|The Tyburn Tree – the permanent gallows at Tyburn, which stood where Marble Arch now stands, about 1680
These evocative words all described execution by hanging, the frequent fate of the Elizabethan and Jacobean criminal. There were many other terms describing the same mode of exit, including to be tucked up, stretched and crapped, an indication that a criminal career in these times was likely to be short. But at least the victim went out in a blaze of glory, celebrated in excited gossip and street ballads like this canting song published in 1676:
But when we come to TyburnFor going upon the budge,There stands Jack Catch, that son of a whore,That owes us all a grudge.And when that he hath noosed us,And our friends tip him no cole,Oh then he throws us in the cartAnd tumbles us in to the hole.
The budge was stealing, or more generally any kind of criminal activity. Jack Catchis a variation of Jack Ketch, the generic name for the hangman and tipping him no cole refers to the friends of the condemned failing to bribe the hangman. The hole was the drop into eternity.
Public executions were a major form of entertainment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Known as Tyburn Fair or The Hanging Match, the day was often a ribald and intoxicated spectacle of death in which the sufferer was expected to play his, or sometimes her role, along with the topsman and the screeching mobcome to see the show. The executed would take the condemned procession to Tyburn or another tree by way of taverns for the traditional parting cup. Not surprisingly this final quaff often became another, then another, and many reportedly went to meet their maker in a state of inebriation.
Regardless of their sobriety they were expected to die game like a fighting cock and preferably to give a flowery and defiant final speech before being turned offto dance the Tyburn jig. The famous highwayman Dick Turpin played his role well, according to a contemporary report of 1739, behaving:
…in an undaunted Manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right Leg tremble, he stamp’d it down, and looking round about him with an unconcerned Air, he spoke a few Words to the Topsman, then threw himself off, and expir’d in five Minutes.
Turpin was unrepentant and bold, an important factor in his status as a proper man, the term of approbation given by the crowd to those who died well. But many other malefactors chose to give dying speeches of repentance and cautioned others not to do as they had done. Early in the sixteenth century, if not before, the phrase to preach at Tyburnwas a widespread euphemism for being hanged. The opposite of dying well was dying dunghill, a term also derived from the language of the brutal custom of the cockfight in which a dunghill cock was one that would not fight.
But whether defiant or repentant, many others turned in notable final performances. And if, through alcohol or fear, they failed their final act, then the street literature and broadside publishers of the day had their final words already printed and ready for sale in the form of their last confessions and feisty ballads about their real and mostly imagined doings.
This ritual had its own elaborate street language. In a cart, the condemned was brought up to the gallows, known by many names such as the trining cheats or derrick. The hangman placed the rope halter or Tyburn tippet around the malefactor’s neck and the cart was driven out from beneath, leaving the condemned to swing at the end of the rope to dance the Paddington frisk or the hempen jig. Death was effectively by strangulation and often had to be assisted by relatives and friends either pulling down on the feet of the condemned or throwing heavy rocks at his chest to hasten the end. When the sufferer was done, the hangman cut down the body, often selling it to the surgeons keen to practice their anatomical skills. Occasionally the execution was so ineptly managed that the condemned, if removed quickly enough from the noose, might be brought back to life by friends administering whacks and alcohol in a local pub.
Another of the terms that evolved within this spectacle of death included nub, meaning to be hung. It had a number of variations, including nubbing cheat, as in one who escapes the gallows. This was in use from at least 1676 and was still spoken by convicts transported to Australia up to the middle of the nineteenth century. Other uses of the term were a nubbing ken, meaning the courthouse where the sentence of death was pronounced and the nubbing cove who was, naturally enough, the hangman.
Jack Ketch (also Catch) was still being publicly employed in the Victorian era until legislation of 1868 put an end to public executions. Before then a hanging match might attract tens of thousands of spectators who, even if a little better behaved than their earlier counterparts, still revelled in an air of festivity and anticipation. Food, drink and the still popular last lamentationsof the condemned were hawked through the crowds. These ballads and verses seem to have been even more profitable in the later era than previously. According to one ballad seller interviewed by Henry Mayhew in the mid-nineteenth century, the earlier practice of ‘sentence o’ Friday and scragging o’ Monday’ had not left the hacks and the printers enough time to supply the ready market. In the more enlightened practice of allowing a week or more between sentence and suffering, there was plenty of opportunity to churn out the required souvenirs for the enthusiastic crowds.
Among the keenest attendees of executions were criminals themselves. Public hangings were events where pickpockets filled their pockets from those of the gawpers. Large numbers of harlots, cadgers, thieves and youthful miscreants jostled their way to the front of the crowd in order to be as close to the gallows as possible. The attraction of public execution for those on the slippery slope of serious crime led many to conclude that these festivals of death had little or no deterrent effect. In response to this perception and the increasing distaste for the savagery of public executions, the gallows were eventually moved inside prison walls. Crime, of course, continued nevertheless.