Tyburn’s Martyrs

The criminals went to the place of execution in the following order, Morgan, Webb, and Wolf, in the first cart; Moore in a mourning coach; Wareham and Burk in the second cart; Tilley, Green, and Howell in the third; Lloyd on a sledge; on their arrival at Tyburn they were all put into one cart. They all behaved with seriousness and decency. Mary Green professed her innocence to the last moment of the fact for which she died, cleared Ann Basket, and accused the woman who lodged in the room where the fact was committed. As Judith Tilley appeared under terrible agonies, Mary Green applied herself to her, and said, do not be concerned at this death because it is shameful, for I hope God will have mercy upon our souls; Catharine Howell likewise appeared much dejected, trembled and was under very fearful apprehensions; all the rest seemed to observe an equal conduct, except Moore, who, when near dying, shed a flood of tears. In this manner they took their leave of this transitory life, and are gone to be disposed of as shall seem best pleasing to that all-wise Being who first gave them existence.

In the course of my research over the years, I’ve read the records of coroners’ inquests – murders, gruesome accidents, negligence and cruelty – and they are distressing and disturbing, yet they don’t evoke quite the same sense of culture shock as do the pamphlets containing accounts of executions like the one above.

We aren’t simply talking about the execution of murderers here: in the 18th century burglars, robbers, pickpockets, horse thieves, sheep- and cattle-rustlers, forgers and counterfeiters could all face slow, horrible deaths, in most cases public strangulation, and this was regarded by most people as perfectly normal and civilised. (Indeed, there were those who thought that hanging was not punishment enough.)

Ordinary’s Accounts are one of the many sources we’re digitising in the Plebeian Lives project. These are rich and fascinating sources, full of stories of the lives of common people. But they are also stories of death, and they give me the willies.

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Andrea McKenzie, since she has written an entire, densely detailed book about the subject and the source: Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England 1675-1775. She must be a tougher soul than me.

In fact, at the very beginning of the book she mentions some of the bemused reactions she received from people learning what her research topic was, including the gentleman who suggested that she should study “something pleasant, like great battles”.

McKenzie suggests that “the gallows were… a stage on which the condemned fought what contemporaries would have viewed as the greatest battle of all, publicly confronting the so-called ‘King of Terrors’: death”. Moreover, “the language of martyrology, legitimation and resistance were intertwined… traitors, martyrs, murderers and robbers alike drew from a common eschatology in which the ‘good death’ was not only an ultimate goal, but a powerful political and metaphysical statement’.

As she acknowledges, “there is much about early modern English sensibilities – or what we would see as the lack thereof – to horrify the modern reader”. But this is not a good reason to shy away from the topic: early modern attitudes towards execution are revealing of wider belief systems, which saw life as “not sacred, but forfeit… as a result of original sin”. Execution “was at the very heart of everyday contemporary eschatological discourse”.

McKenzie documents the journeys made by the condemned from Newgate to Tyburn, the reactions of observers to the behaviour of those on the gallows, depending on whether they were perceived to have made a ‘good’ death. The actions of the watching crowd often depended on their attitude towards individual convicts: the notorious and despised Jonathan Wild, for example, was pelted with stones.

She also traces the history of the publications that constitute her main sources, the ‘last dying speeches’ and Ordinary’s Accounts, and their decline in the later 18th century with the cultural rejection of the spectacle of the scaffold and its printed artefacts as vulgar and barbaric. McKenzie makes it clear that the Ordinary’s Account – and often its author – was frequently considered vulgar well before its decline.

The complex balancing act of ‘dying well’ on the gallows – striving for a “happy mean between presumption and despair” – is chronicled in detail. While the condemned were exhorted to think of Jesus as an exemplar, they were not supposed to go so far as to suggest that his innocence also mirrored theirs.

The ‘game criminal’ was the target of much criticism by the Ordinary – the real-life likes of Swift’s Clever Tom Clinch:

He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back.

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.

Still, the obstinate ‘game’ criminals served as useful counterpoints to the properly and tearfully (but not too tearful, especially the men) penitents, for the Ordinary’s moralising purposes. Their ‘false courage’ (mainly due to alcohol, according to the Ordinary) could be contrasted to genuine ‘Christian courage’, their pride made their fall inevitable and all the more instructive.

But it was difficult to doubt the courage of one group killed by the early modern English state: those who underwent peine forte et dure – pressing to death – for their obdurate refusal to plead to charges against them. Some may have done this to prevent the seizure of their estates following a trial; but by the 18th century that was not very likely to happen in any case. McKenzie suggests that the decision to endure this torture represented a challenge to, a rejection of, the authority of the courts, allowing them to ‘seize the initiative’ and ‘demonstrate their resolution and courage’ to the world.

Peine forte et dure was abolished in 1770, by which time it was seen by educated elites as ‘irrational and benighted’ as well as barbaric and cruel. Similarly, by then, the public theatre of Tyburn no longer had the cultural and moral resonance that it had had in the early 18th century; the Ordinary’s Account ceased publication in the 1770s. The Tyburn procession was abolished in 1783 – though not because it was unpopular, but because it was too rowdy and undisciplined.

There is, McKenzie concludes, a cultural gulf between 1675 and 1775 “so wide that, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, we can barely see our way across it”. She views the change in terms of not a ‘decline’ in religiosity but its ‘redefinition’: the rejection of ‘enthusiasm’ and providentialism in favour of “a ‘rational religion in which rationality was both a human and divine attribute”, and which emphasised internalised virtues rather than public displays. McKenzie’s study demonstrates the benefits of overcoming our horror and at least attempting to understand what made the people of the early 18th century tick.

Further reading, for the stout-hearted

Tyburn Tree: Execution in Early Modern England
Old Bailey Proceedings (server is down again at the moment, so I can’t track down the punishment pages)
Last Mile Tours: hanging in 18th-century England
Early Eighteenth-century Newspaper Reports
EMR Bibliography
Simon Devereaux, Imposing the Royal Pardon: Execution, Transportation, and Convict Resistance in London, 1789

(X-posted (and shortened somewhat) from EMN.)

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2 responses to “Tyburn’s Martyrs

  1. Hi Sharon, terrific post, and one that raises all sorts of interesting and important issues.

    My first thought was that the “gulf” in religious worldviews that Mckenzie describes between 1675-1775 can be seen in long-term reactions to the conclusion of George Lillo’s London Merchant, where the two main characters are led offstage to be hanged. In the comparison between the two characters’ prospective deaths, we find Millwood the Hobbesean-predestinarian female villain, and who shrieks about the terrors of hell, contrasted with the calm assurance of George Barnwell, the apprentice who murdered his master and now faces the same earthly, if not divine, punishment. Mckenzie’s notion of the “good death” seems central to this scene, and I wish I’d known about it before now. The London Merchant was a huge sentimental hit in 1731, and was still running as an apprentices’ play well into the era of Dickens.

    Bit by bit, though, it seems as if the play’s confrontation between rationalist and predestinarian Dissent faded in importance, and the play increasingly appeared as nothing more than melodrama, as it appeared to Dickens and Thackeray, and as it appears to us now.

    But, since I am writing from one of the world capitals of capital punishment (Harris County, TX), I should say that the religious worldview described by McKenzie, in which public executions are part of a wider belief system of divine AND human retribution, is not limited to the early modern world . . . .

    Best,

    DM

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