‘The Deadly Nevergreen': Public Hangings at Tyburn

They called it ‘the deadly nevergreen’, the tree which bore fruit all year long. The scaffold at Tyburn consisted of three posts—each ten to twelve feet high—held together by three wooden crossbars at the top. For those who gazed upon it, it was a chilling reminder that life outside the law could indeed be as Thomas Hobbes had described it: ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Tyburn had been a place of execution since the 12th century, although a permanent scaffold was not erected there until the late 15th century. Between 1169 (when the first recorded execution took place) and 1783 (when hangings were moved to Newgate Prison), an estimated 40,000-60,000 died at Tyburn. Amongst these were Perkin Warbeck (1499), pretender to the throne; Elizabeth Barton (1534), the prophesising nun; Francis Dereham (1541), Queen Catherine Howard’s lover; and Jack Sheppard (1724), the notorious thief and escape artist.

Beginning in the 18th century, Tyburn became a battleground between the surgeons who needed to procure corpses for dissection and the mob who fought ferociously to protect the dead from this indignity. Samuel Richardson, writing in 1740, described such a scene:

As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters [sic], and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed…and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at. [1]

Before the day of reckoning, the condemned went to great lengths to protect their bodies from the dissection table. They appealed to family, friends, lovers and acquaintances. Martin Gray begged his uncle to come to his execution in 1721, ‘lest his Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death’. [2] Sarah Wilmhurst, who was convicted of murdering her bastard child in 1743, was more concerned that her father and brother would fail to secure her body after the execution than with the prospects of death itself. [3]

Most telling of all was a plea made by Vincent Davis, who was condemned to die after murdering his wife, Elizabeth, ‘by giving her with a Knife one mortal Wound in the Right Side of the Breast’. During his consignment, Davis

…sent many Letters to all his former Friends and Acquaintance to form a Company, and prevent the Surgeons in their Designs upon his Body…So great were these Apprehensions that he should be Anatomiz’d, that…he desired and wish’d he might be hang’d in Chains to prevent it, and with that view affronted the Court of Justice. [4]

The court did not acquiesce to his pleas; however, on the day of execution, Davis’s friends fought the surgeons for his body and won. He was later buried in Clerkenwell. [5]

These battles were not for the faint-hearted. Accounts from the Barber Surgeon’s Company reveal how violent scenes around the gallows could become. An entry from 1739 records: ‘Paid the Beadles for their being beaten and wounded at the late execution £4.4.0.’ Another entry from 1740 reads: ‘Paid for mending the windows broke upon bringing the last body from Tyburn. £0.6.0.’ In one record we discover that the ‘dead man’s clothes…were lost in the scuffle’. The hangman who had procured the body thus required 15 pence compensation as the clothes of the executed rightly belonged to him. [6]

Even after the passage of the Murder Act in 1752—which dictated that the bodies of all murderers be dissected and anatomised—battles between surgeons and the mob continued to escalate. Eventually, ‘the deadly nevergreen’ was taken down after the last criminal—John Austin—was hanged there on 3 November 1783. From that point forward, public hangings took place just outside the walls of the Newgate Prison. Given the close proximity of Surgeon’s Hall to the site of execution, it was easier for surgeons to procure bodies for dissection away from the prying eyes of an angry crowd.

Nonetheless, surgeons continued to be the object of public loathing and ridicule well into the 19th century, until the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally severed the links between dissection and punishment forever.

Tyburn, however, has been immortalized in the imagination of the public as a place of horror and death. In the words of the 17th-century poet, John Taylor:

I have heard sundry men oft times dispute
Of trees that in one year will twice bear fruit.
But if man note Tyburn, ‘will appear
That that’s a tree that bears twelve times a year.

1. Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, 1928 edn., p. 219.
2. The Ordinary’s Account, 3 April 1721.
3. The Ordinary’s Account, 18 May 1743.
4. The Ordinary’s Account, 30 April 1725.
5. Peter Linebaugh, ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’, in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1975; repr. 1988), p. 81.
6. S. Young, Annals of the Barber-Surgeons of London (1890).

19 comments on “‘The Deadly Nevergreen': Public Hangings at Tyburn

  1. […] ‘The Deadly Nevergreen’: Public Hangings at Tyburn  […]

  2. The comment that there was “betting on whether their[sic] would be a ‘short drop’ … ‘standard drop’ … and the long drop” makes no sense. All executions at Tyburn would qualify as short drop hangings because the condemned would drop an absolute maximum of two feet with about one foot being average. There were cases in the 20th century where a hanged person’s heart didn’t stop for 29 minutes and thus the individual technically lived that long after being hanged (incidentally, these were all long drop executions). However, they may not have been conscious during any of that time.

    As for the short drop: I have talked to three people who have made failed suicide attempts by hanging. They have all said it was excruciatingly painful and they wouldn’t try killing themselves again by that method. From a limited amount of evidence, it’s my conclusion that the time frame for when unconsciousness ensues from a short drop hanging is anywhere from almost immediately to about one minute. I do not believe any story where the hanged individual was supposedly conscious after three minutes, although, they could still have movements of their arms and legs long after becoming unconscious.

  3. You forgot to mention that the best part of a public hanging was the betting on whether their would be a “short drop” (rope not long enough, victim slowly suffocates to death), the “standard drop ( neck snapped immediately for instant death) and the long drop (rope is too long, might snap the head off the body). The “short drop” was most desirable, as the crowd could wager on how long it would take for the victim to die and marvel at the different shades of blue of the victim’s face. Of course, for added excitement, relatives might rush forward to hang on the victim, to hasten his or her demise. Lots of fun for the whole family!

    • Thanks for your comments! The ‘drop & jerk’ emerges after the period in question, although it’s certainly true that children would hang on the legs of victims in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    • Miss Mary Seymour says:

      I am not sure where you got your information about “blue faces”. It was the custom a Tyburn – at least during the classic period of the 17th & 18th centuries for the condemned to provide themselves (or to be given) a white cotton night-cap. This they wore in the cart on the 3 hour journey from Newgate to Tyburn and once the halters were fixed to the beam overhead and all was ready, the executioner pulled the nightcap down to cover the man’s face so that no one could see his expression as he died. (It gave the condemned an illusion of privacy at the last moment, too.) It was also believed that the touch of a hanged man’s hands had healing properties, and people with tumours, warts &c would bribe the hangman to allow them to rub the dead person’s hands over their sore &c before he was cut down. There is much argument as to how long it took a person to die by this mode of hanging. The answer is almost every case was different. If vagal inhibition kicked in as the rope tightened, then the person’s heart stopped almost instantly. The less lucky could struggle for up to 20 minutes depending whether the rope was constricting the windpipe or compressing blood vessels. But it must be remembered that a struggling person was not necessarily a conscious or even an alive one. Some convulsions occur after the person is dead.

      • Thanks! Much of this information is discussed in this and other articles on the site (except the bit about the white cotton night-cap, fascinating).

        All my research is footnoted should you want recommendations on further sources.

  4. I was seeking this certain information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  5. Amardeep Singh Sadhra says:

    I remember this in an old history lesson. Loved reading this refreshing the old grey cells :-)

  6. [...] bibliopegy? Or why anatomical collections came into existence in the first place? What about the executioner’s role in medical history? Or how body-snatchers dealt with the physical and emotional realties of [...]

  7. Mike says:

    Fascinating! Thank you for posting.

  8. billy reid says:

    no mention though ov that quaint englais habit ov bleeding the hung bodies into goblets to then pass, sip by sip, through the crowd, prior to the “surgeons” presentations ov the “sweet-meats” to the royals’ kitchens.
    tip, ignore the “disneyland/for the tourists” above ground england, and dig through their soft chalk underlayers for the real sasanach, the morlockian “sawney beans” that breed to plague proportians before their every looting frenzy, (or did y’all not notice that, with large areas ov above ground england STILL pastoral, and no “council estate” high-rises etc in even victorian england, that they STILL somehow were able to birth enough cannon fodder to over-run entire Planet, INCLUDING India and CHINA, even their propensity to multiplebirth -such az yet again in the past 2or3decadez -“litterings” – or should that be “clutchings” doesn’t explain the vast numbers of them prior to their every looting frenzy) from Ireland’z 1st invasion by them (when we foolishly thought Padraig’z Warriorz had finished their threat) through victorian englais murderous pillaging ov nearly every land on Planet, to now, az they sneak in again to the middle east and Africa handing out guns to the sycophantic corgi sleepers they left there in reserve when last they were driven back to england (oh yeah, and shut down that damn bigben ticking and chiming, and thoze sickening churchbells, the lands surrounding england prefer, like all LIVING Creaturez, to “time” to their own Heartbeatz, not to be brainwave entrained into metro gnomes by thudding ticks of clubbing troglodyte snakes.) >:(

  9. Good piece on the history of hangings at Tyburn in London and the issues around use of human bodies for dissection.

  10. This isn’t a blog about whether capital punishment is right or wrong, it is a purely historical piece of information. I’d be much obliged if the religious comments were taken to an appropriate forum. If you have an axe of your own to grind, start your own blog. It’s free and it’s easy.

  11. Marian says:

    Aquinas approved of capital punishment. Many others do – who can’t ?

    The word of Jeshua / Jesus was very simple: Thou shalt not kill. Jesus readministered the Decalogue which Moses was given, but which He smashed into the earth, when He saw His people worshipping the Moloch.

  12. Marian says:

    According to the IPSISSIMA VERBA Jesus does not accept capital punishment. Jesus was a special person, who spoke the truth. He practiced situation ethics and confronted conventional society. He was confrontational. The eschatological stance of the early Christian related to His understanding of the nature of life, the faith in the Christian church, and the relegation of pagan superstitions.

  13. [...] The Tyburn jig was a dance no one ever performed voluntarily, because “dancing the Tyburn jig” was a cheery little slang term for being hanged to death at Tyburn–the “deadly nevergreen” tree that bore fruit all year around. [...]

  14. Interesting that there was so much horror at the idea of being dissected – and that the same is true today! As a family we have left our bodies to be dissected by students at Cambridge [in the hopes that if they have some dead ones to play with they won't then mangle the live ones too much when they become surgeons] and several people have expressed some horror at the idea. In this day and age!
    I hope there’s an afterlife; I’d like the opportunity to watch.

    • Marian says:

      Hello. We are all headed for dissecting – by the ruling class, by proxy. Good of you to mention it.

      Good to mention it – won’t make any difference.I’ve made my will – I pray it will be upheld – but they can change any document. clever – get in anywhere. Leave their mark.

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