Monday, 7 November 2011

A Grisly Tale about Tyburn Tree

Illustration, from about 1680, showing the gallows at Tyburn. Prisoners travelled
the three-mile journey from Newgate prison in an open cart, followed by crowds of people who watched the hanging.
Today I have a grisly tale to tell, for on November 7 , 1783, John Austin was the last person to be hanged at the infamous ‘Tyburn Tree’, the gallows which once stood at the junction of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road, near Marble Arch, in the heart of London.

Actually, before I continue I should admit to having some reservations about the date of this event – some sources list it as taking place on November 7, while others claim it happened on November 3. Anyway, the month is correct, even if the day is wrong, and he definitely appeared in court on October 29, 1793 – you can read the transcript of the trial at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey web-site

According to this, John Austin was indicted for ‘feloniously assaulting’ John Spicer , in a ‘certain field and open place, near the King's highway, on the October 23,  putting  him in ‘fear and danger of his life’, and ‘feloniously taking from his person and against his will’ one silver watch, value 30 s. a steel chain, value 1 s. a steel key, value 2 d. two silk handkerchiefs, value 4 s. two pair of worsted stockings, value 4 s. one linen shirt, value 12 d. one man's hat, value 12 d, which were all the property of  the said John Spicer.

The victim told the court he came to town from Essex, and two men that he did not know offered to show him a good lodging, but instead took him to some fields. “One of them took me to a ditch, he said, we cannot well get over here, then he took me to the corner; the other, which is the prisoner, had stopped to do his occasions,” said Mr Spicer. “The other man drew a cutlass, from under his smock frock, and he said, if I did not give him what I had, he would cut me down, I got hold of him, and made a good deal of resistance, he chopped at me several times, and cut away as hard as he could,” he added.

A map of Tyburn gallows from John Rocque's 1746 map of London, Westminster and Southwark.
Austin grabbed Spicer’s neckerchief and his leg, then threw him down on the ground, where he lay on his back while the assailants tied his hand together with a cord and took his possessions. “A person came up or else I think they would have killed me,” Mr Spicer said. His rescuer, a gentleman’s gentleman, described how  he John Spicer with ‘both his hands tied together all over blood almost’, and added that he was taken to the infirmary where ‘we expected he would have died’.

Stolen property was found on  property was found on Austin when he was captured, but in court he maintained his innocence, claiming he was ‘easing’ himself when the attack occurred, and did not know the other man. “When I went up to him, he said, damn you, if you will not assist me, I will blow your brains out,” Austin claimed. “I have no witnesses, I have never a friend in the world, I am far from friends.”

He was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the gallows he reportedly said: “Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul. Let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed. Keep good company, and mind the word of God. Lord have mercy on me. Jesus look down with pity on me. Christ have mercy on my poor soul." As the cart on which he stood was driven away from the gallows, the noose around his neck slipped, and he choked to death rather than having his neck snapped.

After Austin’s execution hangings were carried out at Newgate Prison, but it was almost 100 years before legislation was introduced to ensure they were conducted in private, and it took another 100 for capital punishment to be abolished. Today a circular plaque on a traffic island at Marble Arch commemorates the Tyburn Tree.

Incidentally, the phrase 'money for old rope' came into being because after executions, hangmen used to cut the noose up and sell it. And, according to legend, the term 'on the wagon' also has a connection with the last journey of condemned prisoners, for they were allowed a final drink on the way to Tyburn, before going back on the wagon to their grim destination
Image of the stone commemorating the Tyburn site on the traffic island at the junction of Edgware Road and Marble Arch.

1 comment:

  1. Have you discarded facebook? I dont see you any more.


Thank you for commenting on my blog. I love to hear from readers.