< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON  |  > next chapter >


[-99-]

CHAPTER XXXVI

THE EXECUTION.

FROM the moment that Bill Bolter had been removed from the condemned cell, after his trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of his wife, he preserved a sullen and moody silence.
    Two turnkeys sat up with him constantly, according to the rules of the prison; but be never made the slightest advances towards entering into conversation with them. The Chaplain was frequent in his attendance upon the convict; but no regard was paid to his religious consolations and exhortations of the reverend gentleman.
    The murderer ate his meals heartily, and enjoyed sound physical health: he was hale and strong, and might, in the common course of nature, have lived until a good old age.
    By day he sate, with folded arms, meditating upon his condition He scarcely repented of the numerous evil deeds of which he had been guilty: but he trembled at the idea of a future state!
    One night he had a horrid dream. He thought that the moment had arrived for his execution, and that he was standing upon the drop. Suddenly the board gave way beneath his feet - and he fell. An agonising feeling of the blood rushing with the the fury of a torrent and with a heat of molten lead up into his brain, seized upon him: his eyes shot sparks of fire; and in his ears there was a loud droning sound, like the moan of the ocean on a winter's night. This satiation, be fancied, lasted about two minutes - a short and insignificant space to those who feel no pain, but an age when passed in the endurance of agony the most intense. Then he died: and he thought that his spirit left his body with the last pulsation of the lungs, and was suddenly whirled downwards, with tearful rapidity, upon the wings of a hurricane. He felt himself in total darkness; and yet he had an idea that he was plunging precipitately into a fearful gulf, around the sides of which hideous monsters, immense serpents, formidable bats, and all kinds of slimy reptiles were climbing. At length he reached the bottom of the gulf; and then the faculty of sight was suddenly restored to him. At the same moment, he felt fires encircling him all around; and a horrible snake coiled itself about him. He was in the midst of a boundless lake of flame; and far as his eyes could reach, he beheld myriads of spirits all undergoing the same punishment -  writhing in quenchless fire, and girt by hideous serpents And he thought that neither himself nor those spirits which he beheld around, wore any shape which he could define; and yet he saw them [-100-] plainly - palpably. They had no heads - no limbs; and yet they were something more than shapeless trunks, - all naked and flesh-coloured, and unconsumed and indestructible amidst that burning lake, which had no end. In a few moments this dread scene changed, and all was again dark.  The  murderer fancied that he was now groping about in convulsive agonies upon the bank of a river, the stream of which was tepid and thick like b1ood. The bank was slimy and moist, and overgrown with huge osiers and dark weeds amidst which loathsome reptiles and enormous alligators were crowded together. And it was in this frightful place that the murderer was now spiritually groping his way, in total and coal-black darkness. At length he slipped down the slimy bank - and his feet touched the river, which he now knew to be of blood. He grasped convulsively at the osiers to save himself from falling into that horrible stream; a huge serpent sprang from the thicket, and coiled itself about his arms and neck ;- and at the same moment an enormous alligator rose from the river of blood, and seized him in the middle between its tremendous jaws. He uttered a fearful cry  -and awoke.
    This dream made a deep impression upon him. He believed that he had experienced a foretaste of Hell -of that hell, with all its horrors, in which he would he doomed for ever and ever - without hope, without end.
    And yet, by a strange idiosyncracy of conduct, he did not court the consolation if the clergyman: he breathed no prayer, gave no outward and visible sign of repentance: but continued in the same sullen state of reserve before noticed.
    Still after that dream, he dreaded to seek his bed at night. He was afraid of sleep; for when he closed his eyes in slumber, visions of hell, varied in a thousand horrible ways presented themselves to his mind.
    He never thought of his children: and once when the clergyman asked him if he would like to see them, he shook his bead impatiently.
    Death! he shuddered at the idea - and yet he never sought to escape from its presence by conversation or books. He sat moodily brooding upon death and what would probably occur hereafter, until he conjured up to his imagination all the phantasmagorical displays of demons, spectres, and posthumous horrors ever conceived by human mind.
    On another occasion - the Friday before the Monday in which he was executed - he dreamt of heaven. He thought that the moment the drop had fallen from beneath his feet, a brilliant light, such as he had never seen on earth, shone all around him :- the entire atmosphere was illuminated as with gold-dust in the rays of a powerful sun. And the sun and moon and stars all appeared of amazing size - immense orbs of lustrous and shining metal. He fancied that he winged his way upwards with a slow and steady motion, a genial warmth prevailing all around, and sweet odours delighting his senses. In this manner he soared on high until at length he passed sun, moon and stars, and beheld them all shining far, far beneath his feet. Presently the sounds of the most ravishing sacred music, accompanied by choral voices hymning to the praise of the Highest, fell upon his ear. His soul was enchanted by these notes of promise, of hope, and of love; and, raising his eyes, he beheld the shining palaces of heaven towering above vast and awe-inspiring piles of clouds. He reached a luminous avenue amidst those clouds, which led to the gates of paradise. He was about to enter upon that glorious and radiant path, when a sudden change came over the entire spirit of his dream; and in a moment he found himself dashing precipitately downwards, amidst darkness increasing in intensity, but through which the sun, moon, end planets might be seen, at immense distances, if a lurid and ominous red. Down - down be continned falling, until he was pitched with violence upon the moist and slimy bank of that river of tepid blood, whose margin was crowded with hideous reptiles, and whose depths swarmed with wide-mouthed alligators.
    Thus passed the murderer's time - dread meditations by day, and appalling dreams by night.
    Once he thought of committing suicide, and thus avoiding the ignominy of the scaffold. He had no shame; but he dreaded hanging on account of the pain - whereof he had experienced the dread sensations in his dreams. Besides, death is not quite so terrible when inflicted by one's own hand, as it is when dealt by another. He was, however, closely watched; and the only way in which he could have killed himself was by dashing the back of his head violently against the stone-wall. Then be reflected that he might not do this effectually; and so he abandoned the idea of self-destruction.
    On the last Sunday of his life he attended the Chapel. A condemned sermon was preached according to custom. The sacred fane was filled with elegantly dressed ladies - the wives, daughters and friends of the City authorities. The Clergyman enjoined the prisoner repentance, and concluded by assuring him that it was not even then too late to acknowledge his errors and save his soul. God would still forgive him!
   
If God could thus forgive him, - why could not Man? Oh! wherefore did that preacher confine his observations to the mercy of the Almighty? why did be not address a terrible lecture to bloodthirsty and avenging mortals? Of what use was the death of that sinner? Surely there is no moral example in a public execution? "There is," says the Legislature. We will see presently.
    Oh! why could not the life of that man - stained with crime and red with blood though it were -  have been spared, and he himself allowed to live to see the horror of his ways, and learn to admire virtue? He might have been locked up for the remainder of his existence: bars and bolts in English gaols are very strong; there was enough air for him to be allowed to breathe it ; and there was enough bread to have spared him a morsel at the expense of the state!
    We cannot give life : we have no right to take it away.
    On the Sunday afternoon, the murderer's children were taken to see him in the condemned cell. He had not asked for them, but the authorities considered it proper that they should take leave of him.
    The pour little innocents were dressed in the workhouse garb. The boy understood that his father was to be hanged on the following morning; and his grief was heart-rending. The little girl could not understand why her parent was in that gloomy place, nor what horrible fate awaited him ;- but she had an undefined and vague sense of peril and misfortune; and she cried also.
    The murderer kissed them, and told them to be good children ;- but he only thus conducted himself because he was ashamed to appear so unfeeling and brutal as he knew himself to be, in the presence [-101-] of the Ordinary, the Governor, the Sheriffs, and the ladies who were admitted to have a glimpse of him in his dungeon.

    * * * * * 

    The morning of the second Monday after the Sessions dawned.
    This was the one fixed by the Sheriffs for the execution of William Bolter, the murderer.
    At four o'clock on that fatal morning the huge black stage containing the drop, was wheeled out of a shed in the Press Yard, and stationed opposite the debtors' door of Newgate. A carpenter and his assistant then hastily fitted up the two perpendicular spars, and the one horizontal beam, which formed the gibbet.
    There were already several hundreds of persons collected to witness these preliminary arrangement.; and from that hour until eight o'clock multitudes continued pouring from every direction towards that spot - the focus of an all-absorbing interest.
    Man - that social, domestic, and intelligent animal, will leave his child crying in the cradle, his wife tossing upon a bed of pain and sickness, and his blind old parents to grope their way about in the dark, in order to be present at an exhibition of fellow creatures disgrace, agony, or death. And the law encourages this morbid taste in all countries termed civilised, - whether it be opposite the debtors door of Newgate, or around the guillotine erected at the Barriere Sant Jacques of Paris,- whether it be in the midst of ranks of soldiers, drawn up to witness the abominable infliction of the lash in the barracks of Charing Cross, or the buttons cut off a deserter's coat in the Place Vendome,- whether it be to see a malefactor broken on the wheel in the dominion of the tyrant who is called "Europe's Protestant Sovereign," or to behold the military execution of a great general at Madrid, - whether it be to hear an English judge in the nineteenth century, unblushingly condemn a man to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and his dissected corpse disposed of according to the will of our Sovereign Lady the Queen; or to witness some miserable peasant expire beneath the knout in the territories of the Czar.
    But the Law is vindictive, cowardly, mean, and ignorant. It is vindictive because its punishments are more severe than the offences, and because its officers descend to any dirtiness in order to obtain conviction. It is cowardly, because it cuts off from the world, with a rope or an axe, those men whose dispositions it fears to undertake to curb. It is mean, because it is all in favour of the wealthy, and reserves its thunders for the poor and obscure who have no powerful interest to protect them; and because itself originates nearly half the crimes which it punishes. And it is ignorant, because it erects the gibbet where it should rear the cross, - because it makes no allowance for the cool calculating individual who commits a crime, but takes into its consideration the case of the passionate man who assassinates his neighbour in a momentary and uncontrollable burst of rage, - thus forgetting that the former is the more likely one to be led by redaction to virtue, and that the latter is a demon subject to impulses which he can never subdue. 
    From an early hour a glittering light was seen through the small grated window above the debtors door; for the room. to which that door belongs is now the kitchen.
    These was something sinister and ominous in that oscillating glare, breaking through the mists of the cold December morning, and playing upon the black spars of the gibbet which stood high above the already dense but still increasing multitudes.
    Towards eight o'clock the crowd had congregated to such an extent that it moved and undulated like the stormy ocean. And, oh! what characters were collected around that jibbet. Every hideous den, every revolting hole - every abode of vice, squalor, and low debauchery, had vomited forth their horrible population. Women, with young children in their arms,- pickpockets of all ages, - swell-mobsmen,- prostitutes, thieves and villains of all degrees and descriptions, were gathered there on that fatal morning. 
    And amidst that multitude prevailed mirth, and laughter, and gaiety. Ribald language, obscene jokes, and filthy expressions, were heard around, even to the very foot of the gallows; and even at that early hour intoxication was depicted upon the countenances of several whom the law had invited thither to derive an example from the tragedy about to be enacted!
    Example, indeed! Listen to those shouts of laughter: they emanate from a group collected round a pickpocket only twelve years old, who is giving an account of how he robbed an elderly lady on the preceding evening. But, ah! what are those moans, accompanied with horrible oaths and imprecations? Two women fighting: they are tearing each other to pieces - and their husbands are backing them. In another direction, a simple-looking countryman suddenly discovers that his handkerchief and purse are gone. In a moment his hat is knocked over his eyes; and he himself is cuffed, and kicked, and pushed about in a most brutal manner.
    Near the scaffold the following conversation takes place:-
    "I wonder what the man who is going to be hanged is doing at this moment."
    It is now half-past seven. He is about receiving sacrament."
    "Well -  if I was he, I'd send the old parson to the devil, and pitch into the sheriff."
    "Yes - so would I. For my part, I should like to live such a life as Jack Sheppard or Dick Turpin did, even if I did get hanged at last."
    "There is something noble and exciting in the existence of a highwayman: and then - at last - what admiration on the part of the crowd  - what applause when be appears upon the drop!"
    "Yes. If this fellow Bolter bad contented himself with being a burglar, or had only murdered those who resisted him, I should have cheered him heartily; - but to kill his wife - there's something cowardly in that; and so I shall hiss him."
    "And so shall I."
    "A quarter to eight! The poor devil's minutes are pretty well numbered."
    "I wonder what he is about now."
    "The pinioning will begin directly, I dare say."
    "That must be the worst part."
    "Oh! no - not a bit of it. You may depend upon it that he is not half so miserable as we are inclined to think him. A man makes up his mind to die as well as to anything else. But what the devil noise is that?"
    "Oh! only some fool of a fellow singing a patter song about a man hanging, and imitating all the convulsions of the poor wretch. My eyes! how the people do laugh !"
    "Five minutes to eight! They won't be long now."
    At this moment the bell of Saint Sepulchre's [-102-] church began to toll the funeral knell - that same bell whose ominous sound had fallen upon the ears of the wretched murderer, where he lay concealed in the vault of the Old House.
    The laughing - the joking - the singing - and the fighting now suddenly subsided; and every eye was turned towards the scaffold. The most breathless curiosity prevailed.
    Suddenly the entrance of the debtor's door was darkened by a human form; the executioner hastily ascended the steps, and appeared upon the scaffold.
    He was followed by the Ordinary in his black-gown, walking with slow and measured pace along, and reading the funeral service - while the bell of Saint Sepulchre continued its deep, solemn, and foreboding death-note.
    The criminal came next.
    His elbows were bound to his sides, and his wrists fastened together with thin cord. He had on a decent suit of clothes, supplied by the generosity of Tom the Cracksman; and on his head was a white night-cap.
    The moment be appeared upon the scaffold, a tremendous shout arose from the thousands and thousands of spectators assembled to witness his punishment.
    He cast a hurried and anxious glance around him.
    The large open space opposite the northern wing of Newgate seemed literally paved with human faces, which were continued down the Old Bailey and Giltspur Street, as far as he could see. The houses facing the prison were crammed with life -  roof and window.
    It seemed as if he were posted upon a rock in the midst of an ocean of people.
    Ten thousand pairs of eyes were concentrated in him. All was animation and interest, as if a grand national spectacle was about to take place.
    "Hats off!" was the universal cry: the multitudes were determined to lose nothing! The cheapness of an amusement augments the pleasure derived from it. We wonder that the government has never attempted to realise funds by charging a penny a-piece for admission to behold the execution at Newgate In such a country as England, where even religion is made a compulsory matter of taxation, the dues collected at executions would form a fund calculated to thrive bravely.
    While the executioner was occupied in fixing the halter round the convict's neck, the Ordinary commenced that portion of the Burial Service, which begins thus: - 
    "Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower: he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay."
   
The executioner having attached the rope, and drawn the nightcap over the criminal's face, disappeared from the scaffold, and went beneath the platform to draw the bolt that sustained the drop.
    "In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord who —"
   
Here the drop fell.
    A dreadful convulsion appeared to pass through the murderer's frame; and for nearly a minute his hands moved nervously up and down. Perhaps during those fifty seconds, the horrors of his dream were realised, and he felt the blood rushing with the fury of a torrent and with the heat of molten lead up into his brain; perhaps his eyes shot sparks of fire; and in his ears was a loud droning sound like the moan of the ocean on a winter's night!
   
But the convulsive movement of the hands soon ceased, and the murderer hung a lifeless corpse.
    The crowd retained its post till nine o'clock, when the body was cut down: then did that vast assemblage of persons, of both sexes and all ages, begin to disperse.
    The public-houses in the Old Bailey and the immediate neighbourhood drove a roaring trade throughout that day.

< previous chapter <  |  THE MYSTERIES OF LONDON  |  > next chapter >