London's Public Executions: How Many Were Killed? Where? And For What Crimes?

A large wooden gallows with three legs, with projected images of executions in the background

A mock-up of the Tyburn gallows at Museum of London Docklands’ Executions exhibition. Picture: Matt Brown

We take a deep dive into the Museum of London’s knowledge on executions.

For hundreds of years, public executions have been a preferred spectacle on the streets of London. 1000’s of individuals would crowd round a scaffold to observe a life snuffed out. The apply continued till 1868 — late sufficient that you may catch the Underground to see an individual hold.

The Museum of London Dockland’s Executions exhibition explores this darkish aspect to London’s historical past. It comprises many desirable displays. However, for me, it was a digital display screen that basically obtained the thoughts racing. There, on a sluggish scroll downwards, have been the names of the traditionally condemned of London. 1000’s of them. Who have been these folks? What did they do to deserve the noose, flames or axe?

Intrigued by the show, I requested the museum if I may take a better take a look at the info. They graciously obliged. It’s a outstanding dataset, starting from the twelfth to nineteenth century. The small print of over 5,500 public executions are recorded, together with (the place recognized) title, age, intercourse, crime and place of execution (see the foot of this text for additional notes on the info and its sources). It ought to be famous that earlier information (pre-18th century) are very patchy — usually, solely essentially the most high-profile executions have been recorded. We are going to by no means know the entire variety of public executions in London, however it’s more likely to be a number of occasions the quantity for which we now have documentation.

Nonetheless, I’ve sifted via this grisly trove to drag out a couple of developments and reply a couple of questions. Which crimes most frequently ended on the scaffold? Which have been the most typical execution websites? When did most executions happen? Who have been the youngest and oldest folks to be executed in London? The outcomes are proven beneath.

For what crimes have been folks executed?

The dying penalty was virtually assured for extra critical crimes comparable to homicide and treason. However it was additionally pronounced upon criminals of every kind, on the whim of the choose. Thieves, perjurers, counterfeiters and deserters all risked the noose. One man was executed for “stealing a cheese” and one other for “impersonating Edward VI”. In 1676, Richard Hazelgrove swung for bigamy, whereas in 1736 a person was hanged for being “armed and disguised”.

Rejecting the non secular developments of the time may additionally land you in deep water, or somewhat the other. In 1533, John Frith was burned on the stake in Smithfield for “disputing the idea of transubstantiation” — simply one in every of dozens of Londoners executed for heresy.

Beneath, we have tried to group the lots of of listed crimes into broader classes. This is not a precise science. Phrases can have completely different meanings at completely different occasions; for instance, “treason” would possibly embrace an assault on the king, non secular dissent, forging paperwork or plotting revolt. A number of the condemned obtained their sentence for multiple crime, comparable to “theft and assault”. In such circumstances, I’ve chosen (what I understand to be) the extra critical crime for our tally. Caveats apart, listed here are how the info break down:

1. Theft: 2,391 (contains housebreaking, animal theft, tried housebreaking, poaching, freeway theft and others)
2. Monetary crimes: 583 (contains clipping, extortion, tax offences, uttering, forgery)
3. Treason and sedition: 572
4. Assault: 566 (many circumstances are listed as “assault and theft”)
5. Homicide: 528 (contains manslaughter and being an adjunct to homicide)
6. Spiritual ‘crimes’: 181 (principally heresy, which was generally thought-about treason)
7. Breaking the peace: 96 (contains rioting. If these are subsumed below ‘assault’ then that may change into the second commonest class.)
8. Avoiding transportation: 76 (some absconded earlier than being transported, others returned from abroad with out permission)
9. Sexual assault: 42
10. Piracy: 30

A brass plaque remembering the execution of William Lord Russell

William Lord Russell was executed for treason in Lincoln’s Inn Fields — a botched beheading for which executioner Jack Ketch supposedly apologised. Russell was posthumously exonerated and pardoned. Picture: Matt Brown

Theft, then, is by far the most typical crime for which individuals have been executed. The entire quantity is more likely to be a lot, a lot greater than captured on this knowledge. It’s thought that almost all of executions within the medieval and early trendy intervals have been of ‘widespread criminals’ comparable to thieves, although their names are not often recorded.

Executions by age

Folks might be executed at virtually any age. The biggest portion of the condemned have been of their 20s, although this will merely mirror that this was essentially the most populous grownup age group.

The youngest individual on document to be executed was Nicholas Mason, simply 8, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1689 for a miscellaneous crime. Nevertheless, the unique document is unclear, and the age may properly be a smudged ’18’. If that have been the case, then the following youngest is Dennis Doyle, aged 13, who was killed at Tyburn in 1774 for housebreaking.

The oldest individual executed in London (that we all know of) was Joan Boughton, who was aged not less than 80 when killed at Smithfield in 1494. Boughton was a Lollard, a follower of John Wycliffe, and was burned on the stake for heresy. Her execution is briefly described in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Corridor. Simon Fraser, eleventh Lord Lovat was additionally about 80 when executed for his half within the Jacobite rising, which culminated at Culloden.

Executions by intercourse

London executed virtually 10 occasions as many males as ladies. The information present 4,730 males to 402 ladies.

The place have been folks executed?

London had extra websites of execution than you would possibly suppose. Whereas most individuals have been dispatched at Tyburn or different everlasting gallows, it was additionally fairly widespread for the condemned to fulfill their finish near the scene of their crime, significantly murderers. The information present round 100 separate places. These embrace some strikingly central locations comparable to Piccadilly, Haymarket, Cornhill and Drury Lane.

A plaque showing the location of two noblemen executed on Tower Hill

A plaque on Tower Hill noting two of the unfortunates executed there. Picture: Matt Brown

Tyburn gallows was, far and away, the most typical web site of execution over the centuries coated. Extra folks have been executed on the Tyburn tree than all different places put collectively. Listed below are the ten most-common places.

1. Tyburn: 3,342 (now Marble Arch)
2. Newgate/Previous Bailey: 1,126 (changed Tyburn as chief execution web site, and was the place of London’s final public execution)
3. Smithfield: 145 (principally non secular dissidents, burned on the stake)
4. Tower Hill: 131 (the positioning for traitors, contains many well-known figures comparable to Thomas Extra and Woman Jane Gray)
5. Horsemonger Lane: 111 (a Southwark gaol with its personal gallows)
6. St Giles’s Fields: 54 (St Giles’s church close to Centre Level. The Babington conspirators have been amongst these executed right here)
7. Wapping: 48 (together with many pirates at ‘Execution Dock’)
8. St Thomas Waterings: 29 (the place of metropolis limits on Previous Kent Highway, the place the previous Thomas A’Becket pub stands)
9. Stratford: 19 (All for heresy. A monument to the Stratford Martyrs stands close to St John the Baptist church)
10. Charing Cross: 15 (A well-liked location for these convicted of treason within the sixteenth century)

Museum of London curator Thomas Ardill has created a sequence of wonderful maps exhibiting the geographic unfold of over 100 execution websites.

Which was London’s bloodiest decade for executions?

A graph in blue showing executions per decade

The graph reveals recorded public executions from 1500 into the nineteenth century. Data usually tend to be incomplete the additional again in time we go, so the peaks on the right-hand aspect are doubtless extra correct than these on the left.

The bloodiest decade in London’s historical past — not less than by way of public executions — is the 1780s, when 525 deaths are recorded. The 1780s have been a time of political turmoil, and we’d think about crimes like rioting and plotting in opposition to the crown to be the chief misdemeanours. Certainly, the Gordon Riots of 1780 contribute round 30 names to the checklist. However surprisingly the most typical single crime to function on this decade’s information is freeway theft. Nearly 150 folks, or 28% of all these executed within the 1780s, went down for this type of theft. We might love to listen to from historians of the interval who would possibly additional unpick the info.

The curious reader would possibly like to take a position on the attainable causes behind the opposite peaks and troughs. The near-zero document within the 1620s is probably going a niche within the information somewhat than a scarcity of executions.

How have been folks executed?

The info collected by the Museum of London will not be damaged down by execution kind, although we will make a couple of observations. Hanging was by far the most typical means, accounting for all these at Tyburn, Newgate and Horsemonger Lane. Essentially the most critical crimes would possibly see the condemned hanged, drawn and quartered or (for the Aristocracy) beheaded.

Burning on the stake was often reserved for heresy, however was sometimes the sentence for different crimes. A number of ladies have been burned to dying at Tyburn (and one at Newgate) for treason (e.g. coining) and petty treason (e.g. killing their husband), for instance. Elizabeth Gaunt was the final individual to be sentenced to be burned to dying and died at Tyburn on 23 October 1685. After that the sentence was to be hanged or strangled to dying earlier than burning. Nevertheless Catherine Hayes was by accident burned to dying at Tyburn on 9 Could 1726. The executioner lit the faggots earlier than trying to strangle her with a rope, however the fireplace burned too rapidly and he needed to withdraw. Witchcraft (a uncommon ‘crime’ in London) was additionally punished by burning.

Not less than three folks have been boiled to dying — a punishment set by Henry VIII for individuals who poison their grasp.

Who was the primary individual to be executed for a selected crime?

A noose swinging over the river Thames with boats in background

A noose swings over the river on the Prospect of Whitby pub, Wapping. It recollects the close by Execution Dock the place pirates the place historically executed. Picture: Matt Brown

It is generally telling to see when a given crime first turns into a capital offence. Listed below are a couple of examples pulled from the info.

Treason (1196): The primary public execution within the information was of William FitzOsbert, hanged at Tyburn for treason.
Heresy (1210): An “Albigensian heretic” about whom nothing is thought.
Homicide (1255): In one of many darkest chapters of London historical past, 92 Jewish women and men have been imprisoned within the Tower of London, falsely accused of crucifying a toddler in Lincoln. 18 of them have been convicted and hanged.
Witchcraft (1441): Margery Jourdemayne, referred to as “the Witch of Eye Subsequent Westminster” was one in every of six ladies to be executed in London for witchcraft. She seems in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Half 2.
Theft/theft (1538): A surprisingly late first-recorded entry for a criminal offense that may see essentially the most public executions general. The document pertains to three males, one in every of whom was a hangman, executed in Clerkenwell.
Sodomy (1543): The Buggery Act of 1533 made sodomy (and bestiality) a probably capital offence. The primary recorded sufferer of the legislation was Lord Walter Hungerford, who was beheaded on Tower Hill (although he was additionally accused of seditious offences).
Piracy (1556): Six unnamed males, executed at Wapping.

Who was the final individual to be executed for a selected crime?

A round pavement plaque saying "The site of the Tyburn tree"

Pavement roundel marking the positioning of the Tyburn gallows (referred to as the Tyburn Tree) close to present-day Marble Arch. Picture: Matt Brown

Homicide (1868): Michael Barrett holds the unenviable distinction because the final individual to be publicly executed in London, and certainly England, for his half within the Clerkenwell bombing of the earlier 12 months. The execution happened in Newgate to a crowd of round 2,000 folks. Executions would hereafter be achieved in personal, proper up till 1964.
Housebreaking (1836): The 31-year-old William Harley was hanged at Horsemonger Lane for stealing “Spoons, candlesticks, egg cups, a watch, coat and different gadgets at night time”.
Sodomy (1835): Outstanding to suppose that individuals have been being executed in London for consensual intercourse virtually into the Victorian period, however that was the case with James Pratt and John Smith. The pair have been convicted of sodomy based mostly totally on the testimony of somebody who’d spied via a keyhole. A 3rd man, William Bonill, was convicted as an adjunct and transported to Australia (he wasn’t even current, nevertheless it was his room). Pratt and Smith have since been formally pardoned, however about 180 years too late to avoid wasting their necks.
Burglary (1833): The final burglar to be publicly executed was one George Coney. His outstanding swag bag included not solely cash and jewelry, but additionally 2,400 thimbles, 300 toothpicks, 360 pencil circumstances and 36 tongue scrapers. The 22-year-old was hanged at Newgate.
Piracy (1830): Their names may not be as memorable as Blackbeard or Captain Kidd, however William Watts and George Davis booked their place in buccaneering historical past after they grew to become the final to be publicly executed for the offence on this 12 months. Their finish got here at Execution Dock in Wapping.
Treason (1820): The final 5 folks to face execution for treason have been all Cato Avenue conspirators (brief video right here). This was the plot to homicide your entire British cupboard and Prime Minister. The 5 went to the Newgate gallows on Could Day, although that they had initially been sentenced to the medieval punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered. An axe made specifically for the execution is on present within the Museum of London’s exhibition (it stood on the platform as a logo, however a knife was used to behead the useless males).
Witchcraft (1652): Joan Peterson, the “Witch of Wapping” was hanged at Tyburn for supposedly witching somebody to dying.
Heresy (1612): Having an unfavourable opinion about god might be deadly within the Tudor period, however the burning of heretics continued into the reign of James I and VI. Bartholomew Legate was the final of his type, immolated in Smithfield for daring to consider that the “Nicene and Athanasian Creeds didn’t include a occupation of the true Christian Religion”.

A be aware on the info

The info have been assembled by Museum of London curators from quite a lot of sources, together with on-line databases comparable to Digital Panopticon, Capital Punishment UK and the Previous Bailey On-line, but additionally weaving in lots of smaller main sources. Naturally, the information will likely be incomplete, more and more in order we transfer additional again in time. However the dataset is massive sufficient that we will be fairly assured about patterns and developments, significantly for 18th and nineteenth century executions.

Our overview right here is a reasonably cursory evaluation. The museum is open to sharing the info for extra rigorous tutorial research.

To seek out out extra concerning the matter, go to the Museum of London Docklands’s Execution exhibition earlier than it closes on 16 April 2023. With grateful due to Thomas Ardill and Mariam Hussein of the Museum of London for entry to the info and useful conversations.

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