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Response to Review no. 677

I am grateful both to James Sharpe for his comments on my recent monograph, and for the opportunity to respond to them. I will attempt to answer all or most of my reviewer’s queries and comments by explaining how and why this project took shape; in so doing I hope both to clarify my arguments and address some of the concerns raised by Professor Sharpe in regard to my sources – in particular, the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confessions and Dying Words of the Malefactors Executed at Tyburn (henceforth, the Ordinary’s Account).

Tyburn’s Martyrs seeks to provide a cultural history of execution in England in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The early modern public execution is a large and complex subject, not to mention one that elicits strong emotions and views, and which often speak more to the preconceptions and the needs of the present rather than those of the past. This study aims both to situate the gallows within a larger context of contemporary legal, social and religious practices and beliefs, and to open up a window onto the lives and words of ordinary men and women whose voices would otherwise be lost to the historical record.

The book began as a doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto on the printed literature of crime in late 17th- and 18th-century England. My interest in 18th-century criminals dates back a little further still, to a master’s paper on Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin (the latter the subject of a recent book by my reviewer). I first encountered Sheppard and Turpin while reading Frederick Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England, where I discovered that an early 19th-century Royal Commission had complained that most working-class children ‘had never heard even of St. Paul, Moses, or Solomon, [but] were very well instructed as to the life, deeds and character of Dick Turpin, the street-robber [sic], and especially of Jack Sheppard, the thief and gaol-breaker’. (1) As my reading material may suggest, I was originally attracted to this area of research because I was looking for working-class, or popular, resistance. However, I gradually came to realise that such resistance was unlikely to be articulated in secular language, and certainly not in 19th-century Marxian terms. But I was long in overcoming my, largely unexamined, conviction that religious discourse was not only dull but inherently superstructural, a manifestation of ‘false consciousness’. Thus I at first simply assumed that condemned men and women who were reported as singing psalms and reciting scripture at their executions died penitent, reinforcing the norms of their society as they were ritually reintegrated into the body public. I skimmed impatiently through the prayers and psalms sung and recited at the gallows and printed in ‘last dying speeches’, and flipped quickly through the Ordinary (or chaplain) of Newgate’s sermons and the improving literature and correspondence attached to his Account.

I eventually realised, however, that just as I could not read about crime without understanding how the criminal law functioned, I was also unable to write about execution without attempting to penetrate the moral and religious discourse within which criminal accounts were inevitably framed. This was a task at once as simple as familiarising myself with the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and as difficult as locating language and practice within a contemporary matrix of assumptions and beliefs. So I went back and read the scaffold prayers and looked up the scriptural references, and soldiered through the Ordinary’s sermons. To my surprise, I found that a significant proportion of the prayers of malefactors served either to assert their innocence or to minimise their crimes. Many of the psalms, far from being conventionally penitential, inveighed against false witnesses and called down the wrath of God on the heads of persecutors. Even the Ordinary’s sermons were not always the textual white noise I had expected: on occasion they provided the impetus for heated debates between the condemned and the prison chaplain, both in Newgate and at the gallows itself.

The plot thickened in the spring of 2000, when I was doing research at the Huntington Library, benefiting from many stimulating conversations with other scholars and drawing inspiration from recent (and older) work on religion, mentalities and print culture in the early modern period. I didn’t just read about providence, but experienced it firsthand when, two weeks into my two-month stay, I exhausted all the printed criminal material relating to ordinary felons. I turned my attention perforce to the trial and execution accounts of state criminals, or traitors – a group I had previously excluded in the interests of keeping my topic manageable. Although I was not surprised to see that many political prisoners self-consciously modelled their words and behaviour on that of earlier Protestant martyrs, who themselves emulated scriptural exemplars, I was struck both by the parallels between the behaviour of the traitors (or martyrs) and ordinary criminals (especially ‘game’ ones), and the degree to which their speeches and gestures seemed to derive from the same template. Such men and women may have been adhering to a script, but it was by no means exclusively penitent or normative. This led me to apply some of the criteria and conventions of the good (or bad) death to the question of how execution actually functioned, or perhaps failed to function, as a ‘theatre of punishment’ – to borrow a term from my reviewer’s seminal Past & Present article.

For much of the time that I researched this book, I enjoyed a luxury accorded to very few successful British academics – that of time. I began to read deeply, in ever-widening circles, from the criminal accounts outwards – attempting to put the words and actions of the condemned in not only a larger legal, but religious, literary and political context. The notion that we should approach the past on its own terms, as a ‘different country’ with its own language and frame of reference, is of course no new or unique insight; nonetheless, my attempt to locate the 17th- and 18th-century execution within its larger mental universe was the work of many years, spanning a period in which relatively little of my material was microfilmed to one in which much, or even most, of it was available digitally within seconds.

But I now come to the inevitable question of my sources: my extensive – if far from exclusive – use of the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account. Traditionally dismissed by antiquarians and early 20th-century scholars as a vulgar catchpenny sheet, this source remained largely untapped until the appearance of several pioneering articles by Peter Linebaugh, work which was followed up by an excellent article on trials and criminal accounts by Michael Harris and an important book by Lincoln Faller. (2) In the early and mid-1990s, when I began my research, only a small proportion of Ordinary’s Accounts were microfilmed, and the original copies were scattered over the English-speaking world. It was only after the late 1990s that more of the Ordinary’s Account began to be filmed and later digitised; more recently still, the Old Bailey Online has begun to digitise the Ordinary’s Account from 1690. This is an extremely valuable resource, but as yet (29 July 2008), the collection is incomplete. I have located and taken notes on 60 Ordinary’s Accounts published between 1690 and 1772 not yet included on the site, and it is likely that there are still more extant Accounts that have escaped my notice

Yet if the Account has finally arrived as a source, this is a relatively recent development. My initial attempts to publish work drawing on the Ordinary’s Account tended to meet with resistance – expressed politely at conferences and seminars (e.g., ‘interesting … but isn’t that a religious source?’), and more forcefully by anonymous readers (e.g., ‘too scripted/normative’). Yet at the same time, the Old Bailey Proceedings, which had originated as a sister publication of the Account, was widely accepted as a reliable record, as were modern editions of the various late 18th-century ‘Newgate Calendars’ that had relied extensively – and often exclusively – on the Account as a source. Ironically, in one respect at least, my crime bibliography shortened as I turned my attention ad fontes: the more Ordinary’s Accounts I read, copied, transcribed and filmed, the more I realised that not only many later collections of trials and criminal lives, but also many contemporary pamphlet and newspaper accounts of executions had in fact been plagiarised wholesale from the lowly Newgate prison chaplain.

If nothing else, the Ordinary’s Account is a very rich source: it was published about six times a years for almost a century, from the mid 1670s to the early 1770s and, in the 1730s and 1740s, often with appendices and in several parts. The Account was of course mediated (but so are indictments), and formulaic (but so are newspapers), and partisan (but so are pamphlets). And even its formulae and conventions (the ‘script’, as it were) are themselves instructive, speaking to the preoccupations and assumptions of contemporaries and revealing cultural fault-lines and flashpoints. The most divisive issues were soteriological – how could you know when you were saved, if you had repented enough, if God had forgiven you? How could you prove your cause was just, your prosecutors perjured, and your own sins negligible in comparison to those of your enemies? How could your salvation be demonstrated (or debunked), in words, gestures and deeds?

Interestingly, the Ordinary’s Account‘s own internal conventions meant that the Ordinary was if anything liable to play up the opposition and bad behaviour of prisoners, both in order to underscore his own diligence and exertions, and the eventual (and hard-won) improvement of his charges. Even here, however, it was in the Ordinary’s best interests to be cautious: the various men who officiated as Newgate chaplain were frequently criticised, not so much for harassing the condemned, but for being peremptory and slack. As a result, Newgate Ordinaries frequently used the Account to advertise both their exacting standards and their doubts as to whether the condemned were mistaking insufficient deathbed repentance for genuine saving penitence. And not only did interviews between the Ordinary and the condemned generally constitute ‘a dialogue rather than a normative and univocal or baldly catechetical text’ (p. 124), but market pressures tended to favour the inclusion rather than the suppression of the letters, papers and words of the condemned – particularly for much of the 1730s and 40s, when the Ordinary had ceded editorial control of his paper to the printer John Applebee.

Even accounts of those who withheld confessions from the Ordinary can be instructive. A good example is that of the particularly badly-behaved highwayman Paul Lewis (mentioned in Sharpe’s review), who scandalised the Ordinary by rattling his irons, singing verses from the Beggar’s Opera, and insisting that he was the ‘real McHeath’ [sic] (p. 93). Yet, interestingly, Lewis loudly denied the imputation that he was an atheist, regaling prison visitors with the claim that ‘I am a Christian every inch of me’(3), arguing vociferously with the Ordinary over his choice of and interpretation of texts in sermon, and accusing him of being a ‘papist’ and a Jacobite. In the end, Lewis played off the Ordinary against several visiting clergymen, successfully parlaying a promise of a full confession (never delivered) into the privilege of being admitted into the sacrament.

Indeed, the Ordinary’s Account, and similar publications, offered not only a fuller and more particularised account of malefactors’ behaviour than that provided by satirical or hostile pamphleteers, but arguably a less distorted one as well. The caricature of the ‘game’ criminal as presented by such commentators as Mandeville, Swift and Fielding originated in large part as an attempt to dismiss the courage of such men as empty bravado, the product of pride and impudence, brutishness and ignorance (‘natural courage’), atheism (‘Roman courage’), and especially alcohol (‘cordial courage’). Indeed, as I have argued, game criminals were troublesome not so much because they rejected the conventions of dying well, but because they attempted to appropriate this penitential script, broadcasting their cheerfulness and assurance of salvation: many of those who proclaimed their innocence nonetheless declared (however disingenuously) to be willing and eager to die for the sins of their lives (which were, they typically added, common to all men). Whether the courage and composure of common criminals and traitors alike was ‘Christian’ and ‘decent’ or ‘false’ was the subject of much debate, often breaking down along sectarian or political lines and, over the course of the 18th century, increasingly along class lines as well, as a growing chorus of respectable commentators characterised ordinary malefactors (and here I have benefited from the important work of Randal McGowen and V. A. C. Gatrell on sympathy, or ‘squeamishness’, respectively) as lacking the requisite sensibility for true, ‘rational’ ‘Christian courage’.

None of this is say that the average 17th- or 18th-century highwayman or street robber was particularly pious; rather, the courage, the cheerfulness and the theatrical gestures of the ‘game’ criminal tapped into a rich if often largely symbolic language of righteousness, which resonated with both martyrological conventions and the rituals of marriage and carnival. I hoped, by exploring this religious symbolism and its larger applications more fully, to build on the important insights in regard to the carnivalesque and the counter-theatre of the gallows by Linebaugh, Gatrell and Thomas Laqueur. For, as the work of early modern cultural scholars such Natalie Zemon Davis, Robert Scribner and Martin Ingram has demonstrated, not only could carnival restore as well as invert an imagined social order, but its profane manifestations cannot be understood without reference to the sacred. Indeed, the line between the two was not clearly drawn in the early modern period, especially in a space so liminal as the gallows – hence, my emphasis in the book to the prevalence, and popular persistence of the belief in execution as a literal preview of ‘God’s tribunal’.

In short, then, my book is particularly concerned with situating the execution of ordinary criminals within a larger cultural framework of a 17th- and 18th-century ars moriendi. The good death was both a common goal and a politically charged and potentially subversive act. Most of the conventions of dying well seem normative enough in theory: confessing one’s sins, forgiving one’s enemies, assuming responsibility for one’s own misfortunes, expressing one’s willingness to die. In practice, however, expressions of charity frequently doubled as assertions of innocence, with the condemned ostentatiously forgiving perjured prosecution witnesses and unjust prosecutors. Similarly, many of those who at the gallows enumerated their past sins to illustrate the dangers of the ‘slippery slope’ also seized the opportunity to introduce various extenuating circumstances and personal misfortunes, and to remind spectators that all men and women were sinners. And, in the context of world in which death was a debt all men owed to nature as a result of original sin, professions of willingness to die could not only shade into martyrology but social commentary – especially if, like Paul Lewis, you sang ‘if gold from the law can take out the sting…'(p. 93).

I will conclude by responding briefly to my reviewer’s last queries about the scope and focus of the book. I focussed on print sources not only because they were accessible, but because they were rich in volume and detail. I was primarily interested in the representation of crime: crime interested (or exercised) people; and I was interested in what about it was interesting (or frightening) and why. In this context, print sources were often more forthcoming than official ones: typically, for instance, the rulings of the Court of Alderman in regard to Newgate and Tyburn would be reported in more detail in the periodical press than in the Corporation of London records. For similar reasons – the richness of the sources in the metropolis – my study focuses primarily on London, the publishing as well as the crime capital. Sharpe has also raised the issue of secondary punishments as a topic that warrants much more attention. The paper trail is of course much harder to tease out in non-capital sanctions: this is where hard archival research is obviously indispensable. While the subject is obviously an important, and still a relatively understudied one, I have in this study (for similar reasons to those outlined above) confined myself only to those accounts of whippings or the pillory which attracted the attention of contemporary commentators, newspapers and diarists. I do however attempt to locate attitudes towards lesser crimes within a larger constellation of attitudes towards sin and criminality, particularly in Chapter 3.

Much interesting and important work has been done by my reviewer, and others, on crime in the early 17th century, and there is still much work to be done – perhaps the forthcoming study of London underworlds and mentalities in the 16th and 17th centuries by Paul Griffiths will go a long way towards filling this gap. I look forward to reading this – not to mention a substantial study on execution in provincial England (perhaps by my reviewer?). I am certainly much indebted both to the devotional and martyrological literature of this earlier period, as well as to the important work of such scholars as Peter Lake, Malcolm Gaskill and Alexandra Walsham on crime, print culture and their relationship to providential beliefs. The period covered by this book – the late 17th and 18th century – is, however, unique in that it witnessed the rise and fall of a vast body of criminal literature aimed at a broad audience, and concerned largely with lives, behaviour and words of relatively ordinary malefactors. While of course there had long been murder sheets and execution accounts (richly explored by Peter Lake, Malcolm Gaskill and Frances Dolan), the sheer volume of such publications increased dramatically after the Restoration; in part, this was related to the rise of the newspaper and the burgeoning public sphere, but it also grew out of the much publicised and partisan treason trials and executions of the 1660s, 1670s, and 1680s, in which the old wounds of the Civil War were reopened and old competing truth claims retried in the press and the very public forum of the gallows.


  1. F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, ed. E. Hobsbawm (London, 1969), 142. Back to (1)
  2. P. Linebaugh, ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’, in D. Hay et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in 18th-Century England (London, 1975); ‘The Ordinary of Newgate and His Account‘, in Crime in England, 1550-1800, ed. J. S. Cockburn (Princeton, 1977); M. Harris, ‘Trials and Criminal Biographies: A Case Study in Distribution’, in Sale and Distribution of Books from 1700, ed. M. Harris and R. Myers (Oxford, 1982); L. B. Faller, Turned to Account: the Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late 17th- and Early 18th-Century England (Cambridge, 1987) Back to (2)
  3. Ordinary’s Account 4 May 1763, p. 32 Back to (3)