The Newgate Gentlemen's Club

Herein, a few installments from my column on 17th and 18th century crime and punishment which began in Issue #2 of Mutiny Magazine (August 2012). Inspired by trial records of the Old Bailey and Charles Johnson's Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, Pirates, and Robbers and the famous Newgate Calendar (discovered on the splendid website and Peter Haining's The English Highwayman. Other sources were some contemporary diaries -Pepys, Boswell et al.   
Illustrations were mostly by William Hogarth and layout designs by Lycan Hunt.


Newgate Prison:  For 700 years a Way Station betwixt Capture and Execution, where a Noose hung nigh in every Man's Future as the living shared Quarters with the festering Dead and those not waiting to die might yet die waiting. A Fortress of Misery run for the Profit of the Gaolers, where Debtor domiciled with Murderer and the Poor languished in diseased Squalor whilst those of Means could mitigate their Situation by purchasing Liquor, Whores and, sometimes, even Freedom. This was not considered Graft or Bribery. It was simply the Way Things were done.

Man of Letters:  One who has been branded on the Flesh of his Face, Limb or Torso with a Letter to identify his Crimes, that his Guilt should be apparent to the Eyes of Men just as his Sins be unconcealed before the Eyes of God. This Mark, burned forever into his Skin, though a Blight to the Senses of decent and honest Souls, was an Emblem of enviable Status within the miscreant Society of Convicts and Rogues.

The Newgate Gentlemen's Club:  
Being a privileged Ward behind the Felon's Quadrangle, wherein gathered Men of Letters, each convicted and condemned, to stall their Fate and balm their Angst in Whoring, Gambling, Drunkenness and the Telling of many strange and wicked Tales...

    A pirate's life was one of constant hazard; shipwreck, drowning, battles at sea, pox, scurvy, starvation, hanging. Yet as brutal as the world pirates lived in was the world which spawned them. A criminal's life, by land or by sea, was a litany of horrors.
    Typhus is a bacterial contagion passed on by parasitic vermin such as lice, mites, and the fleas of rats. Its symptoms include fever, rashes, delirium and death. In Newgate Prison it was called the "Gaol Fever" and one in every four inmates would die of it. As with the plague, men knew to avoid the infected lest they contract it alike. For this reason trials at the Old Bailey criminal court, located next to the prison, were held in an outdoor enclosure that the flow of air could mitigate the stench of unwashed prisoners and dissipate the maladies they were known to transmit.
    Within the prison the only windows were double-grated with bars and opened onto the courtyards where a breeze was unlikely, the air thick and stagnant, and the peril of Gaol Fever constant. A cell on the top (3rd) level, above the quadrangle would be the least threatening to one's wellness and, to the good fortune of a moneyed inmate, such a cell could be had for a price.
    The warden or "keeper" of the prison received no salary for his position yet was expected to make a profit by selling "easement" to the inmates. Easement ranged from a simple lessening of misery (the removal of leg-irons, for example) to the sale of liquor and private quarters. This was known as the "Garnish System," wherein prisoners were expected to pay for such things as: entry and exit from the prison, lighter irons, food, water, light, heat, gin, a blanket, access to the exercise yard. Those who could afford it could get a private cell, a whore (though they'd also have to buy permission for the whore to enter their cell), the right to receive visitors, and better alcohol than the rotgut sold in the debtor's wards. A gentleman was expected, upon entering, to buy drinks for his jailers and fellow prisoners to ingratiate himself to them whereas a debtor, pleading poverty, was at the mercy of charity for even the sine qua nons of existence.     
    Money, however, could not purchase sanitary living conditions or solace. The cramped wards, the proximity of excrement and putrefying corpses, rats, roaches, ceaseless screams of insane and tortured souls, the futility of expecting mercy or even justice from the system and the specter of a scaffold and noose before each of them made for a much despairing lot. Yet the spirit of man will oft prevail over anything the world can inflict upon it, as we'll see in our next installment when we follow The Road to Tyburn...     


The Newgate Gentlemen's Club: 
Being a privileged Ward behind the Felon's Quadrangle, wherein gathered Coiners and Cutpurses, Highwaymen and Murderers. Men of Letters, every one, convicted and condemned, stalling their Fate and balming their Angsts in Whoring, Gambling, Drunkenness, and the Telling of their strange and wicked Tales...

The Road to Tyburn by Bullet Valmont

In England, by the end of the 19th century there were only four crimes -Treason, Piracy, Mutiny, and Murder- still likely to be punished by hanging, but at the turn of the 18th there were scores of death-worthy delinquencies by which one might find his way into a noose. A common belief in the law being that any vice was a gateway to a greater vice -thus the most trivial dishonesty an harbinger of murder- it was thought better to snuff out a petty thief early on, before he graduated to manslaughter. For evidence to support this policy let's consider the case of a particular young highwayman who found his way to Newgate in the year of 1690.
   Jack Bird was apprenticed to a baker before he ran away, joined the army, deserted the army, fled to Amsterdam, was arrested for the minor offense of stealing a piece of silk and sentenced to twelve months of labor. The warden finding him to be a slothful sod who fainted at the drudgeries of the rasp-house (manually rasping wood into powder to be used for dyeing) punished him by chaining his foot to the bottom of a large cistern and then opening several channels of water into it thus forcing him to pump for his life or drown. After an hour of such exertions he was returned to the rasp-house, his work ethic greatly improved.
    Having served his sentence, Jack returned to England where he stole a horse and procured several pistols, a sword, and a gentlemanly wardrobe. Taking to the highway he was successful at his first several robberies. But fate has a cruel humor and it was on a road outside of Gravesend that he bid, "Stand and deliver!" to a fellow named Joseph Pinnis who raised his arms to show that he was missing his hands and thus not able to empty his own pockets. Jack resolved to search the man yet as he got close to him Pinnis suddenly got his arms around Jack's neck and dragged him off his horse. Throwing his weight upon Jack, Pinnis held him and mauled him with his stirrups. A passing group apprehended Jack and he was taken to Maidstone jail where the next assizes condemned him to hang.
    For reasons unclear this sentence was revoked and he was eventually freed. He lived honestly for a short time yet eventually returned to the highway. Outside of Acton he came upon a Welshman who would not submit to be robbed but swung at him with a quarterstaff. Jack retreated a few steps and lamented having once been taken by "a son of a whore with no hands," saying "and for that trick I shall not venture my carcass within reach of one that has hands..." Drawing a pistol he shot the Welshman through the head then searched his pockets finding only eighteen pence. "This is a prize worth killing a man for at any time," he proclaimed and then rode away.  
    Finding better prizes in his next robberies he got a new horse and was emboldened to continue his wicked ways. Encountering a certain Earl and his chaplain in a coach he demanded surrender of their valuables. "I hope you will fight for it," answered the Earl, at which Jack cursed and brandished his pistols. 
    "Don't put yourself into a passion, friend," his prey replied, "but lay down your pistols, and I will box you fairly for all the money I have, against nothing."
    "That's an honourable challenge, my Lord," said Jack. 
    The chaplain, however, insisted on fighting proxy for his Lordship, to which all parties agreed, and thus did clergy and sinner come to bloody blows.
    Within a quarter hour Jack had beaten the poor reverend badly enough that he cried, "I'll fight no more." At which Jack took twenty guineas from the Earl and rode off.
    Jack lived into his 40s and eventually married, yet nonetheless he continued consorting with whores and yielding to liquorous dissipation in abject confirmation that vice does, indeed, beget more vice. One night, accompanied by his doxy, he robbed a man near Drury Lane in London and, though he got away himself, the woman was captured. Apparently he was fond enough of her that he attempted to bribe the prosecutor to get her released, which only caused him to be arrested on suspicion and confined to Newgate. He confessed at his trial and owned the entire crime so that his doxy was acquitted and went free while Jack was returned to Newgate, condemned, for the second time, to death by hanging.  
    Thus, he joined our storied group of miscreants behind the Felon's Quadrangle, wherein he passed the last weeks of his life in what unholy diversions were available in that wicked place.   

The Wait  
    While the Keeper and the Turnkeys of Newgate had many creative rackets for wringing profits out of the convicts, it was the prison's chaplain whose scheme was the most conspicuous of all. The chaplain, usually referred to as the 'Ordinary,' made considerable earnings by recording the confessions and life histories of prisoners then offering them for sale at the hangings. Printed chapbooks of the 'Ordinary's Account' sold for 2 to 6 p. and often net the chaplain over £200 per year. Competing versions, printed on broadsheets, were often embellished or blatantly fictionalized, sometimes even claiming to contain a man's "last dying words," neverminding that he'd yet to reach the gallows. These could be had for a few pence less and cut into the Ordinary's profits. 
    Exceptionally notorious murderers and highwaymen brought the greatest sales. Their names and crimes were listed on Notice of Execution announcements posted throughout the city, promoting the impending hangings as a theater might promote its coming attractions. Bestowing sensationalized sobriquets like "The Gentleman Highwayman" (James MacCleane), "Moll Cutpurse" (Mary Frith), "Jenny Diver" (Mary Young), and "The Monster" (Renwick Williams), drummed up sales of the chapbooks and attracted more spectators.
    Some prisoners willingly shared their stories, others had to be coaxed with liquor or the promise that a portion of proceeds from the 'Ordinary's Account' would go to their surviving family. (i'm guessing it's unlikely any ever did.) Should a condemned man choose to withhold, a disgruntled Ordinary could retaliate by fabricating a tale that portrayed his subject so unsympathetically that the crowd along Tyburn Road might pelt him with stones, excrement, and even dead rodents.
    To be sure, Jack Bird spilled his own confession at some point as it was recorded and eventually included in the Newgate Calendar, an anthology of crimes and punishments. A longer version appears in Charles Johnson's Lives and Exploits of English Highwaymen, (these being the sort of publications oft credited for a rise in literacy among the common classes as they "gave people what they truly wanted to read.")
    Yet, for every man condemned there came, inevitably, that bleak midnight when the bellman of St. Sepulture's rang outside the walls and, through thrice-grated windows, his exhortation carried: 
    "All you that in the condemned hold do lie, 
     Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall die. 
     Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near, 
     That you before the Almighty must appear. 
     Examine well yourselves, in time repent, 
     That you may not t'eternal flames be sent. 
     And when St. Sepulchre's bell to-morrow tolls, 
     The Lord above have mercy on your souls!"

The Road  

Leaving the prison yard in the early morning, that first taste of clean air was no comfort to a man about to die. He stood in an open cart next to the coffin which would contain him, one end of a rope was already loosely knotted around his neck and his hands bound in front that he could pray while the Ordinary urged him, sometimes ostentatiously, to repent. The coffin might be just for transportation of his body rather than for burial and would likely have held many other dead men before him.
   The two miles and a half distance from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn was fraught with complications and sometimes took three hours to travel. The line of carts were drawn by horses, preceded by the undersheriff or the city marshall, and flanked on all sides by dozens of law officers armed with halberds, staves, muskets with bayonets, and swords. A crowd waited outside the prison to follow the procession. Along the way women leaned from windows blowing kisses, fights broke out over disagreements on each man's guilt or innocence, and throngs of the drunken, bloodthirsty, or just curious rushed forward for a glimpse of the condemned.
    A man who faced his death bravely would elicit respect and goodwill from the crowd whereas a coward would have stones and excrement hurled at him the entire way. A gentleman of steely spirit determined to go out with style might wear a frock coat and buckled shoes and revel in his short-lived celebrity, bowing to the pretty ladies and joking.
    Passing the Church of the Holy Sepulture just outside the prison they continued along Newgate street and down Snow Hill. There was usually a gridlock of bodies by the time they arrived at the small stone bridge that crossed Fleet Ditch. The undersheriff's men would have to clear a path swinging their cudgels, breaking bones and skulls then pushing their way through, trampling the fallen. Often, the mob retaliated with volleys of stones.
    About halfway to Tyburn they passed the Church of St. Giles, patron of lepers and madmen, cripples and outcasts (and, for some reason, blacksmiths). After a prayer to the saint, they went on to the Bowl Tavern where the whole procession stopped and the condemned were allowed to enjoy a "cup of charity," that is; a tankard of beer. And after that, another tankard. At this occasion there was the possibility that a prisoner might escape or be freed by the riotous mob. If the crowd converged too close the jailers would, again, have to beat them back. Advancing slowly along the narrow St. Giles High Street to Oxford Road, the crowd grew in number and in drunken belligerence as they went on. The shouting and brawling were constant.
    The Mason's Arms, a pub in Seymour Place, was the last stop before Tyburn and the last call for Jack Bird on his way to meet the Reaper's rope. Already in his cups, he raised a final toast to the living, saluting the innkeeper with the empty promise: "I'll pay you upon my return!" All stood respectfully silent until he took his drink and then they laughed and cheered him "Godspeed!" on his way.  

The Dangle and the Strangle 
8 days a year were hanging days. These were recognized holidays and many businesses were closed as their employees were all at Tyburn. It was no measure of a criminal's popularity if a third of London came out to see him swing, for about that many would come out for any hanging. Tens of thousands gathered on all sides of the gallows. Enterprising Londoners would sell desirable viewing perches in their homes, on top of wagon wheels, barrels or even upon their own shoulders. Scaffolding was constructed to afford better views to those who could afford it -'Mother Proctor's Pews' were promoted as the best vantage from which to witness and listen to a man's final words or, if you could hear it over the crowd's cheers, his choking as he "croaked."
    The gallows itself was constructed of three vertical posts, each 18 feet high, topped by three crossbeams, each 9 feet long, joining the posts in the shape of a triangle. It was believed that eight men could be hanged from each crossbeam though it was rarely used to capacity. The shape of this contrivance inspired the epithets "Triple Tree" and "Three-Legged Mare" among others.
    When the condemned arrived his first sight would have been that fatal tree, towering up from the bloodthirsty hordes straight into the sky. A thin ladder would be leaning against it and the hangman himself or one of his assistants, perched atop a crossbeam, perhaps smoking a pipe (as Hogarth portrayed him) would be waiting.
    The cart approached and stopped beneath the gallows. The hangman tightened the noose around Jack's neck while his assistant secured the other end of the rope to the crossbeam. Jack may have tipped the hangman a few coins to insure he placed the knot below his ear at the side of his neck where it would choke him quickly rather than the back his neck which would have meant a prolonged strangulation.
    The Ordinary prayed with him and Jack said a few words -"preaching from the Tyburn cross" - about the dangers of lewd women who seduced young men away from virtue and morality. A nightcap was slid down over his face and the hangman shouted "Hats off!" The spectators bared their heads, not in respect for the dying but rather to afford a better view to those behind them. The cart pulled forward leaving Jack dangling in space. 
    The Tyburn crowd felt cheated if a man didn't kick and struggle. Their greatest cheers were for the spirited ones who "danced a jig on air." Yet it was during this "Tyburn jig" that the pickpockets, or "divers" as they were called then, availed the mass distraction and had their most lucrative moments. The fact that it was often a fellow diver on the noose never seemed to be a deterrent.
    If a hanging man was fortunate he would have friends present to pull on his legs or hit him hard in the chest thus to hasten his end. Even if so, death by the rope's strangulation was still a slow ordeal, often taking longer than the hour which men were required to hang. 
    One of the hangman's perks -aside from payment per person hanged- was that he got to keep the clothing of the dead. For this reason the prisoners would not have been fed for several days previous to execution, thus insuring their bowels would not evacuate and soil their pants. The sight of urine appearing down the leg was considered a sign that death had occurred but I wonder if many of them wouldn't have pissed themselves already well before the time they hanged. After death, people rushed forward to touch the face or hands of the corpse believing this would cure certain maladies.
    Thus Jack Bird -highwayman, murderer, petty thief- left this world "by steps and string" on the 12th of March, 1690, at the age of 42. After swinging for the prescribed hour Jack was cut down and put into his coffin. But the coffin held him only a few hours, just until he was delivered to the anatomists at Surgeon's Hall for dissection.
Illustration by Howard Pyle. Layout by Lycan Hunt.
Yet not all who were hanged would die, and for those who died death was not the end of their ignominy as we'll discover in our next installment: The Stiff Trade…