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'Cheating the Hangman': Suicide in Early Modern London Prisons

Anna Cusack | Birkbeck, University of London

‘Strange are the Effects of Despair, running Men headlong into Destruction many times, not only of the Body, but of the better part, by prompting them (for the Escape of a present Calamity) to lay violent Hands upon themselves, and hazard thereby their own Eternal Welfare, as in many sad Examples, in past Ages, have appeared’. A Sad and Dreadful Account of the Self-Murther of Robert Long, alias Baker (London 1685).

It was a Tuesday, the 20th of October 1685, when Robert Long, alias Baker, hanged himself in his cell within the notorious prison of Newgate in London. His suicide, which was referred to as self-murder, prompted an anonymous author to write a pamphlet about his death. The account introduces the story with the passage quoted above and, after reflecting on the morality of self-murder, acquaints the reader with Long, a former Innkeeper in Shaftsbury who joined the Rebellion ‘in the West’. This was Monmouth’s Rebellion that attempted to depose James II. Many of those involved, including James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth himself, were captured, tried for treason, and sentenced to transportation or death. Robert Long had fled to London and disguised himself, but was spotted in the Strand, captured, charged as a traitor, and then sentenced to execution.

Confined in Newgate, it was reported Long ‘became very Melancholly’, often sighing and groaning to himself and barely eating or drinking. On the 20th of October, he barricaded the door to his cell, when the guards finally broke it down, they ‘beheld the sad Effects of Despair’. Robert Long had hanged himself with a small cord ‘not exceeding sixteen inches’. A coroner was called, and a posthumous trial was held to determine the cause of his death. The jurors concluded that it was self-murder and brought in their verdict felo de se (a felon against himself). Any goods he had were subject to forfeiture, and he was denied burial in consecrated ground. The pamphlet containing this sad affair was published on the 22nd of October and concludes ‘Which unadvised Rashness, we hope, will prove a Warning to others, in deterring them from contracting such Guilt, as the Horrour thereof is capable of Running them upon the Rock of Despair’.

London authorities were notably concerned with suicide in general, but arguably even more so with the suicides of individuals who were awaiting execution. The circumvention of the prescribed manner of death undermined the legal system and the semblance of social control. Therefore, those who ‘cheated the hangman’ were subjected to the harshest profane burial practices and almost always received a felo de se verdict at their posthumous trials. Only in very rare cases was the second ruling of non compos mentis (not of sound mind) permitted. If a non compos mentis verdict was granted, goods were not forfeited, and individuals received a proper burial. In the case of Arthur Capel, the Earl of Essex, where there was uncertainty about his suicide being self-murder or actual murder, burial in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula was permitted.

Motivations for self-murder are best summed up by a thief named Jones, who robbed a banker’s clerk in 1793 and then hanged himself. The Times newspaper stated he committed suicide ‘to evade the operations of public justice’. Although motivations are always more elusive, some criminals clearly believed the public spectacle of an execution was more shameful than the profane burial rituals enacted upon a suicide’s corpse. Authorities still made a point of shaming the individuals who committed suicide after their deaths. The thief Jones’s body was placed upon a plank and brought out of Newgate on a cart. The corpse was conveyed to the top of Holborn Hill by a procession that included ‘the Sheriffs, City Marshalls and near 50 constables’. Finally, it was deposited in a very deep pit, and a stake was driven through it. The crowd who came to watch this spectacle were noted as very great. The interments of those who ‘cheated the hangman’ were often social occasions, acting as a signifier of the power and authority of the law.

In 1665 Marcy Clay, alias Jenny Fox was arrested for an unspecified theft and sentenced to hang. She had led a long life of crime both in London and the southwest as a highwaywoman and thief. The day before her execution, Clay poisoned herself with ‘4 papers of white mercury’. It took her twelve hours to die. The pamphlet on her life reported that ‘during this time, many hundred Spectators were admitted to see her, all who she desired to pray for her, and often cryed to God for mercy’. Once she had died, her body was conveyed to Tyburn ‘and there (hard by the Gallows) buried, with a stake driven through her bowels, as in Cases of self-Murther is usual’.

A section of a historical map of London, dating from 1746
Figure 1. Detail of Tyburn from John Rocque's Map of London, 1746.

The pamphlet is the only evidence for Marcy Clay being a real individual, but the narrative was common. On 9th February 1657, Miles Sindercombe, a soldier originally from Kent, was tried for treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. While confined awaiting his execution, he managed to procure some form of poison. Four days after his death, his body was placed on a cart and drawn to Tower Hill, where he was buried under the scaffold naked with a stake through his heart. Part of the stake remained above ground as a grave marker, plated with iron for all to see as an example of the punishment for self-murderers.

Exact or approximate locations are often disclosed for criminal suicide burials, especially with the increasing numbers of newspapers in the latter part of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth. These accounts often highlighted the heinousness of self-murder and, in cases of criminal suicides, made a point of showing exactly what fate awaited them should they undertake this course of action. When Thomas Wyton hanged himself in his cell in Newgate in 1744, the newspapers covered the incident in detailed journalistic entries. He was buried at a crossroad near a house he once kept.

There were three types of locations used for interring self-murderers who received felo de se verdicts. At crossroads, on the highways, or in open fields. This triad of locations had a hierarchy, with crossroad burials reserved for individuals who held the most unsympathetic position in the minds of early modern Londoners and whom authorities wished to make an example of. It is at crossroads that many individuals who ‘cheated the hangman’ were interred. These profane burials subjected individuals to additional humiliation by using a stake to pin the corpse in the grave. Crossroad burials and the use of stakes have been the subject of many historical debates; some scholars argue that crossroads were used to confuse a returning revenant and that stakes kept them from rising. Others argue that these were preventative measures against the Last Judgment or that it was purely a performative exercise. Criminals were occasionally also buried at the intended site of execution, many of which, including London’s most famous hanging site Tyburn, were at intersecting roads.

An excerpt from 'The Constitutional Journal' from 1744 discussing the suicide of a prisoner
Figure 2. The report on Thomas Wyton’s self-murder and burial, Old England or The Constitutional Journal (London), Saturday, June 16, 1744; Issue 72.

In 1823 Able Griffiths, who had murdered his father, was the last suicide to be buried at a crossroads in London. He was interred at the junction of Eaton Street, Grosvenor Place, and the King’s Road. A month later, the Judgment of Death Act of 1823 was passed (4 Geo. 4, c. 52). This Act required the clergy to allow churchyard burial for suicides between the hours of nine in the evening and midnight and prohibited coroners from advising interment at crossroads, highways or indeed in any public space. The same act officially terminated the practice of driving a stake through a suicide’s body. The Forfeiture Act of 1870 ended the custom of escheat of a suicide's property (1870 CHAPTER 23 33 and 34 Vict). In 1880 the Burial Law Amendment Act eased the restrictions on religious rites at burial services, and the night-time burial requirements were removed by the Interments (Felo de Se) Act of 1882. Suicide itself was not fully decriminalised until 1961 (The Suicide Act of 1961, 9 & 10), and the Church of England only lifted its ban on full Christian funerals for suicides in 2017.

The individuals from early modern London prisons who ‘cheated the hangman’ belong to a long history of suicide, but they were made specific examples of. These individuals had taken away the power of the authorities and thus the pains and penalties that were their exclusive right to inflict (and with which they maintained social order). Suicide was a sin and a crime. Those who cheated the hangman pushed this to its extreme, using this method of death as a powerful affront to social control. By choosing the manner of their demise, they reclaimed some small token of agency even while knowing they would lose all bodily autonomy in death. Throughout the early modern period, social theorists believed that both the State and the Law rested on the operation of that most fundamental of human passions, self-preservation. When this failed, it was detrimental to social control. Cheating the hangman was a very visible affront to State, Law, and the self.


Further Reading:

  • Harte, J., ‘Maimed Rites: Suicide Burials in the English Landscape’ Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture Vol. 4, Issue 3 (November 2011), pp. 263-282.

  • MacDonald, M., and T. R. Murphy, Sleepless Souls: Suicide in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

  • Watt, J. R., (ed.), From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe (New York: Cornell University Press, 2004).

Anna Cusack is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London where she completed her PhD in 2021. Her PhD research examined the marginalised dead of London during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, specifically the treatment of the remains of suicides, criminals, and religious outsiders such as Quakers and Jews. She currently holds a research assistant position at the University of Leicester and the University of Erfurt and is one of the ECR board members for History Journal along with being one of the historical consultants for the 'Execution' exhibition opening at the Museum of London Docklands at the end of this year. She co-runs a slightly neglected blog about the dead of early modern London and is currently juggling various other projects and jobs both inside and outside academia.


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