Newgate Witness Account, Part 1

Posted: September 10, 2013 in Victorian Life

In the year 1744 Silas Told, a worthy Wesleyan, deeply touched by a sermon preached by Wesley on the text, “I was sick and in prison, and ye visited me not” (Matt. xxv. 43), began to exert himself among the prisoners at Newgate, and has left a graphic and simple-hearted account of his labours among them; and from this book we obtain many curious glimpses of prison life at that period. The first persons Told visited were ten malefactors, then under sentence of death. “The report having been made,” says Told, “and the dead-warrant coming down, eight of the ten were ordered for execution. The other two were respited; nor did either of those two appear to have any the least regard or concern for their deathless souls; therefore I trust they were spared for a good purpose, that they might have time for repentance and amendment of life.
“The day arrived whereon the other eight malefactors were to die. Sarah Peters and myself were early at the cell, in order to render them all the spiritual service that was within our power. The keeper having received directions on the over-night to lock them all up in one cell, that they might pour out their souls together in fervent solemn prayer to Almighty God, they paid very circumspect attention thereto, and a happy night it proved to each of them; so that when they were led down from their cell, they appeared like giants refreshed with wine, nor was the fear of death apparent in any of their countenances. We then went up to the chapel, when my companion and myself conversed with them in the press-yard room. Upon being called out to have their irons taken off, Lancaster was the first. While they were being made ready for the gallows, Lancaster looked up to heaven with a pleasant smile, and said, ‘Glory be to God for the first moment of my entrance into this place. For before I came hither; my heart was as hard as my cell wall, and my soul was as black as hell. But, oh, I am now washed, clearly washed, from all my sins, and by one o’clock shall be with Jesus in Paradise!’ And with many strong and forcible expressions he exhorted the innumerable spectators to flee from the wrath to come. This caused the sheriff to shed tears, and ask Mr. Lancaster if he was really in earnest, being so greatly affected with his lively and animated spirit. As their irons were taken off they were remanded back to the press-yard room; but, by some accident, they were a long time getting off the last man’s fetters. When they were gotten off, Lancaster, beholding him at a short distance, clapped his hands together, and joyfully proclaimed, ‘Here comes another of our little flock.’ A gentleman present said, with an apparent sympathising spirit, ‘I think it is too great a flock upon such an occasion.’ Lancaster, with the greatest fluency of speech, and with an aspiring voice, said, ‘Oh, no; it is not too great a flock for the shepherd Jesus; there is room enough in heaven for us all.’ When he exhorted the populace to forsake their sins, he particularly endeavoured to press on them to come to the Throne of Grace immediately, and without fear, assuring them that they would find Him a gracious and merciful God, to forgive them, as he had forgiven him. At length they were ordered into the cart, and I was prevailed upon to go with them. When we were in the cart, I addressed myself to each of these separately.”
Told’s account of the execution of these men shows clearly how lawless and savage were the mobs which gathered at Tyburn. “When we came to the fatal tree Lancaster lifted up his eyes thereto, and said, ‘Blessed be God,’ then prayed extemporary in a very excellent manner, and the others behaved with great discretion. John Lancaster had no friend who could procure for his body a proper interment; so that, when they had hung the usual space of time, and were cut down, the surgeon’s mob secured the body of Lancaster, and carried it over to Paddington. There was a very crowded concourse, among whom were numberless gin and gingerbread vendors, accompanied by pickpockets and even less respectable characters, of almost every denomination in London; in short, the whole scene resembled a principal fair, rather than an awful execution. Now, when the mob was nearly dispersed, and there remained only a few bystanders, with an old woman who sold gin, a remarkable occurrence took place, and operated to the following effect:
“A company of eight sailors, with truncheons in their hands, having come to see the execution, looked up to the gallows with an angry countenance, the bodies having been cut down some minutes previous to their arrival. The old woman before named, who sold gin, observing these tars to grow violent, by reason of their disappointment, mildly accosted them and said, ‘Gentlemen, I suppose you want the man that the surgeons have got?’ ‘Aye,’ replied the sailors; ‘where is he?’ The poor affrighted woman gave them to understand that the surgeons’ crew had carried him over to Paddington, and she pointed out to them the direct road thereto. They hastened away, and as they entered the town, inquiry was made by them where the surgeons’ mob was to be discovered, and receiving the information they wanted, they went and demanded the body of John Lancaster. When the sailors had obtained the body, two of them cast it on their shoulders, and carried him round by Islington. They being tired out with its pressure, two others laid themselves under the weight of the body, and carried it from thence to Shoreditch. Then two more carried it from Shoreditch to Coverley’s Fields. At length, after they were all rendered completely weary, and unable to carry it any farther, the sequel of their project, and their ultimate contrivance to rid themselves of the body was an unanimous consent to lay it on the step of the first door they came to. They did so, and then went their way. This gave birth to a great riot in the neighbourhood, which brought an old woman, who lived in the house, downstairs. When she saw the corpse lie at the step of the door, she proclaimed, with an agitated spirit, ‘Lord, here is my son, John Lancaster!’ This being spread abroad; came to the knowledge of the Methodists, who made a collection, and got him a shroud and a good strong coffin. I was soon informed of this event, which was peculiarly singular, as the seamen had no knowledge of the body, nor to whom he belonged when living. My second wife went with me to see him, previous to the burial; but neither of us could perceive the least alteration in his visage or features, or any appearance of violence on any part of his body. A pleasant smile appeared in his countenance, and he lay as in a sweet sleep.”
Told gives a terrible picture of the state of Newgate about 1744—the felons swearing and cursing at the preacher, and the ordinary himself guarding the prison doors on Sunday morning, to obstruct Told’s entrance. Told, however, zealous in the cause, persevered, and soon formed a society of about forty of the debtors, who formed his Sunday congregation. The ordinary, however, soon contrived to shut out Told from this part of the prison also. He therefore betook himself almost entirely to the graver malefactors. His account of some of these unhappy men is extremely interesting. During his visits to Newgate six men of good family were lying there, sentenced to death for highway robbery. Of these, one was the son of an Irish divine, two others were men of fortune, and a fourth was a naval officer, to whom a daughter of the Duke of Hamilton was engaged to be married. After an election dinner, at Chelmsford, these men, for fun, had sallied out and robbed a farmer in the highway. The king was unwilling to pardon any of the party; but at the incessant importunities of Lady Elizabeth Hamilton, at last consented to reprieve her lover, but only at the gallows’ foot. He fainted when the halter was removed, and was instantly lifted into the carriage, where Lady Betty awaited him. Six weeks after, to Told’s vexation, he found the reprieved man gambling with a fraudulent bankrupt, who shortly afterwards was himself executed at Tyburn. Told’s next visit was to Mary Edmonson, a poor girl hung at Kennington Common for murdering her aunt at Rotherhithe. The girl was entirely innocent, and the real murderer, a relation, who was a foot-soldier, came up into the cart to salute her before she was turned off. Some time after; this man riding in a post-chaise past the gallows at Kennington said to a friend, “There is the place where my kinswoman was hung wrongfully. I should have gone in her room.” The rascal was soon after found guilty of highway robbery, and cast for death, but reprieved by the judge, who did not wish to draw attention to the scandal of an innocent person having been sent to the gallows. Silas Told says that at the execution of Mary Edmonson he walked by the cart, urging her to prayer, holding the bridle of the sheriff’s horse, in spite of a most cruel and violent mob. Told also mentions attending Harris the “Flying Highwayman,” to the gallows a man who; the very morning of his execution, was so violent in the chapel that the ordinary ran for his life. Just beyond Hatton Garden, after some exhortations of honest Told, the indomitable ruffian, at his request, shut his eyes, hung back his head on the side-rail of the cart, and after ten minutes’ meditation burst into tears, and, clapping his hands together, cried, “Now I know that the Lord Jesus has forgiven me all my sins, and I have nothing to do but to die.” He then burst into a loud extemporary prayer, and continued happy to the last, but still denying that he ever “flew” a turnpike gate in his life. Another case mentioned by Told does not give us a very enlarged view of the tender mercies of the time. A poor man, Anderson, entirely destitute, was sentenced to death for taking sixpence from two washerwomen in Hoxton Fields. The man had served with credit on board a man-of-war, and his own parish had petitioned on his behalf. The Privy Council, however, insisted on confounding him with one of the same name, a celebrated highwayman of the day, and to Tyburn he went.

In 1770, when Mr. Akerman, one of the keepers, appeared before a Committee of the House of Commons, Newgate appears to have been a sink of filth and a den of iniquity. It was over-crowded, ill-disciplined, badly ventilated, and ill-supplied with water. The prisoners died in great numbers; and as Mr. Akerman, a good and trusty official, stated, two whole sets of gaol-officers had been cut off by gaol distemper since he had been in office; and in the spring of 1750 the gaol was so terribly infectious, that the contagion was carried into the Old Bailey court, and two of the judges, the Lord Mayor, and several of the jury, more than sixty in all, died in consequence. A huge ventilator was then erected, but this alarmed the whole neighbourhood, and the residents complained, with bitter outcries, that the poisonous air was drawn from the prison cells, to destroy all who lived near.
One of the earliest anecdotes of Newgate is to be found in a letter to the Duke of Shrewsbury, dated August 10, 1699. “All the talk of the town,” says the writer; “is about a tragical piece of gallantry at Newgate. I don’t doubt but what your grace has heard of a bastard son of Sir George Norton, who was under sentence of death for killing a dancing-master in the streets. The Lords Justices reprieved him, till they heard from the judge that no exception was to be taken at the verdict. It being signified to the young man, on Tuesday last in the afternoon, that he was to die the next day, his aunt, who was sister to his mother, brought two doses of opium, and they took it between them. The ordinary came soon after to perform his functions; but before he had done, he found so great alterations in both persons that it was no hard matter to find out the cause of it. The aunt frankly declared she could not survive her nephew, her life being wrapped up in his; and he declared that the law having put a period to his life, he thought it no offence to choose the way he would go out of the world. The keeper sent for his apothecary to apply remedies, who brought two vomits. The young man refused to take it, till they threatened to force it down by instruments. He told them, since he hoped the business was done, he would make himself and them easy, and swallowed the potion, and his aunt did the like. The remedy worked upon her, and set her a-vomiting, but had no effect on Mr. Norton, so that he dozed away gradually, and by eight that evening was grown senseless, though he did not expire till nine next morning. He was fully resolved upon the business, for he had likewise a charged pistol hid in the room. The aunt was carried to a neighbouring house, and has a guard upon her. They say she is like to recover; if she does, it will be hard if she suffer for such a transport of affection.”
Among the many guilty and unhappy criminals who have sat in Newgate and counted the moments that lay between them and death, one of the most un-happy must have been that once popular preacher, Dr. Dodd, who was hung for forgery in 1777. Dodd was the son of a clergyman who was vicar of Bourne, in Lincolnshire. On leaving Cambridge he married imprudently, and became a small poet, and compiler of the “Beauties of Shakespeare,” a work still reprinted. He then renounced literature, entered the Church, and in 1758 was appointed preacher to the Magdalen Hospital, where Horace Walpole describes his flowery sermons, which set all the ladies of fashion sobbing. Gross flattery of Dr. Squire, Bishop of St. David’s, procured him, in 1763, the prebendaryship of Brecon. Soon after this the grateful bishop introduced Dodd to the Earl of Chesterfield, as a tutor to his son, and about the same time Dodd was appointed one of the king’s chaplains, and in 1766 took his degree of LL.D. at Cambridge. He now dabbled in lotteries, and, having won a £1,000 prize, erected a chapel near Buckingham Palace, and also bought a share in Charlotte Chapel, Bloomsbury. Overwhelmed with debt; Dodd brought out several religious works, with the hope of winning patrons by his fulsome dedications. In 1773 he was appointed chaplain to the young Lord Chesterfield, the hopeless cub to whom the celebrated “Letters” were addressed. The rich living of St. George’s, Hanover Square, just then falling vacant, Dodd was unwise enough to write an anonymous letter to Lady Apsley, wife of the Lord Chancellor, offering £3,000 for the appointment. The letter was traced to its source, and handed to the king, and the writer’s name was ordered immediately to be struck out of the list of chaplains. Foote, always cruel in his fun, introduced Dodd into one of his Haymarket pieces as Dr. Simony. Dodd promised an explanation, but it never came. He retired for a time to Geneva, and the society of Lord Chesterfield, till the storm blew over.
Though enjoying an income of £800 a year, Dodd, entangled by press of debts, one fatal day, signed the name of Lord Chesterfield, his old pupil, to a bond for £4,200. The signature disowned, Dodd, who then lived in Argyle Street, was apprehended. He at once repaid part of the money, and gave a judgment on his goods for the remainder. The prosecutors were reluctant to proceed; and Lord Chesterfield, it is said, placed the forgery in Dodd’s hands, as he stood near a fire, in hopes that he would destroy it; but Dodd wanted promptitude and presence of mind, and soon after the Lord Mayor compelled the prosecution. He was tried and found guilty. Dr. Johnson, on being applied to, wrote the speech delivered by Dodd before his sentence. He also composed several petitions for him; and a sermon which Dr. Dodd delivered to his fellow-prisoners shortly before his execution.
In Newgate this vain and shallow man acted the martyr, and wrote a book called “Thoughts in Prison,” and believed in the possibility of a reprieve, though the king was inflexible, because in a recent case of forgery (that of Daniel and Robert Perreau, wine merchants), the sentence had been carried out. “If Dr. Dodd is pardoned,” the king said, “then the Perreaus were murdered.”
The friends of Dodd were zealous to the last. Dr. Johnson told Boswell that £1,000 were ready for any gaoler who would let him escape. A wax image of him had also been made, to be left in his bed, but the scheme, somehow or other, miscarried. Anthony Morris Storer, writing to George Selwyn, who had a passion for executions, thus describes Dodd’s behaviour at Tyburn:
“The doctor, to all appearance, was rendered perfectly stupid from despair. His hat was flapped all round, and pulled over his eyes, which were never directed to any object around, nor even raised, except now and then lifted up in the course of his prayers. He came in a coach, and a very heavy shower of rain fell just upon his entering the cart; and another just at his putting on his night-cap.
“He was a considerable time in praying, which some people standing about seemed rather tired with; they rather wished for some more interesting part of the tragedy. The wind, which was high, blew off his hat, which rather embarrassed him, and discovered to us his countenance, which we could scarcely see before. His hat, however, was soon restored to him, and he went on with his prayers. There were two clergymen attending him, one of whom seemed very much affected; the other, I suppose, was the ordinary of Newgate, as he was perfectly indifferent and unfeeling in everything that he said and did.
“The executioner took both the hat and wig off at the same time. Why he put on his wig again I do not know, but he did, and the doctor took off his wig a second time, and then tied on a nightcap which did not fit him; but whether he stretched that, or took another, I could not perceive. He then put on his nightcap himself, and upon his taking it, he certainly had a smile on his countenance. Very soon afterwards there was an end of all his hopes and fears on this side the grave. He never moved from the place he first took in the cart; seemed absorbed in despair, and utterly dejected without any other signs of animation but in praying.”
There is a tradition that the hangman had been bribed to place the knot of the rope in a particular manner under Dodd’s ear, and also that when cut down, the body was driven off to a house in Goodge Street, where Pott, the celebrated surgeon, endeavoured to restore animation. But the crowd had been great, and the delay too long; nevertheless, it was believed by many at the time that Dodd was really resuscitated and sent abroad. His wife, who regarded him with great affection, died some years after, in poverty.
In 1802 Governor Wall was hung at Newgate, for the murder of Benjamin Armstrong, a soldier, who had been under his command at Goree, in Africa. The high rank of Wall, and the long period that had elapsed since the crime had been committed, excited great interest in his fate. He had been Governor of Goree in 1782, and was disliked by both officers and men, for his severe and unforgiving disposition. The day before he returned to England, worn out with the climate, twenty or thirty men of the African corps came to petition the governor with regard to certain money stopped from their pay. The spokesman at the head of these soldiers was the unfortunate Benjamin Armstrong, who was extremely respectful in his manner, and paid the governor every deference. Wall, whose temper was no doubt aggravated by illness, instantly ordered Armstrong and his companions back to the barracks, and threatened them with punishment. The men obeyed, and quietly retired. Soon after his dinner-hour, Wall ran out of his rooms, and beat a man who appeared to be drunk, and snatching a bayonet from the sentry, struck him with it, and ordered both men under arrest. Eager for revenge on the “mutinous rascals,” as he called them, Wall then ordered the long-roll to be beat, and parade called. Three hundred men, without firearms, were formed into a circle, two deep, in the midst of which stood the drummers, and the governor and his staff. A gun-carriage was then dragged up, and Benjamin Armstrong was called from the ranks. Five or six black slaves then lashed the unfortunate soldier to the rings of the gun-carriage, and Armstrong was ordered 800 lashes. With unusual cruelty, the governor ordered the slaves to use, not the cat-o’-nine-tails, but long lashings of rope, nearly an inch in circumference. Every twenty-five lashes a fresh slave was called up to continue the punishment, and the governor encouraged the slaves by shouting “Lay on, you black beasts, or I’ll lay on you. Cut him to the heart; cut his liver out. At the end of this ferocity, Armstrong, with his back beaten black, was led to the hospital, saying he should certainly die. The rope had bruised, not cut the flesh, yet the injuries were only the more dangerous. Five days after the governor left Goree Armstrong died.
In 1784 Wall was arrested at Bath, but managed to escape from the king’s messengers, at the “Brown Bear,” Reading, and escaped to France, where he changed his name. Many years later Wall rashly returned to England, and in 1801 wrote to Lord Pelham, Secretary of State, announcing his readiness to submit to a trial. He was tried in 1802. He pleaded that Armstrong was the ringleader of an open mutiny. A prisoner had been released, he himself had been threatened with a bayonet, and the soldiers had threatened to break open the stores. He denied that he had ever blown men from cannon. It was clear from the evidence that the grossest cruelty had been used, and Wall was at once found guilty, and sentence of death passed.
In that curious and amusing work, “A Book for a Rainy Day,” Mr. J. T. Smith, formerly keeper of the Print Room in the British Museum, says: “Solomon, a pencil dealer, assured me that he could procure me a sight of the governor, if I would only accompany him in the evening to Hatton Garden, and smoke a pipe with Dr. Ford, the ordinary of Newgate, with whom he said he was particularly intimate. Away we trudged, and upon entering the club-room of a public-house, we found the said doctor most pompously seated in a superb masonic chair, under a stately crimson canopy, placed between the windows. The room was clouded with smoke whiffed to the ceiling, which gave me a better idea of what I had heard of the Black Hole of Calcutta than any place I had seen. There were present at least a hundred associates of every denomination. Of this number, my Jew, being a favoured man, was admitted to a whispering audience with the doctor, which soon produced my introduction to him.”
Sunrise, the next morning, found Mr. Smith waiting by appointment for his new friend, Dr. Ford, at Newgate; and this is how he describes the end of Governor Wall:
“As we crossed the press-yard a cock crew, and the solitary clanking of a restless chain was dreadfully horrible. The prisoners had not risen. Upon our entering a cold stone room, a most sickly stench of green twigs, with which an old round-shouldered, goggle-eyed man was endeavouring to kindle a fire, annoyed me almost as much as the canaster fumigation of the doctor’s Hatton Garden friends.
“The prisoner entered. He was death’s counterfeit, tall, shrivelled, and pale; and his soul shot so piercingly through the port-holes of his head, that the first glance of him nearly terrified me. I said in my heart, putting my pencil in my pocket, ‘God forbid that I should disturb thy last moments!’ His hands were clasped, and he was truly penitent. After the yeoman had requested him to stand up, he ‘pinioned him,’ as the Newgate phrase is, and tied the cord with so little feeling, that the governor, who had not given the wretch the accustomed fee, observed, ‘You have tied me very tight,’ upon which Dr. Ford ordered him to slacken the cord, which he did, but not without muttering. ‘Thank you, sir,’ said the governor to the doctor, ‘it is of little moment.’ He then observed to the attendant, who had brought in an immense iron shovelful of coals to throw on the fire, ‘Ay, in one hour that will be a blazing fire;’ then, turning to the doctor, questioned him, ‘Do tell me, sir: I am informed I shall go down with great force; is that so?’ After the construction and action of the machine had been explained, the doctor questioned the governor as to what kind of men he had at Goree. ‘Sir,’ he answered, ‘they sent me the very riff-raff.’ The poor soul then joined the doctor in prayer; and never did I witness more contrition at any condemned sermon than he then evinced.”
Directly the execution was over, Mr. Smith left Newgate, where the hangman was selling the rope that had hung Governor Wall for a shilling an inch, and in Newgate Street a starved old man was selling another identical rope, at the ridiculously low price of only sixpence an inch; while at the north-east corner of Warwick Lane a woman known as “Rosy Emma,” reputed wife of the yeoman of the halter, was selling a third identical noose to the Epping buttermen, who had come that morning to Newgate Market.

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