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We take a deep dive into the Museum of London's data on executions.
For centuries, public executions were a popular spectacle on the streets of London. Thousands of people would crowd around a scaffold to watch a life snuffed out. The practice continued until 1868 — late enough that you could catch the Underground to see a person hang.
The Museum of London Dockland's Executions exhibition explores this dark side to London's history. It contains many fascinating exhibits. But, for me, it was a digital screen that really got the mind racing. There, on a slow scroll downwards, were the names of the historically condemned of London. Thousands of them. Who were these people? What did they do to deserve the noose, flames or axe?
Intrigued by the display, I asked the museum if I could take a closer look at the data. They graciously obliged. It is a remarkable dataset, ranging from the 12th to 19th century. The details of over 5,500 public executions are recorded, including (where known) name, age, sex, crime and place of execution (see the foot of this article for further notes on the data and its sources). It should be noted that earlier records (pre-18th century) are very patchy — often, only the most high-profile executions were recorded. We will never know the total number of public executions in London, but it is likely to be several times the number for which we have documentation.
Nevertheless, I've sifted through this grisly trove to pull out a few trends and answer a few questions. Which crimes most often ended on the scaffold? Which were the most common execution sites? When did most executions take place? Who were the youngest and oldest people to be executed in London? The results are shown below.
For what crimes were people executed?
The death penalty was almost guaranteed for more serious crimes such as murder and treason. But it was also pronounced upon criminals of all kinds, at the whim of the judge. Thieves, perjurers, counterfeiters and deserters all risked the noose. One man was executed for "stealing a cheese" and another for "impersonating Edward VI". In 1676, Richard Hazelgrove swung for bigamy, while in 1736 a man was hanged for being "armed and disguised".
Rejecting the religious trends of the time could also land you in deep water, or rather the opposite. In 1533, John Frith was burned at the stake in Smithfield for "disputing the concept of transubstantiation" — just one of dozens of Londoners executed for heresy.
Below, we've attempted to group the hundreds of listed crimes into broader categories. This isn't an exact science. Terms can have different meanings at different times; for example, "treason" might include an attack on the king, religious dissent, forging documents or plotting rebellion. Some of the condemned received their sentence for more than one crime, such as "robbery and assault". In such cases, I've selected (what I perceive to be) the more serious crime for our tally. Caveats aside, here are how the data break down:
1. Theft: 2,391 (includes burglary, animal theft, attempted burglary, poaching, highway robbery and others)
2. Financial crimes: 583 (includes clipping, extortion, tax offences, uttering, forgery)
3. Treason and sedition: 572
4. Assault: 566 (many cases are listed as "assault and theft")
5. Murder: 528 (includes manslaughter and being an accessory to murder)
6. Religious 'crimes': 181 (mostly heresy, which was sometimes considered treason)
7. Breaking the peace: 96 (includes rioting. If these are subsumed under 'assault' then that would become the second commonest category.)
8. Avoiding transportation: 76 (some absconded before being transported, others returned from overseas without permission)
9. Sexual assault: 42
10. Piracy: 30
Theft, then, is by far the most common crime for which people were executed. The total number is likely to be much, much higher than captured in this data. It is thought that the majority of executions in the medieval and early modern periods were of 'common criminals' such as thieves, though their names are rarely recorded.
Executions by age
People could be executed at almost any age. The largest portion of the condemned were in their 20s, though this may simply reflect that this was the most populous adult age group.
The youngest person on record to be executed was Nicholas Mason, just 8, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1689 for a miscellaneous crime. However, the original record is unclear, and the age could well be a smudged '18'. If that were the case, then the next youngest is Dennis Doyle, aged 13, who was killed at Tyburn in 1774 for burglary.
The oldest person executed in London (that we know of) was Joan Boughton, who was aged at least 80 when killed at Smithfield in 1494. Boughton was a Lollard, a follower of John Wycliffe, and was burned at the stake for heresy. Her execution is briefly described in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat was also about 80 when executed for his part in the Jacobite rising, which culminated at Culloden.
Executions by sex
London executed almost 10 times as many men as women. The records show 4,730 men to 402 women.
Where were people executed?
London had more sites of execution than you might think. While most people were dispatched at Tyburn or other permanent gallows, it was also quite common for the condemned to meet their end close to the scene of their crime, particularly murderers. The records show around 100 separate locations. These include some strikingly central places such as Piccadilly, Haymarket, Cornhill and Drury Lane.
Tyburn gallows was, far and away, the most common site of execution over the centuries covered. More people were executed on the Tyburn tree than all other locations put together. Here are the 10 most-common locations.
1. Tyburn: 3,342 (now Marble Arch)
2. Newgate/Old Bailey: 1,126 (replaced Tyburn as chief execution site, and was the place of London's last public execution)
3. Smithfield: 145 (mostly religious dissidents, burned at the stake)
4. Tower Hill: 131 (the site for traitors, includes many famous figures such as Thomas More and Lady Jane Grey)
5. Horsemonger Lane: 111 (a Southwark gaol with its own gallows)
6. St Giles's Fields: 54 (St Giles's church near Centre Point. The Babington conspirators were among those executed here)
7. Wapping: 48 (including many pirates at 'Execution Dock')
8. St Thomas Waterings: 29 (the place of city limits on Old Kent Road, where the old Thomas A'Becket pub stands)
9. Stratford: 19 (All for heresy. A monument to the Stratford Martyrs stands near St John the Baptist church)
10. Charing Cross: 15 (A popular location for those convicted of treason in the 16th century)
Museum of London curator Thomas Ardill has created a series of excellent maps showing the geographic spread of over 100 execution sites.
Which was London's bloodiest decade for executions?
The graph shows recorded public executions from 1500 into the 19th century. Records are more likely to be incomplete the further back in time we go, so the peaks on the right-hand side are likely more accurate than those on the left.
The bloodiest decade in London's history — at least in terms of public executions — is the 1780s, when 525 deaths are recorded. The 1780s were a time of political turmoil, and we might imagine crimes like rioting and plotting against the crown to be the chief misdemeanours. Indeed, the Gordon Riots of 1780 contribute around 30 names to the list. But surprisingly the most common single crime to feature in this decade's records is highway robbery. Almost 150 people, or 28% of all those executed in the 1780s, went down for this form of theft. We'd love to hear from historians of the period who might further unpick the data.
The curious reader might like to speculate on the possible reasons behind the other peaks and troughs. The near-zero record in the 1620s is likely a gap in the records rather than a lack of executions.
How were people executed?
The data collected by the Museum of London are not broken down by execution type, though we can make a few observations. Hanging was by far the commonest means, accounting for all those at Tyburn, Newgate and Horsemonger Lane. The most serious crimes might see the condemned hanged, drawn and quartered or (for nobility) beheaded.
Burning at the stake was usually reserved for heresy, but was occasionally the sentence for other crimes. A few women were burned to death at Tyburn (and one at Newgate) for treason (e.g. coining) and petty treason (e.g. killing their husband), for example. Elizabeth Gaunt was the last person to be sentenced to be burned to death and died at Tyburn on 23 October 1685. After that the sentence was to be hanged or strangled to death before burning. However Catherine Hayes was accidentally burned to death at Tyburn on 9 May 1726. The executioner lit the faggots before attempting to strangle her with a rope, but the fire burned too quickly and he had to withdraw. Witchcraft (a rare 'crime' in London) was also punished by burning.
At least three people were boiled to death — a punishment set by Henry VIII for those who poison their master.
Who was the first person to be executed for a particular crime?
It's sometimes telling to see when a given crime first becomes a capital offence. Here are a few examples pulled from the data.
Treason (1196): The first public execution in the records was of William FitzOsbert, hanged at Tyburn for treason.
Heresy (1210): An "Albigensian heretic" about whom nothing is known.
Murder (1255): In one of the darkest chapters of London history, 92 Jewish men and women were imprisoned in the Tower of London, falsely accused of crucifying a child in Lincoln. 18 of them were convicted and hanged.
Witchcraft (1441): Margery Jourdemayne, known as "the Witch of Eye Next Westminster" was one of six women to be executed in London for witchcraft. She appears in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2.
Robbery/theft (1538): A surprisingly late first-recorded entry for a crime that would see the most public executions overall. The record relates to three men, one of whom was a hangman, executed in Clerkenwell.
Sodomy (1543): The Buggery Act of 1533 made sodomy (and bestiality) a potentially capital offence. The first recorded victim of the law was Lord Walter Hungerford, who was beheaded on Tower Hill (though he was also accused of seditious offences).
Piracy (1556): Six unnamed men, executed at Wapping.
Who was the last person to be executed for a particular crime?
Murder (1868): Michael Barrett holds the unenviable distinction as the last person to be publicly executed in London, and indeed England, for his part in the Clerkenwell bombing of the previous year. The execution took place in Newgate to a crowd of around 2,000 people. Executions would hereafter be done in private, right up until 1964.
Burglary (1836): The 31-year-old William Harley was hanged at Horsemonger Lane for stealing "Spoons, candlesticks, egg cups, a watch, coat and other items at night".
Sodomy (1835): Remarkable to think that people were being executed in London for consensual sex almost into the Victorian era, but that was the case with James Pratt and John Smith. The pair were convicted of sodomy based entirely on the testimony of someone who'd spied through a keyhole. A third man, William Bonill, was convicted as an accessory and transported to Australia (he wasn't even present, but it was his room). Pratt and Smith have since been officially pardoned, but about 180 years too late to save their necks.
Housebreaking (1833): The last burglar to be publicly executed was one George Coney. His remarkable swag bag included not only money and jewellery, but also 2,400 thimbles, 300 toothpicks, 360 pencil cases and 36 tongue scrapers. The 22-year-old was hanged at Newgate.
Piracy (1830): Their names might not be as memorable as Blackbeard or Captain Kidd, but William Watts and George Davis booked their place in buccaneering history when they became the last to be publicly executed for the offence in this year. Their end came at Execution Dock in Wapping.
Treason (1820): The last five people to face execution for treason were all Cato Street conspirators (short video here). This was the plot to murder the entire British cabinet and Prime Minister. The five went to the Newgate gallows on May Day, though they had initially been sentenced to the medieval punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered. An axe made specially for the execution is on show in the Museum of London's exhibition (it stood on the platform as a symbol, but a knife was used to behead the dead men).
Witchcraft (1652): Joan Peterson, the "Witch of Wapping" was hanged at Tyburn for supposedly witching someone to death.
Heresy (1612): Having an unfavourable opinion about god could be fatal in the Tudor era, but the burning of heretics continued into the reign of James I and VI. Bartholomew Legate was the last of his kind, immolated in Smithfield for daring to believe that the "Nicene and Athanasian Creeds did not contain a profession of the true Christian Faith".
A note on the data
The data were assembled by Museum of London curators from a variety of sources, including online databases such as Digital Panopticon, Capital Punishment UK and the Old Bailey Online, but also weaving in many smaller primary resources. Naturally, the records will be incomplete, increasingly so as we move further back in time. But the dataset is large enough that we can be reasonably confident about patterns and trends, particularly for 18th and 19th century executions.
Our overview here is a fairly cursory analysis. The museum is open to sharing the data for more rigorous academic study.
To find out more about the topic, visit the Museum of London Docklands's Execution exhibition before it closes on 16 April 2023. With grateful thanks to Thomas Ardill and Mariam Hussein of the Museum of London for access to the data and helpful conversations.