Clever Tom Clinch

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This week’s Friday funny, brought to you as ever by author and journalist Eugene Byrne takes a closer look at a satirical verse by 18th-century satirist, essayist and political pamphleteer Jonathan Swift, a man also remembered for works such as Gulliver’s Travels

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The verse

Clever Tom Clinch, going to be hanged (1726)

As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling,
Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling;
He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back.
His Waistcoat and Stockings, and Breeches were white,
His Cap had a new Cherry Ribbon to ty’t.
The Maids to the Doors and the Balconies ran,
And said, lack-a-day! he’s a proper young Man.
But, as from the Windows the Ladies he spy’d,
Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye.
The Hangman for Pardon fell down on his Knee;
Tom gave him a Kick in the Guts for his Fee.
Then said, I must speak to the People a little,
But I’ll see you all damn’d before I will whittle.
My honest Friend Wild, may he long hold his Place,
He lengthen’d my Life with a whole Year of Grace.
Take Courage, dear Comrades, and be not afraid,
Nor slip this Occasion to follow your Trade.
My Conscience is clear, and my Spirits are calm,
And thus I go off without Pray’r-Book or Psalm.
Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.

The story

If William Hogarth represented all the exuberant chaos of 18th-century London life in paint, here’s Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) doing something similar in verse, with the fictitious Tom Clinch being taken from Newgate to his appointment with the ‘Tyburn tree’ to be ‘nubbed’, frummagemmed’, ‘hempstered’, ‘turned off’ or to ‘cry cockles’.

(It’s sometimes claimed 18th century Londoners had more slang and cant expressions relating to executions than for any other subject, apart from money.)

From eyewitness accounts of hangings you can see that Swift’s satirical verse is not too far removed from what frequently happened at Tyburn a lot of the time. Hangings were big events. People would take the day off work to attend and struggle for the best viewpoints. A few years after Swift wrote these lines, a grandstand was even built nearby. It was called ‘Mother Proctor’s Pew’ after the woman who owned it, and who made a fortune from selling seats on it. Hawkers, tradesmen and women and pickpockets all came to earn a few shillings from the crowd, and you could often buy the last speech and confession of the condemned man (or less usually, woman), a printed pamphlet written by some grubby hack which was almost always “a dam’d Lye”.

Some went to their deaths loudly repenting their sins and man would call from the scaffold for young people not to follow their terrible example. However, it was also often the case that young men went to their deaths with a great deal of flash. So here Tom Clinch jokes that he’ll pay for his bottle of wine on his return, and is dressed fashionably, as though going to his wedding. The ladies swoon as he bows to them and he treats the hangman with contempt. Given the chance to address the crowd, Tom does not “whittle” – confess his crimes or grass on his friends – but instead says he has no regrets. He thanks the notorious Jonathan Wild (1683-1725) who made a fabulous living as both thief and thief-taker for lengthening his life with a “year of grace”, presumably because Wild had been hanged the previous year and so Clinch hadn’t been caught.

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Swift’s point was that talk of the terrible majesty of the law, and the deterrent effect that executions had on the public, were nonsense. Public hangings plainly had no deterrent effect at all; they were holidays for the mob. Provided the condemned man hadn’t committed some especially repulsive crime, he had the option of enjoying his 15 minutes of fame by fighting back against the system with an extravagant bravado which only excited admiration.