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The Strange Adventures of H
Author: Sarah Burton

PROLOGUE


If you have ever wondered why hangings always take place on a Monday, it is so that the chaplain of the gaol may dedicate all of Sunday to readying his charge to meet his maker. On this Sunday the usual sermon is set aside and in its stead the condemned sermon is preached to the condemned man, who is standing in the condemned pew, in front of which is placed his coffin, lest there is any chance he may for a moment forget that he is indeed to be launched into eternity on the morrow. (I do not pretend to know if this is universally the case, but it is certainly so at Newgate.)

For weeks before, all prisoners will have been required to pray daily at chapel “for those now awaiting the awful execution of the law”, and while the condemned pew may have held ten or twenty following the last Old Bailey sessions, this figure will have dwindled – by disease, by suicide and by reprieve – until perhaps only three or four condemned men remain. On the occasion I relate, there was left only one.

On the day of the condemned sermon, the congregation in the prison chapel is swelled by visitors: curious ladies and gentlemen, who have paid for their seats, the best in the house, from which to view the proceedings. They have come for the next part of the ceremony: the service for the dead. This the chaplain directs at the man who is to be hanged. He speaks at length in awful tones of vice and retribution, sin and suffering, shame and sorrow, grief and wretchedness, hellfire and brimstone; and of those orphaned and widowed by the crime and – worst for the condemned man – those to be orphaned and widowed on the morrow. The condemned man generally collapses, fainting under the weight of his fate, or he may turn white and clammy and become as still as a statue. Some go into a frenzy, spasm, fit, scream, and rave. This is allowed to go on for several minutes before the man is restrained, in order that those guilty of less serious crimes may be suitably impressed with the terror of his case, and so that the curious ladies and gentlemen may get their money’s worth.

The service over, the wretch will be returned to the condemned cell, a stone box perhaps 6’ by 8’, furnished with a rope mat, a stable rug and a vigorous population of vermin of all kinds. His feast is bread, water and gruel. A small barred hole in the wall admits little air and less light, and he is allowed a candle at night. At first, he shared this cell with two or three others, but they have gone on, one way or another, and now he is alone.

I cannot tell you how Praisegod Fricker spent his last night on Earth, as I was not there, and the particulars I have given here I have found out by general enquiry. I know only that the chaplain will surely have exerted himself to break the condemned man’s spirit, if it be not already broken, and to urge him to confess and repent, accept his fate with humility and, above all, not struggle with the hangman.

Fricker made no confession and remained unrepentant and by the time he was given the sacrament early the next morning, he was already drunk. Pinioned and shackled, with the hangman’s noose ready round his neck, he was placed on a cart, facing the rear. He was then driven backwards through the city, through the crowds which lined the route at Holborn and St Giles, until he arrived at Tyburn, to a crowd of several thousand who had come to see him hang. The next part I may relate with greater certainty as to the facts, for I was there.

We had arrived two hours before the hanging, to get a good place, and indeed we were about ten heads in front of the Irish women selling fruit under the gallows. Their bawling, at such close range, with the cries of the piemen and gingerbread sellers and children blowing on their tin trumpets combining with the cacophony of the crowd, made it difficult for Kat and me to talk as we waited, and, being of low stature, I could see nothing past my immediate neighbours. But Kat was taller, and was telling me by signs that the cart bearing Fricker was arriving when a low rumble swept through the crowd. A hanging is like the theatre, but the condemned man must take his bow before the performance. This Fricker did now, as he was driven through the crowd who cheered and jeered in equal measure.

This, as you know, is unusual, as the vast majority of the spectators are generally united for or against the condemned man. They will always barrack and hoot at the executioner, and often throw stones at him, but depending on his crime and his demeanour, the condemned man often elicits some pity from the crowd, especially if his victim is seen as somehow bearing some guilt for their fate. Fricker’s case divided the crowd after this fashion: his convictions were for arson and murder, each on its own a capital offence, but the house he had set ablaze was a brothel, and the woman who had burned within it was one of the most infamous bawds in London. So while his crime was heinous, there were many who sympathised with the intention to rid the city of such vermin, and consequently some cheered him as a hero, while others cried, “For shame,” and “Pity on the poor whores.”

A mixed cheer went up as the cart drew level with the gallows and silence fell as the crowd waited to see what, if anything, would be his final words. Would he beg forgiveness and make a good death, or would he scorn justice and die game? I had once been to a hanging where a famous highwayman had taken the constables, the chaplain and even the hangman warmly by the hand, smiling and thanking them, and then sung ‘The Miller’s Cock’ for the crowd, many of whom shed tears at such a display of courage and defiance. I do not know whether this was worse than seeing the condemned man weeping, fainting, pissing himself and having to be half-carried to the appointed mark.

Fricker was visibly trembling, but though he staggered slightly, he seemed to resolve to gather himself, and then cried out: “God damn all whores!”

At this, a deafening cheer went up.

“And fuck you all!” he added, to an even greater wave of something between a mighty groan of opprobrium and a roar of admiration.

The hangman now had to act quickly. He covered Fricker’s face, ran up the steps and attached the rope to the crossbeam. He came down, took away the ladder, and lashed the horse, who flew forward, pulling the cart behind him, leaving my gentleman swinging, kicking the air.

The onlookers were silent as he kicked and choked and shat himself. It was going on too long. People began to murmur disapproval. And then, to a universal gasp, the gauze slipped from his face, revealing his livid features, his swollen lips and ears, blood issuing from both, his eyes red and protruding from their sockets looking, as it seemed, directly at me. And still he kicked and kicked. I turned my face away.

“You must look,” Kat said, forcing me, taking my chin in her hand. “You must see that it is done, or you will have no peace.”

As he continued to struggle, the rope twisted, and to my relief his head turned away from me. The spectators were becoming increasingly dismayed. At this point, of course, friends or family of the condemned man would not be prevented if they chose to hang on his legs and end his agony. But it seemed Fricker had no friends or family. Voices appealed to the hangman to do the job himself. He hesitated, and as he did so those close enough became aware of a new horror. The rope had stretched so much as Fricker struggled that the tips of his toes now touched the rung of the ladder leaning against the upright. His feet scrabbled desperately for purchase. In one professional lunge, the hangman kicked away the ladder and jumped on Fricker’s legs. This must have broken his neck, for after a few convulsive twitches, he was still.

There was a great sigh, as I suppose everyone had been holding their breath.

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