The year is 1756, it’s a lovely warm autumn day… and it’s almost time for the hanging.
In the center of the square, a giant mass of people cluster around the infamous three-beamed gallows known as the Tyburn Tree. In the center, beset on all sides by the thronging crowd, are two decidedly separate camps of citizens. The surgeons on one side, here to claim their mandated and officially allocated cadavers. On the other side are the family and friends of the convicted and soon-to-be-hanged, vying to protect the body of their beleaguered executee, to give them a decent burial and save them from the cruel knives of the surgeons. As soon as the cart trundles away and the unfortunate drops like an ungainly sack, the two will set upon one another with sticks and fists, jostling for control of the body, while the hanged writhes and twitches in agonizing death throes.
Surrounding them is the massive mob-like crowd – being a notorious bunch of criminals today, the audience runs into the tens of thousands. Flitting through the bustling crowds roam hollering food hawkers, proselytizing preachers and quick-fingered pick-pockets. It is paradox in public sentiment – the uproarious, inebriated multitudes versus the grim, judicial proceedings. Make no mistake however, today is a public holiday and everyone is here to enjoy the entertainment – food, frolics, speeches, and the slow, agonizing asphyxiation of a condemned human being.
The cart is coming, winding down the road through the jeering crowds, the condemned aboard, to face their demise on the end of the hangman’s rope…
Within the locale of Tyburn the anatomy schools of the the mid 1700’s would ply their grisly trade; the acquisition of corpses to serve up in the thriving surgical dissection classes. Prior, we looked at how the anatomy schools became established – this week we’re at the gallows, to witness the more legal source of their… material.
The eighteenth century was a tough time to be on the wrong side of the law. Although fear of hanging may have served as a deterrent from a life of crime for some, the sheer quantity of potential capital transgressions in the mid-eighteenth century – official accounts roam from 150 to 200 offenses – made it extremely easy to find yourself convicted of a minor crime and yet receive the death penalty as a result. Everything from petty theft, chopping down trees, all the way to murder might result in the noose about your drawn neck and a rough sack over your eyes.
The astute fellows that ran the country had finally realized that corpses should be made available to the burgeoning dissection schools for the purposes of live demonstrations and hands-on (or hands-in, depending on your involvement) experience for up and coming doctors. However, Parliament also knew dissection might serve as a fair deterrent from the specific crimes of murder, to set them aside from all the other hanging offences, and an act passed in 1752 gave judges the option between gibbeting in chains, and dissection by surgeon ‘for Better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder.’1
Although those irritatingly progressive folks on the European continent had more liberal views towards offering your body to the surgeon’s knives in the interest of scientific progress, England and the constituent colonies maintained a vehemently anti-slicing-and-dicing sentiment. Society at the time despised the concept of anatomical dissection, not only because in their view it prevented one from having an intact body come the Day of Judgement (even in an incorporeal state), but also as to the implicit association with an unseemly criminal life; only the corpses of criminals would be thrown to the surgeons. Consequently those close to the condemned would do almost anything, even if the courts had stipulated otherwise, to prevent this kind of treatment, hence, the immensely entertaining punch-ups at the Tyburn Tree as an attempt to keep the corpses from the sticky hands of the physician butchers.
The day of the hanging would draw immense London crowds to the three-footed scaffold, waiting impatiently for the stars of the show to appear. Taken from Newgate Prison, the criminals would be transported by cart through the streets of London, either pelted by stones and vegetable refuse if unpopular, or cheered and supported if considered worthy.
In true English style, alcohol was involved at every aspect of the proceedings, and not only for the crowd. The convicted would be permitted to stop at various public houses along the way to imbibe as much booze as was allowed, no doubt to keep spirits high (excuse the pun) and render the executee as close to insensible at the critical time. Three notable pubs – the Bowl Inn, the George and the Mason’s Arms are known to still have manacle rings on the walls as testament to these fleeting yet extraordinary patrons. In a poem written by Jonathan Swift in 1726, the event is humorously captured:
As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling
Rode stately through Holbourne to die in his Calling
He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back…
Flanked by mounted guards – escapes were known to happen – the entourage would inevitably reach the gallows, the famous Tyburn tree. By now, the waiting crowds were at fever pitch. This was before decent labor laws, and the Paddington Fair Day, as it was known meant a day off for locals; the mood would have been nothing short of festive with crowds upwards of twenty or even thirty thousand strong.
Swift’s poem goes on:
But, as from the Windows the Ladies he spy’d,
Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye.
The Hangman for Pardon fell down on his Knee;
Tom gave him a Kick in the Guts for his Fee.
Waiting at the gallows was not only the friends and family of the convicted, but also the surgeons and owners of the local anatomy schools, as well as their ‘heavy men, eagerly awaiting their ‘six a year’. The benefits of acquiring the body were great, as a hanged body is a fresh body, likely unsullied by disease or old age. The surgeons would fight hard for the prize in this strange and violent circus of criminal justice.
Join me next time for the final act in this grisly play – the cart will creak forward, the body will drop, and the surgeons and the family will charge one another to claim the cadaver for their own ends…
1. Gibbeting served as a public deterrent to crime just like hanging. In the 1750’s the standard format was where the now deceased body was coated in tar, left in an iron cage usually erected near the scene of the crime, and left to be picked apart by vermin or birds until the pieces dropped below (word to the wise, try to avoid ordering meat pie in the local establishments shortly after a gibbeting). One famous gibbetee was anti-monarchist Oliver Cromwell, who was tarred, shoved in a cage and left to rot, and this was following being hung – itself a merely symbolic gesture as he was already very much dead prior to being strung up. His enemies really had it in for him; he had been exhumed a full three years after his death. Who knows how intact the corpse was at this point, but I’m certain the attendant crowds remained at a good distance from the presumably smelly scene.↩
(Sources available on request)