A short drop

The Execution Bell, named in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons as “The Bells of Old Bailey“, now on display in St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate used to be rung around midnight outside the condemned cell.

The St. Sepulchre’s clerk would travel across the street through a tunnel, to stand outside the cells of the condemned before their hanging at Newgate Prison.

[L]ondon merchant tailor John Dowe paid the parish £50 to buy a handbell on the condition that it would be rung to mark the execution of a prisoner at the nearby gallows at Newgate.

John ‘Half-Hanged’ Smith also survived his own execution on 24th December 1705, at Tyburn, surviving after he was suspended by the rope for 18 minutes, he was cut down from the gallows. However, the experience did not deter him from returning to a life of burglary and being sentenced to death again shortly afterwards. His second execution was cancelled due to legal complications, and Smith was eventually transported to Virginia for a third offence.

Execution in England for most crimes was once the short drop. Using a short rope the accused was slowly strangled, hanging using little or no drop was effectively universal up to 1872.

The prisoner could be suspended by a variety of means, from the back of a cart or a ladder. Where a person was dragged off the tail of the cart they usually got only a few inches of actual drop. It was not unusual for the relatives and friends of prisoners to hang on their legs to shorten their suffering.

On 24th November 1740, William Duell, aged 16, was convicted of rape. He was found to be alive while being prepared for dissection at Barber-Surgeon’s Hall. He was returned to Newgate that night. The sentence later commuted to transportation, but he may not have survived the voyage.

Hanging when carried out with little or no drop does not cause instant death, neither does it cause severe physical damage to the neck, as the forces exerted are far lower, but rather it squeezes the life out of the person over a period of time due to constriction of the neck.

On 22nd March 1819, Mary Green had a remarkable survival. Hanged for using counterfeit banknotes, she awoke after her body had been released for burial. She is believed to have changed her name and moved to Nova Scotia.

In some cases, the accused, usually the young and healthy, managed to survive their ordeal, even after leaving the person on the rope for one hour that had become a normal practice by 1760.

The case of Patrick O’Bryan is certainly an odd one. One might think that public short drop hanging would be a deterrent to crime. One might think that having survived hanging one would reform rather than face the same fate again. Not so with Mr O’Bryan. He was hanged the first time in 1686 for highway robbery committed on the outskirts of Gloucester. His body was claimed by friends and carried to one of their homes, where he was seen to be breathing. A surgeon bled him and in time he made a full recovery. His friends entreated him to start a new life and offered to assist him financially to do so. For a time O’Bryan kept his promise to them but could not resist the temptation to return to his old habits. About a year later he met the man who he held responsible for his first conviction. This person was shocked to see him, having thought he was dead. O’Bryan first shot the man and then drew a dagger and stabbed him to death. Two years would pass before he was arrested on the confession evidence of one of his gang who was waiting to be hanged at Bedford.

O’Bryan was seized at his lodgings in Little Suffolk Street, near the Haymarket in London and committed to Newgate. He was returned to Salisbury for trial at the next Assizes. He confessed his crimes and was hanged there on Tuesday, the 30th April, 1689. Afterwards, he was hanged in chains near the spot where the murder had been committed.

Twenty-three-year-old Thomas Reynolds was hanged at Tyburn on the 26th July 1736, having been convicted of crimes under the Black Acts and of pulling down Ledbury Turnpike in Herefordshire. His co-defendant, James Bayliss was reprieved. Bayliss’ wife was given money by Reynolds to purchase a coffin and shroud for him, which she did. He was taken down and placed in the coffin and taken by his friends for burial. A woman asked to see his body so the lid of the coffin was removed and it was seen that Reynolds was still breathing. His friends, concerned that the authorities should discover that he was not dead and try to hang him again, carried the coffin along the Oxford Road. They found a surgeon who bled him and he was given brandy and sack to try and revive him. Nobody would take the coffin into their house for fear of prosecution and in due course, Reynolds expired and was buried by the Oxford road.

A macabre experiment was performed on highwayman William Gordon who was hanged at Tyburn on the 27th April 1733. Mr Abraham Chovett was a Demonstrator in Anatomy and had carried out experiments on dogs by making an incision in the windpipe prior to hanging them. He told Gordon about them and left him a small knife. After attending chapel on his final morning he made an incision in his throat. Two surgeons who were in Newgate attended him and partially sewed up the wound. Gordon told the Ordinary that he had cut himself by accident. So as not to delay the execution, the four men were to hang that day, William Gordon, James Ward, William Keyes and William Norman were loaded into the cart for the journey to Tyburn. It was observed that the last three died quite quickly but that Gordon was still alive after 45 minutes. His body was taken to a house in Edgware Road where Mr Chovot bled him. He was able to open his mouth and groan but died soon afterwards. It was opined that had he been cut down five minutes sooner he might have survived.

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