An A-Z guide to the history of executions

For centuries, capital punishment was part of everyday life, as shown by this alphabetical guide to a very British way of death. Writing for BBC History Revealed, historian Gavin Mortimer explores…

Tyburn, just north of Marble Arch, served as the capital's hanging spot for centuries. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

A … is for ASPHYXIATION

Hanging was the preferred method of execution in England from early Anglo- Saxon times, but it was neither efficient nor painless. Deaths were drawn out, with the condemned hanging until they suffocated. Over time, the method evolved, and in 1783 ‘new drop’ gallows were first used at London’s Newgate Prison, whereby the condemned – often many at a time – fell through a trapdoor. Around a century later came the ‘long drop’, where the prisoner’s height and weight were used to determine the length and rate of drop, to ensure a swift death from a broken neck rather than asphyxiation.

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B … is for BODY SNATCHERS

A lucrative profession for criminals in 17th- and 18th-century Britain was body snatching. Freshly interred corpses would be dug up from cemeteries and sold, in most cases, to medical schools for anatomical study. Oddly, the snatching itself was not illegal, but dissecting a body was. That changed with the Anatomy Act of 1832, prompted by the trial of William Burke and his execution in 1829. He and his partner, William Hare, progressed from removing corpses to committing murder in their attempt to ensure a supply to sell to Edinburgh physician Robert Knox. Burke was hanged in front of 25,000 people. His corpse, fittingly, was dissected.

C … is for CODE

By the 19th century, some 222 crimes were defined as capital offences, including murder, robbery and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner. Even maiming a cow or being out at night with a blackened face was punishable by death, with the age, sex and mental health of the offender being deemed an irrelevance. So harsh was the penal code that it became known as the ‘Bloody Code’, and it wasn’t until 1861 that Parliament passed a bill de-capitalising minor crimes. After then, only four offences carried the death penalty: murder, arson in a royal dockyard, high treason and piracy with violence.

D… is for DORCHESTER

The English town takes an unexpectedly prominent part in the history of executions. It was there that Elizabeth Martha Brown became the last woman publicly executed in Dorset when she met her end in 1856. Her husband John had struck out at her and she retaliated by burying an axe in his head. Brown was hanged on 9 August in front of a few thousand onlookers. In the crowd was the 16-year-old Thomas Hardy, who drew on the experience when writing his classic novel, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. He later recalled: “I saw they had put a cloth over the face [and] how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary.” Brown’s remains are believed to be among those of 50 executed prisoners found under the former Dorchester Prison, and which may be reinterred in Poundbury Cemetery.

E… is for EXECUTIONER

The pioneer of the ‘long drop’ in the 1870s was William Marwood, an executioner who was far more humane than his predecessor. The notorious William Calcraft had executed more than 450 people over the course of 45 years in the job and was reputed to enjoy seeing them suffer, sometimes prolonging their death throes to excite the crowd. The most prolific British executioner of the 20th century was Albert Pierrepoint, whose father and uncle were also hangmen. As many as 600 were despatched by him, including hundreds convicted of war crimes. He considered his work as “sacred” and the “supreme mercy”.

F… is for FINAL WORDS

Facing imminent death affected the condemned in different. ways. Some confessed their sins and asked for forgiveness; others maintained their innocence. James MacLaine, the ‘gentleman highwayman’, murmured only “Oh, Jesus” as he stood on the gallows in 1750. Others may have been eager for the end to be as swift as possible, such as the famous Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who urged the executioner wielding the axe to “Strike, man, strike!”. As for the highwayman Isaac Atkinson, hanged in 1640, he addressed the crowd: “Gentlemen, there’s nothing like a merry life, and a short one.”

G … is for GIBBETING

While a gibbet can refer to the actual scaffold used for an execution, gibbeting was the grisly act of publicly displaying. the dead in human-shaped cages to serve as a warning. Even more gruesomely, prisoners could be encased alive in an iron gibbet and suspended from a beam to die of starvation and/or exposure. Gibbeting, also known as ‘hanging in chains’, was around since medieval times, but reached a peak in the mid-18th century. It was a fate that befell the pirate Captain William Kidd, whose body was displayed over the !ames at Tilbury Point in 1701 to make sailors think twice about turning to piracy.

H … is for HEART THROB

A native of Normandy, Claude Du Vall arrived in England in 1660 to enjoy the fun of the Restoration period. He became a highwayman to fund his high living, robbing without compunction, but always with a flash of a charming smile for his female victims. His “conquests among the ladies” were legendary and he became something of a celebrity. When he was caught and imprisoned, Du Vall continued to entertain admirers in his cell before his execution in front of a large crowd in 1670. “Men he made stand, and women he made fall” ran the inscription on his gravestone in Covent Garden, London. “The second Conqueror of the Norman race.”

I … is for IMPALEMENT

Beginning with William Wallace in 1305, the heads of executed traitors would be impaled on iron spikes above the main gateways of London Bridge. In 1661, a German visitor to the capital counted 20 heads on display, although that was an exceptionally high number and a result of the fallout from the British Civil Wars. In the 18th century, the impaled heads were put on display at Temple Bar, close to the London Embankment. A brisk trade emerged in renting “spy-glasses at a halfpenny a look” so sightseers could study the heads in greater detail.

Britain's 'Bloody Code' defined some 222 crimes as capital punishment. (Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Britain’s ‘Bloody Code’ defined some 222 crimes as capital punishment. (Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)

J … is for JOHN LEE

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee became known as the ‘man they couldn’t hang’. Convicted of murder in Devon, the 20-yearold was sentenced to death despite a lack of hard evidence pointing to his guilt. But when he mounted the gallows on 23 February 1885, the executioner pulled the trapdoor lever and nothing happened. He tried again and then a third time, and still the trapdoor jammed – although it worked perfectly when Lee wasn’t standing on it. Having been returned to his cell, Lee’s fate gained so much publicity that his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1907 and was thought to have emigrated to the US, where he died in 1945.

K … is for KNAVESMIRE

Few criminals have been as romanticised as much as Dick Turpin, but far from being a gallant highwayman, he was a horse thief, house-breaker and smuggler, assaulting anyone who crossed his path. He turned to highway robbery when his gang broke up and was caught in 1739, with murder added to his charge sheet. Turpin went to his death in “an undaunted manner”, bowing to the crowd as he mounted the gallows at Knavesmire, site of the present-day York Racecourse.

L … is for LADIES

Although it is true to say that significantly more men have been executed than women, there have been some notable examples. Alice Arden was burned in 1551 for organising the death of her husband, while Mary Carleton’s 1673 crime was befriending and robbing wealthy gentlemen. In 1809, Margaret Barrington was hanged for fabricating a certificate in the hope of receiving a soldier’s pay. The last woman executed in Britain was Ruth Ellis. Condemned for shooting her abusive lover, the 28-year-old hostess was hanged in 1955. The widespread call for her reprieve, followed by revulsion, led to a growing argument to abolish the death penalty in the UK, which was finally achieved in 1969.

M … is for MARTYRS

In 1563, the preacher John Foxe published his Book of Martyrs, detailing the hundreds of Protestants burned at the stake for their beliefs. Arguably the most famous was !omas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the Reformation, who was martyred in 1556 in Oxford. He was one of an estimated 300 heretics burned on Mary I’s orders. Her successor, Elizabeth I, had numerous Catholics executed for transgressing anti-Roman Catholic decrees and for plotting against her.

Executing women convicted of witchcraft was only outlawed in the 18th century. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Executing women convicted of witchcraft was only outlawed in the 18th century. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

N … is for NEWGATE

One of the most notorious buildings in London for 700 years, Newgate Prison was located next to the Old Bailey law courts until its demolition in 1904. It replaced Tyburn as the site of the capital’s gallows in 1783 and public executions drew large crowds until the practice was stopped in 1868, after which the condemned were hanged inside Newgate’s forbidding walls and buried under flagstones. The last of 1,169 prisoners hanged there was George Woolfe, convicted in 1902 of murdering his girlfriend.

O … is for OLIVER CROMWELL

Charles I never imagined he would be executed, because of his unshakeable belief that only God could decide the fate of a king. But his Parliamentarian enemies insisted he should be tried for treason after the Civil War ended. Oliver Cromwell, a politician who had become a brilliant officer in the Roundhead army, was one of the most determined that Charles should pay the ultimate cost and his signature was one of 59 on the death warrant. After his conviction, Charles was beheaded on January 30 1649 outside Banqueting House in Whitehall, the last English monarch to be executed.

P … is for PIECEMEAL

In medieval times, the most fiendish villains were executed by ‘piecemeal’. This was the fate of the notorious outlaw Thomas Dun at Bedford in 1100. A contemporary account describes how Dun was alive when the executioner first “chop[ped] off his hands at the wrists, then cut off his arms at the elbows… next his feet were cut off beneath the ankles, his legs chopped off at the knees, and his thighs cut off about five inches from his trunk”. The head was then severed and the pieces hung up around Bedfordshire as a warning to other outlaws.

Q … is for QUART OF ALE

The gallows on the banks of the Thames witnessed the death of hundreds of nefarious seamen from Elizabethean times to the 18th century, most of whom had been convicted of mutiny or piracy. On the day of their death, the prisoners were transported in a cart across London Bridge from their cells in Marshalsea Prison. Admiralty tradition held that the condemned were allowed a quart of ale at a riverside tavern before they arrived at the scaffold in Wapping. The hanging of pirates drew a good crowd, with the wealthier spectators chartering boats in the Thames for a front-row view. Because of the nature of their crimes, pirates were hanged with a shortened rope to ensure a slower death from strangulation.

R … is for ROBERT PEEL

Twice serving as Prime Minister, Robert Peel was known as a law-reforming Home Secretary in the 1820s, most famous for creating the Metropolitan Police. But he also campaigned for a more efficient application of state punishment, in particular the eradication of certain capital crimes, such as shoplifting, letter stealing, forgery and burglary. In addition, the practice of leaving corpses in gibbet irons was abolished by the Hanging in Chains Act of 1834. Often described as a humane politician, in fact Peel was motivated more by a need to reduce the bureaucracy of capital punishment.

S … is for SAWNEY BEAN

Scotland’s worst serial killer or a myth as enduring as that of the Loch Ness Monster? Legend has it that Bean was born in 1530 in Galloway and grew into a wicked psychopath who, aided by his children, robbed, killed and ate dozens of travellers. Finally apprehended, Bean and his sons were executed by having their hands and feet cut off and being left to bleed to death; his wife and daughters were burned at the stake. Bean’s exploits weren’t publicised until 150 years after his death and some believe the story to be were more fiction than fact.

T … is for TYBURN

Situated at what today is the corner of Connaught Square, just north of Marble Arch, Tyburn served as the capital’s hanging spot for centuries. !e first recorded execution there was of William Longbeard in 1196 and the last was John Austen in 1783. The condemned were usually executed on a Monday, having been transported two-and-a-half miles from Newgate Prison to Tyburn in a cart. Once the prisoner was under the gallows, the noose was fastened around his neck and the horses kicked to bolt forward. It wasn’t unusual for friends of the prisoner to pull on his legs as he thrashed to hasten death.

U … is for UNDER PRESSURE

When executions were switched from Tyburn to Newgate they were carried out in the ‘condemned yard’, formerly known as the ‘press-yard’. !is derived its name from an old practice inflicted upon prisoners who refused to enter a plea at the Old Bailey. A board was placed on their horizontal body and weights were placed on top to put them ‘under pressure’. Usually this persuaded them to enter a plea, but sometimes they refused and were crushed to death.

V… is for VOCABULARY

A public execution was considered a family day out and these acquired a vocabulary of their own: people would talk of going to the ‘collar day’ or the ‘hanging fair’, to watch the condemned ‘dance the Paddington frisk’ or do the ‘Newgate Jig’ at the end of the rope. Vendors would arrive with souvenir carts and refreshments, while entertainment would be provided by minstrels and jugglers. !e novelist William Thackeray was among 40,000 people present to see the execution of an infamous murderer in 1840, writing of the presence of “quiet, fat, family parties of simple honest tradesmen and their wives”.

W … is for WITCHCRAFT

Britain began executing witches in 1563 and continued until parliamentary acts outlawed the practice in 1736. During that time, hundreds, possibly thousands, of ‘witches’ were burned or hanged. Most were old women convicted on absurdly weak evidence. Having a cat, or even a hairy lip, could lead one to the stake, after a confession had been tortured out of the accused. Puritans were largely responsible for the slaughter, which they later exported to North America, notably in Salem in the 1690s.

X … is for X–RATED

Every condemned prisoner hoped for a swift execution, but it didn’t always go according to plan. The politician Lord William Russell, convicted of plotting against King Charles II in 1683, paid his executioner toensure a quick death, but the axeman required four blows to do the job. After the first, Russell reportedly cried out: “You dog, did I give you 10 guineas to use me so inhumanely?”. Two years later, the Duke of Monmouth’s head wouldn’tbudge after five axe blows, so the beheading was finished with a knife. The executioner on both occasions was Jack Ketch.

Y … is for YOUNGEST

It is believed that the youngest criminal to be hanged was John Dean, convicted of burning down two houses in Windsor in February 1629. He was said to be either eight or nine years of age when he went to the gallows. The youngest girl to be executed was 11-year-old Alice Glaston, but the crime she committed in Shropshire in 1546 wasn’t recorded. A small number of young teenagers were hanged in the 18th century, but gradually public opinion turned strongly against the practice. There is no record of any child under the age of 14 going to the gallows in the 19th century, although 14-year-old John Bell was hanged at Maidstone in 1831 for killing two boys. The Children’s Act of 1908 set 16 as the minimum age for execution, but no one under 18 was hanged in the 20th century.

Z … is for ZACHARY HOWARD

A wealthy landowner who fought for the Royalist army in the Civil War, Zachary Howard was left penniless by the Parliamentarians’ victory. So he became a highway robber with a difference; he targeted only known supporters of Oliver Cromwell. When Howard was finally caught and sentenced to death in 1652, Cromwell insisted on attending his execution in the hope of watching Howard beg for his life. Instead he received a smile and a curse.

Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017).

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This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed