Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 21 - A Moral Lesson from the Old Bailey

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ON February 22, 1864, there was offered to the population of London a gratuitous spectacle such as they had not witnessed for more than a quarter of a century; a sensation scene surpassing all that has been done at all the theatres, and all that has been written by all the novelists. It was therefore absolutely necessary that this Home Correspondent should behold it with his own eyes. This is his excuse, if he needs one, for going to see five of his fellow-creatures hurried from life to death, and he mentions it now for good and al], having applied it so constantly, both before and since, to his own conscience, that he doubts whether it will bear further handling. 
And yet, if a public execution be a Moral Lesson, as I am assured it is, why should not I have derived my benefit from it as well as others, so excellent an opportunity being afforded ? Or why should the most sensitive reader be otherwise than gratified by the recital of what was intended to do him, in common with his fellows, good? Its object was, as I understand, to deter from the crime of murder, and unless the sensitive reader has already committed that offence (which happens occasionally to persons of his temperament), I trust I may not be writing for him in vain.
    A week before this unwonted exhibition took place, the rents of rooms in the vicinity of the Old Bailey, albeit by no means a fashionable locality, rose fabulously high; and although I did hear of a gentleman of great intelligence hiring a convenient chamber at an ordinary rate for six months, with no other object than to occupy it upon the night of the 21st, I am inclined to think he met with some householder exceptionally simple. Ten days, at all events, before the elevating ceremony took place, [-275-] I can certify that he would have miserably failed in making any such bargain. Being unaccustomed to commercial transactions, and also excessively ashamed of the particular one I had in contemplation, I called on a friend in the City, and took him out with me, upon the pretence of wishing to know the exact spot at which these unfortunate creatures were to suffer: since to have secured a back-room even at a reasonable rate, looking out the wrong way, would have been foolish, although, I confess, a time did subsequently arrive when I should have been glad had such a mistake been made.
    My City friend was very communicative, but grossly ignorant, so that it was difficult to make him understand why I stepped into a shop opposite Newgate, and put the same inquiry to the owner which he himself had so particularly answered.
    "Upon the roof of the jail, at the north-west angle by those spikes," had been the information [-276-] given by my friend, as to the precise locality of the exhibition.
    "Across the road there, in the street, and just outside the Debtor's Door," was the reply of the shopman, accompanied by much appropriate action, and even enthusiasm.
    "Oh, indeed," said I, feigning unconcern; "and I daresay that people let out rooms from which to see it, don't they ?"
    "I should just think they did," observed the citizen rather contemptuously. "Why, they often clears their yearly rent in a single night."
    "Do you happen to know of any good room, yourself ?" inquired I carelessly.
    "Good room !" answered the householder, snapping like a pike at a trimmer; "the most excellent apartments upstairs in all the Bailey."
    "Then let us see them," said I cheerfully, with a nod to my unconscious friend, as though I would say, "This is rather curious, so far as it goes."
    "He thinks you're in earnest," whispered my [-277-] companion craftily. "He thinks you are one of those morbid wretches who actually do come to see such scenes."
    The householder led the way up a wretched staircase, so dark that I did not know a dog had flown at me, until it caught hold of my trousers; and of such an evil odour as I have not often smelled.
    "My good friend," cried I, "it appears to me that your house is small; I don't think that it is worth while to trouble you. Five other gentlemen wish to occupy the apartment as well as myself."
    "There is accommodation for sixteen in my first-floor room here," exclaimed the proprietor; "there have been twenty-two before now, and never were more comfortable."
    He threw open a door on the left hand, and a stream of light, accompanied with very had air, revealed to us the apartment in question. A moderate-sized bedroom, anything but clean, with one window, unopened, as I should think, since [-278-] the last execution in the autumn; and so incrusted with dirt, that it might have looked out upon Lake Windermere, for all that I could see to the contrary.
    "You can have this to-day for ten guineas," continued the proprietor, with the air of a man bestowing a favour; "to-morrow, it will be eleven; and so on until the 21st, when I shall charge forty pounds for it. The next day, after nine o'clock, it will be only seven-and-sixpence a week. There's a gentleman in the Guards about it now; he's pretty sure to take it, but I told him it couldn't be kept. I think he's in the Blues."
    "If he takes it," thought I, looking round upon the wretched apartment, "he will be most certainly in the blues;" and then I thought of those gentlemen in the same regiment, mentioned by Thomas Ingoldsby - "Lieutenant Tregooze and Sir Carnaby Jenks of the Blues" - who, in company with Lord Tomnoddy, "all came to see a man die in his shoes," at that very place where I now stood. What a wicked, heartless crew I had [-279-] often thought them to be; they drank champagne (dear! dear!) ; they played at cards, perhaps (if one can conceive such a thing!); and then fell asleep before the fatal hoar, and never beheld what they had come to see.
    "Sir Carnaby Jenks of the Blues," murmured I, reflectively, flattening my nose against the windowpane, and making upon it thereby a little circle quite transparent.
    "Ay," observed the proprietor with animation, "that was the very name of the gentleman, now I recollect. He will be sure to take this room, if you object."
    "Very well," said I, with a mendacity scarcely inferior to his own, "I'll think about it, and let you know."
    Then my commercial friend arid I, in deadly terror of the dog, descended the stairs, and emerged with thankfulness into what was, by comparison, the fresh air of heaven.
    "Here is a better house next door," observed I; "I shall look at the rooms there. Come along.
   [-280-] "Stop !" cried my friend; "I suspect you are in horrid earliest. Can you seriously contemplate "-
    "My dear friend," interrupted I, repeating a formula which I had long ago arranged for such an occasion, "the exigencies of my profession compel me to do many things, and to frequent many places which, as a private individual I should shun."
    "But you talked of taking five other persons - more wicked than yourself, since they have not this rag of an excuse."
    "My dear sir," said I, "it is a Moral Lesson; I have heard you call it so yourself. I am instructed to pay as high as £2 15s. a head for it, refreshments not included.  Shall I secure extra accommodation, with a view to your joining our little party ?"
    My commercial friend looked to left and  right, to be sure that nobody had overheard this infamous proposal, and with a shake of the head, expressive of disgust and denial, fled eastward to the homes [-281-] of scrip and share, with his habitually low opinion of the literary profession sunk to zero.
    But he had done for me what I wanted. The ice of my self-respect was sufficiently broken to enable me to enter the second house, without a blush, and to make arrangements for our accommodation upon the night of the 21st, with all the coolness of a Paterfamihias sent on to Margate in advance to secure furnished apartments for his wife and the dear children. I think I should do my second proprietor no wrong if I set him down as an amateur pugilist. Fortune had raised him above the necessity of personal combat, but nature had eminently qualified him for that profession, and with its principal members he was hand and (boxing) glove. He was small, but wiry; cool, but determined; and he "came up smiling" upon all occasions - even when we rang the bell for tea, a demand apparently unusual in those latitudes.
    The bargain being struck, I made a speech which I thought not only conciliatory but friendly, and [-282-] which really involved not a little shock to what remained of my sense of respectability.
    "In order," said I, "to convince you of the genuineness of my offer, I will leave you this card (only don't stick it on your mantel-piece), with my name and address upon it."
    "You will certainly do that, sir," returned he, with an admirable coolness; "but it is indispensable that you should leave a deposit as well."
    I had, it seemed, rather over-estimated the effect of my frank and genial manners (which are proverbial) upon this exceedingly practical man.
    It was agreed among our party, that, admirable as were the arrangements for our comfort in this hired chamber, it would be as well to keep out of it to the very last moment consistent with our being able to get through the expected crowd; some time after midnight was therefore appointed for the trysting hour; and one gentleman, justly famous for his hospitality, asked me to take supper with him at his club, the Cenotaph, immediately before commencing our hideous vigil."
    [-283-] "That is rather late to get supper for a non-member, is it not ?" inquired I. "Are you sure I shall get it ?"
    "My friend," replied he with emotion, "did I ever deceive you - at least with respect to food?"
    I was touched by this appeal, and said no more; but when we entered the state dining-chamber of that somewhat oppressive club at eleven P.M., and I perceived it to be empty save for one ghostly waiter, and sunk in depths of gloom, my spirit quailed within me, and I well knew what was coming - and what was not.
    "Prepare this table," quoth my host in a majestic voice, and pointing to the clothless mahogany.
    "That gentleman is not a member of the club, I think," hazarded the ghostly waiter.
    "It is all right," responded my entertainer loftily; "his eminent name has been put down hours ago."
    "But after nine o'clock, sir, it is contrary to the regulations - "
    [-284-] I waited to hear no more, not wishing to behold the degradation of my friend, but rose and left the establishment. He presently came out to me, as I was partaking of the hospitality of the Cenotaph by sitting on its doorstep, and whispered hoarsely:
    "There is Epitaux ,there is the Café de l'Europe, there are a hundred places where we can get a better supper: the suppers are not good here. Allons."
    Alas, it was past eleven, and not a lawful day: Epitaux was shut, and the Café. Everything was shut except the horrid oyster-shops.
    Has my sensitive reader ever tasted oysters with water or ginger-beer as accompaniments, instead of the usual liquids? After eleven P.M., no spiritual drinks, as we were informed, and no malt liquors, were procurable. What privations do the lower classes undergo, undreamed of by such persons as keep cellars!
    After this hideous repast, we sallied forth in a very depressed condition, to receive our Moral Lesson. This was not the case, however, with [-285-] most persons whom we overtook, bound evidently upon the same instructive errand. In knots of twos and threes, with gibe and jest, the few pedestrians in the streets that night had all their faces set towards the east and Newgate, as though on pleasure bent. Cabs, too, were stopping in Ludgate Hill, out of which their occupants had stepped, to take one look at the preparations for to-morrow's tragedy. The whole of the Old Bailey, and far away into Giltspur Street, and wheresoever a street-view of what was to happen could be obtained, were crossed and recrossed by massive barriers,* [* It is said that the cost of erecting these exceeded £1000.] like a gigantic cattle-market. A mighty throng already occupied the space immediately in front of the Debtors' Door, and the hoarse roar of their voices mingled with the dull strokes of the hammers of the workmen, whose labours were yet unfinished. To force our way through this dense multitude, would evidently be a matter of difficulty, though we did not know, at that time, of its danger; and we were glad of the guidance [-286-] of a policeman, who led us by Seacoal Lane, and through certain most objectionable alleys, into our hired house by unchoked ways.
    The rest of our party had already arrived, and were looking out through the open windows upon the scene below. The prison, standing black in the clear frosty night, with the five wretchedest creatures in the world hidden somewhere in its stony bosom; and the cleared space, where the deed was to be done, making still snore dense the crowd that hung about it, and pushed, and clung, and battled even then to glance into its threatening void. Closer and closer with every minute grew the throng, and more and more extended its limits; and louder and louder swelled the roar of tongues, broken by bursts of savage quarrel, or ribald mirth, but never for an instant sinking into silence. All things shone bright and clear in the moonbeams, save the gathering mob, who overspread the space like one great pall, save here and there where fitful spurts of light leaped up and left it darker than before. This was simply caused by the light-[-287-]ing of their pipes, the only physical comfort of these hardy watchers through the frosty night; nor did daylight bring them food or drink of any sort, for the public-houses dared not open to such a lawless mob.
    Now, one of the advantages held forth by our esteemed proprietor as a reason for our patronage was this, that not only could he treat us with every consideration within doors (and most civil and obliging he was, I am bound to say), but that he would accompany such of our number as desired it to behold the humours of the crowd without. "I shall be happy," said he, "to go with you upon the prowl."
    This phrase delighted me above measure, as being the fittest that could possibly have been invented for such an occasion, and I anticipated much satisfaction from the promised tour. But being a student of human nature, and having scanned the features of the company below with considerable attention, when the hour arrived for the expedition, and our guide, philosopher, and [-288-] friend came up to say he was ready, I expressed my opinion that it was better we should go forth only by pairs, and that I, for my part, would wait to make one of the last pair - or even longer. Two of the party, however, dressed in the height of fashion, dauntless by nature, and their courage animated (although by no means unduly) by cold chickens and champagne, volunteered at once, with enthusiasm. Their moleskin waistcoats, their light great-coats with velvet collars, their five-and-twenty shilling hats, their attenuated silk umbrellas, would have given them a very distinguished appearance anywhere, but especially in the Old Bailey at one P.M. "I think, gentlemen, that you had better leave your watches and money," observed the proprietor, delicately, "also your scarf-pins, and indeed anything you particularly value; for nine-tenths of the people outside here - at the very least - are thieves."
    With these slight precautions our friends departed, radiant, on the prowl. In ten minutes, or fifteen at most, they returned, dishevelled, [-289-] ragged, hatless. "I had six thieves' hands in my pockets all at once," said one. They had been hustled, bonneted, held up and rifled, like a baby which has its little nose blown vi et armis. The Moral Lesson itself might possibly set matters right, but the foreshadowing of its approach had certainly had marvellously little effect upon the pupils. No less than six individuals - gentlemen they were called, in contradistinction to their despoilers - fled into our house that very night, as into a haven, robbed, spitefully intreated, and even in terror for their lives. All hatless, too. The enmity of that mob towards a hat was something terrible to witness; if it had been the recognised symbol of Virtue, Morality, and Religion all in one, they could not have used it worse. "Vigil," who writes to the Times to say that the crowd were "deeply impressed," must have been one of the Bonneted, I think, and in that condition made his veracious observations. It is wonderful what a man will see (and not see) who has made up his mind beforehand, and is of a determined disposition. 
    [-290-] At three o'clock, or thereabouts, there was heard a rumbling of some heavy carriage, and there broke forth a horrid yell, half cheer, half groan, from the people without. This was the arrival of the Scaffold, a solid block of wood (to all appearance), painted black, and drawn by three cart-horses. Then there ensued a horrid knocking, compared with which the knocking in Macbeth was but as the summons of a fashionable footman: they were putting up the Gallows.
    By this time the snow had begun to fall, flake by flake, but without diminishing the concourse; on the contrary, it grew and grew, so that the dawn presently broke upon a pavement of human heads extending as far as the eye could see. Hats, as I have said, were not permitted, and the effect of that sumptuary law was certainly picturesque. Those who had been deprived of their headgear had substituted for it particolonred handkerchiefs, while caps of every hue made the shifting scene like a pattern in a kaleidoscope. Bakers' white caps, soldiers' red caps, provident [-291-] persons' night-caps, and chimney-sweepers' black caps, were now become very numerous, and the mass of mere thieves and ruffians only leavened the multitude, instead of forming its sole constituents. The chimney-sweepers were extremely popular, and encouraged to beat one another, so that the soot should fly freely upon their neighbours; and the military were respected, so far, that I never saw one of them pushed up from the surging crowd, and rolled lengthways over the heads of the company, to which the members of all other professions were continually subjected. Many gentlemen of volatile dispositions (and of physical strength enough to insure impunity) would themselves leap upon the shoulders of those about them, and run along upon all-fours on the surface of the crowd; and nobody seemed to resent it, except now and then a personal friend, who seemed to consider it as a liberty, although perfectly allowable in the case of strangers, though they included the softer sex. * [* I was informed by our polite proprietor, that upon the [-292-] last occasion of a Moral Lesson in the Old Bailey, a live rat was playfully let loose, and ran about the people's heads, unable to find any opening for its descent.]
    [-292-] I am sorry to say there were many women, although in no greater proportion to the males than one to ten. They were mostly young girls, who took no part in the rough amusements of their neighbours, unless under compulsion, but kept their gaze fixed on the Debtor's Door. One in particular, with roses in her bonnet, and cruel eyes, never looked anywhere else; she reminded me horribly of the girl in Bulwer's Last Days of Pompeii, who was so greedy to see the man devoured by the wild beast. No touch of pity or even of awe could be read in any countenance. When a black cloth, some two feet high, was placed round the edge of the scaffold, there was a yell of impotent rage, because a portion of the sight - the lowering of the dead bodies in their coffins - would be thereby lost to them. They cheered the hangman when he came out to adjust the ropes, as the herald of their coming treat; they grew impatient [-293-] as the clock grew near the stroke of eight, and some called "Time." I am afraid an idea crossed my mind, that if all the people there present (except those at the windows) could be put out of the way, like those whose last agonies they had come to see, it would be no great loss. It is not eight, but it is very near. A little dog, in danger of being trodden to death, is rescued by the police, amid approbation, and placed in safety upon the pitching-block - where the porters rest their burdens - at the top of the street; that is a good sign; perhaps it is better to pity dogs than murderers. St. Sepulchre's bell begins to toll, although the inarticulate roar of voices almost drowns its solemn boom, and there is a sharp and sudden cry of "Hats off," and the particoloured carpet shows like a white sheet instantly. Where the barriers are not, in Newgate Street, the concourse bends and swells like the waves of a summer sea; and where the barriers are, they are only distinguishable by their living burdens. There is a dreadful thronging of officials [-294-] at the prison door, and five men are brought forth one after another to be strangled.
    Let us turn our backs upon that scene, my friends, if you please, and look rather upon the forty thousand eager faces receiving their Moral Lesson. They are not so impressed that they are silent - no, not for one instant; but their roar has a certain purring satisfaction in it, like that of a cat over its prey. Then a hiss breaks forth, and here and there, the word "Cur" is heard; that is, because one of the wretched victims has fainted, and must needs be seated in a chair; and then there is a tempest of applause because the fifth man goes to his doom with as jaunty an air as his pinioned arms will permit. The priest is speaking the last few words that these wretches shall hear from mortal tongue; they are kissing (through those terrible caps) the crucifix he holds in his hand; and in a few seconds they will have crossed the threshold of life, and entered upon the mysteries of eternity. Surely, if the Moral Lesson is to give any visible sign of [-295-] its working, it must be now. It gives no sign whatever. The babblement never ceases; there is no hush, no reverence, no fear. Only after a certain dreadful grinding noise-which is the fall of the drop - a flood of uproar suddenly bursts forth, which must have been pent up before. This, the truth is, is the collective voice of the Curious, the Fast, the Vicious, spell-bound for a little by the awful spectacle; while the ceaseless, though lesser din arose from the professional scoundrels, the Thieves in esse, the Murderers in posse, who are impressed by nothing save by the touch of the fatal slip-knot under their own right ears. Singularly enough, the crowd increased after the execution; persons of delicate temperament, joining it, I suppose, who had not nerves enough for a Hanging, but who knew how to appreciate a Cutting Down.
    The present writer has never been in favour of the abolition of capital punishments; imprimia, because
    "Notwithstanding Human Nature's purity,
    He thinks they greatly add to his security;"
[-296-] and in the second place, because his sympathies are (contrary, he knows, to what is usual) rather with the Murdered persons than with the people who kill them. Nothing that he beheld on the morning of the 22nd of February has shaken that opinion, which is entertained even more strongly by those of his companions who went out "upon the prowl," and beheld face to face the class for whom hemp-seed grows. But with respect to the publicity of the Moral Lesson, this Home Correspondent believes it to be bad everyway, and opines that it should be abolished forthwith.