James Boswell (1740-1795) kept a journal of his daily doings when he lived in London during 1762 and 1763. He had been born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was the son of Alexander Boswell, the laird of the Auchinleck estate in Ayrshire. This was his second trip to London, at the age of twenty-two, and was much against his parent’s wishes, though he did have their permission. In his journal, he recounts a trip he made to view an execution at Tyburn.
In the eighteenth century, Tyburn Tree was the location of most of the executions in London. The “Tree” was a triangular scaffold located in the middle of the road, just west of the junction of Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street) and Tyburn Lane (now Park Lane). It was designed to enable large numbers of hangings to occur at once.
These executions were such popular entertainment with the viewing public that a permanent gallery or spectator stand was built to enable people to get a better view. In June 1771 it collapsed and The Gentleman’s Magazine reported a number of injuries to spectators. The crowds were often quite large and unruly, and had even been known to take off with the dead body “in triumph” (The Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1758).
The criminals were usually transported to the gallows by cart from Newgate Prison, where they had been held for execution. Prisoners were also frequently visited in Newgate, which is where James Boswell first meets the condemned man, Paul Lewis, who is destined to die for robbery. Once the criminals had arrived at the gallows, they were sometimes allowed speak their last words, which were dutifully reported in the papers in the course of the next week.
James Boswell’s account begins on Tuesday 3rd May, 1763, when he writes:
I walked up to the Tower in order to see Mr Wilkes come out. But he was gone. I then thought I should see Prisoners of one kind or another; So went to Newgate. I step’d into a sort of court before the Cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron Windows and within these strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in; but stood in the court where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. […] In the Cells were Paul Lewis for Robbery and Hannah Diego for theft. I saw them pass by to Chapel. The Woman was a big unconcerned being. Paul who had been in the sea service and was called Captain was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was drest in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver with his hair neatly queued and a silver lac’d hat smartly cock’d. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said very well; quite resigned. Poor fellow! I realy took a great concern for him, and wished to relieve him. He walked firmly and with a good air, with his chains rattling upon him, to the Chapel.
The Gentleman’s Magazine (May 1763) states that Paul Lewis was the son of a clergyman, who had run away to sea after having run up debts with his tailor. After being sometime in the navy, and being known for his various attempts of cheating money from people, he returned to England where he was caught “committing robbery on the highway”. According to The Magazine, even in the face of death Paul Lewis was shrewd:
Such was the baseness and unfeeling profligacy of this wretch, that when his father visited him the last time in Newgate, and put twelve guineas into his hand as a present supply, he immediately slipt one into the cuff of his sleeve by a dextrous slight, and then opening his hand, shewed the venerable and unfortunate old man that there was but eleven, upon which he took out another, and gave it to make up the number he intended. As soon as he was gone, “there, says Paul, I slung the old fellow out of another guinea.” To this state of obdurate and habitual wickedness he had arrived before he was 24 years old, when the gallows put an end to his power of disgracing his friends and injuring society.
On Wednesday 4th May, Boswell writes about the execution:
My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it; altho’ I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn, that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. I also wished to see the last behaviour of Paul Lewis, the handsom fellow whom I had seen the day before. Accordingly I took Captain Temple with me; and He and I got up on a Scaffold, very near the fatal tree; so that we could clearly see all the dismal Scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of Spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.
This scene quite significantly affected Boswell, who was known for his sensitive and emotional temperament. The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that Hannah Dageo “was a strong masculine woman, had been an old offender, and once stabbed a man in Newgate, who was evidence against her. At the place of execution, getting her hands loose, she struggled with the executioner, and gave him such a blow on the breast, as almost beat him down. She disposed of her hat, cloaths and cardinal in spite of him; and as soon as the rope was fixed about her neck, pulling a handkerchief over her eyes, she threw herself out of the cart with such violence, that she broke her neck, and died instantly.”
Boswell writes later that night:
But gloomy terrors came upon me so much, as Night approachd, that I durst not stay by myself; so I went and had a bed or rather half a one from honest Erskine, which he most kindly gave me.
These emotional affects continued in the coming days. On Friday 6th May:
When I went home at night I was tired and went to bed and thought to sleep. But I was still so haunted with frightfull imaginations, that I durst not lie by myself, but rose and sallied straight to Erskine, who realy had compassion on me, and as before shared his bed with me. I am too easily affected. It is a weakness of mind. I own it.
The effects finally seem to ease on Saturday 7th May:
My mind was recovering it’s tone. I went home at night, after sauntering with Dempster up and down fleet-market, and I went to bed quietly, and slept soundly.
It is easy to imagine that the eighteenth century was filled with people quite callous to the deaths of others, and I suppose that – compared to today – this may be quite true. However, I was touched to read an account of a person who was as horrified as I might be to watch the public hanging of a man and woman for the crimes of robbery and theft!
Sources and Relevant Links
Boswell’s London Journal (1762-1763) – buy on Amazon
Dr Johnson’s London, by Liza Picard (2000)
John Rocque’s Map of London (1746) – view online