In what felt like week 9,000 of lockdown I was contacted by a fellow Sunderland Uni graduate (Bridget Hamilton, a radio production MA) with an intriguing request. She was starting a podcast tracing the veracity of outlandish family rumours – you know the sort of thing “our great, great uncle was related to the royals” or “you know your great aunty Maggie on your mother’s side actually did time.” Well Bridget has a contributor whose family have long believed that a distant relative was a hangman stationed at South Shields Town Hall. In her research my blog turned up, I needn’t have bothered with the PhD as the blog has been the source of every interesting avenue that I have gone done since commencing my studies. Anyway, never hearing of such a thing I was instantly intrigued and I have enjoyed doing the research on hangmen so much that I thought it was worth a blog or two. As for the veracity of the South Shields Hangman, you’ll have to tune in to find out…
The era which Bridget had asked me to look at was the late 1800s and for several reasons that is a fascinating time for the role of the hangman, but I thought first what might be useful was a potted history of their historical role prior to that period. So, here goes.
One of the first things you discover when looking at executions prior to the mid nineteenth century is just how widely disliked hangmen were. In his study of punishment and the ‘evolution of repression’, Pieter Spiereneburg noted a remarkably widespread societal hatred towards the hangman across Western Europe. This often extended to both physical and social ostracization, with hangmen commonly living without the city walls or in what one study has marked as ‘dishonourable urban spaces.’
Numerous studies attest to the widespread distrust and general loathing towards executioners, here are just a few choice quotes.
‘The state’s executioner had never been an admired figure. The crowds at public executions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries almost universally derided the executioner, and there are many examples of the depth of popular fear and loathing for the common hangman from England, Germany, France, Holland and other countries.’
‘No matter the background of executioners, and the diminution of their infuence: the stigma of the ‘dishonourable trade’ remained.’
‘Since the middle ages they had been universally reviled as cold-blooded killers for pay’
There were occasional exceptions to this rule though, Spierenburg noting the preferential treatment often given to hangmen in the Ottoman Empire and also, in his fascinating study of a c16th century hangman in Nurmeburg (Meister Frantz Schmidtz – see map above), Joel Harrington noted how despite his exclusion from trade circles, Schmidz was begrudgingly admired by the local residents for the effectiveness with which he did his job. There is reason for this, as Harrington notes, in a time of remarkably limited means of law enforcement,
“The skilled executioner was….the ruling authorities’ most indispensable means of easing their subjects’ fears of lawless attacks…in a society where everyone knew that the majority of dangerous criminals would never be caught or punished.’
So what was the case in the North East of England. Well, early records of Newcastle indicate that the task of executing felons was a similarly lowly role. An indication of the lowliness of the status is implied in the role’s description, as recorded in John Brand’s c18th history of the region.
Among the inferior officers appointed by the corporation of Newcaſtle, occurs one with the ſingular title of “whipper and hougher,” who is alſo the executioner of felons. He is called “hougher,” from the power he is ſaid to have had formerly of cutting the houghs, or finews of the houghs, of ſwine, that were found infeſting the ſtreets of the town.
In many senses then the hangman of Newcastle was the butcher of man and beast. We know very little of these early hangmen, although the Common Council Books from the period offer us a brief glimpse. In an entry for September 25th 1705, the Council books record the following
“Alexander Robinſon appointed in the room of Thomas Cooper, to be “common executioner in hanging of felons, putting perſons in the pillory, clearing the ſtreets of ſwine, and to doe and perform all other matters belonging to the place and duty of the hougher.”
Similarly, in their 1827 history of the region Eneas and McKenzie noted that the present Whipper and Hougher was one “Thomas Bearman” and he received “annual salary of £4, 6s. 8d exclusive of fees.” It would appear Bearman was performing the role in 1822 as he is recorded as such in a marriage announcement in the Durham Country Advertiser, which has him as ‘whipper and hougher to the Corporation of that town (Newcastle)’ in 1822.
Eighteenth-Century newspaper reports of executions in the region are limited at best and rarely, if ever, pay attention to the hangman, other than to note his obvious attendance. As such there is very little biographical detail provided and the hangman is only ever referred to in passing as at the 1752 execution of Owen (Ewen) MacDonald, more commonly remembered for his apparent revival on the dissection table, The Newcastle Courant noting of MacDonald that “at the gallows his behaviour in endeavouring to throw the executioner from off the ladder was unbecoming one just on the brink of eternity.”
Interestingly the one other notable case in this period where the hangman is featured in the records, is at the execution of the infamous triple hanging of William Winter (of Winter’s Gibbet infamy), Eleanor Clarke and Jane Clarke. In this instance the name of the executioner is provided, one William Gardener. What warrants this detail you might well ask, well it is almost certainly because the executioner was a fellow prisoner – tried at the same assizes for sheep stealing and sentenced to death. It would appear that Gardiner’s sentence was transmuted to transportation in return for taking the role of hangman. Although to the modern reader this sounds remarkable and absurd, when we understand the context in which the role was viewed it because easier to understand. Who would want the job of a hangman, a criminal. This was not an unheard of practice and indeed continued into the c19th, It is also arguably indicative of two things. Firstly, it gives an indication of just why this role was so widely disliked, and secondly it attests to the very limited and uncontrolled way in which the punishment was administered.
One other detail we can be relatively sure of is that they all would have been male. Indeed, in nearly all studies of Western European countries across this period it is universally acknowledged that there were no female executioners. The only exceptions that I am aware of are Elizabeth Sugrue (“Lady Betty”) who performed the duty in Roscommon, Ireland, at the turn of the c18th. Also in their excellent study of Criminal Bodies and Magic, Davies and Matteoni noted how the widow of a Danish executioner, Caspar Frederik Dirks, applied for the position following his death an appointment which would have made her ‘the only female executioner in Europe’, but the request was refused. If anyone knows of others I would be fascinated to hear about them.
So, there we have it, a necessary but widely derided job that carried with it little reward and potential social ostracization. I have racked my brains for a modern-day comparison and settled with this – in many ways, the early English hangmen were Football Association referees and as an Arsenal fan I know a few that I’d happily see go to the gallows.
In the next few blogs I will look at the job of hangman across the nineteenth century; a period during which the character and social standing of the role underwent a profound change.
P.S. In reaching for my copy of Joel Harrington’s excellent The Faithful Executioner I realised that it was actually my late Supervisor’s, Peter Rushton, copy. I know this as he would always sign his books, no doubt as he so frequently leant them to ten a penny thieves like me. Thanks Pete and I’ll return it if we ever meet again.
One of the many maddening things about doing a PhD is how reading for fun goes out of the window. After the first year I became consumed with a nagging guilt of ‘is this really relevant to the PhD’ whenever I stopped to read something that was technically off topic. The irony is that you nearly always find that reading away from the subject produces unexpected lines of thought or much needed moments of mental clarity, but that’s for another time. One such book that lived by my bedside, untouched for the entirety of my PhD, was Vic Gatrell’s (the author of the definitive work on execution) masterful tome on Sex and Satire in c18th London. At 800 odd pages it is not so much a book as a beautifully illustrated dumbbell and you’ll need good wrist muscles as it is hard to put down. I am 100 pages in and the book is a joyful account of the low and high life of London in the eighteenth-century, told through satirical prints (to appreciate just how low chapter titles include ‘Bums, Farts and Other Transgressions”). Having just handed my first book to the Editors, I now know just how expensive a single colour illustration is so lord knows what this lavishly detailed and generously peppered production cost to make. Needless to say it is packed full of great stories and biting satirical prints in an era in which titillation was a great money maker. Highly recommended read.
I think this is my first ever Instagram account recommendation and I have my wife to thank. Although I am technically the Dr, she is by far the more well-read and sophisticated of the two of us and it was her who showed me that Instagram does actually consist of more than just smug millennials photographing their food/themselves. One such account is Public Domain Review, an online journal ‘dedicated to the exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas.’ Given my above recommended read, I thought this would be a great accompanying suggestion and as if we had planned it together, their latest entry is a detailed piece on visual responses to the Execution of Louis XVI, a fascinating read.
 Petrus Cornelis Spierenburg, The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression : From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 16.
 Andrew Spicer and Jane L. Stevens Crawshaw, The Place of the Social Margins, 1350-1750 (Taylor & Francis, 2016), 207.
 Greg T. Smith, ‘“I Could Hang Anything You Can Bring Before Me”: England’s Willing Executioners in 1883’, in Penal Practice and Culture, 1500-1900: Punishing the English, 4th ed. (Palgrave MacMillian, 2004), 287,
 Owen Davies and Francesca Matteoni, Executing Magic in the Modern Era: Criminal Bodies and the Gallows in Popular Medicine (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2017), 7.
 Joel F. Harrington, ‘Down but Not Out: A Case Study in Early Modern Social Mobility From the Margins’ in Social Margins.
 Joel F. Harrington, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death in the Sixteenth Century (Vintage, 2014), 14.
 John Brand, The History and Antiquities of the Town and Country of the Town of Newcastle Upon Tyne, Including an Account of the Coal-Trade of That Place and Embellished with Engryved Views. (London: B. White, 1789), 365
 Brand, 365. A testament to the problem with swine can be seen in c18th reports regarding Ballast Hills Burial Ground (A subject of previous blogs). “At a common council held the fourth day of April, 1785, the inhabitants of the East Ballast Hills petitioned, setting forth, that numbers of swine were daily observed working and grubbing among the graves there, near the petitioners’ dwellinghouses, to the great annoyance of the petitioners, and of many others who pass and repass that way.’ https://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/newcastle-historical-account/pp370-414
 Eneas Mackenzie, A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and COunty of Newcastle Upon Tyne, (Gateshead: Mackenzie & Dent, 1827) 627.
 Durham County Advertiser, June 22nd, 1822.
 Newcastle Courant, September 30th, 1752.
 Davies and Matteoni, Executing Magic, 7.