Georgian Era Executions: What They Were Really Like
In 1800, one person wrote that “a month doth not pass over in England without repeated executions; and there is scarcely a vagabond to be met with in the country who has not seen a fellow creature suspended from the gallows.” Georgian Era executions were plentiful enough that another person noted “it is shocking to think what a shambles this country is grown! Seventeen were executed this morning.” This was reiterated by a country visitor to London in the early 1800s. He commented that Londoners were immune to the horror and that it was shocking to constantly hear about executions whereas “in the country, from the less frequency of them, even butchers weep.”
One famous patron of Georgian Era executions was the parliamentarian George Augustus Selwyn. He was well known for being enamored with the macabre and for attending executions regularly, something that Madame Récamier‘s husband, Jacques-Rose, reportedly did during the French Revolution when people were routinely guillotined. As to Selwyn one day some women were scolding him one day for attending the execution of Lord Lovat, who had been convicted of treason and scheduled to be beheaded. The women asked Selwyn “how he could be such a barbarian to see the head cut off? ‘Nay,’ says he, ‘if that was such a crime, I am sure I have made amends, for I went to see it sewed on again.'”
Selwyn was not the only one interested in executions. They drew huge crowds of people. For instance, when prisoners were transported to the gallows, streets were usually packed full — sometimes topping over 10,000 people — particularly if the condemned person was notorious. One example of large crowds filling the streets happened in April 1805 when Richard Patch was slated to be executed for the murder of a shipbreaker. The press reported that roads and turnpikes were overflowing with curious spectators. Moreover, they assembled all day and “took possession of every place, public or private, that afforded any chance of a view of the gaol.”
Another huge turnout for an execution happened in 1803 when Colonel Edward Marcus Despard was executed for high treason after having been found guilty of conspiring with other individuals to assassinate George III. Reports of crowds as large as 20,000 supposedly arrived to watch the spectacle. Moreover, the Newcastle Courant provided the following details:
“At a very early hour yesterday morning, the preparations for the execution were begun, and in a short time the scaffold and gallows were erected. … As might be expected, vast multitudes of people immediately began to assemble, as soon as the preparations were known to be going forward. In the course of the day there was a continual success of persons, drawn from curiosity to witness the apparatus of execution. … The Bow-street patrole, and a strong body of constables, took their station among the crowd, which long before day-break had begun to assemble. The crowd continued to encrase rapidly, and long before the hour fixed for the execution, a body of people had assembled, far exceeding any thing witnessed for many years on a similar occasion.”
James Greenacre, known as the Edgeware Road Murderer and convicted of killing a woman in 1837, also had a large crowd in attendance at his execution on 2 May 1837. According to the Bucks Herald:
“At an early hour last night the Old Bailey, and the space around the angles of Newgate, were thronged with a clamorous multitude, including almost as many women as men, and amongst the latter person apparently of every grade in society though, as in all such cases, the great mass was of the lowest order. Vehicles of every description drove up in quick succession. The passengers seemingly having their curiosity gratified by the gloomy aspect of the walls, soon retired to make way for another. Occasionally, a carriage full of gentlemen, and, we believe, accompanied by ladies in more than one instance, mingled for a moment amidst the eager crowd. Many hundreds spent the night sleeping on the steps before the doors of the prison, the opposite shops, and St. Sepulcher’s Church; and all who had procured places in the windows commanding a view of the place of execution, made sure of their seats by occupying them several hours before the dismal preparations commenced. There was not any time of the night less than 2,000 people in the street. So great was the anxiety to procure a commanding site that several persons remained all night actually clinging to the lamp-posts!”
Georgian Era executions were presided over by an executioner, often referred to as “Jack Ketch.” He was in actuality John Ketch, an infamous English executioner employed by King Charles II in the 1680s. Ketch became famous because of how he performed his duties, which were publicized in broadsheet accounts. The stories included him botching the executions of William Russell (Lord Russell) and James Scott (1st Duke of Monmouth), as well as others. These failures is what caused Ketch’s notoriety and resulted in the name “Jack Ketch” becoming the proverbial name for England’s future executioners. Furthermore, a description of capital punishment in England in the 1750s and what the “Jack Ketch” and his assistant wore at that time follows:
“Jack Ketch … was a tall, elderly personage. His costume presented a long blue frock-coat, a scarlet waistcoat, and his hose bound with red garters below the knee-buttons of his inexpressibles. He wore a flower in his coat, or carried one in his mouth. He surveyed the eagerly-staring populace, and sustained their gaze with an air of calm indifference, which, however, had nothing of startling effrontery about it. His assistant was a very different figure; he was a coarse-featured, pocked-marked, short, thick-set man. All his motions indicated great vivacity; and, if a judgment might be formed from his exterior, he was proud and rejoiced to fill an office of such high distinction, and felt more satisfaction in reflecting on the conspicuous situation in which he was placed, than pity for the poor creatures who almost instantly were to be committed to his professional care. He generally wore dark clothes; but sometimes had a bit of his master’s distinguishing finery, — a red waistcoat.”
Besides hordes of spectators, many Georgian Era executions displayed a carnival-like or theatrical atmosphere. That is what happened at Greenacre’s execution where before it began there was a “sort of fair” that occurred in front of Newgate. It included piemen hawking “‘penny sandwiches’ and ‘Greenacre tarts’ [to those] who had stomachs to digest and money to pay for such dainties.” There were also pickpockets operating among the amidst bells tolling, ministers chanting, and people cheering. People’s behavior at the execution was reportedly so bad newspapers cited them as “indecent,” and in fact it was reported:
“The populace did not seem in the slightest degree impressed with reflections upon the dreadful crime of the murderer and the awful punishment by which he was about to expiate it. The interval was spent in jokes and amusements. Two boys actually sparred with boxing-gloves under the gallows, and the spectators were delighted at such a variation of the monotony of the night. In truth, no criminal ever went to the scaffold with less sympathy than Greenacre.”
Although many people may have enjoyed executions, there were also those who described them as “deplorable.” During the conveyance of prisoners to the gallows, sometimes insults were hurled and sometimes more solid objects, such as rocks, sticks, or stones were thrown by the spectators at prisoners, which is partially what led to the discontinuance of criminals being driven through the streets. Furthermore, when executions got underway, spectators sometimes made jokes, cheered, or laughed “even under the gallows.” That’s what happened at Greenacre’s execution. Every time he “convulsed … at each heave of the chest and shoulders, the populace responded by a cheer; and when it was clear that life was extinct, and his body hung motionless, one tremendous cheer was given.”
For those who thought of executions as entertainment, souvenir sellers took advantage of them to earn an extra buck by selling prints of various Georgian Era executions. For instance, Jack Sheppard or “Honest Jack” was a notorious English thief and prison escapee of early 18th-century London. Born into a poor family, he was apprenticed as a carpenter but took to theft and burglary in 1723. He was caught several times but escaped until his finally capture, which resulted in his execution on 16 November 1724 on the gallows at Tyburn. Prints and information about him were sold long after his death For instance, in 1839 and 1840, author William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a serial novel, Jack Sheppard, based on the real life of Jack Sheppard that intertwined with the history of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. It was serially published in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1839 to 1840, with popular illustrations created by artist George Cruikshank.
The executioner’s rope was also another popular souvenir. That was because after it had done its terrible job some people thought of it as a talisman. This made the hanging rope a highly sought commodity and resulted in executioner’s cutting their ropes into short pieces to sell. For example, in 1802, Joseph Wall, a British Army officer and Lieutenant Governor of Gorée, was executed in London by the short drop method for the fatal flogging of one of his soldiers. Wall’s notoriety led to the manufacture of memorabilia associated with his crime and the rope used to hang him became highly desirable. The hangman cut it into one-inch pieces and then sold each piece for a shilling.
Throughout the Georgian Era, pamphlets about executions were also produced because executions occurred regularly up and down the English countryside and people were highly curious to know all the details surrounding them. The pamphlets claimed to provide the supposed confessions or last words of those condemned. However, pamphlets were not the only documents sold that curious people purchased.
There were also other publications like The Tyburn Chronicle; or villainy display’d in all its branches. Containing an authentic account of the lives, adventures, tryals, executions, and last dying speeches of the most notorious malefactors … who have suffered … in England, Scotland, and Ireland, from the year 1700, to the present time. It was published in London around 1768 and included a compendium of fascinating information about other famous eighteenth-century cases. In addition, Knapp & Baldwin’s Newgate Calendar also offered details of executions and graphic images. For instance, in 1794 when Robert Watt, a political radical, was convicted of high treason and executed, Knapp & Baldwin provided its readers with the supposed “true” story of his notorious deeds. In addition, they published a gory picture that showed the results of Watt’s decapitation, his headless corpse bleeding into a basket while the executioner held his severed head above the crowd for all the curious to see.
Popular books were also written about certain well-publicized murder cases. These types of books usually gave specifics about the crime and often included a biography on the life of the murderer. For instance, in 1831 when Celia Holloway was killed by her husband John Holloway, interesting facts related to her death were published in An Authentic and Faithful History of the Atrocious Murder of Ceclia Holloway. The book also included a summary of the murderer’s character, many gruesome details, and “highly-interesting engravings.”
The last Georgian Era executions happened to James Pratt and John Smith. They were hanged in front of Newgate Prison for sodomy, which was also the last known execution for sodomy in England. Pratt worked as a groom and was married with a wife and children. Smith was an unmarried laborer who worked as a servant. William Bonill was renting a room and regularly had male visitors. One day Pratt and Smith came to visit him and were caught by a landlord who climbed into a loft and could see supposedly see through a window into Bonill’s rented room. The landlord claimed sexual intimacy occurred between the two men. He and his wife then peered through the keyhole before the landlord broke down the door and confronted the men. At the time Bonhill was absent. The landlord and his wife called the police and all three men were arrested and charged with similar charges that the Vere Street Gang faced when they were arrested in the early 1800s. Bonhill was convicted as an accessory and sentenced to 14 years of penal transportation, while Pratt and Smith were sentenced to death. However, the only evidence against the men was what the landlord and his wife said, and modern commentators have doubts as to whether their testimonies were accurate and whether sexual intimacy happened at all.
-  The Monthly Visitor and Entertaining Pocket Companion, Vol. 9, 1800, p. 309.
-  Knight’s Penny Magazine, Vol. 2, 1842, p. 83.
-  Cradock, Joseph, etal., Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs, 1828, p. 35.
-  Ibid., p. 183.
-  The Monthly Mirror, vol. 21, 1806, p. 287.
-  “Execution of Colonel Despard, &c.,” in Newcastle Courant, 26 February 1803, p. 2.
-  “Executions,” in Bucks Herald, 6 May 1837, p. 4.
-  “Execution of Greenacre,” in Brighton Patriot, 9 May 1837, p. 3.
-  Bentley’s Miscellany, Vol. 2, 1837, p. 601.
-  “Executions,” in Bucks Herald, p. 4.
-  Cradock, Joseph, etal., p. 35.
-  The Spectator, Vol. 10, 1837, p. 421.
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