Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

Deadly Nevergreen

There is a great talk of ghosts just now. They call them spirits, but ghosts is the good and ancient word of England. These ghosts come when the lights are out, and utter nothing or very little of consequence; and sometimes their remarks are “evidential” and sometimes they are not “evidential,” and on the whole nothing much happens. But how is it — if ghosts are, in fact, accustomed to revisit the lands beneath the moon — that anyone dares to pass the intersection of the Edgware Road with the Oxford Road after night has fallen? For it is stated that the ghosts of men who have died violently are given to revisit the scenes of their taking off. The murdered haunt the places of their dreadful endings; how is it, then, that the site of Tyburn Tree is not dense with the spirits of the great multitude of men and women who perished awfully there during the space of three hundred years or more? One would have said that the very ground would cry out with the agony of all these unhappy souls, that perished there by the old torturous method of execution: the cart driven on, the poor wretch left dangling in the air, to strangle by slow and excruciating degrees. But there are no reports of ghosts by the place of Deadly Nevergreen, Tyburn Tree.

One of the strangest of the ends made at Tyburn was that of Lord Ferrers, who was executed on May 5, 1760, for the murder of his steward, John Johnson. It is probable that Lord Ferrers was, in fact, a homicidal maniac, but, being tried by his peers, he was found guilty of murder and condemned to death, and accordingly was hanged with infinite pomp and ceremony. Every courtesy was shown this unhappy nobleman. He was allowed to drive from the Tower to Tyburn in his own landau, drawn by six horses, instead of in the mourning coach which had been provided by some friends. Mr. Sheriff Vaillant attended him, and observed “that it gave him the highest concern to wait upon him upon so melancholy an occasion, but that he would do everything in his power to render his situation as easy as possible.” Earl Ferrers replied politely, and, being dressed in light clothes, embroidered with silver, remarked that his dress might seem strange, but that he had a reason for wearing it. It is said that this gay and rich habit was his lordship’s wedding suit, and that he remarked that the latter occasion was as good a one for wearing it as the former. And so the procession set forth: a large number of the constables of Middlesex, a party of horse-grenadiers, and a party of foot, Mr. Sheriff Errington’s coach, the famous landau and six, Mr. Sheriff Vaillant’s chariot, a mourning coach and six, and lastly a hearse and six. This horrid pageantry set out from the Tower soon after nine, but moved so slowly that Tyburn was not reached till a quarter to twelve. The condemned man behaved with the greatest calmness, hinted very politely to the chaplain that he was a Deist, censured the late Lord Bolingbroke for suffering his religious sentiments to be given to the world, and as to the late Mr. Johnson, whom he had shot dead, protested that he had not the slightest malice against him, but “he had met with so many crosses and vexations that he scarce knew what he did”— he had been a good deal worried, as we should put it.

At last the procession got as far as Drury Lane, and here Lord Ferrers said that he was thirsty and would like a glass of wine and water. But Mr. Sheriff Valliant pointed out that the dense crowd would become still denser if a halt were made, and that his lordship might be disturbed thereby, whereupon the Earl answered: “That’s true, I say no more, let us by no means stop.” They drew near to Tyburn, and Earl Ferrers said that there was a person waiting in a coach, for whom he had a very sincere regard, and of whom he would be glad to take leave before he died. Again the Sheriff was polite, but firm. He said that if his lordship insisted it should be so, “but that he wished his lordship, for his own sake, would decline it, lest the sight of a person, for whom he had such regard, should unman him, and disarm him of the fortitude he possessed.” Again my lord gave way, and now the landau was over against the place of death.

And here it is to be noted that there were two instruments of execution at Tyburn. One was the permanent three-legged structure, the true Tyburn Tree which stood where the two roads meet. The other was a temporary scaffold sometimes erected in the Oxford road, by the park railings. It was on this scaffold that Lord Ferrers suffered. It was covered with black baize, and on two black cushions the condemned man and the chaplain knelt and, repeated the Lord’s Prayer together. Lord Ferrers took leave of the chaplain and the two sheriffs with many polite expressions, desiring Mr. Sheriff Vaillant to be so good as to accept his watch. Then he called for the executioner, who desired his forgiveness, and his lordship, intending to give the man five guineas, gave it to the assistant hangman by mistake. Hence an “unseasonable dispute between these unthinking wretches.” But Mr. Sheriff Vaillant instantly ended that. And then:

“His neckcloth being taken off, a white cap, which his lordship had brought in his pocket being put upon his head, his arms secured by a black sash from incommoding himself, and the cord put round his neck, he advanced by three steps upon an elevation in the middle of the scaffold, where part of the floor had been raised about eighteen inches higher than the rest, and standing under the cross-beam which went over it, covered with black baize, he asked the executioner, ‘Am I right?’ Then the cap was drawn over his face; and then, upon a signal given by the sheriff (for his lordship, upon being asked, declined to give one himself), that part upon which he stood instantly sunk down from beneath his feet, and left him entirely suspended; but not having sunk down so low as was designed, it was immediately pressed down, and levelled with the rest of the floor. For a few seconds his lordship made some struggles against the attacks of death, but was soon eased of all pain by the pressure of the executioner.”

It was his lordship’s misfortune that he made the experiment of the New Drop in a very early and ineffective stage of that invention.

It was one of the ugly features of the eighteenth century that it was by no means the rough mob of London that alone took pleasure in these hideous scenes. Boswell was an amateur of executions, and there were many elegant gentlemen who made a point of being present and write to each other, in unspeakably loathsome terms, on the matter. Thus Gilly Williams writes to George Selwyn:

“Harrington’s porter was condemned yesterday. Cadogan and I have already bespoke places at the Brazier’s. I presume we shall have your honour’s company, if your stomach is not too squeamish for a single swing.”

And so again, the Earl of Carlisle, another of Selwyn’s correspondents, writes of Hackman, the murderer of Miss Reay:

“He was long at his prayers; and when he flung down his handkerchief for the signal for the cart to move on, Jack Ketch, instead of instantly whipping on the horse, jumped on the other side of him to snatch up the handkerchief, lest he should lose his rights. He then returned, to the head of the cart, and jehu’d him out of the world.”

Dickens has been accused of grossly libelling the famous Lord Chesterfield by his character of Sir John Chester in “Barnaby Rudge.” All good friends of Dr. Johnson will agree that it is impossible to speak too harshly of the detestable Chesterfield. But, that apart, it is doubtful whether a more odious type has ever existed than the bad Whig noble of the eighteenth century.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58