Hanging day was a riotous affair in the eighteenth century – convicted criminals and notorious ne’er do wells were held accountable for their vicious and heinous crimes (such as stealing bread) by means of a slow asphyxiation, swinging from the gibbet of the Tyburn Tree. The whole event was meant to serve as a deterrent yet was anything of the sort, being both a public holiday and a thriving ground for pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets and publishers of dressed up ‘last speeches’. Last time we left as the cart transporting the unfortunates was winding it’s way down St. Anthony’s Holborne towards the gruesome destination. This week we’ll see the whole joyous affair through to the end.
It’s rumored that there were as many slang terms for execution by hanging, as there was for money or the sexual act, estimated at over a hundred different monikers. Such examples were ‘Dancing the Tyburn jig’, for obvious reasons, the ‘Padington Frisk’ was also popular. Additionally, you were to be ‘nubbed’, ‘turned off’ (rather apt, in my opinion), ‘cry cockles’ (mercy?) . To hang was ‘to swing’, ‘to dance from the Sheriff’s picture frame, and also ‘to morris’, probably named after the awful traditional English ‘Morris Dance’ (see left). One almost appreciates the hopeful comparison with dancing – although it should be noted that my terpsichorean ability could almost certainly be found similar to that of a choking person.
As we described last week, the trail to the Tyburn Tree, the three-boughed, three legged gallows, involved a delightful itinerary: a final drink at local bars; pelting of stones and refuse by accompanying well-wishers; the hollered adoration of the crowd. Upon reaching the square the conduct of the prisoners was vitally important – to beg, cry out or request mercy usually found derision from the mob, whereas a stoic attitude and expressed defiance would evoke cheers and support.
Prior to the execution taking place, the accused and convicted were permitted to make speeches. These were of great entertainment to the crowd, and probably the only time the volume of the crowd was anything close to quiet. The criminal would be permitted to speak as he or she pleased; railing against King and Country, the political regime, his friends for not putting in that extra bit of effort to have him freed, his enemies for presumably being successful in their aims, and anyone else they despised. In short; the opposite of an award speech.
At this stage the family was permitted onto the cart for several minutes, speaking words of encouragement and comfort, for what it was worth. They would then dismount and the hanging would take place. Not with any scientific precision – hanging was less of an art and more who the authorities could press-gang into performing the act. Most often former criminals themselves, the hangmen were considered the lowest of all in society, and utterly despised.
They were also frequently incompetent, work training being more of the ‘on the job’ variety. In 1738 one inebriated hangman took considerable convincing to remove the noose from the neck of the spokesperson for the convict he’d erroneously placed it on, and instead attach it correctly to the convict himself. Another incident in 1721 found the Sheriff unable to find a hangman at all, and after two hours of standing around (not hanging around, such a phrase is considered bad taste in the circumstances) the prisoners were returned to prison, and eventually had their sentences commuted to ‘transportation’ to some distant colony.
That said, when the act finally took place, it was botched more times than one might think. Although the hangman could be bribed to tie a bad knot, permitting the chance of the condemned dropping to the ground and being whisked away in the crowd, most often the convicted would either be drunk or simply resilient and strangle for upwards of thirty minutes. Alternately, an incompetent hangman might hang the knot at the rear of the neck rather than the side, resulting in an extended and excruciating death.
As it was up to the acumen of the hangman to determine when the prisoner was dead, several cases were recorded where the hanged were later revived. In 1740, William Duell showed signs of life as late in the game as to be on the dissecting table before discovery, probably moments from being cut open. He was fully revived, having his sentence later altered to ‘transportation’. This might be a solid definition of ‘mixed feelings’, at least on the part of the anatomist.
All things being well and good, the execution would commence, the hangman would lash the horses, the cart would slide away, and the person would drop, not far enough to break the neck however, leaving the prisoner to slowly strangle. Immediately, friends would rush the body, pulling on the legs of the poor choking wretch to tighten the rope, shortening the suffering. Others on the scene at this stage were of course the owners of the anatomist schools who would commence fighting for the body, long before the legs had stopped kicking. Parliamentary statute may have granted them use of the body following the execution, but due to the absolute hatred of such a grisly end for any citizen – even the most reviled criminal – public would quickly intervene, resulting in the prime part of the afternoons entertainment – the battle for the body.
And this wasn’t your regular closing-pub punch-up – one could expect broken noses, bones and serious wounds. Try to envision yourself choking under the weight of your own body; what must have been your impression of the ruckus below your kicking feet – not knowing if you’d end up in pieces under a dissectors knife, or buried decently in the good earth. 
Such a scene was described by Samuel Richardson the writer, in his collection of blandly named essays Familiar Letters on Important Occasions:
“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 […] 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.” 
Following execution, the body provided curious benefits to the public. Even in the time of the Enlightenment, all stratas of society were extremely superstitious, and the freshly stretched corpse, as well as the noose that hung them, were seen as having magical properties. Touching the body could imbue special healing powers and protection from harm, and in addition to the scrapping between families and anatomists, other people would also try to gain control of the body for that purpose.
That said, one particular event recorded in 1797 veers from this explanation of interest in the executed. After execution, the corpse of convicted serial rapist John Briant was taken from Newgate prison when it was apprehended by two mobs of people, and the historian McLynn cites that:
“Unfortunately, the imagined therapeutic effects of the corpse could not be verified, since the legs, arms and head were all pulled off in the mêlée.”
Perhaps, until one notes that the mobs were entirely composed of women, the historian is male, and one should remind oneself that the body was that of a serial rapist. ‘Unfortunate,’ my derriere – the only therapeutic effects taking place was the piece of mind granted from the proper application of justice.
The ferocity of the gallow battles and the general pit of degeneracy that had become the Paddington Day Fair resulted in the executions relocating to within Newgate prison in 1783 – guaranteeing the allotted bodies to the surgeons regardless of the fury and ire of the family and friends. The surgeons as always would get their cadavers, and the specter of dissection would hang (ahem) as a deterrent to murder for many years to come.
1. That is of course, other than thinking “My goodness, this rope is a tad tight, wonder if they’d mind loosening it a bit…”
2. Despite the boring title, I do highly recommend Richardson’s book. For example, one entry is titled ‘A Gentleman to a Lady, who resents his Mistress’s fondness of a Monkey, and Indifference to Himself.‘ The letter is as amazing as it sounds, and the aspiring suitor slanders her pet primate to no end: “What can he do, which I cannot perform, tho’ with less agility to full as good purpose? Is it a recommendation in him that he wears no breeches? For my part I will most willingly surrender mine at your feet…” Saucy. Unfortunately, the victor of this competition for the maiden’s heart is not known.
(Sources available on request)
This article was originally published in The Pandora Society on Sept 16th 2015.