The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


17    Jack Sheppard & The Theatre of Tyburn


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.



John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera was first performed on 29 January 1728 at the Theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, under the management of John Rich. The ballad opera met with immediate acclaim. According to The Craftsman newspaper for 3 February, ‘it hath made Rich very Gay, and probably will make Gay very Rich.’ It ran for more than sixty performances, and was enormously popular, not only with regular playgoers, but with all levels of society. (Indeed, the narrow passage leading to the playhouse was lined by professional ‘divers’ ready to pick the pockets of the crowds.) The more élite members of the audience appreciated its parody of the conventions of Italian opera, and also judged it to be a witty satire on contemporary politics. In particular, Prime Minister Robert Walpole was taken to be the model for the highwayman Captain Macheath. As Macheath sings,

Since Laws were made for ev’ry Degree,
To curb Vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better Company,
Upon Tyburn Tree!

The nicknames of some of the gang, ‘Robin of Bagshot’ and ‘Bob Booty’, also pointedly alluded to Robert Walpole.

            The appeal of the ballad opera also reached out to the lower classes. Defoe in Street-Robberies, Consider’d (1728) said that ‘the Beggars Opera, in my opinion, has been of prejudice to the publick. Roguery there is set in such an amiable light, that vulgar minds are dazzled with it; and the author, I think, is punishable for not punishing the persons in his drama according to their desert.’ James Dalton the street robber, discussed in Chapter 9, said that ‘In the height of all our robberies, we frequently used to go to the playhouse, dressed like gentlemen; and when play was done we would have chairs call’d for us, and sometimes three or four link boys [torch-bearers] before us.’ Dalton claimed that he and his associate Hulks attended a performance of The Beggar’s Opera when it was first produced in 1728. I doubt that this is just a claim put forward by his publisher to capture the market for the latest fashion, for ‘flash’ was part of the criminal lifestyle. Paul Kerney, a forger and counterfeiter who was pilloried and fined in December 1728, was apprehended while he was attending a performance of The Beggar’s Opera in Tunbridge Wells later that year.

           Dalton and Hulks carried a bottle of gin with them on their visit and were rather rowdy: ‘Hulks observing that Captain Mackheath’s fetters were not plac’d in that order which is observ’d at the Chequer Inn, cry’d out aloud, Zounds Captain, tie up your bazzil strings; they also never forgot to cry encore, when any thing was sung that was agreeable to their faculty.’ Dalton felt that the actor who portrayed Captain Macheath became his fetters very well, but that the real thieves of his acquaintance could have acted the part with greater perfection. The character of Fitch was modelled on Dalton’s one-time criminal colleague, William Field.

            Throughout the century, it was the opinion of law officers that The Beggar’s Opera encouraged crime. Even as late as 1773, Sir John Fielding, on behalf of the Bench of Justices of the Peace for the County of Middlesex, formally requested Garrick, and also Colman the Manager of Covent Garden Theatre, to suppress The Beggar’s Opera for the September–October season, because ‘they were of opinion it had done a great deal of mischief among the lower classes of people’ and ‘they were all assured that every representation of it made some thieves.’ But Garrick and Colman, who were earning a great deal from the play, found various excuses not to comply with such a request. As part of the public debate about the issue, some newspapers reported that the robber William Cox, who was hanged at Tyburn on 27 October 1773, confessed to the Ordinary of Newgate that The Beggar’s Opera had first enticed him into a life of crime. Archenholz observed in the 1780s: ‘This shameful trade has been, if I may be allowed the expression, immortalized by Gay, in his Beggar’s Opera, which is such a favourite with the public, that it is represented in London, at least thirty times a year.’ But the plays in the theatres were not nearly so dramatic as the realities of the criminal underworld.


Print showing the crowd at a hanging at Tyburn


The Public Stage of Hanging


Fielding in his Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers (1751) recognized that public hangings provided the theatrical stage upon which the criminal could play his most heroic part. If public shame and humiliation were the original intention of holding executions in public, the effect was just the opposite. ‘The day appointed by law for the thief’s shame is the day of glory in his own opinion. His procession to Tyburn, and his last moments there, are all triumphant; attended with the compassion of the meek and tender-hearted, and with the applause, admiration, and envy of all the bold and hardened.’ The frequency of public hangings encouraged solidarity among the working classes and the criminal underworld, and provided criminals with models to follow when their turn came to mount the gallows. ‘The thief who is hanged to day hath learnt his intrepidity from the example of his hanged predecessors, as others are now taught to despise death, and to bear it hereafter with boldness from what they see to day.’ Defoe in Street-Robberies, Consider’d (1728) argued that ‘One thing that increases the number of our town thieves, is to see the criminals go to execution as neat and trim, as if they were going to a wedding. God Damn, says one rogue to another, Jack Such-a-one made a clever figure when he went to Tyburn the other day, and died bravely, hard, like a cock.’ Fielding argued that felons should be hanged in private, both to deprive the mob of its entertainment, and to make the punishment ‘more dreadful to the criminals themselves, who would thus die in the presence only of their enemies; and where the boldest of them would find no cordial to keep up his spirits, nor any breath to flatter his ambition’.

           Contrary to the intention of the legislature, which was to inspire the lower class of people with terror, the suffering of the criminals at an execution inspired the spectators with compassion, sympathy and pity. They condemned the severity of the law rather than the crimes for which the felons were hanged: ‘in short, the worst of villains, the greatest pests and enemies of society, find more friends, more tears, more compassion, nay, more praise and honour, going to execution, than an honest man could expect, suffering in the most gallant manner, in defence of religion and honour.’ John alias Richard James, a robber hanged at Tyburn in October 1721, age 30, told the Ordinary of Newgate that the execution of a malefactor had no effect upon his old companions, ‘who have inured themselves to the like vicious course of life. For I have been often present at such a time, without feeling the least concern or uneasiness, or being any ways alarmed at the sight of death.’ Saunders Welch in 1758 observed that the felon often ‘glories in his villainies to the time of his trial, and then determines to die a hero. Thus the intention of public justice is defeated; for instead of being a dreadful example to deter others, his bold and daring behaviour renders him, as he from experience knows, the darling of the mob, and delight of his brethren in villainy, who are more encouraged in their practices, by the conduct of one of these, than they are deterr’d by that of twenty penitents.’

           The night before a public execution, at midnight, the Bellman of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate would ring a handbell outside the walls of the prison and chant the following song:

All you that in the Condemn’d Hold do lie,
Prepare you, for to-morrow you must die:
Watch all and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before th’ Almighty must appear.
Think well upon your sins, in time repent,
Lest you are headlong unto Satan sent.
Watch then, and pray, that so you may be fit
T’ appear so soon before the Judgment-Seat;
And when St Pulcher’s bell tomorrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls.

This Execution Bell can still be seen in the present (much-restored) church. St Sepulchre’s was the scene of an accident in June 1698, when six felons were being taken past in a sledge on their way to Tyburn. So many spectators were leaning against the churchyard wall that it collapsed, killing one man outright and injuring forty, of whom four died soon afterwards. The condemned cart could no longer proceed along the normal route, but had to turn back towards Newgate, then go through Pye Corner, into Smithfield, and down Hosier Lane into Holborn, then on to the gallows the usual way.

The trip from Newgate prison to Tyburn, which was located near present-day Marble Arch, less than three miles from Newgate, normally took less than an hour, but it could take as long as three hours if there was a great crowd pressing in upon the condemned all along the route, which began at St Sepulchre’s, then went up through Smithfield and Snow Hill, to St Andrew’s, High Holborn, then west to St Giles’s, then along Tyburn Road (modern Oxford Street) to the gallows. Pockets would be picked all along the way. John Humphrys, who was convicted of lifting a watch from a gentleman among the spectators as a cart was loaded with condemned men outside Newgate on 6 June 1764, claimed that he saw the watch on the ground and ‘thought I had as good a right to take it up as any body’.

           For example, in Norwich in March 1737, when James Blade, John Painter and William Wright were executed on a gallows set up for them on Castle Hill, they all went dressed in their shrouds, with the burial caps stitched under their chins, and without shoes and stockings. However, most of the condemned took great care to make themselves as presentable as possible for their final performance under the gallows: ‘so that one would take ‘em for Bridegrooms going to espouse their Old Mrs. Tyburn, being as spruce as a powder’d wig, a Holland shirt, clean gloves, and a nosegay, can make ‘em’ (Memoirs of the Right Villainous John Hall, 1714). The ‘bridegrooms’ of this ‘hanging-match’ often dressed in white. Three members of the Hawkhurst gang of smugglers went to their hanging dressed all in white. Paul Lewis wore a white cloth coat, silver laced hat, white stockings and white silk breeches to his hanging. George Anderson was hanged in a white linen waistcoat and breeches trimmed with black ferret. Henry Simms, ‘Gentleman Harry’, was hanged in a white fustian frock, white stockings, and white drawers. When the 20-year-old street robber John Hartley, nicknamed Pokey, was hanged in May 1722, the newspapers reported that seven young women from the neighbourhood of Honey Lane, Smithfield, where he had worked as a butcher, ‘having dressed themselves in white, and carrying white wands in their hands, went up to St. James’s (Palace) and presented a petition to beg his life; which if obtain’d, one of them was to marry him under the gallows’. A virtually identical ceremony occurred in April 1725, when nine young women dressed in white, each bearing a white wand in her hand, presented a petition to His Majesty on behalf of a young man condemned at the Kingston Assizes for burglary; one of them offered to marry him under the gallows if he were granted a reprieve. On both occasions the petitions failed. This clothing imagery mirrored the theatricality of the courtroom. If at the end of a sessions, no prisoners were to be sentenced to death, it would be declared a ‘maiden assize’ and, especially outside London, the sheriff would present the judges with white gloves and the under-sheriff would give glove-money to the judges’ servants. But if any defendants were capitally convicted, the judges would wear black caps when pronouncing the death sentence.

            About 8 o’clock on the morning of the execution, the condemned felons would go to chapel for the last time, where they confessed their sins to the Ordinary, particularly the crimes for which they had been convicted (from which he would compose his Dying Speeches). Then the Ordinary delivered them over to the secular arm. They were taken into the Stone Hall where their leg irons were removed and a noose was placed around each man’s neck. Their elbows were pinioned, leaving their hands free, though sometimes they were handcuffed if it was believed they would attempt to escape. They were then helped into the cart, which often carried their coffins. Wealthy or famous prisoners sometimes hired a private coach, usually a mourning coach. If it was to be a mass execution of a number of felons, men who robbed the mail and highwaymen were given the place of honour at the front of the cart. The accompanying constables and officials assembled themselves, ready to depart around 9 or 10 o’clock. The condemned were already ‘dead at law’, hence the cavalcade to Tyburn served as their magnificent funeral procession. The City Marshall or Sheriff and mounted officers rode at the front, men with pikes and halberds bringing up the rear. The muffled death bell at St Sepulchre’s would begin tolling, and the procession would stop briefly outside the church walls for a solemn moment of reflection. Sometimes, at this point, a wreath or nosegay was given to the condemned. The procession to Tyburn would stop once or twice at a tavern along the way, where the spectators would pay their final respects and drink toasts to the dying men. The publicans treated the constables to drinks, in recognition of the custom the hanging had brought them.

            Similar rituals took place at hangings outside of London. A few days before the famous highwayman Dick Turpin was hanged at York in April 1739, he bought himself a new fustian frock and a pair of pumps. On the morning before the execution he distributed £3 10s. among five men whom he hired to follow the cart as mourners, and passed around black hat-bands and gloves to several others. At the place of execution he climbed the ladder, and spoke for half an hour from the top of it, then threw himself off the ladder into eternity. His corpse was brought to the Blue Boar, Castle-Gate, and next morning was buried in a neat coffin in St George’s Church Yard, within Fishergate Postern. Turpin was vain to the last: the plaque on the coffin recorded his age as 28, though he confessed to the hangman that he was 33 years old. His body was buried in a deep grave, but nevertheless it was dug up again soon afterwards, and carried in triumph almost naked through the streets of the city, on a board covered with some straw, before being reburied in the same coffin now filled with slaked lime to prevent the body being anatomized. Macabre events sometimes took place at provincial hangings. When James Bromage and William Wainer, two highwaymen, were sentenced to death in 1766 in Nottingham, they were taken to St Mary’s Church to hear the condemned sermon, and then were compelled to lie briefly in their graves dug in the churchyard, to ensure they would fit.

           Hanging days were public holidays, and street vendors sold gin, food and Dying Speeches to the crowds. According to An Enquiry into the Cause of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn (1725), the gin sellers on these occasions were ‘commonly the worst of both sexes, but most of them weather-beaten fellows that have misspent their youth. Here stands an old sloven, in a wig actually putrify’d, squeezed up in a corner and recommends a dram of it to the goers-by. There another in rags, with several bottles in a basket, stirs about with it, where the throng is thinnest, and tears his throat with crying his commodity.’ The broadside ballad Jonathan Wild’s Last Farewell to the World was distributed on the very day of Wild’s execution. It has illustrations showing a skeleton standing between Wild and a woman, Newgate prison gatehouse, a coffin, and the triple tree of Tyburn.

An early print of the 'triple tree' of Tyburn

O now the fatal day is come,
On which I must receive my doom,
Upon that wretched fatal tree,
A game for all people to be. . . .
The Hempen Widow she does cry,
Alas my Husband now must die.

           Once arrived at Tyburn, the condemned were again rejoined by the Ordinary, who usually arrived in a separate coach, though sometimes he accompanied the men in the cart. When Rev. Mr Wood resigned as the Ordinary of Newgate in October 1773, the Lord Mayor recommended that a Mr Toll be appointed as his successor, because for the past thirty years Mr Toll ‘had regularly of his own accord gone in the cart with the condemned prisoners to Tyburn, to sing and pray with them, and give them spiritual food’. That recommendation was supported by Mr Ackerman, Keeper of Newgate, who said that Mr Toll ‘always took a pleasure in going to Tyburn with the felons, although it was no business of his’. But some Aldermen objected to this appointment, saying that Mr Toll was ‘a foolish enthusiastic Methodist, who had done more harm than good’. What the condemned thought of good Mr Toll is unrecorded.

           At the gallows, hawkers would be busy selling ballads and Dying Speeches. Public viewing stands were built by entrepreneurs, enabling spectators to get a better view for a price. These stands regularly collapsed under the weight of more spectators then they could bear. In May 1726 the stands collapsed under the weight of 150 spectators, of whom 6 died of their injuries. A permanent grandstand was erected in 1729 by a woman named Proctor, and were known as Mother Proctor’s Pews. Some people climbed up on coaches or other makeshift stands. When James Boswell went to a hanging in October 1769, in order to be as near as possible, he sat on the top of the hearse which waited to carry away the body of George Law, one of the six malefactors to be hanged that day. The London Chronicle considered Boswell’s action to be ‘a strong instance of strange curiosity’, but such curiosity was typical of many of those who went to Tyburn. The people who pressed forward to the front of the crowd of spectators around the gallows were often other robbers and highwaymen, come to see their companions die and to hear their last words, which they would repeat to their friends afterwards. John Smith went to the hanging of his friend and accomplice one Woolford; at the foot of the gallows he met Woolford’s wife, whom he took home to his own bed afterwards. She had previously been the wife of one Lowder, who had been hanged in chains. In due course her third husband, John Smith, was also hanged, in 1722.

            Just prior to their execution, the condemned would be temporarily freed. The law allowed the condemned to stand for one full hour beneath the gallows, with the rope around their neck, and they were permitted to say anything they wished during this hour. Some berated the government, some denied the justice of their conviction, some behaved with macabre merriment. The highwayman Jerry Abershaw when he was hanged on Kennington Common in 1795 carried a red rose between his teeth and then made a speech from the scaffold in which he poured scorn on the law and its agents, then kicked off his boots so as not to fulfil his mother’s prophecy that if he persisted in his crimes he would die with his boots on. Earlier, he mimicked the judge when he pulled on a black cap to pronounce the death sentence, and in prison he decorated the walls of his cell with drawings of his adventures. James Ramshaw, hanged at Penenden Heath near Maidstone in August 1752, spent the last few days of his life cursing, swearing, singing bawdy songs, and wishing that some surgeon would come and buy his body so he could get money for a whore.

            Convicted women could be as insolent as men, even more so. Elizabeth Thomas, executed in Yarmouth in June 1736, had kept the Bird in Hand pub which was used as a base by seven or eight prostitutes, and was convicted of murdering one of the clients. She made threats and fought and swore oaths from the moment of her arrest up to her execution. She persisted in denying her guilt despite exhortations from the clergyman who attended her. It was common for those who stood at the gallows not only to ask forgiveness, but to forgive all sinners; she pardoned some, but pointedly refused to pardon everyone present, and further refused to join in the singing of the Psalm. She complained about the way the hangman positioned the halter around her neck, shouting ‘What, am I to be butchered to death?’

            But most of the condemned took the opportunity to repent, to confess their crimes and beg forgiveness, and to encourage the spectators to learn from their fate and mend their own lives. If the condemned made an especially cringing or cowardly show, however, the crowd jeered at them. The hanging day was the last opportunity for criminals to display their bravado. As Will Ogden and Tom Reynolds were riding to the place of execution in Kingston in April 1714, Ogden flung a handful of money out of the cart to the people, saying, Gentlemen here is poor Will’s Farewel. As Ogden was turned off, ‘he gave two such extraordinary jerks with his legs, as was much admired by all the spectators’. The poem Weighley, alias Wild (1725), portrays the supposed bravado of Jonathan Wild in his ‘Last Farewell’:

But I abhor that formal Dying Way:
I hate those squeamish Rogues that Whine, and Cry,
And beg good People’s Pray’rs, when Death draws nigh:
They shou’d, (for it well suits with their Employ)
As they have Liv’d in Pleasure, Die with Joy:
But I will Boldly mount, and brave my Fate,
And Perish Bravely, tho’ Unfortunate.
By this last Act I shall acquire a Name,
And fix my self in the Records of Fame.

           The real Wild behaved quite differently on his hanging day in May 1725, when he was still groggy from an overdose of laudanum that he took on the previous day in an attempt to kill himself. If a condemned man died in prison before he was hanged, his body could not be claimed for dissection, nor could his effects be claimed by the hangman, so men sometimes tried to cheat the hangman by killing themselves. In August 1725 two men sentenced to death in Salisbury each took a large dose of poison, but when the poison was perceived to be taking effect, the Sheriff ordered that they be hanged immediately so as not to cheat the hangman.

            Generally the condemned all sang a hymn together. Sometimes the entire crowd would join in singing Psalm 51, the ‘Hanging Song’: ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. . . .’ The hangman then tied them up once again for his security and the white caps were pulled over their eyes or over the entire face, so that the public would not see their distortions. Upon uttering the words ‘Lord have mercy on us’, they would be ‘turned off’ – the driver would whip the horses, who drew away the cart, leaving the condemned hanging and jerking from the gallows. The condemned sometimes flung themselves violently from the cart, in the hope of breaking their necks and dying instantly. At the very moment of the hanging, when all eyes were fixed upon the condemned, pickpockets would do their best business, lifting large numbers of watches and handkerchiefs.

            After fifteen or twenty minutes, relatives or friends of the condemned would move forward to claim the body, and bargain with the hangman over the cost of their clothes, which he had a right to claim and sell in the market in Chick Lane and Rag Fair if the relatives didn’t purchase them from him. Hangmen often sold pieces of rope used to hang notorious criminals, as souvenirs. The hangman or executioner was usually an ordinary tradesman, paid for this particular service by the sheriff. Though technically it was a respectable occupation, it was inevitable that some infamy would attach to it, and recruits for the job were difficult to find. Many convicted felons were given a chance to escape their own hanging if they agreed to serve as the official hangman or executioner. For example, when Matthew Blackbourn was capitally convicted at the assizes at York in April 1731, he received a pardon in return for taking on the appointment as the official hangman.

            After a hanging, and before the removal of the body for dissection or burial, there sometimes occurred macabre examples of popular folklore. To be touched by the hand of the dead man was believed to be a cure for illness, especially skin diseases and tumours. After Thomas James was executed at Gloucester in September 1736 for having returned from transportation, several people with wens on their necks got permission from the Sheriff to lay the dead man’s hands around their necks, in the belief that the agonizing sweats still on the hands would reduce the swelling of their tumours. Boswell witnessed such rituals at an execution in 1785: ‘four diseased persons . . . had themselves rubbed with the sweaty hands of malefactors in the agonies of death, and believed this would cure them.’ Even nurses would bring their ailing children to the foot of the gallows to have this service performed. A French visitor to England in 1789, J. H. Heister, witnessed ‘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’. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported in May 1767 that a young woman ‘with a wen upon her neck was lifted up [to the gallows] and had the wen rubbed with the dead man’s hands’. Similar incidents were reported throughout the century. The halter used in a hanging would be tied around one’s head to cure the headache. Wood chippings from the gallows were worn in a bag around the neck as a cure against the ague. Belongings of notorious criminals would be sold as souvenirs. John Morris, hanged in 1739, saved pieces of his jawbone which earlier had been shot off during a robbery, and distributed them among his fellow prisoners in Newgate as a token or charm.


Hogarth's painting 'The Reward of Cruelty' showing a dissection of a criminal


            If no-one claimed the bodies of the executed, they were buried on the site, in unconsecrated land beneath the gallows. Later in the century, part of the sentence on notorious murderers was that their bodies immediately be taken to Surgeon’s Hall and publicly dissected. To be ‘anatomized’ was a mark of infamy regarded by the public with special horror, because that seemed to render impossible the promised resurrection of the complete body on the final Day of Judgement. Some felons, such as William Signal in 1752, sold their own bodies to the surgeons in advance, either to buy decent clothes to be hanged in, or to provide a small bequest to a widow. The Barber-Surgeons Company gave Christmas gifts to the hangman, and beadles for the Company were given extra payment whenever they delivered a corpse for dissection. In 1736 the common executioner, John Hooper, was charged with selling the bodies of condemned felons to private surgeons. Surgeons’ agents often hovered near the gallows to make off with the body as soon as possible, and friends of the criminal sometimes had to put up stiff resistance to prevent this from happening. Coachmen who delivered bodies to Surgeon’s Hall were reimbursed for any damage to the coach by the enraged populace. Many riots at Tyburn – though by no means all – were sparked off by the crowd’s hatred of the practice of dissection. The novelist Samuel Richardson described such a disturbance in a letter in 1740: ‘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.’ Hogarth’s Fourth Stage of Cruelty (1751) shows the dissection of a corpse at the Company of Surgeons. In the background hang the skeletons of two felons, labelled ‘James Field’ and ‘Macleane’. Murderers, unlike other felons, were traditionally hung in gibbets, but in 1752 an Act was passed which allowed judges to order murderers to be dissected. In either case, the Act explicitly stated that ‘in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried’. The Act also made it a felony, punishable by transportation, to attempt to rescue a corpse from the custody of a surgeon. From a single hanging day at Tyburn in 1775 the College of Surgeons acquired the bodies of eight men. William Hunter, renowned Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts, made a cast of one of these bodies, after it was flayed by the anatomists, for use by artists keen to study musculature and internal anatomy. The cast still exists in the Royal Academy collection, with the fanciful name ‘Smugglerius’.

            Gibbetting was reserved mainly for men convicted for armed robbery in gangs, and for robbing the mail coach. The body would be tarred and hung on a tall pole, held in chains and iron bands contrived to maintain a human shape until it rotted away, giving rise to stories of ghosts condemned to wander the earth because they had been denied a Christian burial. Gibbets were placed at crossroads to further confuse the wandering spirits. The poles were sometimes encased in iron to prevent friends of the criminals from cutting down the poles and giving the corpses a proper burial. The poles also had sharp spikes inserted along them to prevent people from climbing up to the bodies and taking them down. An Act was passed to make it a capital offence to take away a gibbeted corpse. The Annual Register reported that on 3 April 1763, ‘All the gibbets on the Edgeware Road, on which many malefactors hung in chains, were cut down by persons unknown.’ Gibbets became morbid tourist sights. The Annual Register reported in 1799 that ‘eight gentlemen belonging to the Walton association formed a party to go to Hounslow to see Haines, the highwayman; on their way home they stopped at the Flower Pot, at Sunbury, till ten at night’, and got drunk; three of them drowned in a pond on the way back.

            A criminal could sometimes gain a kind of revenge by determining how his body would be disposed of after the hanging. When Dixon was hanged in June 1764 for returning from transportation before his time, just before he was turned off, he asked that his body be carried and laid at the door of the person who gave evidence to convict him. This request was complied with, and a mob assembled and threatened to pull down the house. While the corpse lay in a coffin before the door, a cart accidentally drove over it, and broke both the criminal’s legs. However, the mob dispersed after a pistol was fired, and the body was interred in Aldgate churchyard.

            Hanging days were often days of confusion and chaos, sometimes of riot. Hangings were attended not simply by the spectators, but also by substantial numbers of people who earned money from such events: people hawking ballads and Dying Speeches, people selling oranges and buns, people arranging to transport the dead bodies, either to the surgeons or to the burial ground, people offering makeshift stands for the spectators. On 11 November 1751, first thing in the morning, Richard Shears, a carman, took his cart to Tyburn, which he planned to let ‘for people to get up upon to see the prisoner die’. Later in the morning about twenty-five carmen and milkmen began vying for the right to take away the bodies of the hanged men in their carts. Three or four men in a skirmish tried to steal Shears’s cart and horses. They beat the horses and hit Shears with a hanger (a short sword), and picked up two dead bodies, which they carried to Tower Hill, where they dumped them, and then continued their frolic by riding the cart back and forth between Bayswater and Tyburn. Shears chased them part of the way, but collapsed, and died. No one did anything to help Shears stop the men – ‘there was such a mob, no body would trouble themselves with him.’ The man who struck the fatal blow, the milkman Michael Magennis, was finally captured, and sentenced to death in January 1752.

            Tyburn remained the primary execution site until November 1783 when hangings were no longer performed there. Dr Samuel Johnson thought this was a great shame: ‘The public liked it and the condemned man felt encouraged by it,’ he declared. Instead, felons were hanged just outside the debtor’s door at Newgate prison, on the ‘new drop’ erected for that purpose – a tall platform with a trapdoor beneath the gallows. The length of the fall was carefully calculated so that the condemned died instantly from a broken neck, rather than slowly from strangulation as was usually the case at Tyburn. Spectators obtained a better view if the hangings at Newgate because the platform was raised above their heads, but all of the ceremony of the procession to Tyburn was eliminated. Crowds at Newgate were also more circumscribed by buildings and better controlled by the authorities. Nevertheless, large houses nearby rented out their windows on hanging days, and hawkers sold cakes and ginger beer to the crowd.


Illustration of two men in the pillory


            The other great stage on which criminals were displayed was the pillory. Pillory days were half-holidays, and the crowds and near-riots resembled hanging days, except that the awesomeness of death was missing. Nevertheless, the many instances in which men were killed by the mobs while they stood in the pillory prompted Edmund Burke to argue in Parliament for the abolition of the pillory. The mob played an active role in the punishments carried out at the pillory, a role that can be accurately described as bloodthirsty. Contemporary eye-witnesses regularly talked about the ‘brutality’ of an ‘enraged populace’. Most modern surveys of crime and punishment during this period concentrate on hangings at Tyburn, and the State is held up as the agent of terror. But punishment in the pillory – which was far more frequent than hangings – illustrates that in many cases ‘the rigour of the law’ was far more viciously imposed by ordinary people than by the State. Prisoners would be tied up and taken in a cart to the pillory, and along the route they were not only pummeled with brickbats and excrement, but whipped – not by the officials, but by the mob. Many of the people who stood in the pillory had their clothes torn away from their bodies by the force of the brickbats thrown at them. Many of them had their faces mutilated and their ears torn off, and some people were permanently blinded or even had an eyeball knocked out. Some people in the pillory suffocated as a result of the mud and filth thrown at them, combined with the blood streaming from their noses. Nearly everyone who stood in the pillory for the requisite half-hour or hour collapsed when they were let down. A butcher prepared himself for the pillory by constructing a suit of armour made of tanned animal skin, but it was torn from his body and he nearly died from the mob’s assault. The situation became worse as the century progressed, with an increase in the number of deaths on such occasions. Death in the pillory at the hands of the mob, and death a month or two after the pillory as a result of wounds not recovered from, became such a public scandal, that the pillory was eventually abolished, though not until the nineteenth century.


Jack Sheppard, Criminal Celebrity


John Villette, Ordinary of Newgate, in his life of Joseph Blake, alias Blueskin, remarked that Blueskin ‘studiously took the paths of infamy, in order to become famous’. The life of Blueskin’s one-time associate Jack Sheppard illustrates especially clearly how a criminal could become so attracted to the idea of his own celebrity that fame became the primary motivation for his activities.

            Sheppard’s father, a poor carpenter in Spitalfields, died soon after Jack’s birth in 1702. After struggling to care for a daughter and two sons for a few years, his mother went into domestic service for William Kneebone, a linen-draper in the Strand, and sent Jack at the age of 6 to be cared for by the parish, which put him in the workhouse school in Bishopsgate Street, where forty children slept in bunks in a single room and worked at the looms most of the day. By this time his sister had died, and his older brother had already joined a gang of street boys. When Jack was 10, his mother persuaded Mr Kneebone to take Jack on as a shop boy, and they lived together at the linen-drapers until Jack at the age of 15 was apprenticed to Mr Wood, a carpenter and house joiner, for seven years, under whose tutelage he became a skilled locksmith and craftsman. At this stage he was still a happy, ‘industrious apprentice’.

            But from 1723, apparently due to inclination rather than necessity, he began following the typical route of the ‘idle apprentice’, spending most of his time drinking brandy at the Black Lion ‘boozing ken’ in Newton Street, Drury Lane, in the company of whores, and he fell in love with Elizabeth Lyon, known as Edgworth Bess. He committed his first theft, of two silver spoons, while he was employed on some jobbing work at The Rummer bagnio at Charing Cross, and he spent the proceeds on Bess. Later he broke into a woollen broker’s shop, and stored the stolen goods with Poll Maggot, a prostitute friend of Bess. He ended his apprenticeship after a series of quarrels with Wood over Jack’s disorderly life and became a journeyman joiner and locksmith.

            At this point Jack joined forces with his brother Thomas, who had become a successful thief, and they committed several burglaries together. But when they were caught trying to sell their goods, Thomas turned King’s evidence against his own brother to save his own skin, and Jack went into hiding with Edgworth Bess. Jack was finally arrested through the help of the footpad James Sykes, nicknamed Hell-and-Fury because of his foul temper, who collected the £40 reward. Sheppard was apprehended and put in St Giles’s Roundhouse, where he made the first of a series of famous escapes by making a hole through the ceiling and roof of the Roundhouse, witnessed by an enormous crowd. He was recaptured in a couple of weeks, and imprisoned in St Ann’s Roundhouse. Edgworth Bess smuggled in the spike of a halberd which he used to break out of his cell, but he was prevented from making a getaway. He was put in the cellar in manacles and fetters, along with Bess. They were recommitted to New Prison, Clerkenwell, and allowed to share the same cell as man and wife, but put in the strong Newgate Ward, with weights and a heavy chain, and not allowed visitors. Nevertheless some friends bribed their way in and brought tools that enabled him to file through his fetters and then the barred window. Using Bess’s petticoats and some blankets, they let themselves down into the nearby prison, Clerkenwell Bridewell, then Sheppard scaled its tall gates and hauled Bess up, and they were free. The escape was remarkable, not least because Bess was a plump woman and Sheppard was very slight.

            Soon after, Sheppard broke into the lodgings of a tailor and stole many clothes, and banknotes and cash worth £300. The stolen goods were fenced at an alehouse in Lewkenors Lane. He committed several highway robberies in the company of Blueskin Blake, and rented stables near Westminster Horseferry as a depository. Eventually Sheppard was tried for a robbery (which he always claimed he did not commit) of his former master William Kneebone the linen draper, his accomplices being Blueskin Blake and William Field. Field became the chief prosecution witness, and was probably in the pay of Jonathan Wild, who had arranged for the arrest of Edgworth Bess and had forced her into telling him where Sheppard was hiding out. Wild wanted to eliminate a prominent criminal such as Sheppard who was not part of his own organization.

            Sheppard was tried and sentenced to death, and imprisoned in Newgate to await hanging in September 1724. In The Lodge, the reception area next to the Condemned Hold where visitors could talk to prisoners through a thick wooden partition topped by a chevaux de fries, Sheppard managed to cut a hole through this chevaux de fries and escaped dressed in a nightgown and bonnet supplied by Bess, and they leaped into a waiting coach hired by a butcher’s son William Page, one of the many young admirers for whom Sheppard had become a hero. Newspaper reports of the incident were supplemented by numerous ballads. Sheppard and Page escaped to the country where they stayed briefly with Page’s aunt and uncle in Chipping Warden. They could have remained there safely, but foolishly returned to their old haunts in London. There a milkman recognized Sheppard and ‘the news like infection soon spread over the Hundreds of Drury’. He went from brandy shop to alehouse, where he was similarly recognized. Within the space of a single day, everyone knew of his return to London. That night he and Page robbed a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet Street. Clearly fatalism and bravado were now ruling events. The men fled to Finchley Common but a posse of turnkeys followed them, and they were captured. Sheppard was brought to Newgate again and chained to the floor, and Page was locked in a separate cell. (Page was eventually sentenced to transportation.) The prisoners of Newgate celebrated the return of their most famous criminal, drinking to his health and singing ribald ballads. Sightseers were allowed into the Hold to see Sheppard upon payment of 3s. 6d. The newspapers claimed it was ‘a week of the greatest noise and idleness among mechanics that has been known in London’ and crowds milled around the prison night and day. Women and children lined the road to Tyburn, ready to raise the alarm if an attempt was made to secretly convey him to the gallows.

            When the new Sessions opened at the Old Bailey in mid-October, Sheppard took advantage of the absence of most of the Keepers by holding a nail between his teeth to pick open the padlock imprisoning him to the floor, then dismantling a brick chimney to break into the room above. He then broke through a succession of rooms with six barred doors to reach the leads of the roof, whence he jumped down to the roof of a shop on Newgate street, and made his escape, going to Tottenham village. Sheppard’s ‘Magical Arts’ filled the newspapers, and street balladeers sang his exploits. Sightseers queued for admission to the prison to survey the damage.

            A shoemaker in Tottenham helped to knock off Sheppard’s leg irons. Then – perhaps because Sheppard realized that his continuing fame depended upon recapture – he returned to London, to a public cellar in Charing Cross for dinner, then an alehouse in Rupert Street, Piccadilly, where everyone was talking about his escape. At Haymarket he was gratified by hearing two ballad singers singing his exploits to a large crowd. For some ten days he wandered about his old haunts, drunk with his own celebrity. On 29 October he robbed a tailor-cum-pawnbroker of a fine suit of clothes and a silver-hilted sword and a diamond ring, to deck himself out as a man of fashion to match his public image. Throwing all caution to the winds, he picked up two women and spent a few days in reckless dissipation, even hiring a hackney coach to drive them past the walls and entrance door of the Lodge of Newgate Prison, obviously inviting capture. He was easily arrested (by Wild) in a drunken stupor at a dram shop with a former mistress, Moll Frisky.


Portrait of Jack Shepherd


            At the trial at King’s Bench on 10 November Sheppard was asked why he hadn’t taken the opportunity to leave the country but seemingly allowed himself to be retaken. He replied that he committed the last robbery to get money for the voyage which he had intended to take the next day. With typical braggadocio, he asked that handcuffs be put on him so he could demonstrate his art to the court and show how easily he could escape from them. The crowd at the trial was reported to be ‘the most numerous crowd of people that ever was seen in London’. People flocked up from the country to see ‘the three great curiosities as this town at present affords viz.: The two young lions stuff’d at the Tower; the ostrich on Ludgate-Hill; and the famous John Sheppard in Newgate.’ The Keepers of the prison are said to have earned £200 by charging visitors 6d. apiece for admittance to see their famous prisoner, held fast to the floor with 300 pounds of chains and iron fetters, barely able to move – but cracking jokes all the while and recounting how he had made his escapes. James Figg the prize-fighter came to see him, and Sheppard promised to stop at his Academy and Gymnasium on his way to Tyburn and to drink a toast with him. Sir James Thornhill, Serjeant-Painter to the King, famous for his painting of the Great Hall at Greenwich and the cupola of St Paul’s Cathedral, came to take his portrait, presumably commissioned by the King. Daniel Defoe came to interview him for his first-hand account of his life, to be published by John Applebee, the printer of innumerable criminal biographies and ‘Last Dying Confessions’. Sheppard had arranged that Applebee’s fee for his own Last Words would be paid to his mother.

            The crowds that gathered for Sheppard’s hanging on 16 November were estimated at 200,000 people. The cart halted at Figg’s Gymnasium as promised and Sheppard and the officers were treated to a round of drinks. When the cart reached Tyburn, Sheppard stood up and conspicuously handed a pamphlet to one of Applebee’s men and declared it was his true confession (it was ghosted by Defoe), which guaranteed the sale of several thousand copies that were printed by that evening. In return, Applebee had provided a coach to take Sheppard’s body for decent burial after the hanging. Sheppard, age 22, was so lightweight that it took most of the statutory fifteen minutes for his body to stop twitching after he was turned off. A soldier cut him down and carried the body towards waiting friends who had prearranged to carry it to a surgeon for attempted resuscitation. But the crowd thought they meant to take it ignominiously to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection, and fought for possession of the body, which was tossed from hand to hand over their heads, and they smashed up Applebee’s hearse. A group of men carried the body down the Oxford road to Piccadilly, across Leicester Fields, then up Long Acre to the Barlow Mow pub, as people streamed out of the pubs and brothels along the way. There was a riot; the Riot Act was read; a company of footguards arrested the ringleaders. That night a mourning coach, accompanied by footguards with bayonets fixed, took Sheppard’s body for burial to the churchyard of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Thus ended a story destined to become a legend.


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