London, 1751: It’s hanging day at Tyburn and nine condemned criminals, six men and three women, are about to meet their end on the infamous triple tree. Among the crowd come to see them hang is Jack Blackstone, better known as Blackjack the highwayman.
But Jack has not come to Tyburn on this day merely to gawk at the spectacle of a public execution. For among those to be hanged today is Eliza Colson, Jack’s beloved, sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit.
Jack is going to save her from the gallows… or die trying.
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Some background information:
- Hanging Day is a short story of 5500 words. This story is a digital premiere and has never been published previously.
- The characters are all fictional and there has never been a successful rescue from the gallows at Tyburn. However, the description of the execution process is based on actual accounts from the period. See The Newgate Calendar, the proceedings of the Old Bailey as well as these two accounts at the excellent Capital Punishment UK site.
- I should have said, the characters are all fictional with one exception, for John Thrift really was the hangman of London from 1734 to 1752.
- The grislier physical details of the story are based on actual accounts from the period as well.
- Mother Proctor’s Pews were structures very similar to modern grandstands, which were set up around the gallows at Tyburn in 1729 by an enterprising lady whose name is alternately spelled Proctor and Procter. They can be seen in many drawings and engravings of executions at Tyburn such as this famous example by Hogarth.
- Tyburn was located at what is now known as Marble Arch, i.e. where Oxford Street meets Hyde Park and becomes Bayswater Road. There is still a plaque on the ground marking the spot where the gallows once stood.
- It was surprisingly difficult to find out which hymns would be sung at an 18th century execution, for though most accounts mentioned that hymns were sung during executions, none of them mentioned which hymns were sung in particular. One of the very few accounts I found that mention a specific hymn specified “O for a thousand tongues to sing”, a Methodist hymn written by Charles Wesley, brother of John, in 1749, so that’s the one I finally picked.
- Nowadays, Uxbridge is a suburb of London and a terminus of the Picadilly and Metropolitan lines. In the 18th century, however, it was a market town infamous for its crime rate. It also happens to lie along the road that led from Tyburn to Oxford. This makes it the perfect hideout for Jack and Eliza.
- There are plenty of depictions of the infamous Triple Tree of Tyburn. However, most of those originate in broadsides or the Newgate Calendar, hence the artistic quality is rather low. Never mind that the execution victims are mostly men. So the cover image is a portrait of Friedrike Brion, one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s many girlfriends. I picked it because there aren’t all that many suitable images of 18th century middle and working class women. Now Friederike Brion was a parson’s daughter and therefore not working class, but in this portrait she is dressed like an Alsatian farmer’s daughter. Besides, the veil on her head, though part of traditional Alsatian folkdress, looks a bit like the veils and caps worn by those about to be hanged. Finally, I have always liked this portrait, ever since I first saw it in a book called Berühmte Köpfe (Famous heads) years ago.
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