paraded himself in Moorfields decked in a new suit of clothes and silver knee-buckles, the constables sent out by Mrs White had no trouble in finding him and recovering the money. W e cannot get closer to the resentments bred of thirteen years’ service and dependence which led to this foolish theft, nor to the venomous spite of his benefactress which seems to have informed her day-to-day dealings with him. We do know that to the inhabitants of Spitalfields, Aldgate and the Minories Mrs White’s prosecution at the Old Bailey was far more brutal than the case deserved, where a ducking at the conduit or a thrashing in the street (an extra-judicial and commonly administered direct punishment) would have been more usual. The strength of feeling against this recourse to the justice o f the Old Bailey showed itself in the attempted rescue o f Saunders on the way to Tyburn (it came to nothing) and again after his body was cut down from the gallows. ‘The giddy multitude’ protected his body from the surgeons and then ‘for the purpose of riot and misapplied revenge’ carried it across London to Spitalfields and Mrs White’s house in Lamb Street. ‘ Great numbers of people assembled’, forced open her door, carried out all her furniture and all her salmon tubs, and burnt them in the street before her house. A guard of soldiers was called; but ‘to prevent the guards from extinguishing the flames, the populace pelted them with stones, and would not disperse till the whole was consumed’ ”.
Much of the above was derived from the classic The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons, Peter Linebaugh, from where the quotes are mostly taken.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.