crime

“Launched into Eternity”: Public Hangings and Last Dying Speeches in 18th-Century England

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

During the 18th century crime was the talk of the town in England. In 1751, the crime rate had reached such hellish proportions that the Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (the author of the novel Tom Jones), wrote a tract entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals to remedy this Growing Evil (the Georgians were fond of long titles). He reported that:

I make no Doubt […] that the Streets of this Town [London], and the Roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the Banditti.

The eighteenth century was the age of highwayman, when famous criminals such as Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin roamed the roads leading to the capital in search of victims to rob.

Typically, a bandit’s career, says Eric Hobsbawm, on the roads lasts about two years before they are finally captured. In the 18th century there was no police force as the public feared that if such a force was introduced, it would become an instrument of state tyranny and oppression. So a proliferation of criminals, whilst unfortunate, was the price that the public were willing to pay to safeguard their civil liberties. In the absence of a police force, the state turned over 200 previously minor misdemeanours into capital felonies.

A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

When highwaymen were captured in London, they were taken to be hanged at Tyburn, the triple tree upon which a number of felons could be executed at once. These hangings were big public spectacles, whereby tickets could be procured to get the best view of the hanging.

Hangings functioned as both divine justice in action and public entertainment. We shouldn’t judge the Georgians for enjoying a good hanging, distasteful as it is to us today. We may think it’s violent, but as argued by the historian John Carter Wood, the concept of “violence” did not emerge until the early nineteenth century. The hanging was thus a piece of theatre.

And like visiting the theatre today, you could also buy a souvenir program from the event, or as contemporaries called it, a “Last Dying Speech”. These were single-sheet publications, often with an image of a hanging that was re-used on several occasions, that told of the birth, parentage, life and crimes of the person who stood upon the scaffold. Usually the account of the life would also include “A Copy of Verses” found by the supposedly contrite criminal in his cell, or a copy of a letter written by the felon to a loved one.

William Harley's 'Last Dying Speech' (Early 1800s)

William Harley’s ‘Last Dying Speech’ (Early 1800s)

These publications were once dismissed by historians as ‘ephemera catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many […] falling below the dignified historian’s line’. However, a study of them can illuminate the different ways that people in the eighteenth century thought about crime and the causes of criminality.

These days, it suits the media and the public at large to believe that crime is committed ‘by other people’ who are not representative of the great part of society. Sometimes crime is spoken of in class and/or ethnic terms; as though it exists only in the sink estates of Britain, peopled by, if you were to believe the Daily Mail, immigrants and those on benefits, whilst the suburbs of the middle classes are relatively free from crime and criminals.

In the eighteenth century, however, anyone could become a criminal. The reason for this was that, as all men were sinners, anyone could potentially become a criminal. This is why broadsides recounting people’s dying speeches set much store, and the narratives contained in all of them followed a similar formula. The sinner usually had a good start in life, as the cases of Jack Sheppard (d. 1724) and Thomas Thomas Hopkinson (d. 1819), testify. Jack Sheppard:

Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)

Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)

A youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin […] received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter […] But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon [a prostitute] […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

In Sheppard’s case, in an echo of the Bible passage at 1 Cor. 15: 33, it was bad associations which spoiled good character. Hopkinson’s case almost 100 years later was similar:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end  […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder and offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he scarcely seemed sensible of  its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on ’til he was driven away with his wickedness’

The role of sin and its relation to criminality in the 18th century cannot be overstated. The two were linked together. Hence the reason that some broadsides began the account of the crime with phrases such as ‘[Mr – ], having not the fear of God before his eyes…’. Crime and sin in the eighteenth century, the historian Andrea McKenzie says, was both ‘addictive and progressive’. From petty pilferings at the workplace the sinner would then lead on to bolder offences. There are echoes of this type of thinking, she says, in the UK’s current attitude towards drug use and the law. These people in the Georgian period were not “inherently criminal” (an attitude which we today still retain from the Victorian period regarding certain types of crimes), instead they were, as John Brewer says, people with a tragic fatal flaw.

Thos. Hopkinson - Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery

Thos. Hopkinson – Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery

Lastly came the account of the criminal’s death, the moment that the condemned person was “launched into eternity”. Even though the State had ordered the execution, it was not the job of the state to publicly carry out the sentence. Various parts of the procession to the gallows were ‘outsourced’ or ‘privatised’ to the Church, gaol keepers (prisons were run as private enterprises in the 18th century). This was the reason that statements such as ‘launched into eternity’ or ‘ceased to live’, which effectively sanitised the death sentence, were used. Instead the punishment was divine retribution for a sin against, not simply the offender’s society, but also God. The hanging, as Vic Gatrell says, mended the tear in the fabric of society which the sinner’s crime had created, and through his/her death, restored the offender to the fraternity of the righteous.

These ‘Last Dying Speeches’ were, admittedly, simple publications written by hack authors seeking to make a fortune out of another man’s misery. They were formulaic, but they do illuminate small aspects of the way that people in the viewed and conceived of the world around them. Crime was not down to a person’s class, or race, as certain right-wing newspapers would have people believe. Instead anyone might become a criminal.


Scanned copies of all the broadsides used in this blog can be accessed from Harvard Library School of Law’s Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders project.

Further reading:

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture  in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1994).

Faller, L. B. Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1775-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Pelican Books, 1969).

McKenzie, A. Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (Continuum Books, 2007).

Moore, L. ed. Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001).

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