THE DEAD MAN'S HAND IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH
Public executions, likened by some to theatrical events, attracted enormous crowds, sometimes more than four thousand. No matter how far away, despite the lack of any public transport system, despite the fact that the majority of folk possessed no other means of transport than their hind legs, they would walk miles, from early light, to gain a good vantage point at an execution. For hours, in a noisy fairground atmosphere, an excited mob would jostle for the best possible positions, struggling past pickpockets, sellers of lace and gingerbread, cardsharps and ballad-mongers who related in detail the last minutes of the not yet despatched criminal. And none would jostle to reach a place at the front more energetically than those who had come for a special reason, that only this place and this hanging man could satisfy.
The Maidstone Journal of 1 April 1819 illustrates this.
James Morgan, a 39-year-old, guilty of the theft of 101 sheep from a farm at Bowhill and William Bowra, a highway robber from Tunbridge Wells, were conveyed on a wagon from Maidstone gaol to Penenden Heath. Despite making the usual preparations, the hangman appears to have bungled the affair. While the 19-year-old Bowra’s departure went off without a hitch, the heavily built Morgan fell down so far that his toes were touching the platform and he appeared to be standing up straight with the rope around his neck. The very full report in the newspaper says that ‘the persons surrounding the scaffold with great celerity and presence of mind almost instantaneously got away the platform from under his feet.’ In other words they assisted the inept hangman.
If this episode was not horrifying enough the Journal offered further detail. ‘After the criminals had hung some time, the usual disgusting scene took place of persons afflicted with wens [tumours; goitre] applying to the executioner for the purpose of having the swellings rubbed with a hand of the deceased which the credulity and ignorance of the afflicted or their relatives led them to suppose it would be an effectual cure. On this occasion, many persons of both sexes, and of various ages underwent the operation. One decent, pretty-looking girl about 17 years of age presented herself at the moment when the body of Morgan was about to be cut down and she actually got upon his coffin to stand sufficiently high for the hand of the corpse to be drawn several times over her neck.’
Superstitious? A ghoulish appetite for violence? Cruel and unfeeling? Not at all like us? Is this how our forefathers were? Should we judge them on this? My great grandmother, born in 1850, could have seen a public execution. The last one was in 1868. When I was a child I met her. To me the past and its people doesn't seem so far off when seen in those terms.