Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Deserved Dues of the Convicted Criminals

                 Outside the Old Bailey crowds began to congregate early on the Sunday afternoon, and strong barriers were erected at Old Bailey and the ends of Newgate Street, Giltspur Street and Skinner Street. An enclosure was built to surround the gallows and hold back the crowds in the yard, as further barriers were placed at fixed distances from Ludgate Hill to Smithfield. 

The Condemned Cell, Newgate

Throughout the day, the throng grew larger and larger, packing the streets and houses, as every available vantage spot was booked, rented and occupied. Police reinforcements were brought in but could not get through the crowd and had to go in through the Old Bailey courts and pass through the private passages to their station. At half past midnight, the gallows was brought from the yard and placed in its customary position outside the Debtor’s Gate. Someone, somewhere, had made an oversight, as three chains were handing from the main beam but when this was noticed Mr Wontner, the Governor of Newgate, ordered one to be removed and a whisper went through the crowd that May had been respited.

Rowlandson - The Dissecting Room

At six o’clock on the morning of December 5th 1831, Bishop and Williams rose and were visited by the Reverend Cotton and two other clergymen, and at half past seven, the Sheriff and the Under-Sheriffs arrived and transferred Bishop to the press-room. His wrists were bound and his arms pinioned, then Williams was brought in and the same done to him. Both men had changed considerably; gone was the cockiness and swagger, to be replaced with trembling terror. Bishop looked much younger than his thirty years, pale and bowed he shambled as if in a daze, not so much resigned to his fate as unconscious of it. Williams shook visibly, muttering prayers to his god, and staring onto the floor. With Rev Cotton leading, the procession walked slowly to  the gallows, and as the Under-Sheriffs asked each man if he had anything more to confess, both replied, evasively, that they had told the whole truth. 

Just before eight o’clock, the executioner and his assistant appeared on the scaffold, followed shortly after by the prisoners. As they emerged into the sight of the crowd, a great cry went up. Between thirty and forty thousand spectators now crushed around the Old Bailey, perching on walls, roofs and lampposts, but such was the press of bodies in Giltspur Street, that the stout barrier beam facing the Compter collapsed, in spite of iron hoops holding it to uprights planted over two feet into the ground. Several men, women and children were injured and hospitalised, but fortunately none were killed. 

The Giltspur Street Compter

Bishop was brought forward first, stumbling and indifferent, as the mob hooted and bayed for his life, the executioner placed a noose about his neck and fastened it to the chain on the main beam. Then Williams was led forward, making a slight bow in the direction of the crowd, who responded with boos and groans, and had the cap placed over his head and the rope put about his neck. Rev Mr Cotton started the prayers and at the given signal, the executioner released the drop; Bishop died instantly but Williams struggled for several minutes before becoming still. 

The Execution of Bishop and Williams

The bodies were left hanging for almost an hour until, at nine o’clock, the executioner returned and cut them down to the accompaniment of the howls, jeers and yells of the multitude. They were put in a small cart, covered with sacks drawn down Giltspur Street to No 33 Hosier Lane and the waiting scalpels of Mr Stone, who made the legally required incisions into the chests of the bodies. 

The Route from Newgate to Hosier Lane

They were transferred on Monday evening, Bishop to King’s College and Williams to the Theatre of Anatomy in Windmill-street, Haymarket, where they were both anatomised and the remains displayed on Tuesday and Wednesday to vast crowds. The skeletons were retained and publicly displayed for many years.

W Clift - The Head of John Bishop

In the professional opinion of other London resurrection men of the day, John Bishop was a buffoon and a coward, who preferred to bribe the watchmen or to claim dead bodies from hospitals and workhouses by pretending to be related to the deceased. He was known to have burgled houses in which he knew was a recently dead body, and steal it away. Once, he took a room in a boarding house where he knew an old lady had died and was laid out awaiting burial. During the night, he stole the body and sold it the next morning, before the alarm had been raised. 

Bishop’s father had been a carrier and was said to have amassed quite a fortune over his long life which, when he died at an advanced age, was to be divided amongst his numerous children and his three wives. The last of these wives was considerably younger than the old man, being about forty, and after the death of her husband, and in less than six months, this merry widow married John Bishop, her step-son by another mother, an act of moral if not biological incest. One of Bishop’s half-sisters by another mother, the seventeen-year-old Rhoda, had married Thomas Williams, a former apprentice brick-layer who had been released from his indentures on account of his habitual drunkenness. 

W Clift - The Head of Thomas Williams

Not long before the wedding, William’s had been in custody on suspicion of stealing the dead body of a youth from a house near the Hackney road – women nearby were suspicious when they observed a man carrying a foul-smelling hamper down the road. When the theft was discovered, they identified the thief as Williams but then he had sold the corpse and he was released for lack of evidence. Less than seven weeks after his wedding, he was arrested again, charged with murdering Carlo Ferrier. 

Once a Week - February 27 1864

James May was the son of a barrister and a laundrymaid, who had been sent to boarding school, with hopes that he would follow his father’s profession. He had worked in a law office but didn’t like the work and was eventually apprenticed to a butcher, but he wasn’t too fond of this work either, so he drifted into criminality and body snatching. He made the mistake in thinking that this was an honourable move, and was fond of bragging about his exploits and the sums of money he was making from the gentlemen doctors, until the penny finally dropped that everyone he spoke to despised him utterly and wished themselves anywhere but in his company. He drifted further afield in London and finally washed up in Hounslow, where he met Bishop and Williams. It was then but a short step from there to Australia, bound one-way on a prison ship for Botany Bay. 

Fragment of tattooed skin from John Bishop

The case of Bishop, Williams and May was astonishingly infamous in 1831 – fifty thousand copies of the newsapaper that published their confessions were sold in one day, and together with that of Burke and Hare was instrumental in the passing of the Anatomy Act of 1832. 

We need to consider one more case of Burking however – that of Elizabeth Ross.

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