Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - At a Newgate Flogging

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THE hoar-frosted stones of Newgate never show to such grim advantage as on a dull, deadly cold morning, with the strong old prison enveloped in a leaden mist, that might pass as its natural breath, emitted from the several spiked jaws that are its portals. Such a morning was it when, apprised of the fact that a brace of brutal garottcrs were to be brought up for the lash, I presented my card at the door of Newgate. I had very nearly run against the common hangman, coming from the direction of Smithfield, with the brim of his hat pulled down to the level of his bleary eyes, and with a comforter enveloping his visage to the very nostrils of his clubby nose. Not that on account of his horrible profession Mr Calcraft is shy of public recognition - not in the least. But, as before stated, the morning was raw cold, and our hangman is verging towards seventy years old. After all, I was not quite sure it was he; but, while I was wondering, he turned abruptly in at the first doorway from Newgate Street, where there was a servant of the prison cleaning the steps.
    He turned about, and, recognising his friend, at once exclaimed - "What, Ben, old chap, how are you ?" and he dropped the scrubbing-brush to shake the hand that had slipped the fatal bolt a hundred times with as much cordiality as though he expected him, and was mighty glad to see him. Undoubtedly he was expected. He had come to [-160-] work. Calcraft's profession has its branches, and flogging is reckoned amongst them. Flogging was the job that had brought him to Newgate this morning.
    Not the administering of certain stripes with a birch rod to the backs of a batch of incorrigible little boys, but the application of the lash, the terrible "cat," to the sturdy shoulders of two most awful ruffians of the garotter breed. Since last May twelvemonths very many black sheep had been tried and sentenced at the Old Bailey, yet in all that year and a half not one had appeared so desperately bad but the appalling, the excruciating cat-o'-nine tails was deemed more than equal to his deserts. The fact is, the British public are not favourably disposed towards the lash, except in extreme cases.
    Well, the cases in question were extreme. Ruffian Number One had assaulted a lady in broad daylight  - at three o'clock in the afternoon, in fact - and, after partly strangling her, had seized her watch-chain, and tugged at it with such brutal determination, that his victim's throat was seriously lacerated. This promising young fellow, aged twenty-two, had been previously convicted, and his sentence was two years' hard labour and twenty-five lashes with the cat.
    But his iniquity became almost trivial when set beside that of which his brother garotter had been convicted. This scoundrel, named Regan, hailed from the "Mint," his hunting-ground being the Borough High Street and the awful courts that thread it. While in pursuit of his peculiar trade - the dark evenings had just set in, and doubtless Mr Regan was vigorous and all alive for the business - a female confederate had entrapped a wayfarer into the mouth of an alley; and while she was holding him in converse Regan, the [-161-] garrotter, pounced on him, and in two seconds had his murderous thumbs on the man's windpipe. Somehow, there was a struggle, and to make sure of his prey Mr Regan flung him down on the stones, and, to make surer still, kicked him about his defenceless head with his hobnailed boots. It wasn't of the least consequence to him where his iron-shod boot-sole alighted, so he kicked the poor wretch in the face as well, and knocked his eye out; thus when the wounded man was discovered the maltreated organ of sight was lying on the man's cheek. This was Regan ; and he being, though only twenty-seven, an old, old offender, he was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, and, in addition, to thirty lashes with the cat at the hands of the common hangman.
    It was quite an event at Newgate - an event that demanded the presence of the Under Sheriff at least, but, to his credit be it spoken, one of the Sheriffs, Mr Bennett, was there as well, despite his considerable age, the early hour, and the inclemency of the weather. It was a grave business, and it behoved every man in authority to be at his post. The governor was there, and several other gentlemen, and, more important than all, the doctor. Thirty lashes form an exceptionally severe flogging. Men have been known to die, in Russia, under an infliction of the knout; why not under the thong of the much-dreaded cat ? Oh, yes, the doctor was there, and I have no doubt that if Messrs. Lilley and Regan could have peeped in at the governor's office and seen the solemn faces of the gentlemen assembled, each with his soul sickening against the dreadful thing that every tick of the clock brought him closer to witnessing, they would indeed have quaked in their cowardly shoes.
    [-162-] Ten o'clock, and the prisoners were waiting. Through grim passages and corridors and across the yard where the gallows is erected, and so into a bleak hall, bare of furniture except for a table and a form or two, and over against the whitewashed wall on the other side the whipping apparatus - an odd looking contrivance with holes to clasp the wrists in, and secure hampering for the feet at the ankles. There were the warders, and there was the executioner, and there too, was one of the wretches whose yells would presently make the roof resound.
    I was glad to learn that this was Regan; there was such an expression of terror in his villainous face. A brawny-shouldered, well-nurtured ruffian, with a bullet-head, and a chin deeper and broader than his forehead; a muscular young fellow, standing five feet eight or so. His shirt had been hung loosely over his back, and, as soon as the witnesses had settled in their places, he was revealed with his upper part bare, and the hangman led him to the whipping-post. He was in a mortal fright, but he said nothing: he only shivered while his bare back became what is known as "gooseflesh," and uttered a muffled snort, like that of a horse with his head in a nose-bag. It was coming close now! The only way to nerve myself to the task of keeping my eyes towards the back was to picture beast and bully Regan in the dark court, overhauling the pockets of the senseless man, bruised, and blinded of one of his precious eyes.
    Then the executioner produced his cat-o'-nine tails. I think that everybody saw the terrible implement but Regan, and his eyes were closed in dreadful expectation. I was heartily glad that he did not see it. Had it been otherwise, I should not be surprised if, in his ignorance of how much a little whip could make [-163-] a back smart, he had turned his villainous gaze on it and laughed in the hangman's face. I don't recollect whether Mrs Joe Gargery's "tickler," which was the terror of Pip's life, was minutely described in "Great Expectations;" but if it was nothing more formidable than this article, all I can say is that Pip was very easily scared. Judging from appearances, I would ask for nothing more than the handle of a hearthbrush, and a penn'orth of string of the thickness of a tobacco-pipe, and I would wager to produce that dreadful scourge's exact counterpart. The handle was about two feet in length, and the "tails" about fourteen inches. The hangman spat on his hand, and "swish!" Mr Regan had tasted cat.
    He did not writhe or yell, or utter any agonised exclamation; but I was not in the least surprised, for really there was nothing to yell about. His back was marked - that is to say, you could see where the tails had struck the skin, marking it pinkish ; but that was all. Swish again; but the hangman might as well have flogged a brick wall for any cry of pain that was elicited from the sturdy young garotter. Swish, swish, till ten more lashes had been administered, and then Mr Regan was flogged out of his determination to "take it dumb," and he growled out "Oh!" If his punishment had been limited to ten lashes - no uncommon sentence - the culprit might afterwards have bragged to his comrades of his utter contempt of the Newgate cat. After the fourteenth or fifteenth, however, the punishment began to tell, and Regan cried "Whooo!" and "Ah!" but it was behind his clenched teeth, and in not at all a loud tone.
    About the eighteenth lash he turned his face to the hangman, and said, in tones of reproach rather than [-164-] entreaty, "Lay it on fair, will yer?" and then planted his forehead against the board to take the other twelve. When he had received them, from under his left shoulder-blade to the top of his right there was an ugly beer-coloured patch about six inches in width but he was not made to bleed at all, and when his limbs were released he needed no assistance in putting his shirt on. Reckoning from the moment Mr Calcraft spat in his hand until now, exactly a minute and three-quarters had elapsed.
    I will not so minutely particularise the flogging of the second man. He was by no means so ill-looking a ruffian as the first ; he came up smiling, and pulled off his shirt as though about to engage in a bout of boxing, of the result of which he was tolerably confident. It was at once evident that he was a fellow of entirely different mettle from the garotter of the "Mint." He was not in such good condition, and his skin was of more flimsy texture and his ribs much more visible - such ribs as in the old brutal days of naval flogging the cat would have scratched bare with about three strokes of its claws. But three, four, five, and the young fellow did not halloo; he writhed and winced, but he uttered no sound that might be heard in any front room, the noise proceeding from the back. Like his predecessor, he begged of the hangman to "lay it on fair, and at every stroke he arched his back and twisted his head backwards with a sudden jerk, as though to look at the smarting place. He didn't yell, but he suffered so much more than Regan that the hangman's heart was touched, and he feelingly apologised for his share in the business.
    "You know, exclaimed Calcraft, pausing between lashes fourteen and fifteen to utter the humane re-[-165-]monstrance, "you are hurting yourself much more than I am hurting you; you should keep still, and not wriggle about so."
    After which friendly hint he cut at him again, and speedily brought the disgusting spectacle to an end.
    It was the first time I had seen the lash applied to the back of a fellow creature. I. hope never again to witness such a performance ; but at the same time I am bound to say that it would have given me much more satisfaction if, at least in one case - that of Master Regan - I had been able to turn my back upon Newgate with more pity for the flogged, and less contempt for the flogger and his implement. I have no idea who prescribes the size, weight, and pain-inflicting properties of the Newgate cat, or whether the judge who passes the awful sentence ever asks to sec the instrument with which it is to be carried out. If neither of their Lordships has done so yet, I would humbly advise them to make the inspection without delay. The very cat with which the ruffian Regan, and after him Lily, were lashed, might, without fear of shocking them, be laid before them, and that just as it was when its frightful work was done, since its every tail was clean and white, and as free from crimson stain, as when the hangman brought it out of his cupboard.
    I hope that I am not one who delights in the utmost rigour of the law; indeed, it is my opinion, that, as a rule, transgressors are too severely punished but, at the same time, I have no hesitation in declaring that it would be a salutory amendment if the Newgate cat were made at least twice as formidable as it is at present. Undoubtedly it inflicts considerable pain - the discoloured backs and subdued moans and mouthings [-166-] of the two men I had seen were sufficient proof of that; but more than this is needed. It is generally understood that the application of knotted thongs to the bare human back is productive of a spell of agony so intolerable that the mere threatening of it acts as a check against men of such devilish inclinations even as Regan. The law and the people tolerate the use of the dreadful cat-o'nine-tails only because they believe that the worst of criminals, such as garotters, are more afraid of it than of Portland slavery or solitary confinement; and, supposing the lash to be real and not make-believe, the conjecture is correct. It is a fact that Regan, with all his brute strength and barbarous recklessness, dreaded Saturday morning so much that several days before he pretended illness, and would have been content almost to live on physic for a time, if he could have shirked the punishment which he had heard was so terrible. But can any one believe that the brute who could stamp on a fellow-creature's head for the sake of the few shillings in his pocket, was tormented through the day, and haunted through the night, by imagining the sort of scourge that the hangman whipped him with? There can be no doubt that his horrified mind pictured an instrument many times more severe, and it is an injustice to those who rely on the law for protection that his tormenting bodings were not amply justified by the result.
    It is to be hoped that the convict Regan will be the last who will be able in truth to tell his comrades, that the much-dreaded lash - at Newgate at least - means nothing more than a whip of string which does not hurt more than a birch rod, wielded by a man whose arms have grown feeble with age, who commiserates those on whom it is his duty to carry out the law's [-167-] just sentences, and who furnishes them with valuable hints against their hurting themselves more than in the tenderness of his heart he would.
    It may be as well to state that immediately after the appearance of the above facts, in the columns of the Daily Telegraph, an inquiry was instituted, and the old unsatisfactory condition of things at once amended. The next gang of garotters sentenced to the lash found a very different reception than that given to Messrs Regan and Co. In place of the feeble old hangman, there stood two stalwart young prison warders, and the "cat" was one that could scratch in real earnest.

source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874