Tyburn Tree

Wandering in London over to the northeast end of Hyde Park, you will find, standing by itself on a traffic island, the ornate beauty of the Marble Arch. Designed to stand in front of Buckingham Palace, it was taken down when the Palace was being enlarged in 1847 and reassembled here in 1851. It’s an odd memorial in an odd location.

Nearby, set into the pavement, is an even odder memorial: a cracked disk that says, “The Site of Tyburn Tree.”

Beginning as far back as 1196, a stand of elms along the Tyburn stream, a couple of miles west of Newgate in the London Wall, was a favored place for public executions. Between that date and 1783, when executions there were ended, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 people met there ends there. Presumably rough and ready gallows were erected over the years, but in 1571 the fabled “Tyburn Tree” was erected.

It wasn’t a tree. Instead, they took three large posts and erected them at the points of a (more or less) equilateral triangle. Then they laid three heavy beams spanning the tops of the posts. This was the Tyburn Tree. The new “Tree” could accommodate eight victims on each span, for twenty-four at one go. Business must have been booming.

Executions at Tyburn followed a fairly elaborate ritual. Felons awaiting executions were kept in Newgate prison, just inside the old City Wall. On the day appointed, the condemned were led out of the prison to make their three mile journey through the streets and fields that led to Tyburn. Depending on their crimes, they might be tied onto a low sled, called a hurdle. Or they might be tied to the tail of a cart. But if they were wellborn enough or notorious enough, they might be allowed to ride upright in the cart itself. Pub stops were made so the condemned could buck up their courage. Huge crowds would gather along the way, cheering the condemned or pelting them with stones and offal, depending on their feelings and on how bravely the victims conducted themselves.

The executions could take many forms, hanging being the most common. But witches, coiners (counterfeiters), and heretics were burned there (women were usually strangled before they were incinerated), men were sometimes hanged, cut down while still alive, butchered, and their entrails (and “privy parts”) thrown onto a brazier. At one stage of the game there were over 200 offenses that could get you sent to Tyburn.

The executioner was regarded with pretty universal horror and disgust. The job was specialized and required considerable skill, but not all of the many men who occupied the job were up to it.

For instance, once upon a time there was a man named Jack Ketch. He was appointed the official public executioner by Charles II. He was incredibly bad at his job.

In the 1860s, there was much turmoil in England due to the fact that the king’s brother and likely successor, James, had converted to Catholicism. Public demonstrations, parliamentary speeches and various plots were all intended to keep the Papist James away from the throne. One of those conspiracies, the Rye House plot, apparently intended to kidnap both brothers and kill them. Their goal was to put Charles’ illegitimate son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, a good Protestant, on the throne. When the plot was disclosed, one of the conspirators, William, Lord Russell, refused to flee and was captured and put on trial.

He was, of course, convicted. Normally the crime of attempted regicide would have led to his being hung, drawn, and quartered. But, given his rank, it was determined that he should be beheaded at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. In other words, he was turned over to Jack Ketch and his axe.

As was customary, Jack Ketch first asked Lord Russell’s pardon, which was given to him. Lord Russell then gave his executioner 10 guineas in gold to insure that he was given a quick and clean death.

He wasn’t.

Ketch swung his axe and succeeded merely in wounding Russell.   So he swung again, again missing and further maiming his victim. Blood spurted everywhere. He swung again and again, only on the fourth try managing to decapitate the poor would-be regicide. The huge crowd that had gathered to watch the show was enraged. The story spread around London that Ketch had been bribed to prolong Russell’s death. This did not make him more popular.

But the capstone to Ketch’s infamy came when that same illegitimate son of Charles II, Monmouth, staged a rebellion to put himself on the throne. The rebellion failed, Monmouth was captured, tried, and condemned to death. This time the place of execution was the more traditional Tower Hill, but the executioner was still Jack Ketch.

Monmouth mounted the gallows and after forgiving Ketch, asked to handle the axe, which he thought a bit dull but good enough to do the job. Once again, Ketch collected his bribe to insure a clean death and once again he failed.

This time it took at least five blows (some say eight). In the end, the frustrated Ketch took out his knife to finish severing the poor man’s head. Once again the crowd was inflamed.

Lord Russell, however they might have approved of his intentions, was not a particularly popular man. But Monmouth was. He had much of his father’s charm and knew how to please the people of London. It took a military guard to keep the mob from killing Jack Ketch right then and there.

He did, however, achieve a sort of immortality. From that day on, right up until they stopped executing people in England, every single executioner was known as “Jack Ketch.”

You might wonder why anyone would take the job. Well, it had some perks. Beyond any possible bribes for a quick exit, the hangman had other ways of making a little extra money. For instance, having hung a condemned prisoner, the executioner was allowed to keep the rope. This he could sell as a macabre souvenir. Then, too, many of the condemned dressed themselves up in the latest finery for their trip to the gallows. Another perk was that the hangman got to keep their clothes and sell them.

Which brings me to my favorite Tyburn story.

In 1447 a group of five men were brought to Tyburn to be executed and gruesomely dismembered. Presumably to protect their valuable clothes from becoming bloodstained, they were ordered to strip themselves naked. But just like in some gothic novel, at the last moment a reprieve arrived for all five. Problem was, the disappointed hangman refused to give them their clothes back, claiming they were his perk as they were still condemned men when they stripped. The disappointed crowd was then treated to the lengthy spectacle of five naked men having a heated argument with the dreaded executioner.

In the end, he won. To the crowd’s delight, the reprieved five had to make their way back to town in their birthday suits.

And for that one day, at least, the hangman was the most popular man in London.

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