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Thereby Hangs a Tale

There can be no calculation of the numbers of burnings and stonings, beheadings and drownings, hangings and crucifixions practised in Roman and Saxon times. But by the fourteenth century we have written reports of a condemned man wearing “a striped coat and white shoes, his head covered with a hood” and pinioned to a horse; the hangman rode behind him, the rope in his hand, while his “torturers” rode beside him mocking him all the way from Cheapside to Smithfield. This was a very public, and formalised, ritual of death making its way through the streets of London. Contrition and penance, however, were as important as any severity of punishment. The penalty for one convicted of insulting an alderman was to walk with bare feet, from the Guildhall into Cheapside and through Fleet Street, carrying a three-pound candle in the hands. This carrying of a lighted candle was a common punishment for assaults upon the authority of civic leaders or the Church, and it suggests an atonement to London itself.

The preferred punishment for false trading was the pillory. There the shopkeeper came literally face to face with those whom he had deceived. The convicted man was drawn upon a horse, facing the tail, and wore a fool’s cap; he might be preceded by a band of pipers and trumpeters. On arrival at the pillory—there was one in Cheapside and another in Cornhill— the goods deceitfully sold were burned before his face. If he had committed fraud, false coins or dice were suspended about his neck. If he had been found guilty of lying, a whetstone was hung around him, as if representing a sharpened tongue. The time of the punishment in the pillory was exactly measured. For spreading lying reports that foreign merchants were to be allowed the same rights as freemen—one hour. For selling cups of base metal rather than silver—two hours. For selling stale slices of cooked conger—one hour. Yet the timing was only one measure of pain and humiliation. To be identified and paraded in front of neighbours and fellow tradesmen was, for any citizen of London, the cause of extreme embarrassment and shame. It could also be perilous. Some were plied with rotten fruit, fish and excrement, but the most unpopular or unprincipled offenders were in danger of being pelted to death with sticks and stones. It is a measure of London’s conservatism, or strictness, that the pillory was not abolished until the summer of 1837.

Among the other sights of the city were the impaled heads of traitors. Above the main gateway of London Bridge rose iron spikes upon which the remnants of condemned men were fixed; in most illustrations five or six of these mementoes are generally depicted, although it is not clear if demand outstripped supply. In 1661 a German traveller counted nineteen or twenty, which suggests that the civil conflicts of that unhappy period were fruitful in at least one respect.

In the following century the heads migrated to Temple Bar, “where people make a trade of letting spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look”; they were also visible from a telescope set up in Leicester Fields, which suggests that heads were a city attraction. Certainly the citizens seem to have become inured to these solemn spectacles of punishment except, according to “Aleph,” “when there had been a recent sufferer; the curious would then stop to ask ‘What new head is that?’”

In the late 1760s Oliver Goldsmith was wandering in Poets Corner of Westminster Abbey with Samuel Johnson who, surveying the memorial stones to the great dead, muttered “Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis” (There may be a chance that our name will be mingled with these). But when they walked up to Temple Bar and observed the heads, Goldsmith stopped Johnson “and slily whispered me ‘Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.’”

During one memorable storm in March 1772, two heads of decapitated Jacobites fell down. Mrs. Black, the wife of the editor of the Morning Chronicle, recalled how “Women shrieked as they fell; men, as I have heard, shrieked. One woman near me fainted.” Thirty years later the iron spikes were finally removed from the malevolent Bar.

There was no respite in hanging, however. In the fifteenth century eight offences merited that fate, among them arson and “petty treason (the killing of a husband by his wife).” Anyone who could read a passage from the Bible, known as the neck verse, was deemed to be a cleric and therefore given over to the ecclesiastical authorities. Averting death was thus, for two centuries, one of the primary gifts of literacy.

From the twelfth century the favoured site for a hanging was Tyburn, the first (of William Longbeard) being noted in 1196 and the last (of John Austen) in 1783. The actual site of the gallows has been disputed, the notoriety being given variously to Connaught Place or Connaught Square, both on the edge of the desolate Edgware Road slightly to the north of Marble Arch. But antiquarian research has revealed that the site lies on the south-east corner of Connaught Square. A carpenter recalled that his uncle “took up the stones on which the uprights [of the gallows] were placed.” When the square itself was being built in the 1820s, a “low house” on the corner was demolished and quantities of human bodies were found. So some of the victims of the gallows were buried in situ. Other remains were discovered when the neighbouring streets and squares were laid out in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and a house in Upper Bryanston Street which overlooked the fatal spot “had curious iron balconies to the windows of the first and second floors, where the sheriffs sat to witness the executions.” There were also wooden galleries erected around the area, like stands at a race course, where seats were hired by curious spectators. One notorious stallkeeper was known as “Mammy Douglas, the Tyeburn pew-opener.”

Yet, of course, and more especially, the executioners themselves became notorious. The first known public hangman was one Bull, who was followed by the more celebrated Derrick. “And Derrick must be his host,” Dekker wrote of a horse-thief in his Bellman of London (1608), “and Tiburne the land at which he will light.” There was a proverb—“If Derrick’s cables do but hold”—which referred to an ingenious structure, like a crane, upon which twenty-three condemned could be hanged together. This device was then put in more general use for unloading and hoisting vessels on board ships, and still bears the executioner’s name.

Derrick was succeeded by Gregory Brandon upon whose name several puns were elaborated—“Gregorian calendar” and “Gregorian tree” among them—and who was in turn succeeded by his son, Richard, who claimed the public office by inheritance. “Squire” Dun followed, and the post was then given to the notorious Richard Jaquet, alias Jack Ketch, in the 1670s. There were many tracts and ballads directed against Ketch, among them The Tyburn Ghost: or, Strange Downfal of the Gallows: a most true Relation how the famous Triple Tree, near Paddington, was pluckt up by the roots and demolisht by certain Evil Spirits, with Jack Ketch’s Lamentation for the loss of his Shop, 1678. It was known as the triple tree because the gallows was triangular in shape, with three posts or legs acting as supports. Each of the three beams could accommodate eight people and so, marginally more effective than the derrick, it was possible to hang twenty-four at the same time.

“Execution Day” was a Monday. Those about to be hanged were taken in an open cart from Newgate, generally attended by a huge and enthusiastic crowd. “The English are a people that laughs at the delicacy of other nations,” one foreign traveller reported, “who make it such a mighty matter to be hanged. He that is to be takes great care to get himself shaved and handsomely dressed either in mourning or in the dress of a bridegroom … Sometimes the girls dress in white with great silk scarves and carry baskets full of flowers and oranges, scattering these favours all the way they go.” So the ceremonial way to Tyburn was also the site of celebration. It was customary for famous London criminals to wear white cockades in their hats as a sign of triumph or derision; they were also an emblem, occasionally, of their innocence. The more dashing or notorious criminals were handed a nosegay “from the hand of one of the frail sisterhood”—one of the prostitutes who stood before the Church of Holy Sepulchre opposite the prison.

The procession made its way down Snow Hill and across Holborn Bridge, down Holborn Hill and into Holborn itself, with those about to be hanged greeted with cheers or execrations; they were always surrounded by a group of officers on horseback who restrained the crowds. Ferdinand de Saussure, in A Foreign View of England, noted some eighteenth-century criminals “going to their death perfectly unconcerned, others so impenitent that they fill themselves full of liquor and mock at those who are repentant.” At the church of St. Giles-in-the-Field the malefactors were ritually handed jugs of ale. After the prisoners had quenched their thirst, the procession moved forward down Broad St. Giles, into Oxford Street, and on to Tyburn itself.

The cart was halted just before the gallows. Those about to die were escorted on to another carriage especially built like a platform for the occasion; it was driven beneath the triple tree. The halters were placed around the necks of the condemned, the horses kicked into action, and there the malefactors would be suspended until death overtook their pains. At this point friends and relatives might be seen “tugging at the hanging men’s feet so that they should die quicker, and not suffer.”

When the corpses were cut down there was a general rush for them, since the bodies of the hanged were believed to be of curious efficacy in the healing of disease. The London Encyclopaedia remarks upon one Frenchman who noted “a young woman, with an appearance of beauty, all pale and trembling, in the arms of the executioner, who submitted to have her bosom uncovered in the presence of thousands of spectators and the dead man’s hand placed upon it.” There was a disturbing paganism latent beneath the surface of this piece of dramatic theatre. In the mid-seventeenth century such a severed hand could command the price of ten guineas, since “the possession of the hand was thought to be of still greater efficacy in the cure of diseases and prevention of misfortunes.”

There was also a general struggle over the body, conducted between those who wished to retain it for their own purposes and those hired assistants come to transport it to the surgeons for dissection. In the mêlée “the populace often come to blows as to who will carry the bought corpses to the parents who are waiting in coaches and cabs to receive them.” It was all “most diverting,” again according to Ferdinand de Saussure, who was sitting in one of the stands which surrounded the whole event.

One thief and housebreaker, John Haynes, displayed signs of life after being escorted to the house of a famous surgeon. He was asked what he remembered—“The last thing I recollect was going up Holborn Hill in a cart. I thought then that I was in a beautiful green field; and that is all I remember till I found myself in your honour’s dissecting room.” So he came to death, and to life, babbling of green fields.

London did indeed become the city of the gallows. In 1776 the Morning Post reported “that the criminals capitally convicted at the Old Bailey shall in future be executed at the cross road near the ‘Mother Red Cap’ inn, the half-way house to Hampstead, and that no galleries, scaffolds or other temporary stages be built near the place.” This measure was promoted in order to curb rioting among the spectators at a time when a fierce radicalism characterised the politics of London. The site of the executions was, typically, at a crossroads where the present Camden Town Underground Station now stands. Other crossroads were also used as a natural location for the gallows, sending travellers upon their ambiguous journey—the division between the City Road and Goswell Road in Islington was once in use—but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was also customary to hang offenders on or near the spot where their crimes had been committed. In 1790, for example, two arsonists were hanged in Aldersgate Street immediately opposite the house which they had fired. The last recorded example of topographical killing occurred in Skinner Street, in 1817, when a thief was despatched in front of the shop of a gunsmith which he had plundered.

At Wapping lay Execution Dock, the place of punishment for all those who had committed high crimes upon the high seas, while the suspended bodies of the hanged could be seen swaying opposite Blackwall and other sites along the Thames such as Bugsby’s Hole. The bodies of the condemned could also be seen at Aldgate and Pentonville, St. Giles and Smithfield, Blackheath and Finchley, Kennington Common and Hounslow Heath, so that these mementoes caught the attention of all those travelling into, or out of, London. It was not a pleasant prospect. Murderers, for example, were “first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet … and there it hangs till it falls to dust.” Why this should have been considered an appropriate spectacle for those leaving or entering London is another matter; it is curiously reminiscent of the fact that the principal gates or entrances to the city were also used as prisons, and suggests an attitude both defensive and minatory.

Some forms of punishment, however, were more secret. In Newgate was a “press” reserved for those who refused to plead to their indictments. Here they were stripped “and put in low dark chambers, with as much weight of iron placed upon them as they could bear, and more, there to lie until they were dead.” There is an eighteenth-century engraving of a felon, one William Spiggot, “under pressure” in Newgate; he lies naked upon a bare floor, his arms and legs stretched and pinioned to hooks against the walls. Upon his naked chest is a wooden board loaded down with great weights. One gaoler, bearing keys, stands over him while another moves forward with a lighted candle to observe his sufferings. This quasi-medieval torture, known as “pressing to death,” continued until 1734—an apt indication of the barbarity of city justice.

In that spirit, too, the number of hanged rose in the latter part of the eighteenth century. In one month of 1763, for example, “near one hundred and fifty persons have been committed to New Prison and Clerkenwell for robberies and other criminal offences.” It was said in The Annual Register that the “reckless wretches seem almost to have crowded in, crying, ‘You cannot hang us all.’” But they could try.

Soon enough, however, the venue of slaughter had changed. The gradual spread of gentility to the west meant that the old tribal route from Newgate to Tyburn began to impinge upon the fashionable quarters close to Oxford Street. So in 1783 the authorities removed the gallows to Newgate itself, thus cutting off the procession at its source. The populace at large felt deprived of the spectacle of “the cheat,” to use the cant term for the gallows, and the more scholarly Londoners felt that an habitual aspect of the city was being removed in an untimely fashion. “The age is running mad after innovation,” Samuel Johnson told Boswell, and “Tyburn is not safe from the fury of innovation … No, Sir, it is not an improvement: they object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they don’t draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties: the public was gratified by a procession: the criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?” Boswell might have had his own answer. He himself was addicted to the watching of executions—“I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there,” he once wrote of Tyburn—and through the good offices of Richard Ackerman, the Keeper of Newgate, was able to witness many hangings outside that prison.

The first Newgate hanging was conducted on 9 December 1783, but its revolutionary system of “the new drop” soon claimed more victims. A few days after the sentence of death had been pronounced in the courtroom, the malefactor was “cast” and the “dead warrant” sent down to his cell. The Newgate Chronicles themselves detail the hours leading up to his appearance on the “stage.” On the first night in the condemned cell “the solemn notification of the impending blow keeps nearly all awake,” but soon they slept more easily. “All too have a fairly good appetite,” the same chronicler reports, “and eat with relish up to the last moment.” The “Italian boy” condemned for murdering a French woman in the Haymarket ate “constantly and voraciously,” as if to stuff himself before the final exit. One Jeffreys, who hanged his child in a cellar in Seven Dials, called for roast duck as soon as he entered the condemned cell.

In the hour before execution the condemned man was led from his cell into a “stone-cold room” which was the place where he was pinioned by the “yeoman of the halter” before being taken to “the new drop.” The engine of death, which was transportable, was dragged by horses into grooves marked upon Newgate Street itself. It consisted of a stage upon which were constructed three parallel beams. The part of the stage next to the gaol had a covered platform; here were the sheriffs’ seats, while around it stood the interested spectators. In the middle of the stage was a trap-door, ten feet long by eight feet wide, above which the beams were placed. The hour of execution was always eight o’clock in the morning and, a few minutes before that time, the sheriffs brought out the prisoners. Upon the dropping of a flag, the bolts holding up the trap were pulled and the convicted men or women fell or “dropped” to their deaths.

There are several contemporaneous prints displaying “The New Gallows in the Old Bailey” with those about to suffer praying or weeping with halters about their necks. Around them, hemmed in by soldiers, are the crowd, who stare up with fascination at the fatal stage. In fact a contributor to The Chronicles of Newgate wrote that “the change from Tyburn to the Old Bailey had worked no improvement upon the crowd or its demeanour. As many spectators as ever thronged to see the dreadful show, and they were packed into more limited space, displaying themselves as heretofore by brutal horseplay, coarse jests, and frantic yells.”

On one occasion, “A few minutes of most dreadful suspense” took place; “the culprits stood gazing at each other … at last the chime struck upon the ear, and the poor fellows seemed startled.” In Defoe’s account of Moll Flanders’s period in Newgate, the sound of the bell of Holy Sepulchre set up “a dismal groaning and crying … followed by a confused clamour in the house, among the several prisoners, expressing their awkward sorrows for the poor creatures that were to die … Some cried for them, some brutishly huzzaed, and wished them a good journey; some damned and cursed those that had brought them to it.”

The night before an execution, outside Newgate, all the paraphernalia of execution—the gallows, the barriers, the platforms—had to be set up. These preparations naturally attracted a crowd of idle or interested observers. The “low taverns and beer-houses about Newgate Street, Smithfield, and the Fleet district, are gorged with company, who sally out at intervals to see how the workmen get on” and “knots of queer-looking fellows form here and there” to discuss the following morning’s proceedings. The police moved them on, but they clustered elsewhere. Just after midnight on Sunday, when most of the night-revellers had been cleared, the gin shops and coffee houses opened their doors and hired out their rooms—“Comfortable room!,” “Excellent situation!,” “Beautiful prospects!,” “Splendid view!” Both roofs and windows in the vicinity were hired out; five pounds were “given for the attic storey of the Lamb’s Coffee House” and a first-floor front could command five times as much. The crowd began to assemble at four or five in the morning, and the whole area in front of Newgate was packed by seven o’clock. By the time of the ceremony itself some of the spectators, pressed up against the barriers for several hours, had “nearly fainted from exhaustion.”

When Governor Wall was marched from the press yard towards the place of execution, he was greeted with howls of abuse and execration from the other prisoners of Newgate. While the governor of Goree, in Africa, he had been responsible for the death of a soldier by excessive flogging—one of those abuses of authority which Londoners most detest. His appearance on the scaffold was then accompanied by three harsh and prolonged shouts from the crowd assembled in Newgate Street. After the hanging was over the yeoman of the halter offered portions of the rope for sale at one shilling per inch; a woman known as “Rosy Emma,” rumoured to be the yeoman’s wife, “exuberant in talk and hissing hot from Pie Corner, where she had taken her morning dose of gin-and-bitters,” was selling parts of the fatal cord at a cheaper rate.

Governor Wall met his fate with fortitude and in silence. Arthur Thistle-wood, condemned as one of the Cato Street conspirators in 1820, ascended the scaffold and exclaimed, “I shall soon know the last grand secret!” Mrs. Manning, convicted in 1849 of a more than usually unpleasant murder—with the connivance of her husband she had murdered her lover with a ripping chisel—appeared upon the scaffold in a black satin dress; her “preference brought the costly stuff into disrepute, and its unpopularity lasted for nearly thirty years.” It is curiously reminiscent of the case of Mrs. Turner, a notorious poisoner in the reign of James I; she was a woman of fashion who had invented yellow-starched ruffs and cuffs. Hence her sentence was to be “hang’d at Tiburn in her yellow Tinny Ruff and Cuff, she being the first inventor and wearer of that horrid garb.” To emphasise the moral the hangman on that day “had his hands and cuffs” painted yellow, and from that time the coloured starch, like Mrs. Manning’s black satin, “grew generally to be detested and disused.” It is a measure of the central importance of this ritual of execution that Newgate, and Tyburn, could affect the fashions of the day. Once more the idea of the city as spectacle asserts itself. Hanging, then, was essentially a form of street theatre. When five pirates were hanged for mutiny in front of Newgate, the Chronicles record that “the upturned faces of the eager spectators resembled those of the “gods” at Drury Lane on Boxing Night … The remarks heard amongst the crowd were of course ones of approval. ‘S’help me, ain’t it fine?’ a costermonger was heard to exclaim to his companion.” Theatricality and savagery are subtly mingled.

The “unceasing murmur” of the crowd broke into “a loud deep roar” as the condemned man appeared; there were calls of “Hats off!” and “Down in front” as he approached the halter. There followed a moment of silence, abruptly broken by the drop itself. At the moment of descent “every link in that human chain is shaken, along the whole lengthened line has the motion jarred.” The silence was replaced, after that sudden “jarring” of the body of the city, by a noise from the crowd “like the dreamy murmur of an ocean shell.” And then, more distinctly, the familiar cries of the sellers of “ginger-beer, pies, fried fish, sandwiches and fruit,” together with the names of famous criminals whose tracts were still being advertised on the spot where they, too, once fell. With these were soon mingled “oaths, fighting, obscene conduct and still more filthy language,” together, perhaps, with the faintest note of disappointment. There was always the hope or expectation that something might go wrong—that the condemned man might fight for his liberty or the engine of death might not function satisfactorily. Charles White, condemned for arson in 1832, sprang forward at the exact moment the trap was opened and balanced on its edge while “the crowd roared their encouragement as he struggled furiously with the executioner and his assistants.” He was eventually thrown down the drop with the hangman clinging to his legs. In these instances, the sympathy of the London crowd flooded instinctively to the condemned, as if they were watching their own selves in the act of being despatched by the authorities of the state.

There were occasions when death upon the scaffold was accompanied by death upon the streets. The execution of two murderers, Haggerty and Holloway, took place in February 1807; the anticipation was so great that close to 40,000 people were packed in front of the prison and its vicinity. Even before the murderers appeared upon the scaffold, women and children were trampled to death amid cries of “Murder.” At Green Arbour Court, opposite the debtors’ door of the prison, a pieman stooped to pick up some of his broken wares and “some of the mob, not seeing what had happened, stumbled over him. No one who fell ever rose again.” Elsewhere a cart filled with spectators broke down, “and many of those who were in it were trampled to death.” And yet amid these scenes of chaos and death the rite of execution continued. Only after the gallows had been taken down, and the mob partly dispersed, did the officers find the bodies of twenty-eight dead and hundreds injured.

Two great nineteenth-century novelists seemed implicitly to recognise the emblematic significance of these Monday mornings, when the city gathered to acclaim the death of one of its own. William Makepeace Thackeray rose at three on the morning of 6 July 1840, in order to witness the hanging of a manservant, Benjamin Courvoisier, convicted of killing his master. He recorded the scene in an essay, “Going to See a Man Hanged.” In a carriage bound for Snow Hill, Thackeray followed the crowd intent upon seeing the execution; by twenty minutes past four, beside Holy Sepulchre, “many hundred people were in the street.” Here Thackeray registered his “electric shock” when he first caught sight of the gallows jutting from the door of Newgate. He asked those around them if they had seen many executions? Most assented. And had the sight done them any good? “For the matter of that, no; people did not care about them at all,” and, in a transcription of genuine London speech, “nobody ever thought of it after a bit.”

The windows of the shops were soon filled with dandies, and with “quiet, fat, family parties,” while from a balcony an aristocratic rowdy squirted those assembled with brandy and soda from a siphon. The crowd grew more eager as the hand of the clock came closer to eight. When the bell of Holy Sepulchre tolled the hour, all the men removed their hats “and a great murmur arose, more awful, bizarre and indescribable than any sound I had ever before heard. Women and children began to shriek horribly” and then “a dreadful quick, feverish kind of jangling noise mingled with the noise of the people, and lasted for about two minutes.” This was a scene of fever and alarm, as if the whole body of London was starting up from an uneasy sleep. It was the noise, almost inhuman, which Thackeray immediately noticed.

The man about to be hanged emerged from the prison door. His arms were tied in front of him but “he opened his hands in a helpless kind of way, and clasped them once or twice together. He turned his head here and there, and looked about him for an instant with a wild imploring look. His mouth was contracted with a sort of pitiful smile.” He walked quickly beneath the beam; the executioner turned him round, and put a black nightcap over “the patient’s head and face.” Thackeray could look no more.

The episode left him with “an extraordinary feeling of terror and shame.” It is interesting that, apparently inadvertently, he uses the word “patient” to describe the condemned; it was the same term applied to the prisoners of Bridewell about to be flogged. It is as if the city were a vast hospital, filled with the diseased or the dying. Yet the city is also a surgeon’s hall, where the novelist and the crowd were all the spectators of the doomed and the dead. Thackeray described it as a “hidden lust after blood.” He was suggesting that there were permanent and atavistic forces at work.

Charles Dickens had gone down to Newgate early that same morning. “Just once,” he told his friends, “I should like to watch a scene like this, and see the end of the Drama.” Here a great London novelist instinctively reaches for the appropriate word to mark the fatal occasion. He found an upper room in a house close to the scene, and paid for its hire; from there he eagerly watched the movement of the London crowd, which he was soon to revive in his account of the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge. And as he watched the mob, he saw a tall familiar figure—“Why, there stands Thackeray!” Chance encounters in the streets of London suffuse the novels of Dickens and in front of Newgate, amid the great crowd, the actual life of London confirmed his vision.

Nine years later, on a cold November morning, he rose from his bed to watch another execution. The Mannings were to be hanged outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark, and immediately after the event Dickens wrote a letter to the Morning Chronicle. There, in the mob assembled before the prison, he saw “the image of the Devil.” “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd … could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.” Here the evident paganism of London is given express form.

Dickens, like Thackeray, is appalled by the noise of the mob, in particular “the shrillness of the cries and howls,” like that “feverish kind of jangling noise” which Thackeray heard. There were “screeching and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah” … faintings, whistlings, imitation of Punch, brutal jokes.” Another “Mrs. Manning,” in the crowd itself, “proclaimed that she had a knife about her and threatened to murder another woman so that she might step up to the gibbet after ‘her namesake.’” The fury and excitement of the mob, expressive of “general contamination and corruption,” fill Dickens’s account of the proceedings. He declared that “there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me.” But he was astonished and alarmed by this experience.

The crowd outside Newgate and Horsemonger Lane often jeered and hissed the executioner. That of Courvoisier and the Mannings was one Calcraft, who had previously earned his living by flogging boys in Newgate. The Mannings were his only victims in 1849, and his services were less and less frequently required. Between 1811 and 1832 there were approximately eighty executions a year but from 1847 to 1871 that figure was reduced to 1.48 per annum. William Calcraft was succeeded by William Marwood who perfected the “long drop” method. He once declared that “It would have been better for those I execute if they had preferred industry to idleness,” thus in a fatal thread connecting the exercise of his craft with Hogarth’s depiction of the hanging of the idle apprentice.

Marwood died of drink. His most recent and celebrated successor within this unique profession was Albert Pierrepoint who boasted that he could kill a man within twenty seconds. Pierrepoint’s ministrations, however, were performed in silence and secrecy. The last public hanging outside Newgate was held in 1868, and from that time forward hangings took place in an especially constructed shed or hut behind prison walls. Ruth Ellis was hanged within Holloway Prison in 1955; her execution, and that of eighteen-year-old Derek Bentley two years before, materially assisted the campaign for the abolition of capital punishment. The last execution in London took place in 1964, more than a hundred years after Thackeray prayed for God “to cleanse our land of blood.”

Yet here is another mystery of London: according to city superstition, to dream of the gallows is a prophecy of great good fortune. Money and blood still run together.

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