Saturday, 20 June 2009

Bernard Cornwell: The Gallows Thief

Gallows Thief is a detective story, set in Regency London, a time when there were no detectives as such. There was a very busy gallows, however. This was a period when the English and Welsh gallows were at their busiest and, very occasionally, the government appointed an 'Investigator' to look into a conviction. That Investigator is my hero and detective, a man who was an army officer, but who, since the battle of Waterloo (it had to get in somehow) has fallen on hard times.

Excerpt: Chapter 1

Sir Henry Forrest, banker and alderman of the City of London, almost gagged when he entered the Press Yard for the smell was terrible, worse than the reek of the sewer outflows where the Fleet Ditch oozed into the Thames. It was a stink from the cesspits of hell, an eye-watering stench that took a man’s breath away and made Sir Henry take an involuntary step backwards, clap a handkerchief to his nose and hold his breath for fear that he was about to vomit.
Sir Henry’s guide chuckled. “I don’t notice the smell no more, sir,” he said, “but I suppose it’s mortal bad in its way, mortal bad. Mind the steps here, sir, do mind ‘em.”
Sir Henry gingerly took the handkerchief away and forced himself to speak. “Why is it called the Press Yard?”
“In days gone by, sir, this is where the prisoners was pressed. They was squashed, sir. Weighed down by stones, sir, to persuade them to tell the truth. We don’t do it any longer, sir, more’s the pity, and as a consequence they lies like India rugs, sir, like India rugs.” The guide, one of the prison’s turnkeys, was a fat man with leather breeches, a stained coat, and a stout billy club. He laughed. “There ain’t a guilty man or woman in here, sir, not if you asks them!”
Sir Henry tried to keep his breathing shallow so he would not have to inhale the noxious miasma of ordure, sweat and rot. “There is sanitation here?” he asked.
“Very up to date, Sir Henry, very up to date. Proper drains in Newgate, sir. We spoils them, we do, but they’re filthy animals, sir, filthy. They fouls their own nest, sir, that’s what they do, they fouls their own nest.” The turnkey closed and bolted the barred gate by which they had entered the yard. “The condemned have the freedom of the Press Yard, sir, during daylight,” he said, “except on high days and holidays like today.” He grinned, letting Sir Henry know that this was a jest. “They has to wait till we’re done, sir, and if you turn to your left you can join Mister Brown and the other gentlemen in the Association Room.”
“The Association Room?” Sir Henry enquired.
“Where the condemned associate, sir, during the daylight hours, sir,” the turnkey explained, “except on high days and holidays like this one is today, sir, and those windows to your left, sir, those are the salt boxes.”
Sir Henry saw at the end of the yard, that was very narrow and long, fifteen barred windows. The windows were small, dark shadowed and on three floors, and the cells behind those windows were called the salt boxes. He had no idea why they were called that and he did not like to ask in case he encouraged more of the turnkey’s coarse humour, but Sir Henry knew that the fifteen salt boxes were also known as the devil’s waiting rooms and the antechambers of hell. They were Newgate’s condemned cells. A doomed man, his eyes a mere glitter behind the thick bars, stared back at Sir Henry who turned away as the turnkey hauled open the heavy door of the Association Room. “Obliged to you, Sir Henry, obliged, I’m sure,” the turnkey knuckled his forehead as Sir Henry offered him a shilling in thanks for his guidance through the prison’s labyrinthine passages.
Sir Henry stepped into the Association Room where he was greeted by the Keeper, William Brown, a lugubrious man with a bald head and heavy jowls. A stout priest wearing an old fashioned wig, a cassock, stained surplice and Geneva bands stood smiling unctuously beside the Keeper. “Pray allow me to name the Ordinary,” the Keeper said, “the Reverend Doctor Horace Cotton. Sir Henry Forrest.”
Sir Henry took off his hat. “Your servant, Doctor Cotton.”
“At your service, Sir Henry.” Doctor Cotton responded fulsomely after offering Sir Henry a deep bow. The Ordinary’s old fashioned wig was three plump billows of white fleece that framed his whey-coloured face. There was a weeping boil on his left cheek while, as a specific against the prison’s smell, a nosegay was tied around his neck, just above the Geneva bands.
“Sir Henry,” the Keeper confided to the prison chaplain, “is here on official duty.”
“Ah!” Doctor Cotton’s eyes opened wide, suggesting Sir Henry was in for a rare treat, “and is this your first such visit?”
“My first,” Sir Henry admitted.
“I am persuaded you will find it edifying, Sir Henry,” the priest said.
“Edifying!” The choice of word struck Sir Henry as inappropriate.
“Souls have been won for Christ by this experience,” Doctor Cotton said sternly, “won for Christ, indeed!” He smiled, then bowed obsequiously as the Keeper ushered Sir Henry away to meet the other six guests who had come for the traditional Newgate breakfast. The last of the guests was called Matthew Logan and he needed no introduction for he and Sir Henry were old friends and, because both were city aldermen, they were considered very distinguished visitors this morning for the Court of Aldermen were the official governors of Newgate Prison. The Keeper and the Ordinary, whose salaries were fixed by the aldermen, pressed coffee on the two men, but both declined and Logan took Sir Henry’s arm and led him to the hearth where they could talk privately beside the smouldering embers and smoking ashes. “You’re sure you want to see this through?” Logan asked his friend solicitously. “You look damned pale.”
Sir Henry was a good looking man, lean, tall and straight-backed with a clever and fastidious face. He was a banker, rich and successful. His hair, prematurely silver for he was only a few days past his fiftieth birthday, gave him a distinguished appearance, yet at that moment, standing in front of the prisoner’s fire in the Association Room, he looked old, frail, emaciated and sickly. “It’s the early morning, Logan,” he explained, “and I’m never at my shining best this close to dawn.”
“Quite,” Logan said, pretending to believe his friend’s explanation, “but this ain’t an experience for everyone, though I must say the breakfast afterwards is very good. Devilled kidneys. This is probably my tenth or eleventh visit, and the breakfast has yet to disappoint me. How is Lady Forrest?”
“Florence keeps well, thank you for asking.”
“And your daughter?”
“Eleanor will doubtless survive her troubles,” Sir Henry said drily. “A broken heart has yet to prove fatal.”
“Except in poets?”
“Damn poets, Logan.” Sir Henry said with a smile. He held his hands towards the remnants of the fire that was waiting to be blown back into life. The prisoners had left their cooking pots and cauldrons stacked about its edges and a pile of blackened potato peelings was curled in the ashes. “Poor Eleanor,” Sir Henry said, “if it was up to me, Logan, I’d let her marry, but Florence won’t hear of it and I suppose she’s right.”
“Mothers usually know best about such things,” Logan said airily and then the room’s low murmur of conversation died as the guests turned towards a barred door that had opened with a sudden and harsh squeal. For a heartbeat no one appeared in the doorway and it seemed all the guests held their breath, but then, to an audible gasp, a man carrying a stout leather bag stumped into sight. There was nothing about his appearance to explain the gasp. He was burly, red-faced and dressed in brown gaiters, black breeches and a black coat that was buttoned too tightly over his protuberant belly. He respectfully pulled off a shabby brown hat when he saw the waiting gentry, but he offered no greeting and no one in the Association Room acknowledged his arrival.
“That,” Logan told Sir Henry under his breath, “is Mister James Botting, more familiarly known as Jemmy.”
“The petitioner?” Sir Henry asked softly.
“The very same.”
Sir Henry suppressed a shudder and reminded himself that men should not be judged by their outward appearance, though it was hard not to disapprove of a being as ugly as James Botting whose raw-beef slab of a face was disfigured by warts, wens and scars. His bald pate was surrounded by a fringe of lank brown hair that fell over his frayed collar and, when he grimaced, which he did every few seconds in a nervous habit, he displayed yellow teeth and shrunken gums. He had big hands which heaved a bench away from a table onto which he slung his leather bag. He unbuckled the bag and, conscious of being watched by the silent visitors, brought out eight coils of thin white cord. He placed the coils on the table where he fussily arranged them so that they were in a neat row and equidistant from each other. Next, and with the air of a conjuror, he took out four white cotton sacks, each about a foot square, that he placed by the coiled lines and last of all, after glancing up to make sure he was still being observed, he produced four heavy ropes made of three-stranded hemp. Each rope looked to be about ten or twelve feet long and each had a noose tied into one end and had an eye spliced in the other. James Botting laid the ropes on the table and then stepped back. “Good morning, gentlemen,” he said smartly.
“Oh, Botting!” William Brown, the Keeper, spoke in a tone which suggested he had only just noticed Botting’s presence. “A very good morning to you.”
“And a nice one it is too, sir,” Botting said. “I feared it might rain, there was such a pain in my elbow joints, but there ain’t a cloud in sight, sir, not a cloud in sight. Still just the four customers today, sir?”
“Just the four, Botting.”
“They’ve drawn a good crowd, sir, they have, a very good crowd.”
“Good, very good,” the Keeper said vaguely, then returned to his conversation with one of the breakfast guests. Sir Henry looked back to his friend Logan. “Does Botting know why we’re here?”
“I do hope not.” Logan, a banker like Sir Henry, grimaced. “He might botch things if he did.”
“Botch things?”
“How better to prove he needs an assistant?” Logan suggested with a smile.
“Remind me what we pay him.”
“Ten shillings and sixpence a week, but there are emoluments. The hand of glory for one, and also the clothes and the ropes.”
“Emoluments?” Sir Henry was puzzled.
Logan smiled. “We watch the proceedings up to a point, Sir Henry, but then we retire for devilled kidneys and as soon as we’re gone Mister Botting will invite folk onto the scaffold for a touch of the dead man’s hand. It’s supposed to cure warts and I believe he charges one shilling and sixpence for each treatment. And as for the prisoners’ clothes and the killing ropes? He sells the clothes to Madame Tussaud’s gallery if they want them, and if not then the clothes are sold as keepsakes and the rope is cut into fragments that are usually hawked about the streets. Believe me, Mister Botting does not suffer from penury. I’ve often thought we ought to offer the job of hangman to the highest bidder instead of paying the wretch a salary.”
Sir Henry turned to look at Botting’s ravaged face. “The hand of glory doesn’t seem to work on the hangman though, does it?”
“Not a pretty sight, is he?” Logan agreed with a smile, then he held up his hand. “Hear it?”
Sir Henry could hear a clanking sound. The room had fallen silent again and he felt a kind of chill dread. He also despised himself for the prurience that had persuaded him to come to this breakfast, then he shuddered as the door from the Press Yard opened.
Another turnkey came into the room. He knuckled his forehead to the Keeper, then stood beside a low slab of timber that squatted on the floor. The turnkey held a stout hammer and Sir Henry wondered what its purpose was, but he did not like to ask, and then the guests closest to the door hauled off their hats because the Sheriff and Under-Sheriff had appeared in the doorway and were ushering the prisoners into the Association Room. There were four of them, three men and a young woman. The latter was scarce more than a girl and had a pinched, pale and frightened face.
“Brandy, sir?” One of the Keeper’s servants appeared beside Matthew Logan and Sir Henry.
“Thank you,” Logan said and took two of the beakers. He handed one to Sir Henry. “It’s bad brandy,” he said under his breath, “but a good precaution. Settles the stomach, eh?”
The prison bell suddenly began to toll. The girl twitched at the sound, then the turnkey with the hammer ordered her to put a foot onto the wooden anvil so her leg irons could be struck off. Sir Henry, who had long ceased to notice the prison’s stench, sipped the brandy and feared it would not stay down. His head felt light, unreal. The turnkey hammered the rivets from the first manacle and Sir Henry saw that the girl’s ankle was a welt of sores.
“Other foot, girl,” the turnkey said.
The bell tolled on and it would not stop now until all four bodies were cut down. Sir Henry was aware that his hand was shaking. “I hear corn was fetching sixty-three shillings a quarter in Norwich last week,” he said, his voice too loud.
Logan was gazing at the quivering girl. “She stole her mistress’s necklace.”
“She did?”
“Pearls. She must have sold it for the necklace was never found. Then the tall fellow next in line is a highwayman. Pity he isn’t Hood, eh? Still, we’ll see Hood swing one day. The other two murdered a grocer in Southwark. Sixty three a quarter, eh? It’s a wonder anyone can eat.”
The girl, moving awkwardly because she was unaccustomed to walking without leg irons, shuffled away from the makeshift anvil. She began crying and Sir Henry turned his back on her. “Devilled kidneys, you say?”
“The Keeper always serves devilled kidneys on hanging days,” Logan said, “it’s a tradition.”
The hammer struck at the highwayman’s leg irons, the bell tolled and James Botting snapped at the girl to come to him. “Stand still, girl,” he said, “drink that if you want it. Drink it all,” he pointed to a beaker of brandy that had been placed on the table next to the neatly coiled ropes. The girl spilt some because her hands were shaking, but she gulped the rest down and then dropped the tin mug that clattered on the flagstones. She began to apologise for her clumsiness, but Botting interrupted her. “Arms by your side, girl,” he ordered her, “arms by your side.”
“I didn’t steal anything!” she wailed.
“Quiet, my child, quiet,” the Reverend Cotton had moved to her side and put a hand on her shoulder. “God is our refuge and strength, child, and you must put your faith in him.” He kneaded her shoulder. She was wearing a pale blue cotton dress with a drooping neckline and the priest’s fingers pressed and caressed her exposed white flesh. “The Lord is a very present help in times of trouble,” the Ordinary said, his fingers leaving pinkish marks on her white skin, “and he will be thy comfort and guide. Do you repent your foul sins, child?”
“I stole nothing!”
Sir Henry forced himself to draw long breaths. “Did you escape those Brazilian loans?” he asked Logan.
“Sold them on to Drummonds,” Logan said, “so I’m damned grateful to you, Henry, damned grateful.”
“It’s Eleanor you must thank,” Sir Henry said, “she saw a report in a Paris newspaper and drew the right conclusions. Clever girl, my daughter.”
“Such a pity about the engagement,” Logan said. He was watching the doomed girl who cried aloud as Botting pinioned her elbows with a length of cord. He fastened them behind her back, drawing the line so tight that she gasped with pain. Botting grinned at her cry, then yanked the cord even tighter, forcing the girl to throw her breasts forward so that they strained against the thin material of her cheap dress. The Reverend Cotton leaned close so that his breath was warm on her face. “You must repent, child, you must repent.”
“I didn’t do it!” Her breath was coming in gasps and tears were streaming down her distorted face.
“Hands in front, girl!” Botting snapped and, when she awkwardly lifted her hands, he seized one wrist, circled it with a second length of cord which he then looped about her other wrist. Her elbows were secured behind her body, her wrists in front, and because Botting had pulled her elbows so tightly together he could not join her wrists with the cord, but had to be content with linking them.
“You’re hurting me,” she wailed.
“Botting?” The Keeper intervened.
“Shouldn’t be my job to do the pinioning,” Botting snarled, but he loosed some of the tension from the cord holding her elbows and the girl nodded in pathetic thanks.
“She’d be a pretty thing,” Logan said, “if she was cleaned up.”
Sir Henry was counting the pots in the hearth. Everything seemed unreal. God help me, he thought, God help me.
“Jemmy!” the highwayman, his leg irons struck off, greeted the hangman with a sneer.
“Come here, lad,” Botting ignored the familiarity. “Drink that. Then put your arms by your side.”
The highwayman put a coin on the table beside the brandy beaker. “For you, Jemmy.”
“Good lad,” the hangman said quietly. The coin would ensure that the highwayman’s arms would not be pinioned too tightly, and that his death would be as swift as Botting could make it.
“Eleanor tells me she’s recovered from the engagement,” Sir Henry said, his back still to the prisoners, “but I don’t believe her. She’s very unhappy. I can tell. Mind you, I sometimes wonder if she’s being perverse.”
“It occurs to me, Logan, that her attraction to Sandman has only increased since the engagement was broken off.”
“He was a very decent young man,” Logan said.
“He is a very decent young man,” Sir Henry agreed.
“But scrupulous,” Logan said, “to a fault.”
“To a fault indeed,” Sir Henry said. He was staring down at the floor now, trying to ignore the girl’s soft sobbing. “Young Sandman is a good man, a very good man, but quite without prospects now. Utterly without prospects! And Eleanor cannot marry into a disgraced family.”
“Indeed she cannot,” Logan agreed.
“She says she can, but then, Eleanor would.” Sir Henry said, then shook his head. “And none of it is Rider Sandman’s fault, but he’s penniless now. Quite penniless.”
Logan frowned. “He’s on half-pay, surely?”
Sir Henry shook his head. “Sold his commission, gave the money towards the keep of his mother and sister.”
“He keeps his mother? That dreadful woman? Poor Sandman.” Logan laughed softly. “But Eleanor, surely, is not without suitors?”
“Far from it,” Sir Henry sounded gloomy. “They queue up in the street, Logan, but Eleanor finds fault.”
“She’s good at that,” Logan said softly, though without malice for he was fond of his friend’s daughter, though he thought her over-indulged. It was true that Eleanor was clever and too well read, but that was no reason to spare her the bridle, whip and spur. “Still,” he said, “doubtless she’ll marry soon?”
“Doubtless she will,” Sir Henry said drily, for his daughter was not only attractive but it was well known that Sir Henry would settle a generous income on her future husband. Which was why Sir Henry was sometimes tempted to let her marry Rider Sandman, but her mother would not hear of it. Just would not hear of it. Florence wanted Eleanor to have a title, and Rider Sandman had none and now he had no fortune either, and so the marriage between Captain Rider Sandman and Miss Eleanor Forrest would not now take place, and then Sir Henry’s thoughts about his daughter’s prospects were driven away by a shriek from the doomed girl, a wailing shriek so pitiful that Sir Henry turned in shocked enquiry to see that James Botting had hung one of the heavy noosed ropes about her shoulders and the girl was shrinking from its touch as though the Bridport hemp was soaked in acid.
“Quiet, my dear,” the Reverend Cotton said, then he opened his prayer book and took a step back from the four prisoners who were all now pinioned.
“This was never the hangman’s job,” James Botting complained before the Ordinary could begin reading the service for the burial of the dead. “The irons was struck and the pinioning was done in the yard, in the yard, by the Yeoman of the Halter! By the Yeoman of the Halter! It was never the hangman’s job to do the pinioning!”
“He means it was done by his assistant,” Logan muttered.
“So he does know why we’re here?” Sir Henry commented as the Sheriff and Under-Sheriff, both in floor length robes and wearing chains of office and both carrying silver-tipped staves, and both evidently satisfied that the prisoners were properly prepared, went to the Keeper who formally bowed to them before presenting the Sheriff with a sheet of paper.
“‘I am the resurrection and the life,’” the Reverend Cotton intoned in a loud voice, “‘he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.’”
The Sheriff glanced at the paper, nodded in satisfaction and thrust it into a pocket of his fur-trimmed robe. Until now the four prisoners had been in the care of the Keeper of Newgate, but now they belonged to the Sheriff of the City of London who, formalities over, crossed to Sir Henry with an outstretched hand and a welcoming smile. “You’ve come for the breakfast, Sir Henry?”
“I’ve come as a matter of duty,” Sir Henry said sternly, “but it’s very good to see you, Rothwell.”
“You must certainly stay for the breakfast,” the Sheriff said as the Ordinary recited the prayers for the burial of the dead. “They’re very good devilled kidneys.”
“I could get a good breakfast at home,” Sir Henry said. “No, I came because Botting has petitioned for an assistant and we thought, before justifying the expenditure, that we should judge for ourselves whether or not one was needed. You know Mister Logan?”
“The alderman and I are old acquaintances,” the Sheriff said, shaking Logan’s hand. “The advantage of giving the man an assistant,” he added to Sir Henry in a low voice, “is that his replacement is already trained. And if there is trouble on the scaffold, well, two men are better than one. It’s good to see you, Sir Henry, and you, Mister Logan.” He composed his face and turned to Botting. “Are you ready, Botting?”
“Quite ready, sir, quite ready,” Botting said, scooping up the four white bags and thrusting them into a pocket.
“We can talk at breakfast,” the Sheriff said to Sir Henry. “Devilled kidneys! I smelt them cooking as I came through.” He hauled a turnip watch from a fob pocket and clicked open its lid. “Time to go, I think, time to go.”
The Sheriff led the procession out of the Association Room and across the narrow Press Yard. The Reverend Cotton had a hand on the girl’s neck, guiding her as he read the burial service aloud, the same service that he had intoned to the condemned prisoners in the chapel the day before. The four prisoners had been in the famous black pew, grouped about the coffin on the table, and the Ordinary had read them their burial service and then preached that they were being punished for their sin as God had decreed men and women should be punished. He had described the waiting flames of hell, told them of the devilish torments that were even then being prepared for them, and he had reduced the girl and one of the two murderers to tears. The chapel’s gallery had been filled with folk who had paid one shilling and sixpence apiece to witness the four doomed souls at their last church service.
The prisoners in the cells overlooking the Press Yard shouted protests and farewells as the procession passed. Sir Henry was alarmed by the noise and surprised to hear a woman’s voices calling insults. “Surely men and women don’t share the cells?” He asked.
“Not any longer,” Logan said, then saw where his friend was looking, “and I assume she’s no prisoner, but a lady of the night, Sir Henry. They pay what’s called Bad Money to the turnkeys so they can come and earn their living here.”
“Bad Money? Good Lord!” Sir Henry looked pained. “And we allow that?”
“We ignore it,” Logan said quietly, “on the understanding that it’s better to have whores in the prison than prisoners rioting.” The Sheriff had led the procession down a flight of stone stairs into a tunnel that ran beneath the main prison to emerge at the Lodge and the gloomy passage passed an empty cell with an open door. “That’s where they spent their last night,” Logan pointed into the cell. The doomed girl was swaying and a turnkey took her elbow and hurried her along.
“We brought nothing into this world,” the Reverend Cotton’s voice echoed from the tunnel’s damp granite walls, “and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
“I didn’t steal anything!” The girl suddenly screamed.
“Quiet, lass, quiet,” the Keeper growled. All the men were nervous. They wanted the prisoners to cooperate and the girl was very close to hysteria.
“Lord, let me know mine end,” the Ordinary prayed, “and the number of my days.”
“Please!” the woman wailed, “no, no! Please.” A second turnkey closed on her in case she collapsed and had to be carried the rest of the way, but she stumbled on.
“If they struggle too much,” Logan told Sir Henry, “then they’re tied to a chair and hung that way, but I confess I haven’t seen that happen in many many years, though I do remember that Langley had to do it once.”
“Botting’s predecessor.”
“You’ve seen a number of these things?” Sir Henry asked.
“A good few,” Logan admitted. “And you?”
“Never. I just conceived today as a duty.” Sir Henry watched the prisoners climb the steps at the end of the tunnel and wished he had not come. He had never seen a violent death. Rider Sandman, who was to have been his son-in-law, had seen much violent death because he had been a soldier and Sir Henry rather wished the younger man was here. He had always liked Sandman. Such a shame about his family.
At the top of the stairs was the Lodge, a cavernous entrance chamber that gave access to the street called the Old Bailey. The door that led to the street was the Debtor’s Door and it stood open, but no daylight showed for the scaffold had been built directly outside. The noise of the crowd was loud now and the prison bell was muffled, but the bell of Saint Sepulchre’s on the far side of Newgate Street was also tolling for the imminent deaths.
“Gentlemen?” The Sheriff, who was now in charge of the morning’s proceedings, turned to the breakfast guests. “If you’ll climb the steps to the scaffold, gentlemen, you’ll find chairs to right and left. Just leave two at the front for us, if you’d be so kind?”
Sir Henry, as he passed through the towering arch of the high Debtor’s Door, saw in front of him the dark hollow underside of the scaffold and he thought how it was like being behind and underneath a stage supported by raw wooden beams. Black baize shrouded the planks at the front and side of the stage which meant that the only light came from the chinks between the timbers that formed the scaffold’s elevated platform. Wooden stairs climbed to Sir Henry’s right, going up into the shadows before turning sharply left to emerge in a roofed pavilion that stood at the scaffold’s rear. The stairs and the platform all looked very substantial and it was hard to remember that the scaffold was only erected the day before an execution and dismantled immediately after. The roofed pavilion was there to keep the honoured guests dry in inclement weather, but today the morning sun shone on Old Bailey and was bright enough to make Sir Henry blink as he turned the corner of the stairs and emerged into the pavilion.
A huge cheer greeted the guests’ arrival. No one cared who they were, but their appearance presaged the coming of the prisoners. Old Bailey was crowded. Every window that overlooked the street was crammed and there were even folk on the rooftops. “Ten shillings,” Logan said.
“Ten shillings?” Sir Henry was bemused again.
“To rent a window,” Logan explained, “unless it’s a celebrated crime being punished in which case the price goes up to two or even three guineas.” He pointed at a tavern that stood directly opposite the scaffold. “The Magpie and Stump has the most expensive windows because you can see right down into the pit where they drop.” He chuckled. “You can rent a telescope from the landlord and watch ‘em die. But we, of course, get the best view.”
Sir Henry wanted to sit in the shadows at the back of the pavilion, but Logan had already taken one of the front chairs and Sir Henry just sat. His head was ringing with the terrible noise that came from the street. It was, he decided, just like being on a theatre’s stage. He was overwhelmed and dazzled. So many people! Everywhere faces looking up at the black-draped platform that was seven feet high. The scaffold proper, in front of the roofed pavilion, was thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide and topped by a great beam that ran from the pavilion’s roof to the platform’s end. Black iron butchers’ hooks were screwed into the beam’s underside and a ladder was propped against it.
A second ironic cheer greeted the sheriffs in their fur-trimmed robes. Sir Henry was sitting on a hard wooden chair that was slightly too small and desperately uncomfortable. “It’ll be the girl first,” Logan said.
“She’s the one they’ve come to see,” Logan said. He was evidently enjoying himself and Sir Henry was surprised by that. How little we know our friends, he thought, then he again wished that Rider Sandman was here because he suspected that the soldier would not approve of death made this easy. Or had Sandman been hardened to violence?
“I should let him marry her,” he said.
“What?” Logan had to raise his voice because the crowd was shouting for the prisoners to be brought on.
“Nothing,” Sir Henry said.
“I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle,” the Reverend Cotton’s voice grew louder as he climbed the stairs behind the girl, “while the ungodly is in my sight.”
A turnkey came first, then the girl, and she was awkward on the steps because her legs were still not used to being without irons and the turnkey had to steady her when she half tripped on the top stair.
Then the crowd saw her. “Hats off! Hats off!” The shout began at the front and echoed back. It was not respect that caused the cry, but rather because the taller hats of the folk in front obscured the view for those behind. The roar of the crowd was massive, crushing, and then the people surged forward so that the City Marshal and his men who protected the scaffold raised their staves and spears. Sir Henry felt besieged by noise and by the thousands of people with open mouths, shouting. There were as many women as men in the crowd. Sir Henry saw a respectable looking matron stooping to a telescope in a window of the Magpie and Stump. Beside her a man was eating bread and fried egg. Another woman had opera glasses. A pie-seller had set up his wares in a doorway. Pigeons, red kites and sparrows circled the sky in panic because of the noise. Sir Henry, his mind swimming, suddenly noticed the four open coffins that lay on the scaffold’s edge. They were made of rough pine and were unplaned and resinous. The girl’s mouth was open and her face, that had been pale, was now red and distorted. Tears ran down her cheeks as Botting took her by a pinioned elbow and led her onto the planks at the platform’s centre. That centre was a trapdoor and it creaked under their weight. The girl was shaking and gasping as Botting positioned her under the beam at the platform’s far end. Once she was in place Botting took a cotton bag from his pocket and pulled it over her hair so that it looked like a hat. She screamed at his touch and tried to twist away from him, but the Reverend Cotton put a hand on her arm as the hangman took the rope from her shoulders and clambered up the ladder. He was heavy and the rungs creaked alarmingly. He slotted the small spliced eye over one of the big black butcher’s hooks, then climbed awkwardly back down, red-faced and breathing hard. “I need an assistant, don’t I?” he grumbled. “Ain’t fair. Man always has an assistant. Don’t fidget, missy! Go like a Christian!” He looked the girl in the eyes as he pulled the noose down around her head. He tightened the slip knot under her left ear, then gave the rope a small jerk as if to satisfy himself that it would take her weight. She gasped at the jerk, then screamed because Botting had his hands on her hair. “Keep still, girl!” he snarled, then pulled down the white cotton bag so that it covered her face.
She screamed. “I want to see!”
Sir Henry closed his eyes.
“For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday,” the Ordinary had raised his voice so he could be heard above the crowd’s seething din. The second prisoner, the highwayman, was on the scaffold now and Botting stood him beside the girl, crammed the bag on his head and climbed the ladder to fix the rope. “O teach us to number our days,” the priest read in a singsong voice, “that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
“Amen,” Sir Henry said fervently, too fervently.
“Here,” Logan nudged Sir Henry whose eyes were still closed and held out a flask. “Good brandy. Smuggled.”
The highwayman had flowers in his buttonhole. He bowed to the crowd that cheered him, but his bravado was forced for Sir Henry could see the man’s leg trembling and his bound hands twitching. “Head up, darling,” he told the girl beside him.
Children were in the crowd. One girl, she could not have been a day over six years of age, sat on her father’s shoulders and sucked her thumb. The crowd cheered each arriving prisoner. A group of sailors with long tarred pigtails shouted at Botting to pull down the girl’s dress. “Show us her bubbies, Jemmy! Go on, flop ‘em out!”
“Be over soon,” the highwayman told the girl, “you and I’ll be with the angels, girl.”
“I didn’t steal anything!” the girl wailed.
“Admit your guilt! Confess your sins!” The Reverend Cotton urged the four prisoners who were all now lined on the trapdoor. The girl was furthest from Sir Henry and she was shaking. All four had cotton bags over their faces and all had nooses about their necks. “Go to God with a clean breast!” the Ordinary urged them. “Cleanse your conscience, abase yourselves before God!”
“Go on, Jemmy!” a sailor called, “strip the frow’s frock off!”
The crowd shouted for silence, hoping there would be some final words.
“I did nothing!” the girl screamed.
“Go to hell, you fat bastard,” one of the murderers snarled at the Ordinary.
“See you in hell, Cotton!” the highwayman called to the priest.
“Now, Botting!” The Sheriff wanted it done quickly and Botting scuttled to the back of the scaffold where he stooped and hauled a wooden bolt the size of a rolling pin from a plank. Sir Henry tensed himself, but nothing happened.
“The bolt,” Logan explained softly, “is merely a locking device. He has to go below to release the trap.”
Sir Henry said nothing. He shrank aside as Botting brushed past him to go down the stairs at the back of the pavilion. Only the four condemned and the Ordinary were now out in the sunlight. Doctor Cotton stood between the coffins, well clear of the trapdoor. “For when thou art angry all our days are gone,” he chanted, “we bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told.”
“Fat bastard, Cotton!” The highwayman shouted. The girl was swaying and under the thin cotton that hid her face Sir Henry could see her mouth was opening and closing. The hangman had vanished under the platform and was clambering through the beams that supported the scaffold to reach a rope that pulled out the baulk of timber that supported the trapdoor.
“Turn thee again, O Lord!” The Reverend Cotton had raised one hand to the heavens and his voice to the skies, “at the last and be gracious unto thy servants.”
Botting jerked the rope and the timber shifted, but did not slide all the way. Sir Henry, unaware that he was holding his breath, saw the trapdoor twitch. The girl sobbed and her legs gave way so that she collapsed on the still closed trapdoor. The crowd uttered a collective yelp that died away when they realised the bodies had not dropped, then Botting gave the rope an almighty heave and the timber shifted and the trapdoor swung down to let the four bodies fall. It was a short drop, only five or six feet, and it killed none of them. “It was quicker when they used the cart at Tyburn,” Logan said, leaning forward, “but we get more Morris this way.”
Sir Henry did not need to ask what Logan meant. The four were twitching, jerking and twisting. They were doing the Morris dance of the scaffold, the hempen measure, the dying capers that came from the stifling, killing, throttling struggles of the doomed. Botting, hidden down in the scaffold’s well, leaped aside as the girl’s bowels released themselves. Sir Henry saw none of it for his eyes were closed, and he did not even open his eyes when the crowd cheered itself hoarse because Botting, using the highwayman’s pinioned elbows as a stirrup, climbed up to squat like a black toad on the man’s shoulders to hasten his dying. The highwayman had paid Botting so he would die more quickly and Botting was keeping faith with the bribe.
“Behold, I show you a mystery,” the Ordinary ignored the grinning Botting who clung like a monstrous hump on the dying man’s back. “We shall not all sleep,” the Reverend Cotton intoned, “but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”
“There’s the first one gone,” Logan said as Botting clambered down from the corpse’s back, “and I’ve got a mortal appetite now, by God, I have an appetite!”
Three of the four still danced, but ever more feebly. The dead highwayman swung with canted head as Botting hauled on the girl’s ankles. Sir Henry smelt dung, human dung, and he could suddenly take no more of the spectacle and so he stumbled down the scaffold steps into the cool, dark stone shelter of the Lodge. He vomited there, then gasped for breath and waited, listening to the crowd and to the creak of the scaffold’s timbers, until it was time to go for breakfast.
For devilled kidneys. It was a tradition.

Suggestions for Further Reading.

Book Title: THE TRIPLE TREE, Newgate, Tyburn and Old Bailey
Author: Donald Rumbelow
You have to hunt for this book in the second-hand market, which is a pity, because Donald Rumbelow, as well as being a considerable historian of crime, writes engagingly and accessibly. This is popular history - a look at capital punishment when it was one of the most popular spectacles in town.

Author: edited by Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert
I found this book to be extremely useful.

Book Title: THE HISTORY OF CRICKET, From the Weald to the World
Author: Peter Wynne Thomas
I've already had queries about Rider Sandman's cricketing background in Gallows Thief , so this is one eminently readable and well-illustrated history of the sport. It covers cricket from its very obscure beginnings (some scoundrel is now proposing it began as a French sport!) to the present, so the material on the early nineteenth century is scanty.

Book Title: THE HANGING TREE, Execution and the English People, 1770-1868
Author: V. A. C. Gatrell
This is a scholarly account of popular attitudes towards capital punishment in early modern England and Wales - not Scotland, because the law was (and remains) different there. It's a splendid book which combines meticulous history with a fine indignation against the vast sea of injustice which lay behind the gallows.

Book Title: START OF PLAY, Cricket and Culture in Eighteenth Century England
Author: David Underdown
This is an enthusiastic and scholarly look at the earliest cricket clubs in (mainly) southern England, and is splendid on the aristocratic patronage of the sport and what that meant for the game. This book was my main source for the game that Sandman would have played

Author: Peter Ackroyd
This is a recent book, more discursive than the others. It is more like a series of essays

Author: Francis Sheppard
A very good 'formal' history.

Author: Simon Rae
The subtitle of this book says everything you need to know; 'A History of Skulduggery, Sharp Practice and Downright Cheating in the Noble Game'. Much of the book, of course, concerns matters which occurred long after Rider Sandman had left the game, but there is plenty of splendid material to show what the poor man is up against

Author: Stephen Inwood
A 'formal' history, very good book.

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