Dancing the Jig: The Last Waltz at Tyburn



Hanging was the main method of judicial execution in England and the colonies during the eighteenth century and was a punishment handed down for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. Performed in public, the gruesome display was meant to be a deterrent for all those who were tempted into a life of crime. However, for many, executions became a spectacle and created carnival-like excitement. Even the route from Newgate was lined with girls blowing kisses, crowds cheering or jeering and some throwing food or excrement.  Stall-holders sold refreshments and people hung out of their windows in order to get a look at the condemned men and women who were on their way to their deaths.

The village of Tyburn, just outside London probably remains the place best known for the implementation of the death penalty in England. However, there were actually only eight hanging days every year. The time between executions allowed new stocks of condemned men and women to build up in gaol so that the events would become even more spectacular, involving a number criminals.

There could be a period of several weeks then between sentencing and execution, during which prisoners could ask for anything they required for mind or body. The chaplain stayed with them, offering them consolation and the sacrament, should they have wished it, provided he believed they were sufficiently repentant. Eye witness accounts though talk of some criminals going to their death full of liquor and mocking penitents. Indeed the last stop on the way to the scaffold was the Mason’s arms, where prisoners were manacled to the walls while they enjoyed their last drink. The marshals had to be especially careful there in case of rescue or escape attempts.

Once at Tyburn, the condemned criminals mounted another, wider cart and cords were passed around their necks, which were tied to the scaffold. The chaplain would pray with them and relatives were allowed to say farewell. Then the executioner would cover the prisoners’ faces and lash the horses so that the cart would be pulled away, leaving them to hang from the gallows. Often, friends and relatives would pull at their legs so that they would die quicker and not suffer.

The bodies and clothes of the dead belonged to the executioner. Relatives could buy them from him, but and unclaimed bodies were sold to surgeons to be dissected.

“You see most amusing scenes between the people who do not like the bodies to be cut and the messengers the surgeons have sent for bodies; blows are given and returned before they can be got away, and sometimes in the turmoil the bodies are quickly removed and buried.” ¹

After hanging, murderers’ bodies were sometimes covered with tallow and fatty substances, and dressed in a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands. Their bodies were hung with chains to the gibbet, which was erected on, or as near as possible to the spot where the crime was committed. It was left there to rot, hence the expression to ‘hang in chains’.

Tyburn hangings continue to be portrayed in novels, films and television dramas, holding a macabre kind of draw for many. Tyburn’s more notable victims such as James MacClaine, the so-called gentleman highwayman have been romanticised in popular culture. Two hundred and thirty two years after they were last used, it seems our fascination with Tyburn’s gallows is not waning.

¹ This eyewitness account appears in: de Saussure, Cesar, A Foreign View of England in the Reigns of George I and George II (1902), reprinted in: Charles-Edwards, T. and B. Richardson, They Saw it Happen, An Anthology of Eyewitness’s Accounts of Events in British History 1689-1897 (1958); Gatrell, V.I.C., The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (1994).


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