William Makepeace Thackeray.

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get up so early in the morning, it is best to have an
hour or two of sleep, or wait and go to bed afterwards at
the end of the day's work. That fowl is extraordinarily
tough the wing, even, is as hard as a board ; a slight
disappointment, for there is nothing else for breakfast.
* Will any gentleman have some sherry and soda-water
before he sets out ? It clears the brains famously.'
Thus primed, the party sets out. The coachman has
dropped asleep on the box, and wakes up wildly as the
hall-door opens. It is just four o'clock.

About this very time they are waking up poor

pshaw ! who is for a cigar ? X does not smoke

himself; but vows and protests, in the kindest way in
the world, that he does not care in the least for the new

drab-silk linings in his carriage. Z , who smokes,

mounts, however, the box. c Drive to Snow Hill,' says
the owner of the chariot. The policemen, who are the
only people in the street, and are standing by, look
knowing they know what it means well enough.

How cool and clean the streets look, as the carriage
startles the echoes that have been asleep in the corners
all night. Somebody has been sweeping the pavements
clean in the night-time surely ; they would not soil a
lady's white satin shoes, they are so dry and neat. There

is not a cloud or a breath in the air, except Z 's

cigar, which whiffs off, and soars straight upwards in
volumes of white pure smoke. The trees in the squares
look bright and green as bright as leaves in the country
in June. We who keep late hours don't know the
beauty of London air and verdure ; in the early morning
they are delightful the most fresh and lively companions
possible. But they cannot bear the crowd and the


bustle of mid-day. You don't know them then they
are no longer the same things. We have come to
Gray's Inn ; there is actually dew upon the grass in the
gardens ; and the windows of the stout old red houses
are all in a flame.

As we enter Holborn the town grows more animated ;
and there are already twice as many people in the streets
as you see at mid-day in a German Residenz or an
English provincial town. The ginshop keepers have
many of them taken their shutters down, and many
persons are issuing from them pipe in hand. Down they
go along the broad bright street, their blue shadows
marching after them ; for they are all bound the same
way, and are bent like us upon seeing the hanging.

It is twenty minutes past four as we pass St.
Sepulchre's : by this time many hundred people are in
the street, and many more are coming up Snow Hill.
Before us lies Newgate Prison ; but something a great
deal more awful to look at, which seizes the eye at
once, and makes the heart beat, is

There it stands black and ready, jutting out from
a little door in the prison. As you see it, you feel a
kind of dumb electric shock, which causes one to start a
little, and give a sort of gasp for breath. The shock is
over in a second ; and presently you examine the object
before you with a certain feeling of complacent curiosity.
At least, such was the effect that the gallows produced
upon the writer, who is trying to set down all his


feelings as they occurred, and not to exaggerate them
at all.

After the gallows-shock had subsided, we went down
into the crowd, which was very numerous, but not dense
as yet. It was evident that the day's business had not
begun. People sauntered up, and formed groups, and
talked ; the new-comers asking those who seemed
habitues of the place about former executions ; and did
the victim hang with his face towards the clock or
towards Ludgate Hill ? and had he the rope round his
neck when he came on the scaffold, or was it put on by

Jack Ketch afterwards ? and had Lord W taken a

window, and which was he ? I may mention the noble
Marquis's name, as he was not at the exhibition. A

pseudo W was pointed out in an opposite window,

towards whom all the people in our neighbourhood
looked eagerly, and with great respect too. The mob
seemed to have no sort of ill-will against him, but
sympathy and admiration. This noble lord's personal
courage and strength have won the plebs over to him.
Perhaps his exploits against policemen have occasioned
some of this popularity ; for the mob hate them, as
children the schoolmaster.

Throughout the whole four hours, however, the mob
was extraordinarily gentle and good-humoured. At first
we had leisure to talk to the people about us ; and I

recommend X 's brother senators of both sides of

the House to see more of this same people and to
appreciate them better. Honourable Members are
battling and struggling in the House ; shouting, yelling,
crowing, hear-hearing, pooh-poohing, making speeches
of three columns, and gaining ' great Conservative
triumphs,' or ' signal successes of the Reform cause,' as
the case may be. Three hundred and ten gentlemen of
good fortune, and able for the most part to quote
Horace, declare solemnly that unless Sir Robert comes
in, the nation is ruined. Three hundred and fifteen on


the other side swear by their great gods that the safety
of the empire depends upon Lord John ; and to this end
they quote Horace too. I declare that I have never
been in a great London crowd without thinking of what
they call the two ' great ' parties in England with wonder.
For which of the two great leaders do these people care, I
pray you ? When Lord Stanley withdrew his Irish Bill
the other night, were they in transports of joy, like
worthy persons who read the Globe and the Chronicle?
or when he beat the Ministers, were they wild with
delight, like honest gentlemen who read the Post and
the Times? Ask yonder ragged fellow, who has
evidently frequented debating-clubs, and speaks with
good sense and shrewd good-nature. He cares no more
for Lord John than he does for Sir Robert ; and, with
due respect be it said, would mind very little if both of
them were ushered out by Mr. Ketch, and took their
places under yonder black beam. What are the two
great parties to him, and those like him ? Sheer wind,
hollow humbug, absurd clap-traps ; a silly mummery of
dividing and debating, which does not in the least, how-
ever it may turn, affect his condition. It has been so
ever since the happy days when Whigs and Tories
began ; and a pretty pastime no doubt it is for both.
August parties, great balances of British freedom : are
not the two sides quite as active, and eager, and loud, as
at their very birth, and ready to fight for place as stoutly
as ever they fought before ? But lo ! in the meantime,
whilst you are jangling and brawling over the accounts,
Populus, whose estate you have administered while he
was an infant, and could not take care of himself
Populus has been growing and growing, till he is every
bit as wise as his guardians. Talk to our ragged friend.
He is not so polished, perhaps, as a member of the
* Oxford and Cambridge Club ; ' he has not been to
Eton ; and never read Horace in his life ; but he can
think just as soundly as the best of you ; he can speak


quite as strongly in his own rough way ; he has been
reading all sorts of books of late years, and gathered
together no little information. He is as good a man as
the common run of us ; and there are ten million more
men in' the country, as good as he ten million, for
whom we, in our infinite superiority, are acting as
guardians, and to whom, in our bounty, we give
exactly nothing. Put yourself in their position, worthy
sir. You and a hundred others find yourselves in some
lone place, where you set up a government. You take
a chief, as is natural ; he is the cheapest order-keeper in
the world. You establish half-a-dozen worthies, whose
families you say shall have the privilege to legislate for
you for ever ; half-a-dozen more, who shall be appointed
by a choice of thirty of the rest : and the other sixty,
who shall have no choice, vote, place, or privilege at all.
Honourable sir, suppose that you are one of the last
sixty : how will you feel, you who have intelligence,
passions, honest pride, as well as your neighbour ; how
will you feel towards your equals, in whose hands lie all
the power and all the property of the community ?
Would you love and honour them, tamely acquiesce in
their superiority, see their privileges, and go yourself
disregarded without a pang ? you are not a man if you
would. I am not talking of right or wrong, or debating
questions of government. But ask my friend there,
with the ragged elbows and no shirt, what he thinks ?
You have your party, Conservative or Whig, as it may
be. You believe that an aristocracy is an institution
necessary, beautiful, and virtuous. You are a gentleman,
in other words, and stick by your party.

And our friend with the elbows (the crowd is thicken-
ing hugely all this time) sticks by his. Talk to him of
Whig or Tory, he grins at them : of virtual representa-
tion, pish ! He is a democrat , and will stand by his
friends, as you by yours ; and they are twenty millions, his
friends, of whom a vast minority now, a majority a few


years hence, will be as good as you. In the meantime
we shall continue electing, and debating, and dividing,
and having every day new triumphs for the glorious
cause of Conservatism, or the glorious cause of Reform,


What is the meaning of this unconscionable republican
tirade a propos of a hanging ? Such feelings, I think,
must come across any man in a vast multitude like this.
What good sense and intelligence have most of the
people by whom you are surrounded ; how much sound
humour does one hear bandied about from one to
another ! A great number of coarse phrases are used,
that would make ladies in drawing-rooms blush ; but
the morals of the men are good and hearty. A raga-
muffin in the crowd (a powdery baker in a white
sheep's-wool cap) uses some indecent expression to a
woman near : there is an instant cry of shame, which
silences the man, and a dozen people are ready to give
the woman protection. The crowd has grown very
dense by this time, it is about six o'clock, and there is
great heaving, and pushing, and swaying to and fro ;
but round the women the men have formed a circle, and
keep them as much as possible out of the rush and
trample. In one of the houses, near us, a gallery has
been formed on the roof. Seats were here let, and a
number of persons of various degrees were occupying
them. Several tipsy dissolute-looking young men, of
the Dick Swiveller cast, were in this gallery. One was
lolling over the sunshiny tiles, with a fierce sodden face,
out of which came a pipe, and which was shaded by long
matted hair, and a hat cocked very much on one side.
This gentleman was one of a party which had evidently
not been to bed on Sunday night, but had passed it in
some of those delectable night-houses in the neighbour-
hood of Covent Garden. The debauch was not over
yet, and the women of the party were giggling, drink-


ing, and romping, as is the wont of those delicate
creatures ; sprawling here and there, and falling upon
the knees of one or other of the males. Their scarves
were off their shoulders, and you saw the sun shining
down upon the bare white flesh, and the shoulder-points
glittering like burning-glasses. The people about us
were very indignant at some of the proceedings of this
debauched crew, and at last raised up such a yell as
frightened them into shame, and they were more
orderly for the remainder of the day. The windows
of the shops opposite began to fill apace, and our before-
mentioned friend with ragged elbows pointed out a
celebrated fashionable character who occupied one of
them ; and, to our surprise, knew as much about him as
the Court journal or the Morning Post. Presently he
entertained us with a long and pretty accurate account

of the history of Lady , and indulged in a judicious

criticism upon her last work. I have met with many
a country gentleman who had not read half as many
books as this honest fellow, this shrewd protttaire in a
black shirt. The people about him took up and carried
on the conversation very knowingly, and were very little
behind him in point of information. It was just as
good a company as one meets on common occasions. I
was in a genteel crowd in one of the galleries at the
Queen's coronation ; indeed, in point of intelligence,
the democrats were quite equal to the aristocrats. How
many more such groups were there in this immense
multitude of nearly forty thousand, as some say ? How
many more such throughout the country ? I never yet,
as I said before, have been in an English mob without
the same feeling for the persons who composed it, and
without wonder at the vigorous orderly good sense and
intelligence of the people.

The character of the crowd was as yet, however,
quite festive. Jokes bandying about here and there, and
jolly laughs breaking out. Some men were endeavour-


ing to climb up a leaden pipe on one of the houses.
The landlord came out, and endeavoured with might
and main to pull them down. Many thousand eyes
turned upon this contest immediately. All sorts of
voices issued from the crowd, and uttered choice ex-
pressions of slang. When one of the men was pulled
down by the leg, the waves of this black mob-ocean
laughed innumerably ; when one fellow slipped away,
scrambled up the pipe, and made good his lodgment on
the shelf, we were all made happy, and encouraged him
by loud shouts of admiration. What is there so particu-
larly delightful in the spectacle of a man clambering up
a gas-pipe ? Why were we kept for a quarter of an hour
in deep interest gazing upon this remarkable scene ?
Indeed it is hard to say : a man does not know what a
fool he is until he tries ; or, at least, what mean follies
will amuse him. The other day I went to Astley's and
saw clown come in with a fool's-cap and pinafore, and
six small boys who represented his schoolfellows. To
them enters schoolmaster ; horses clown, and flogs him
hugely on the back part of his pinafore. I never read
anything in Swift, Boz, Rabelais, Fielding, Paul de
Kock, which delighted me so much as this sight, and
caused me to laugh so profoundly. And why ? What
is there so ridiculous in the sight of one miserably
rouged man beating another on the breech ? Tell us
where the fun lies in this and the before-mentioned
episode of the gas-pipe ? Vast, indeed, are the capacities
and ingenuities of the human soul that can find, in
incidents so wonderfully small, means of contemplation
and amusement.

Really the time passed away with extraordinary
quickness. A thousand things of the sort related here
came to amuse us. First the workmen knocking and
hammering at the scaffold, mysterious clattering of
blows was heard within it, and a ladder painted black
was carried round, and into the interior of the edifice by


a small side door. We all looked at this little ladder
and at each other things began to be very interesting.
Soon came a squad of policemen ; stalwart rosy-looking
men, saying much for City feeding ; well-dressed, well-
limbed, and of admirable good-humour. They paced
about the open space between the prison and the barriers
which kept in the crowd from the scaffold. The front
line, as far as I could see, was chiefly occupied by black-
guards and boys professional persons, no doubt, who
saluted the policemen on their appearance with a volley
of jokes and ribaldry. As far as I could judge from
faces, there were more blackguards of sixteen and
seventeen than of any maturer age ; stunted, sallow,
ill-grown lads, in ragged fustian, scowling about.
There were a considerable number of girls, too, of the
same age : one that Cruikshank and Boz might have
taken as a study for Nancy. The girl was a young
thief's mistress evidently ; if attacked, ready to reply
without a particle of modesty ; could give as good
ribaldry as she got ; made no secret (and there were
several inquiries) as to her profession and means of liveli-
hood. But with all this, there was something good
about the girl ; a sort of devil-may-care candour and
simplicity that one could not fail to see. Her answers
to some of the coarse questions put to her, were very
ready and good-humoured. She had a friend with her
of the same age and class, of whom she seemed to be
very fond, and who looked up to her for protection.
Both of these women had beautiful eyes. Devil-may-
care's were extraordinarily bright and blue, an admir-
ably fair complexion, and a large red mouth full of
white teeth. Au reste, ugly, stunted, thick-limbed, and
by no means a beauty. Her friend could not be more
than fifteen. They were not in rags, but had greasy
cotton shawls, and old faded rag-shop bonnets. I was
curious to look at them, having, in late fashionable
novels, read many accounts of such personages. Bah !


what figments these novelists tell us ! Box, who knows
life well, knows that his Miss Nancy is the most unreal
fantastical personage possible ; no more like a thief's
mistress than one of Gesner's shepherdesses resembles
a real country wench. He dare not tell the truth
concerning such young ladies. They have, no doubt,
virtues like other human creatures ; nay, their position
engenders virtues that are not called into exercise
among other women. But on these an honest painter
of human nature has no right to dwell ; not being able
to paint the whole portrait, he has no right to present
one or two favourable points as characterising the
whole ; and therefore, in fact, had better leave the
picture alone altogether. The new French literature
is essentially false and worthless from this very error
the writers giving us favourable pictures of monsters,
and (to say nothing of decency or morality) pictures
quite untrue to nature.

But yonder, glittering through the crowd in
Newgate Street see, the Sheriff's carriages are slowly
making their way. We have been here three hours !
Is it possible that they can have passed so soon ? Close
to the barriers where we are, the mob has become so
dense that it is with difficulty a man can keep his feet.
Each man, however, is very careful in protecting the
women, and all are full of jokes and good-humour. The
windows of the shops opposite are now pretty nearly
filled by the persons who hired them. Many young
dandies are there with moustaches and cigars ; some
quiet fat family-parties, of simple honest tradesmen and
their wives, as we fancy, who are looking on with the
greatest imaginable calmness, and sipping their tea.

Yonder is the sham Lord W , who is flinging

various articles among the crowd ; one of his companions,
a tall, burly man, with large moustaches, has provided
himself with a squirt, and is aspersing the mob with
brandy - and - water. Honest gentleman ! high-bred


aristocrat ! genuine lover of humour and wit ! I
would walk some miles to see thee on the treadmill, thee
and thy Mohawk crew !

We tried to get up a hiss against these ruffians, but
only had a trifling success ; the crowd did not seem to
think their offence very heinous ; and our friend, the
philosopher in the ragged elbows, who had remained near
us all the time, was not inspired with any such savage
disgust at the proceedings of certain notorious young
gentlemen, as I must confess fills my own particular
bosom. He only said, 'So-and-so is a lord, and they'll
let him off,' and then discoursed about Lord Ferrers
being hanged. The philosopher knew the history pretty
well, and so did most of the little knot of persons about
him, and it must be a gratifying thing for young gentle-
men to find that their actions are made the subject of
this kind of conversation.

Scarcely a word had been said about Courvoisier all
this time. We were all, as far as I could judge, in just
such a frame of mind as men are in when they are
squeezing at the pit-door of a play, or pushing for a
review or a Lord Mayor's show. We asked most of the
men who were near us, whether they had seen many
executions ? most of them had, the philosopher especi-
ally ; whether the sight of them did any good ? 4 For
the matter of that, no ; people did not care about them
at all ; nobody ever thought of it after a bit.' A
countryman, who had left his drove in Smithfield, said
the same thing ; he had seen a man hanged at York, and
spoke of the ceremony with perfect good sense, and in a
quiet sagacious way.

J. S , the famous wit, now dead, had, I recollect, a

good story upon the subject of executing, and of the
terror which the punishment inspires. After Thistle-
wood and his companions were hanged, their heads were
taken off, according to the sentence, and the executioner,
as he severed each, held it up to the crowd, in the proper


orthodox way, saying, * Here is the head of a traitor ! '
At the sight of the first ghastly head the people were
struck with terror, and a general expression of disgust
and fear broke from them. The second head was
looked at also with much interest, but the excitement
regarding the third head diminished. When the exe-
cutioner had come to the last of the heads, he lifted it
up, but, by some clumsiness, allowed it to drop. At this
the crowd yelled out, l Ah, Butter-fingers!' the excite-
ment had passed entirely away. The punishment had
grown to be a joke Butter-fingers was the word a
pretty commentary, indeed, upon the august nature of
public executions, and the awful majesty of the law.

It was past seven now ; the quarters rang and passed
away ; the crowd began to grow very eager and more
quiet, and we turned back every now and then and
looked at St. Sepulchre's clock. Half-an-hour, twenty-
five minutes. What is he doing now ? He has his
irons off by this time. A quarter : he's in the press-
room now, no doubt. Now at last we had come to
think about the man we were going to see hanged.
How slowly the clock crept over the last quarter !
Those who were able to turn round and see (for the
crowd was now extraordinarily dense) chronicled the
time, eight minutes, five minutes ; at last ding, dong,
dong, dong ! the bell is tolling the chimes of eight.

Between the writing of this line and the last, the pen
has been put down, as the reader may suppose, and the
person who is addressing him has gone through a pause
of no very pleasant thoughts and recollections. The
whole of the sickening, ghastly, wicked scene passes
before the eyes again ; and, indeed, it is an awful one to
see, and very hard and painful to describe.

As the clock began to strike, an immense sway and
movement swept over the whole of that vast dense
crowd. They were all uncovered directly, and a great


murmur arose, more awful, bizarre, and indescribable
than any sound I had ever before heard. Women and
children began to shriek horribly. I don't know
whether it was the bell I heard j but a dreadful quick
feverish kind of jangling noise mingled with the noise of
the people, and lasted for about two minutes. The
scaffold stood before us, tenantless and black ; the black
chain was hanging down ready from the beam. Nobody
came. * He has been respited,' some one said ; another
said, c He has killed himself in prison.'

Just then, from under the black prison-door, a pale
quiet head peered out. It was shockingly bright and
distinct ; it rose up directly, and a man in black appeared
on the scaffold, and was silently followed by about four
more dark figures. The first was a tall grave man : we
all knew who the second man was. * That's he that's he ! '
you heard the people say, as the devoted man came up.

I have seen a cast of the head since, but, indeed,
should never have known it. Courvoisier bore his
punishment like a man, and walked very firmly. He
was dressed in a new black suit, as it seemed : his shirt
was open. His arms were tied in front of him. He
opened his hands in a helpless kind of way, and clasped
them once or twice together. He turned his head here
and there, and looked about him for an instant with a
wild imploring look. His mouth was contracted into a
sort of pitiful smile. He went and placed himself at
once under the beam, with his face towards St.
Sepulchre's. The tall grave man in black twisted him
round swiftly in the other direction, and, drawing from
his pocket a night-cap, pulled it tight over the patient's

Online LibraryWilliam Makepeace ThackerayComplete works (Volume 22) → online text (page 8 of 31)