There is a gate, we know full well,
That stands 'twixt Heaven, and Earth, and Hell,
Where many for a passage venture,
Yet very few are fond to enter:
Although 'tis open night and day,
They for that reason shun this way:
Both dukes and lords abhor its wood,
They can't come near it for their blood.
What other way they take to go,
Another time I'll let you know.
Yet commoners with greatest ease
Can find an entrance when they please.
The poorest hither march in state
(Or they can never pass the gate)
Like Roman generals triumphant,
And then they take a turn and jump on't,
If gravest parsons here advance,
They cannot pass before they dance;
There's not a soul that does resort here,
But strips himself to pay the porter.
On a traffic island just between Oxford Street and Park Lane, next to London’s Marble Arch, rests a tribute to another gateway from days past.\ The circular stone embedded in the concrete says: The Site of the Tyburn Tree.
Tyburn, which means place of the elms, was not actually a tree at all, but a spot used for the execution of felons for over 500 years. Over 50,000 men (and some women), were hanged in this place that stood as a passage between heaven, earth and hell.
Many different gallows and gibbets stood at this site, but the one known as THE Tyburn Tree, or the “triple tree gallows”, or the very cute “Never Green Tree”, stood the longest and was erected in 1571 during the reign of Elizabeth the 1st.
This deadly scaffold was constructed using three large beams as its legs, with a triangular top, and was capable of hanging up to 24 people at once.
Whether the wood used was elm or not we can never know, but at one point elm groves were used by the Anglo-saxons for executions, well into the Medieval period, and this was adopted by the anglo-normans.
The elm was known as the tree of justice, and the origins of this use undoubtedly comes from the Celtic lore of elms being passageways to the underworld.
Though other factors surely played a role in the choosing. They are strong trees that grow well in the British Isles and can withstand a lot of damage from the elements and from the weight of men.
During the time that Tyburn was used as a place for execution, it was not a part of the city of London, but it was close enough that people could come and watch. Prisoners from the infamous Newgate Jail would be brought to the gallows 12 times a year to meet their fate.
Thanks to the journal of Samuel Pepys, we have a good picture of what happened in a typical Tyburn hanging day. Samuel was present on January 21st 1664, when Colonel James Turner was executed.
For starters, the day was a public holiday, this was so as many spectators as possible were able to attend. Keep in mind, most of the poor working class people wouldn’t normally have had the luxury of a day off, but the law wanted to make sure they were witness to their socioeconomic peers being killed.
See, the death penalty was brought back into law in the 12th century, and it was the hope of the crown that having the citizens watch other people be brutally executed would deter crime, though it could be argued that it didn’t scare the on-lookers so much as it did excite them.
The ceremonial affair would begin in the morning at Newgate, where those who were to be hanged that day would be taken to a room to have their shackles removed and hands and legs bound with rope. Then, they would await the the cart that would deliver them to the tree.
When all the prisoners were ready to be transported, the bell of St. Sepulchre’s Church would ring out to declare the procession had begun.
Crowds would’ve been gathering along the road to Tyburn and at the site itself since dawn, and they would be growing more and more impatient and aggressive.
Upon arrival, The convicts would be allowed time to say some last words. Being hanged at Tyburn was a chance for people to share their story, or their religious beliefs and political views.
This tradition lives on today, as just a stones throw from the site of Tyburn, is a place known as Speakers Corner, where people go to give impassioned speeches about politics and other hot topics.
The method of hanging at the triple tree (as far as I can tell), was the “short-drop”, which was actually a death by strangulation rather than the quicker “long-drop” which was neck-breaking. The cart would be placed underneath the gallows, a rope was then tied around the condemns neck, and then the cart, which was pulled by horses, would walk forward, leaving the person to hang and slowly suffocate.
Mob mentality and the show of it all was quite thrilling to our medieval counterparts, who didn’t have much of a break from daily life. It sounds morbid, but we haven’t really changed much in terms of entertainment, even if most countries have outlawed capital punishment once again.
Though written accounts vary on how long the body was left to hang, after about an hour it was brought down and either buried in a pit next to the gallows, or, beheaded and then the rest of their body split into quarters and displayed as a warning. Sometimes, the body was transferred to a gibbet, which is a metal cage suspended in the air, and left on display somewhere in the city.
It wasn’t uncommon for fights to break out over parts of the body and items of clothing. You see it was believed that these things held restorative or magical properties. Certain sections of the noose were said to cure health problems while others were believed to aid in gambling and bring luck.
Touching the corpses hand, or better yet, rubbing it on your physical ailments was said to help cure you……England was a pretty wild place….
The severed hands of thieves were made into a candle charm by local witches or cunning women. It was known as the hand of glory in both Britain and Ireland and living criminals would light it to send the occupants of a home into a deep sleep so they could burgle it.
Some of these hands still exist today, and seeing one is definitely on my personal bucket list.
Now though I just mentioned that people fought over items, technically the possessions of the body belonged to the executioner, to either sell or to keep.
Being an executioner was an awful job, that very few were willing to perform, and to make matters worse they were looked down upon by the rest of society. Sometimes they were convicts themselves and not really granted the option on whether they accepted the position or not.
Their treatment is such a prime example of human behaviour. Here were these men who filled a job that few would take on. Then people would come to watch and revel in the deaths, all while shunning the executioner in daily lifer, and they were paid very little on top of it.
So as you can see, selling the items would help supplement their wages.
If you were sentenced to death between the years 1663 and 1686, you could only hope that your execution wouldn’t be performed by one man in particular: John Ketch, who eventually went by Jack. I will refer to him as Jack from here on out.
Though I’ve been only talking about Tyburn in this episode, which was for hangings, it’s worth noting that beheadings and burnings also took place all over England, both in and out of cities. You’d probably find it more difficult to locate a spot in London that hadn’t* seen a dead body, than one that did.
Jack Ketch was mostly alright if you were to be hanged, but if your sentence was to be beheaded, you were in big trouble. You see, Jack was so hideously incompetent with his axe that he botched many executions, often resulting more painful deaths. His name would go on the synonymous with “screwing up”, and he was even immortalized in the puppet show Punch and Judy - shout out to my Patreon listeners who know what macabre marionette that is.
The most famous example of his butchery was when he attempted to execute Lord Russell, who was a a wealthy politician sentenced to death for his involvement in a plot to replace the king with Duke of Mountmoth James Scott. It was said he paid Jack a substantial amount of money to make “it” quick. In the end the lord suffered a complete butchering and a terribly painful death.
When the duke himself, was set to be executed by Jack Ketch two years later, he was gravely concerned about the sharpness of the axe and was record as saying:
“Here are six guineas for you and do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard you struck him four or five times; If you strike me twice, I cannot promise you not to stir.”
The first swing Jack took resulted in just a flesh wound on the neck of the disgraced manr. So he stood up then looked at the executioner in the eye and let out an exasperated sigh, while shaking his head disappointingly, before kneeling back down and resting his head upon the block once again.
It would take another 5 strokes of the axe before Jack was forced to use a knife to completely sever James’ head.
Of course there are theories that Jack was given bonuses by the higher ups to make certain deaths more painful, or to extort money from his victims, but I am slightly skeptical as he was almost killed himself by the mob for his botched executions.
He was also shunned by society even more than the others. It was quite a risk to be taking, but I can appreciate that poverty and desperation are powerful forces.
Another executioner who made a few “mistakes” was John Thrift, but I think most people have some sympathy for him. Not much is known about his life prior to being employed at Tyburn, but I did read somewhere he was a murderer, though he was pardoned, so maybe he did not commit it.
He was completely illiterate and relied heavily on his wife to help him with any written communication he may have received.
He ended up being the resident hangman of Tyburn in the mid 1700s.
John was a very nervous man and absolutely hated his job of hanging people on the tree. One account claims he was once so nervous about the crowd watching him, that he forgot to cover the faces of 13 men and they strangled with their eyes fixated on those of the people across the field.
Other than that incident, he seemed to do just fine at Tyburn, though he never adjusted to what he had to do.
John was sent into a complete panic the day he was tasked to perform the beheading of two Jacobite rebels at London’s Tower Hill.
Before the first could take place, he took one look at the man to be killed by him, then the angry mob and promptly fainted. John was given a few minutes to collect himself and offered wine to calm his nerves, though that didn’t help much.
When the Earl of Kilmarnock laid his head upon the block, John burst into tears, and this resulted in the condemned man comforting his executioner. Encouraging him to do his job and kill him swiftly. If it wasn’t so unbelievably heartbreaking, it could be seen as funny.
I don’t know why that pulls on my heart strings so much, but it does. I feel for John Thrift and I hope he was eventually able to find some sort of peace before his death.
In 1752, it became law that the judges could decide whether a body would be sent to the gibbet for display, buried in the pit, or sent the Surgeons Hall to be dissected.
Advancements were being made in Britain with medicine and surgery, but not getting a Christian burial was a big concern for many people. The burial pit was the best option, as at least you were in the ground.
Contracted body runners were employed by both the families of the deceased AND the surgeons hoping to get their cadaver for their next lecture. The job of these runners was to get that body by any means necessary, regardless of what the law said, and not only did they have to worry about each other, they had to fight off the mob of spectators.
The most well-known example of one of these brawls was over the body of Honest Jack Sheppard, who was an infamous thief. He had successfully escaped from prison six times, two of those times were from Newgate.
Before his hanging, Jack’s friends had assured him they would get his body and take him to a doctor with the hopes of being revived. There are instances where a person would be hanged until they were unconscious and not dead, but there was no real way to actually plan that.
I truly believe they thought it would be possible as he had managed to cheat so many other circumstances in his short life already.
On November 16th in the year 1724, over 200,000 thousand people arrived at Tyburn to see him be hanged. I can’t even begin to fathom how overwhelming that would’ve been for Jack, and perhaps the crowd even gave him a boost in confidence, convincing himself that he would pull off his greatest trick ever.
Unfortunately, after being hanged, his body was cut down as usual and the crowd rushed him. The runners his friends had hired to collect his body, weren’t able to reach him. The angry mob thought they were hired by the surgeons college, and wouldn’t let them near. Whether he was still alive during all this I guess we can never really know, but he was subsequently ripped apart in the process.
Or so the story goes.
The last execution at Tyburn was 3 November 1783. While we know a lot about what happened there thanks to publications like the Tyburn whatever, there are so many more secrets that spot holds.
At the start of the episode you heard a poem by Irish writer Jonathan Swift called On the Gallows, which I believe was inspired by Tyburn. Not just because he had written about the tree before, but because there seems to be a few clues sprinkled in the verses, so give it another listen and let me know what you think!
This has been the Memento Mori Oracle Podcast and I hope you enjoyed this episode.
Special thanks to Stephen Dalton who is an actor from Dublin, for his rendition of On The Gallows.
Just a quick reminder that the special pre-order price for the second printing of Memento Mori Oracle Deck ends on September 25th. You can find that and the show notes for this episode on blackandthemoon.com
Poem: On The Gallows by Jonathan Swift
Read by: Stephen Dalton
First song by: Joseph Earwicker - find his music here.