If you’ve ever been to London, chances are that you might have visited Hyde Park and, if you have, then you’ll probably have seen one of London’s most famous landmarks, Marble Arch. But it’s not the King of Norway’s gift to Queen Victoria (a gift, incidentally, that she hated) that we’re interested in. We’re interested in the small marker set into the ground near it that marks one of the most infamous and bloody spots in London, the site of Tyburn and its triangular gallows built to hang 24 inmates at once, known to crime historians and eager spectators as the ‘triple tree.’
Tyburn was the last stop on Earth for perhaps as many as 60,000 felons whose crimes were committed in and around the city. The condemned would be held at the legendary Newgate Prison where the Central Criminal Court, London’s famous ‘Old Bailey’ stands today. On execution day they’d be put on a cart with a chaplain and their own coffin and make the journey West to Tyburn, possibly stopping at a tavern on the way (the origin of the phrase ‘One for the road’). One they’d been given their last drink ever, they’d be back ‘On the wagon’ never to touch another drop. Just as thousands came to die there, thousands came to watch. Until 1783, anyway, when the last of Newgate Prison’s inmates to ‘Go west’ and ‘dance the Paddington frisk’ left on his final journey. After that until 1868’s Capital Punishment Amendment Act, executions were conducted at Newgate on the ‘New Drop’ above the Debtor’s Gate.
Of course, the attendance depended on the forthcoming attraction. The bigger the names, the bigger the crowd. The more nefarious the conspiracy or the more gruesome the crime, the bigger the crowds. On particularly busy days locals rented out their second-floor window rooms with the best views and enterprising individuals went so far as to erect temporary grandstands when expecting a particularly big attendance. Which worked well for the profiteers until a grandstand collapsed just prior to the beheading of Lord Lovat in 1747, killing and injuring many spectators. Lovat is said to have been highly amused at people turning out to watch him die being unpleasantly killed themselves.
There were others present with even darker motives. Tyburn had been used for executions since the twelfth century. By its end in 1783 England was at the height of the ‘Bloody Code’ when over 20 rimes carried the death penalty ranging from stealing any item worth more than five shillings (around fifty cents in today’s money) to murder. Most capital crimes then were for offences such as burglary, robbery, highway robbery, theft and so on, although less serious crimes such as sedition and sodomy were also capital crimes. At the top end of the spectrum murder, treason, piracy and even religious heresy could be capital crimes and there were methods even worse than slowly strangling on a hangman’s rope. Hanging, drawing and quartering, for instance. I’ll spare you, Gentle Reader, from the precise details, but think of William Wallace’s grisly end in Hollywood spectacular ‘Braveheart’ and you’d be right. Incidentally, Wallace is said to be among many famous felons executed at Tyburn. Even while this great demonstration of State power over the lawless mob was in progress, while the condemned made their final speeches from the gallows, while the hawkers sold food and drink and religious ministers exhorted spectators to show repentance for their own sins, the pickpockets, highway robbers, footpads, cutpurses and burglars were at work., People coming to watch hangings found their pockets picked, themselves waylaid, hurt, robbed and sometimes killed or returned home to find they owned rather less than they had before they’d gone to watch the law’s dreadful spectacle in action. Little of which inspires much sympathy in me, if I’m entirely honest.
So, let’s go through a Tyburn timeline, a ‘Tymeline’ if you will. Starting near the end of the twelfth century, incidentally around the time Wiliam Wallace allegedly died there. It became known as ‘Tyburn Fair’ as much a social occasion, which at the time meant riotous behavior, drunkenness and general debauchery, as a general rule. It would be fair to say that crowds who gathered for lynchings in the Deep South were merely emulating their ancestors of the Tyburn Fair in many ways. By the time of Henry VII (who was so terrified of being poisoned that he personally ordered poisoners be publicly boiled alive in large cooking pots) Tyburn had evolved from using the nearby trees to having its own ‘Triple Tree’, a triangular structure from which up to 24 felons could be hanged at once. And there weren’t the precise, clean, near-instant hangings we might expect today. There involved prisoners lasting for up to 30 minutes after the carts on which they’d arrived had been rolled out from under them. Hence another phrase that entered the English language for a disastrous event, having had the floor pulled out from under you.
Moving on through the Tudor period, boiling joined ordinary hangings, public burnings and being hung, drawn and quartered on this wholesome list of family entertainments. As we’ve already covered, Henry VIII had a particular fear of poisoners and wanted them to have the most hideous death he could imagine which was boiling. After the appalling exhibition of a cook named Rose, where he was placed in the water and the water heated to boiling as slowly as possible, boiling was refined to make it more humane. From then on those destined to be boiled would be dunked into the pot only after it had been heated to boiling point. Which was nice.
After the deaths of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, both of the Protestant faith, Elizabeth’s sister Mary Tudor inherited the crown. She was known as ‘Bloody Mary’ (yes, the drink is named after her) and for a very good reason. Mary Tudor was what we nowadays would call a religious fundamentalist. She was a staunch Catholic, so staunch that she was enthusiastically persecuting Protestants by burning them to a far greater than any British monarch before or since, hence the name. An estimated 20-30,000 people were executed for heresy during her reign and many were burned at Tyburn in as public a display of Mary’s personal religious fervor as could be arranged. The legendarily-horrendous Inquisition didn’t operate in England as it did in Spain, but then with Mary in charge it didn’t really need to.
One vaguely redeeming feature of Tyburn was its cosmopolitan condemned. Granted, most of the time spectators could expect to see the typical murderers, thieves, pirates and cut-throats, but every now and then you’d see a special attraction like Cornish rebel leader Michael Flamink, Scottish rebel William Wallace or leading gentry such as Lord Lovat take the stage, albeit briefly. Like the Roman Coliseum, something out of the ordinary always brought a larger crowd, especially as the special attractions were promoted in advance by proclamations and word-of-mouth to ensure the crowds came out in force. In the eyes of the authorities it wasn’t a bad thing that the public saw what happened to those who criminally, politically or religiously challenged the power of the State. What did concern the powers-that-be, though, was the uncivilized nature of the crowd’s conduct. This is fairly contradictory, granted. Tyburn was as much a social occasion as a demonstration of State power, after all. But while the executions themselves are hideous affairs when viewed through modern eyes, what concerned the authorities at the time was drunkenness, debauchery and actual crime that came as a result thereof. The State wanted to use gruesome public executions as a means to deter crime, not encourage it, and spectacle like Tyburn Fair were encouraging exactly the kind of rampant criminality they were supposed to scare the crowds away from. Changes had to be made, and so they were.
In 1783 the last executions at Tyburn were carried out. The famed ‘Triple Tree’ was already long gone, turned into stands for beer barrels at a local pub, according to some historians of the period. The ‘New Drop’ which looked much more like a gallows we might recognize today, was moved to the Debtor’s Gate of Newgate Prison where it remained until public executions were finally abolished in 1868, after which all hangings in England were done within prisons. Boiling, burning and hanging, drawing and quartering had also long since been stopped. The crowds still attended and there was still a solidly rowdy element devoted to drinking and general misconduct so, in 1868 public hangings were finally abolished. No longer would the scenes of degeneracy so beloved of painter William Hogarth be inflicted upon the more sensitive souls, much to the disappointment of those who derived their entertainment and made their living therefrom.
After 1868 British executions were increasingly sterile and more scientific affairs. Colorful executioners such as Jack Ketch and Pascha Rose (himself hanged for cattle rustling) were discarded in favor of professional hangmen who sought to do their work as discreetly and humanely as possible. Instead of the same length of rope for every prisoner, the ;variable drop’ system ensured that inmates could expect to die quickly and cleanly. No more would they be subjected to a half-hour at the end of the rope before a jeering, drunken mob intent of enjoying watching them die. The likes of Albert Pierrepoint, devoted to speedy and humanely doing his job, enforced a standard of speed and demanded perfection in what English hangmen called ‘the Craft.’
Which, for the sake of humanity in general, and the condemned in particular, was probably just as well.