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It was a perfect day for a hanging.
The dawn sky clear and pale, a cold blade of cruelty in the air; roof-tops smudged with frost, candles spinning haloes in garret bedrooms.
But few of the 20,000-strong crowd gathered in the streets around Newgate jail noticed the cold. It was 7.45 – a quarter of an hour before two prisoners were due to be turned off – and the spectators had been celebrating all night.
On balconies which afforded a view of the executioner, or of the victim's friends hastening death by hanging on his legs, the bucks drank champagne and tossed the bottles into the crowd. The broken glass was soon ground to powder underfoot as the mob swigged beer and gin, fought, sang, recited prisoner's confessions from the condemned cells bought for ½d, kicked stray dogs to death, fondled the harlots, and had their pockets picked.
One or two did feel the cold; one or two did cut their feet on the broken glass. One of them was a boy of fourteen, barefoot, wearing ragged clothes stiff with grease and a top-hat minus its crown. His thumbs were stuck in his braces and a clay pipe stuffed with tobacco from a discarded cigar butt was clenched between his teeth; his manner was arrogant and only the acutely perceptive would have discerned his agitation.
In fact the boy was almost as scared as if the stolen silk scarf knotted round his neck was a noose. As the cold fingered his body through his tattered shirt and patched trousers the fear expanded inside him, an abrupt and premature knowledge of mortality and human debasement.
As the law stood, the boy could easily himself have taken his place on the gallows. A child was only completely safe from the rope if he was under seven; between seven and fourteen he could be hanged if the evidence against him indicated malice; over fourteen there was no mitigation. And he could be executed for any of 223 offences, including picking pockets, damaging a fishpond, impersonating a pensioner from Greenwich Hospital, stealing a shilling or a pound of turnips, or appearing in a forest with a blackened face even if there was no game there to poach.
The boy had already served his apprenticeship in crime and had qualified for the gallows a hundred times over in this the last decade of the eighteenth century.
Now 7.50 a.m. From beneath the scaffold a hand emerged and placed a rope on the platform. The crowd sighed and the pickpockets' fingers worked nimbly. In front of the boy stood a man who looked like a farmer, bull-shouldered and full of ale, jacket flapping open to reveal a wallet fat with bank-notes.
A pickpocket with a thin, pockmarked face noticed the boy eyeing the wallet and thumped him in the ribs with his elbow. 'Keep your hands to yourself, culley,' whispered the pickpocket nodding towards the wallet. 'That's mine.'
The boy shivered. 'You take it, if you want to be scragged up there.' He nodded towards the scaffold.
The pickpocket peered more closely. 'Haven't I seen you around Hyde Park doing a little bit of tooling from the young gentlemen when they're otherwise engaged with their ladies?'
'Not me,' said the boy edging away from the thief because his instinct, sharp like his ribs and his starved features, told him that the wallet was a plant and that a constable or one of the feared Bow Street Runners was close by.
'Not so fast,' said the fine-wirer grabbing the boy's arm, fingers feeling the bone. 'There's a lot of blunt in there, culley. A lot of stiffs, my dear. Maybe a finny in it for a smart lad like you. All I wants is a little distraction, like a good butt in the belly with your napper.' The thief tapped his own head. 'Then I lift the wallet and we'll be off quicker than the hangman can turn a body off.'
The crowd was settling down now, the climax of the night's sojourn due in five minutes' time. Above them the wealthy rakes continued their banter, demonstrating their superiority of rank and birth, and champagne corks popped like distant gunfire. For the élite there were invitations from the hierarchy of Newgate to eat later – 'We hang at eight and breakfast at nine.'
The mob made do with fried fish, hot pies and baked potatoes from stalls with plumes of sparks spiralling from their ovens. But not now; not with the juices dry in your mouth, and horror and lust and God knows what primitive appetites twisting your bowels. Two women fainted and were manhandled to safety over the spectators' heads; one man was trampled to death when constables broke up a thimble-rigger's game.
Inside the jail, only a couple of feet from Newgate Street, the two doomed felons waited in condemned cells, their fear of imminent and ultimate retribution muddled with alcohol.
The sun rose but there was no warmth in its rays, and the blue of the sky had the quality of ice.
'So what about it, matey?' the pickpocket asked the boy.
'Do your own tooling,' said the boy, twisting and butting with his head. Then he was away, as he had been away a hundred times before with wallets and watches and silk handkerchieves in his hands, scrambling through legs, grazing his knees. But this time he didn't go far; the pickpocket wouldn't leave his prey and he didn't want to leave the area he had chosen, because from here you could see the scaffold clearly without being too close.
There were two reasons for the boy's presence, one of them a conviction that a strong stomach was proof of manhood and that its sternest test was the witnessing of violent, premeditated death. Revulsion was his strongest reaction, but it was complicated by that old mischief-maker bravado.
The bells of St Sepulchre began to chime ... The hangman was waiting on the scaffold – by tradition he wasn't admitted to Newgate on execution days – and inside the jail the two criminals left the Large Room where they had bidden farewell to friends and spoken to newspaper reporters.
They were led to an anvil where a blacksmith struck off their fetters, then were handed over to the Yeoman of the Halter, who pinioned their arms. A clergyman, called the Ordinary, urged them to pray and repent. Then, with the Sheriffs holding their wands of office, they were escorted through dark, stonewalled passages to the Debtors' Gate.
The black doors opened; they mounted the scaffold.
'Hats off, hats off.' The cries of the mob sharp on the frosty air. And 'Down in the front' from those who feared their view would be obstructed. The pickpockets tensed themselves because this was the best distraction ever devised.
The criminals were hooded: the noose was put around their necks. The hangman pulled the bolt and they swung. One, a highwayman, managed to kick off his shoes and curse his executioner, which was the way the heroes of the poor and oppressed were expected to depart the world.
The other managed no such heroics. But he was only twelve and not acquainted with the requirements of his audience.
At least one member of the mob failed to see the execution. The boy wasn't sure whether the distraction twenty yards away was the culprit, or whether he would in any case have averted his gaze. Anyway he was grateful to the pickpocket with the pockmarked face who provided the distraction.
The boy heard the scuffle and shout and turned to see the pickpocket held in a wrestler's grip by the man with the fat wallet. It was now plain that the man wasn't up from the country; his voice had London accents as acrid as a Thames fog and, when he had squeezed the breath from the pickpocket's narrow chest, he produced a baton bearing a gilt crown, the visiting card of the Bow Street Runners.
'Greedy weren't you, culley,' the Runner remarked. 'Your sort never learn, do you? Our greatest ally – greed.' He twisted the pickpocket's arm behind him and propelled him towards Ludgate Hill.
The boy followed, pushing his way through the mob which was still staring enthralled at the bodies jerking in the cold sunlight. The Runner was the law and therefore the enemy, but the boy found that he didn't wholly despise him: there was about him a piratical swagger; this was no sermonising lawman; he was a competitor in a game, not averse perhaps to letting a prisoner go free for a share of the spoils. The boy felt that he was not the sort who wanted to see his prey swinging from the gibbet.
When he reached Ludgate Hill the Runner pushed the pickpocket into a waiting carriage and told the driver to take them to the Brown Bear, the inn opposite numbers 3 and 4 Bow Street, the headquarters of the Runners. There were cells in the inn and it was there, with pots of ale in front of them, that the Runners conducted much of their business.
The driver whipped up the horses and off went the coach as though giving chase. And now at last the boy turned and stared at the bodies hanging outside the brooding prison.
The cold seemed to reach inside his skull. He leaned against the mullioned window of a coffee-house; there was sweat on his brow. Other mudlarks and urchins ran whooping through the mob's legs, unaffected by the execution, making the boy feel ashamed of his reaction. Life at that moment was a brief and pointless journey, mocked by public enjoyment of death.
On the scaffold the body of the twelve-year-old twitched, life not quite extinguished by slow strangulation. Hand to mouth, the boy outside the coffee-house ran away towards Snow Hill, the knowledge that he could have been hanging there beside his friend like a dagger of ice inside him.
That was the second reason for his presence.
They had been ambitious, the two boys from St Giles Rookery, rebelling against the thieves who employed them for a few pence, ale and food, to scale drainpipes, squeeze through tiny windows and descend chimneys. The twelve-year-old was the best snakes-man, skinny but as swift as a cockroach up or down smoke-blackened walls if an alarm was raised.
One night they planned to branch out on their own and burgle a fine house in Highgate Village; but there are no secrets in the rookeries and knowledge spreads like infection. The two young rebels had to be taught a lesson, otherwise all the snakesmen might get ideas above their station and before you knew it adult thieves would have to take the risks they delegated to their young assistants. Putting a child into a bolted and barred mansion was like putting a ferret into a burrow: it might emerge with a bloodied nose or it might not emerge at all. None of the cracksmen wanted to lose their ferrets, so the constables were tipped off to make an example of the rebels.
The two boys cased the house in Highgate, owned by a retired jeweller named Sweetman, and decided that the best method of entry was down the chimney. The obvious candidate was the smaller boy, elbows still skinned and soot in his hair from a previous job.
Down he went as the harvest moon slid behind a cloud. The older boy waited in the dew-covered bushes outside. Waited, waited ... Suddenly oil-lamps flared, doors opened, men were shouting and swearing. And he was running, as the moon waited behind the cloud.
There were men at the gate, so he vaulted the low fence, wriggled through clutching hands and headed for the fields – and straight into the arms of a man with prizefighter's muscles which gripped him like manacles.
A candle-lantern was lit and the boy found himself standing beside a coach.
An elderly man leaned out of the coach and the boy knew at once that this was Mr Sweetman. 'What have we here, Gifford?' he asked. 'What have you caught this time?' You could tell from his voice that he was plump and something of a comic.
'A boy, sir,' the man said. And you could tell from his voice that his nose was flattened and he probably was an old fighter put out to grass by a kindly patron.
'Bless my soul,' remarked Mr Sweetman. He climbed down laboriously and flashed the lantern in the boy's face. 'Bless my soul,' he repeated. 'A mere child. They told me to wait here because a notorious gang of cracksmen were going to break in. They said nothing about children.'
The boy kicked backwards at his captor's shins; it was like a blow from a mosquito to Gifford, once the pride of the Fancy. He tightened his grip on the boy's arms.
Mr Sweetman said: 'How old are you, boy?'
The boy didn't reply until Gifford gripped him harder, squeezing out the reply: 'Fourteen, sir.'
'And you were waiting outside keeping watch, I presume. A crow, I believe they call it.'
'No, sir,' the boy said.
'You were going to, ah, enter?'
The boy nodded.
'Bless my soul.' The old man pondered, candlelight shining on his white whiskers. 'And how many of you are there in this, ah, gang?'
'Two.' The boy felt the tears gathering, fought them and lost. 'My mate's in there.' Nodding towards the house. 'I've got to help him. Please ...'
'And how old is he?'
'The devil take mel' The old man seemed transfixed. Then: 'Come, Gifford, we must save the other lad.'
But they couldn't. Not then or later as the twelve-year-old awaited trial. The deterrent was the thing and the boy must hang to set an example to all hardened criminals over the age of seven.
Mr Sweetman appealed, wrote letters to the Morning Post and The Times, organised demonstrations, petitioned the King.
Once the fourteen-year-old boy presented himself at Bow Street and confessed his own guilt. A runner named Townsend listened to his story, gave him a shilling and advised him to run away to sea. But the boy persisted and finally Townsend consulted the magistrate. The magistrate was a friend of Mr Sweetman: the boy was reprieved. And at 8 a.m. on that frosty Monday morning his accomplice was hanged.
The fourteen-year-old boy hurried away from Newgate, bare feet breaking tissues of ice on the muddy street. The old man had offered him a home – and made him promise to report to him once a week – but it was in the Rookery of St Giles, an oasis of squalor, a sanctuary of villains, a breeding ground of disease, a graveyard of paupers, that the boy found solace.
He trusted Mr Sweetman as much as it was possible in a world where kindness was eccentricity. But to him the house in Highgate was as unreal as a stage used by a band of strolling players.
He would have liked at that moment to return to a mother working, perhaps, as a cook, warm and flushed and smelling of spices. Instead he returned to a two-room lodging-house where men slept against a rope – and to a mother who was a whore.
The boy's name was Edmund Blackstone.CHAPTER 2
A good many years later Edmund Blackstone, the most feared, respected and hated Bow Street Runner in the force, walked past Newgate on his way to his headquarters.
A lot had changed, he reflected, since those days when children were regularly strung up and a diarist noted: 'I never saw children cry so much. It appeared they did not want to be hanged.'
In fact hanging offences were declining. You could no longer be topped for damaging Westminster Bridge or being found disguised in the Mint! More pertinently, you wouldn't be executed if you stole property worth less than £5. Stolen goods were frequently undervalued to save a prisoner from the gallows, and George IV, for all his defects, was a merciful man who frequently granted reprieves to the disgust of the hanging judges. 'Too gallows merciful,' the judges called him.
Ah yes, the wind of reform was in the air as the nineteenth century passed its first quarter. Women were no longer publicly flogged bare-breasted; the use of chains in jail was declining; prisoners were given separate beds; women were segregated; church services were obligatory; prisoners were given work; moves were afoot even to abolish the death penalty for forgery and sheep-stealing.
Blackstone hurried past the walls of Newgate because he knew of the degradation within. He fancied he could smell the stink of it as he turned into Newgate Street. If it hadn't been for the old gentleman who had taught him how to read and write and left him £50 on condition he joined Bow Street, he might now be inside those walls despite his escape from the gallows.
Now it was he who dispatched men to the cells and the scaffold. But Blackstone, born on the other side of the law, always made sure that those he arrested deserved what they got – if, that is, any man deserved to die.
It was a fine winter morning, with the sun polishing the dome of St Paul's. Blackstone breathed deeply of the sharp air and strode briskly towards the River Fleet. Soon the jail stink was behind him. He was dressed magnificently in a blue broadcloth topcoat and a tall grey hat; one hand grasped his baton in his coat pocket; his other arm swung with martial vigour. Beggars, gonophs and pickpockets got out of his way.