N. Francis Xavier
Part LIII, (Continued from last week)
“Well sir, I was still a kid and living close to London when my granddad took me to witness one…” Homfray started.
Col. Cadell lit his cigar and sucked deeply, letting out a cloud of smoke. He had before him a box of hand rolled cigars, made specially for him by a Pondicherry tobacconist.
“We started early in the morning, with a packed lunch of sandwiches and walked for some two hours to reach Newgate Prison. There was a big crowd there already. The news of the executions was known to the people. It was a Monday.
“Some touts came over and offered us seats from where we could have a grandstand view of the hangings. The prices were exorbitant. We just pushed into the crowd and got as close as we could to the gallows.
“Granddad told me that the hangings were held at a place called Tyburn earlier where it was easier to witness the spectacle. He also told me that the bodies of the hanged were dissected publicly. He had personally witnessed many hangings and dissections before they were discontinued because of the public outcry against the gory nature of the spectacle.
“He told me that it was common those days to hang Catholics or people convicted of crimes like forgery or treason. The gallows was known as the Tyburn Tree and it was common to see a dozen bodies hanging from it any time. However, there was a great demand for the bodies from ‘anatomists’ who wanted to dissect the bodies for the benefit of prospective physicians.
“On that day a group of three people convicted of stealing food from a store were to be hanged. I clung to granddad’s hand as the crowd pushed around us with expectation. There was a huge platform on which the gallows was erected. A barricade prevented people form getting closer. Soldiers with drawn swords pushed the crowd backwards. But the people were excited and shouting and pushing to get a closer view. There were many women, dressed in their best dresses, in carriages who had come to witness the grand spectacle. People jostled each other to get a better view. An officer on a horse tried to control the mob.
“During the long wait granddad told me that things were better a Tyburn where the villagers erected temporary viewing galleries for visitors and sold seats for a fee. Once the gallery collapsed killing and injuring a lot people but still there were many spectators for a hanging. A hanging drew more crowds than a cricket match, said granddad.
“The condemned were brought in a horse drawn wagon. They were encouraged to wear their best dresses and cheered all along the way. They were even allowed to stop at a pub and have one last drink. After the nooses were placed round their necks the wagon was driven away, leaving them hanging and writhing till they died. After that the bodies were cut open. Sometimes the crowd rushed to grab scraps of clothing or hair or other body parts of the hanged which, they believed, had healing properties. The skin of some victims was peeled off to make talismans.
“I really can’t believe this Homfray! Are you making this up, or is it true? I can’t believe a civilized nation like ours, which brought the light of civilization to the rest of the world could do like this. I was in London, but never witnessed anything like this,” Cadell said.
“Sir, as God is my witness I’m telling the truth. I can never forget the incident. It made an indelible impression on my young mind. I can see it in my mind’s eye, vividly, even today.
“As we watched a side door opened and three people were paraded in. One was a woman. Her dress was bound at the legs for the sake of decency. The priest came and read out the service for the dead from the Book of Common Prayer. The hangman came and placed a white hood over the head of each victim.
“Granddad told me there was a famous hangman called Foxen in his days who was an expert at hanging condemned people. He would hang on to the legs of the hanged people to hasten their death. The bodies were left hanging for several days, presenting a gory spectacle to the people entering London. It was believed it prevented burgeoning crime in the city those days.
“Anyway, after the priest administered the last sacrament the hangman took over. He pulled on the lever and the three dropped down the trap door. They didn’t die immediately as the drop was too short, just 12 to 18 inches. They writhed for a long time. The crowds cheered, and slowly dispersed. I was told that the bodies were buried in unmarked graves in the jail itself.
“Well, we’re more civilized here Homfray! I’ll make one concession here. I’ll allow Hemraj’s body to be cremated. Others will be buried in unmarked graves in the cemetery on the hill overlooking Phoenix Bay. You may go now. We’ll meet tomorrow, at the hanging.
Cadell lit one more cigar and called the bearer to bring his drink.
“Aye aye sir” Homfray said, as he moved back and closed the door. (To be continued …)