Surviving the gallows: the Georgian hangings that didn't go to plan
In 1740, in a case heard at the Old Bailey, 16-year-old William Duell was found guilty of the rape and murder of a servant, Sarah Griffin. He was hanged at noon on 24 November. His body was laid out on a slab ready for dissection… then he woke up. Words by Elizabeth Hurren
The case of “Dead-Alive!” Duell was a newspaper sensation. And no wonder. Here was a young man who, following his conviction for the murder and rape of Sarah Griffin, had survived the noose at Tyburn. What was to be done with the revived prisoner? Should Duell’s cheating of the gallows be treated as an act of God, a divine intervention meaning he should be spared? Or should he be hanged again in punishment for heinous crimes?
To understand the authorities’ dilemma, it helps first to understand the shocking level of violence William Duell conspired to visit on poor Sarah Griffin. In September 1740, suffering from severe bronchitis because of the capital’s poor air quality, she had left her London employer and was returning to her family in rural Worcestershire for health reasons. She journeyed via west London, intending to walk to the Midlands. Along the way, she encountered a farmer’s lad, Duell, who offered to hire Sarah a night-lodging. At a barn in Acton, Sarah bedded down on a hay bale. Duell then went to the nearby Captain’s public house. There he met five men and boasted about Sarah’s whereabouts. Soon after, the group began attacking Sarah.
It was reported in court that the ringleader, “George Curtis alias Tag-Mutton… put his hands several times up the woman’s clothes, and swore if she did not hold her tongue, he would kill her.” Sarah tried to defend herself by crying out that “she was pox’d” with a sexually transmitted disease. But Curtis shouted back: “Pox’d or pox’d not, by God I will [have you].” She was held down, and experienced multiple rapes and sexual assaults. She was badly beaten and robbed. According to Samuel Lock, local surgeon, Sarah told him the next morning that she “believed she could not live”. Sarah died the next day from “a stroke”. Her dead body was bloodied and bruised.
In court it was established that the main culprit who incited the others to rape and murder was “the youth William Duell… who had little education, and what little reading he had he had almost forgotten, being an obstinate boy”. His father was a respectable shoemaker in Acton. At first the family denied the accusations but the evidence in court was conclusive. After issuing a death warrant, the court recorder noted that Duell “with tears in his eyes, acknowledged himself guilty of rape, robbery and murder”.
Embarrassingly, the officials in charge of executions did not know what to do with murderers who survived
The judge pronounced that being a minor lacking in education did not exonerate Duell from being hanged for such a wicked offence. What happened next would cause a commotion in the national press and present the authorities with an almighty dilemma. As the court recorder put it: “Twas very singular indeed; but not unaccountable as some people make it, since such have but a very superficial notion of anatomy, may easily conceive how a person very soon cut down [from the hangman’s rope] may shew even strong signs of life.” Duell had survived the gallows.
A cold November day
The London newspapers revealed the details of Duell’s noon-day execution at Tyburn, where there was “a northerly gale of wind with rain, snow and hail”. Duell had been suspended from the rope “for more than 50 minutes”. On being cut down, his young body was a valuable teaching prize. It was put in a hackney coach and transported back to Surgeons’ Hall near the Old Bailey. The body was brought in through the “under-door” at street level, taken up a spiral staircase, and “laid out in a passage”. In attendance was a washerwoman tasked with swilling down the corpse and preparing it for the next dissection demonstration at the anatomy theatre. But suddenly she heard William Duell “groan very much” after “about 10 minutes”. Immediately, the duty surgeon bled the prisoner “after which he reviv’d very fast”. At this point, Duell could not respond to questions, and so his body was warmed up with wine and hot water. The City of London sheriff was summoned and he reported that Duell “lay very easy and composed”.
The next morning, the duty sheriff and surgeon questioned Duell. The teenager remembered nothing about the execution, but did recall receiving the last rites. At the anatomy theatre, it was decided to return Duell back to the Press Yard at Newgate, where he was fed a “mess of broth”, which he ate “very heartily”. There appeared to be no adverse physical side-effects. When asked, Duell could recite the lord’s prayer fluently.
Duell was socially and legally dead. But he was not medically dead. This alive non-person did not officially exist in Georgian society.
Duell was socially and legally dead. But he was not medically dead
A week after the execution, an Old Bailey hearing was convened to decide what to do with Duell and whether to hang him. If a rope broke on execution day – a common occurrence – the condemned was usually straightaway tied up again. But the prosecution pointed out that rescheduling this execution would betray to spectators that it was possible to survive the gallows. That admission not only made the law look ludicrous, but called into question the deterrence value of the capital code. Then there was the question of divine intervention, whether God had spared Duell. The authorities were alarmed that the story’s puzzling religious overtones might gain traction in the popular press. It was unanimously decided “to transport William Duell for life to North America”. We don’t know what happened to Duell next because he was never entered in the transportation lists to America. However, official reports reveal that “he was successfully transported”.
At almost 300 years remove, it's a shocking case, both for the misogynistic violence of the crime and for the hangman's apparent incompetence. Yet what's arguably more surprising is that, as the words of the court recorder hint, Duell's survival was not that unusual. Housebreaker John 'Half-Hanged' Smith, for instance, was hanged for around 15 minutes on Christmas Eve in 1705, but survived after he was cut down. These kinds of incidents continued into the 19th century. When John Holloway was executed in 1831 for the "horrible murder, almost unparalleled in atrocity" of his wife, Celia, it was noted by the hangman that even after an hour on the scaffold his neck was not broken, meaning there was a risk he might revive. On being cut down from the gallows, "the body had to be made safe by the surgeon", who severed the carotid artery in the neck with a lancet to speed up the dying process.
Such incidents occurred in part because establishing medically when a prisoner died during the execution process was not an exact science. As such, the case of William Duell was noteworthy not for what happened, but because it revealed an uncomfortable secret: officials in charge of executions did not know what to do with murderers who revived.
One reason so many of those who went to the gallows survived was that most executions swiping a swan’s feather along the throat to stimulate a swallowing sensation. Most penal surgeons learned nonetheless to be cautious when receiving so-called corpses from the gallows. They had discovered at first hand the amazing capacity of the human brain to trigger the body’s survival mechanisms when in trauma. It may even have been William Duell who first alerted penal surgeons to this physical set of possibilities.
But whatever Duell’s place in the medical history timeline, this knowledge is now used to save lives. Working with the body’s own biological defences against trauma, therapeutic hypothermia means letting the brain reduce the temperature of the body. This preserves energy, keeps the vital organs such as the heart and lungs alive, and ensures that optimum oxygenate levels are maintained to prevent major brain damage in a trauma like being hanged in the winter cold.
Listen: Lindsey Fitzharris delves into the terrifying world of 19th-century hospitals and shows how scientific advances transformed the situation, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
The surgeons’ dilemma
By the early 19th century, leading London anatomists were confronted with having to break the Hippocratic Oath. Instead of “doing no harm” they were in the unedifying position of having to try to revive dangerous murderers such as Duell. Or committing human vivisection if the prisoner had a faint-beating heart but was brain-dead.
William Clift (1775–1849) was a renowned anatomist and he often worked with the famous penal surgeon Sir William Blizard (1743–1835). Clift kept detailed notebooks that reveal the precautions both men took together before releasing a body for dissection. He recorded how the physical processes of dying were monitored every 10 minutes post-execution, until they were fully satisfied that the condemned had expired in the heart, lungs and brain. In fact, in 10 out of 35 well-documented cases in the Royal College of Surgeons archives, the executed prisoner had not died on the rope even after the standard-drop execution (when the prisoner was dropped between four and six feet, increasing the chance of the neck breaking) had been introduced.
Anatomists were in the unedifying position of having to try to revive murderers or committing human vivisection
When James Leary was executed for murder at Newgate on Monday 20 September 1813 at eight o'clock in the morning, for example, he survived being hanged. William Clift carefully noted how the condemned reacted to "stimulation until a little after two" in the afternoon, six hours after execution. Leary was about "5ft 8ins high, 44 years of age, and not remarkably stout". Nonetheless, his physical prowess and the inclement weather had helped him survive. A journalist with the Caledonian Mercury reported on 27 September, that "Leary was observed to have been a full quarter of an hour in a convulsive agony" on the rope. In other words, Leary fought hard to survive.
Leary had been hanged with another murderer, John Denton. The same newspaper reporter thought that he saw that: “Denton was dead already as soon as he was let drop.” But when Denton was opened up, Clift noted he too showed signs of life “by stimulation until ten minutes past three” in the afternoon, seven hours post-execution.
William Clift’s records suggest that Denton’s strong neck did not break during his execution. Leary and Denton were thus for a time both technically the Dead-Alive, just as William Duell had been 70 years earlier. They did not survive more than half a day in the dissection-room because, in all probability, it had not been cold enough to keep their brains oxygenated enough to survive without permanent brain damage.
If they had been hanged in midwinter, they might have revived to be “transported for life to Australia”, the destination in such cases by the early 19th century. However, we will never know how many enjoyed such a reprieve because the records of such cases were destroyed. The authorities were simply too embarrassed to allow the cases of the ‘dead-alive’ to reach the public domain.
Dr Elizabeth Hurren lectures at the University of Leicester. She's the author of Dissecting the Criminal Corpse: Staging Post-Execution Punishment in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), which is free to download on Open Access
This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine