Thursday 28 June 2012

Taking the Lives of Others, by K. M. Grant

One sentence in a work in progress can take hours of research.  My sentence reads: 'The executed don't pay for rope, more's the pity.'  Then panic.  In 1794, is this true?

In medieval times, the executed's family paid for the faggots for burning. I have seen one of the bills -   I think it was Thomas Cranmer's (1489-1556), he who was executed by Mary for 'refusing' the pope.  You'll remember that Cranmer had previously signed a recantation of his reforming ideals, and put the hand that signed those recantations into the flames first.  To burn properly, he required more faggots than the executioner had bargained for, so extra faggots were added to the pyre and the invoice.  In the illustrations, everybody seems to be sitting very close.  I hope the onlookers got at least a little bit singed.

But did anybody ever pay for rope?  And if so, did they still pay in 1794?  Dig dig dig goes the novelist.  Tick tick tick goes the clock.   One sentence, almost three days' work.  Well, I say work, but for me, research is real pleasure and writing is the work.  So, three days' pleasure investigating a truly horrible subject, the more fascinatingly horrible the more I read.  In an earlier blog, I wrote about the execution of my ancestor Francis Towneley, who was hung, drawn and quartered for his Jacobite support.  Physical horror.  I wasn't really prepared for the mental horror these new researches uncovered.  Yes, there's worse than a good clean evisceration and a head kept in a basket on the dining room table.

Executioners, so I learned from 'The Executioner:  His Place in English Society' (Robins, 1964) have always been reviled.  In England, you might be awarded damages for being mistaken for a hangman.  In Spain, the executioner's fee was thrown for fear of contamination through direct physical contact, and their house was painted red.  Not only that, after the garrotting (the Spanish method of choice - there were special machines called, unsurprisingly, 'garrots') the executioner was himself always arrested, tried and acquitted because he'd committed murder 'by virtue of my office'.  Weird how justice works.  But what about this.   Since being an executioner was seldom a career of choice, you could have your own capital sentence rescinded if you volunteered to hang others.  Thus, so Robin (p.235) tells us, 'in the seventeenth century a man named Derrick was sentenced to death but pardoned and employed to hang twenty-three others'.  Then there's this story, which really got to me:

'In the days of Charles !!, a father and his two sons were tried at Derby Assizes for horse-stealing.  All were found guilty, but the bench of judges offered to pardon any one of them who would consent to hang the other two.  The offer was first made to the father, who violently refused it.  The elder son was then asked if he would kill his father and brother to save himself, but he also declined.  The offer was, however, accepted by the younger brother, John, who apparently showed a certain aptitude for this work for he was eventually appointed to the post of hangman for Derby and a few neighbouring counties, holding this office to a very old age' (pp. 235-6).

Now, the father and older son may have been rotters.  As a form of final redemption, they may have begged the younger son to do the deed to save himself.  But to show an 'aptitude' and carrying on to a 'very old age'?  John!  For shame!

Executioners were a mixed crew:  some showed more than John's 'aptitude':  they enjoyed the work.  Take Mississippi's Jimmy Thompson, for example, who swapped the career of highway robber for that of state executioner, taking 'great delight in travelling about the state killing people in his portable electric chair at $100 a head'; or Richard Brandon, a London bigamist, who 'prepared for his calling at a young age by decapitating cats and dogs'.  Those not so keen often took to the bottle, though even without the bottle, no eighteenth century felon wanted to be topped by John Thrift, whose work, drunk or sober, was so 'sloppy and inefficient' that he often required 'two or three blows of the axe' to finish the job.

Enough!  And where's the answer to my initial question?  The answer is no, in 1794 the executed didn't pay for his or her own rope.  It's not absolutely clear who did pay, but I expect the executioner did out of his salary (£40 a year in the early 1700s).   He could then sell the rope as a souvenir or, for a small fee, display it in the pub.

At the end of my researches, I read the following, which gave me a jolt:  'In England today, according to evidence given before the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, the average fee paid [to] the hangman is £10' (p.239).  The piece was written in 1964 - that's after my birth.  Perhaps it was supposed to be comforting to learn that by this time the rope was burned immediately after the corpse was cut down, but somehow it wasn't.

See how one sentence can lead to a lot of hanging about in unsavoury company?  You're not alone in wondering why I don't just leave the beastly thing out.

Robin, Gerald D. (1964) The Executioner: His Place in English Society, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep 1964) pp 234-253


Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Very harrowing! I admire your dedication to your research. Thankfully I haven't yet had to look into capital punishment.

Stroppy Author said...

I know just what you mean, Katie. I had to research what would happen to a murderer/embezzler traitor in 16th century Venice - and the answer is something pretty grim! The way the stuff was written about at the time is almost as harrowing as the content.

Mark Burgess said...

Interesting post! It is the casual attitude to cruelty (of any sort) I find most difficult.

Also, this from Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811):
HANGMAN'S WAGES. Thirteen pence halfpenny; which, according to the vulgar tradition, was thus allotted: one shilling for the executioner, and three halfpence for the rope,--N. B. This refers to former times; the hangmen of the present day having, like other artificers, raised their prices. The true state of this matter is, that a Scottish mark was the fee allowed for an execution, and the value of that piece was settled by a proclamation of James I. at thirteen pence halfpenny.

adele said...

Grim and ghastly! Thanks so much...found it fascinating. I'm about to embark on Hilary Mantel's A PLACE OF GREATER SAFTEY and am already dreading all that guillotining...

Sue Bursztynski said...

What a fascinating, if grim, bit of research! The closest I've come is looking up information about a lot of serial killers for my children's book on true crime. I got to the point where I was desperate to find a crime story that didn't involve horrible murders and asked friends for suggestions. My poor editor was even worse off than I was. I at least had a choice of stories to tell. ;-)

Mary Hooper said...

Ooh, what a facinating post. But I can't see how you ever get anything written! Sometimes I'm glad I'm just a writer and not a historian.