I reacted with both anger and disgust at the recent brutish harassment of the leader of the UK opposition outside parliament following yet another Boris Johnson lie, this time repeating a right wing conspiracy slur in Parliament (that has been debunked many times) about Sir Kier Starmer’s time as Chief Prosecutor when a serial paedophile (Jimmy Savile) was under investigation. The sight of a mob hounding Starmer made me think about how easily emotions can be stirred up and how far downhill we have gone in both the USA and the UK from what used to be considered civilised behaviour and genuine ‘legitimate political discourse’ which, of course, does not involve maiming and killing people and even Canada, where a state of emergency has been called to move illegal protesters from streets and bridges.
I know that mob emotions have been stirred since time immemorial by, usually, carefully chosen language and there is a sad, morbid desire in some people to rejoice in the misfortune (deserved or otherwise) of others so I hope that this is just the swing of the pendulum before it swings its way back across its arc.
In the Helots’ Tale we witness such an event following the conviction of two men for the murder of an innocent in order to sell the body to resurrectionists. I plan to provide some extracts from a book I have published soon so, as an existing subscriber, here’s something just for you – an extract from Book I of the Helots’ Tale….
5th December, 1831
……….. thirty-two days after the murder had been committed, a squabbling, swelling crowd was gathering outside Newgate prison where barriers along the street and a scaffold in front of the prison were being erected, lit by the fluttering glare of torches that workmen had installed.
People had started to arrive as early as one o’clock in the morning to get a good position and by five o’clock nearly two thirds of the Old Bailey, off Newgate Street, was filled with a mass of people, like ants swarming around spilled jam. There was a constant murmur, almost a throbbing, from the building crowd.
When, at last, the scaffold was in place it could be seen that three chains were suspended from it waiting on Bishop, Williams and May but, as soon as the governor of Newgate heard of it, he ordered an officer to remove one of them.
It was still dark, but the news spread like wildfire, “May is respited!”.
As dawn broke there were 30,000 to 40,000 people on tops of houses, clinging to lamp posts and every vantage point from which even the most distant view of the execution could be observed. A solid mass extended from one end of the Old Bailey to the other as well as the adjoining streets in the neighbourhood, although they did not offer a view of the platform. The side streets were rendered impassable by the huge flow of people hurrying to the scene of the execution.
John, some of his friends and the whole of the Crocker family, including Mary Ann, had arrived as dawn broke and had found space some distance from the scaffold underneath a lamp post from which two of John’s friends were relaying information on what they saw to those below.
Men, women and children strained to find a place to view the scaffold, fights broke out, children ran riot, pickpockets worked unhurriedly, enjoying the multitude of opportunities. The coffee houses and taverns were full with people sitting in the windows. Broadside sellers were clutching sheets describing the upcoming event and the last words of the condemned. There was a general sense of strange merriment and the mood of anticipation increased as the fatal hour approached.
The minutes ticked by and a bell tolled the passing hours.
At eight o’clock the executioner and his assistant appeared on the scaffold, like ringmasters entering the circus, to the accompaniment of a general cry of “Hats off!” throughout the mob. Immediately everybody uncovered their heads in an almost synchronised motion. Mary Ann watched the scene as she clung to the lamp post base on which she had clambered and from which she strained to see what would happen next.
It was the largest assembly that anyone had seen since the execution of Holloway and Haggerty more than 20 years before and the authorities had gone to great lengths to prevent accidents. However, at the end of Giltspur Street, opposite the Compter, a very heavy barrier that had been erected across the road to hold back the mob (which, at that point, extended to Smithfield) was unable to carry the immense pressure and, at that very moment, it gave way with a crack amidst pitiful screams and shouts of alarm as it crushed a number of men and women with it. Mary Ann saw the surge of people spilling out into the already crammed Old Bailey, but fortunately was far enough away to escape any danger.
A massive shout of triumph turned her head back to the scaffold; Bishop was being taken onto the platform and, at his appearance, there was a chorus of groans, wild, ribald huzzahs and a multitude of hooting shouts of derision from the crowd. But for all the effect it had on the condemned man, the streets could have been empty, as quiet as the grave. He appeared to be unaware or unmoved by this awful reception, not a muscle even twitched on his face, his eyes fixed on some distant point.
The hangman stepped up to him, placed a cap over his head and positioned the rope around his neck, then fixed it to the chain, placing Bishop under the vengeful beam. The crowd cheered with delight at the preparation for his departure from this world. However, he remained listless, seemingly mentally distanced from everything going on around him. He stood still, untrembling, unmoved, like a wax dummy.
Then Williams climbed up to the scaffold and, on reaching it, he bowed nervously to the crowd who increased their noise with dreadful cries and more groans. Unlike Bishop, he appeared to be in great anguish and formed a mighty contrast to that of his accomplice. As the hood was being put over his eyes and the rope adjusted by the hangman, his body seem to convulse with tremors and fear seemed to ooze from every fibre.
The Minister then led the two condemned men in prayer. Williams wrung his hands and shouted something which could not be heard distinctly and then, suddenly, with no warning, the trap opened with a thud and they both dropped, jerking at the end of the fall, violently spinning into eternity. Bishop seemed to die immediately but Williams swung and struggled on the end of the rope for several minutes, mirroring his unfortunate victim in his death throes, before falling still. The moment the two men fell, the crowd, which had been maintaining a constant barrage of noise, exalted with a prolonged thundering storm of shouting that lasted for several minutes.
* * *
The bodies hung there until cut down at nine o’clock amidst more triumphant shouts and cheers from the crowd, who still continued to enjoy the entertainment.
Once this was done, a small cart drove up to the platform, the two bodies were placed in it and covered with two sacks, and then it moved off slowly, followed by the sheriffs and City Marshal, accompanied by a large body of blue-uniformed constables down Giltspur Street, past the broken barricade. All the while the taunting, baying noise of the vast crowd continued as the procession left the fatal scene.
By then, although John, Bill and her sister stayed, Mary Ann, her mother and Peter had long gone. Mary Ann had seen enough and what she had seen troubled her. She remained in a pensive, quietened mood the rest of the day, a poor companion indeed, wrapped up in her own gloomy imaginings.
1 John Holloway and Owen Haggerty were hanged on 23 February 1807 for the murder of John Steele.
2 The Compter prison was built to hold 136 prisoners: debtors, felons, petty offenders, and those charged with assault.