Old Exeter Town
I doubt you will have seen a public hanging, said the old man to my grandfather. No, you’ll be too young. They were dismal affairs. Like a holiday on a Good Friday. Maybe you’ll think that’s apt, since both are full of crowds and dying. But if you weren’t the condemned, then there was plenty of reason for going. Spectacle of course, soldiers in bright uniforms with ritual, drink and eating and bad behaviour. Though it was a commonplace – after all, men and women were turned off every few months in Exeter, Plymouth too – it was a change from the regular, so people looked out for it. By and large it must be said it was a low class of person as went since most honest folk had to get about their own business, but you’d have been surprised how many could find the time if it was some infamous character or crime involved. So then it would be Quality people and boys truanting from school and all sorts. The town’s idlers or undeserving or lame would go along to meet up and take the chance to bid their sometime friends adieu, the sellers of sweetmeats and broadsides and apples could make a bob or even a couple, cut-purses, pickpockets and riggers as well. It was like the old Lammas Fair, when that was still worth going to, but with a black heart.
I say that because at the centre of this thing, why I called it dismal, is some poor wretch being put to death. Now some deserved it of course, them as murdered and raped and did unspeakable things, but many were only desperate, or unlucky, or had burdens they couldn’t bear, or all three. Maybe some of them welcomed their fate, in the hope of finding a better place, though not many I’d hazard. But I think this was the enticement, the horror that drew the crowds - you stood in the place of the condemned. You might have done quite easy, if things had turned out different for you. And you wanted to know how you would cope. For at our end we will all have to cope and we learn that at mother’s knee. But the condemned have a time fixed for their end, which God spares the rest of us. And the crowds round the gallows all have this same question, which they may not speak – how will it be for me?
So it was that the gypsy band with William amongst them rose from their stopping place beside Broadclyst as soon as the dawn touched upon them, and this being summer, it was early. But within an hour of setting out and as they passed through Pinhoe, the road was already thronged with spectators up betimes and headed in the same direction.
-This promises well, remarked the man the gypsies called Long Jim. Where there’s a crowd then there’s wonga to be earned, and these gordji will spend free because the occasion reminds ‘em that there’s no purpose served by holding it close. But once us get in amongst ‘em, you must needs look to yerself, for they’ll as swiftly take yourn as part with their own, given the chance.
In just a few minutes they crossed a brook and breasted a little rise, and the town of Exeter, or city if you like, was at last in view, maybe a mile or so yet and hiding a bit beyond the hill of Heavitree, but there were the roofs and chimneys with smoke rising in the still air, and with parts of its walls still standing like the old Romans had just left, and above it all sitting like a hen among its chicks the girt roof of the old cathedral and even above that, the massy twin towers of that same church gleaming in the new morning. And William, who had never in his life seen such a place, could only think of the Shining City in its natural glory as old Bunyan describes. So it called to him quite.
Meanwhile though, the little vale below their feet was still in shadow for the moment, like enough, he thought, to be a place of frost in season. The sunlight only slowly crept along the fields towards it, but with it came a stream of small figures out of the town, from here like so many black emmets set on some special insect business. They gathered and circulated about the lowest spot, a hollow heart where stood, as William soon made out, the gallows yard.
The gypsies with William among them descended the short hill and as they did so the crowd mingled across the fields with the crowd from the Sidmouth road as the two came together, and then with the crowd coming out from the city, so that all were quickly part of the milling throng around that same yard. Now this yard was marked out and guarded by a wall which served to keep the public out but not so as to hinder a view of the proceedings inside. In some act of the strangest charity, which defeats me, this wall and the ground it stood on were a gift to the town and maintained by some corporation of tailors. It kept the hangman and his family in clothes leastwise, for back then the clothes of the hanged were still the hangman’s privilege, though you wouldn’t credit it now. The gallows itself was on a little mound in the centre of this yard, no more than a few stout beams with a ladder, a frame of bright sky beyond it, and at that moment empty, harmless. If it bore any weight of dread then the crowd seemed to be unaware, for some leaned upon the wall with their elbows and others rested their backs against it chit-chatting all the while as blithely as farmers at a market cow-stall. William, lacking a breakfast, bought himself a muffin.
The gypsy company had swiftly spread out through the crowd. Long Jim had set up a little table down the road where he intended to get the interest of passers-by, and their money too, in that game with three nutshells. William was wise to this, he knew it from the fair at Shaftesbury. Such was the crowd though that for a while he couldn’t make out his friends of the last day, but then there came a tug at his coat-tails. It was Jo‘s little boy, who pulled him to the edge of the press where his mother was waiting with a paper in her hand. She thrust it at William.
-I got hold o’ thikky sheet, she said. Us got a while to wait afore the hanging, so you being a scholarly sort likely been school us thought ‘ee could read it. And me and these glata can listen. It’s this here Narramore’s hist’ry. He’s one o’them as they’re topping.
William scanned the bit of paper, black and smudgy as these things usually are, for there’s no time and care taken. The printers just want them them out while the crowd is about, and knowing they’ll likely be wrapping a parcel of pilchards next week.
-Us thought as there’d be a picture, said Jo. There’s usually something of the sort.
-I expect there wasn’t space, said William. There’s a deal of writing. But if you sit on the grass with me over there I’ll see what we’ve got.
And this is what William read, near enough.
The Trial and Execution of John Narramore for the Assault and Robbery of Lady Masefield. At eight o’clock in the Morning on Wednesday last Mr Justice Bell sat at the Guildhall in Exeter on the Trial of John Narramore aged Nineteen, for the shocking Assault and Robbery of Lady Masefield at her Home in Queen’s Square. By Reason of the Defendant’s supposed Notoriety and the Boldness of the Offence a considerable Crowd had assembled to hear the Proceedings. Mr George Mather conducted the Prosecution. The Prisoner had no Council. He was indicted for the Offences which took place on 21st of May last.
Lady Masefield herself was the first to give Evidence. Being left alone in her House while her Husband Sir Stephen was engaged in Town, she had bade her Servant shutter and bar the Windows before retiring for the Night. At an early Hour of the Morning and while it was still dark Lady Masefield was awoken by a sound of the Bed Curtains being pulled rudely aside, and then what she discerned to be a Knife was held roughly to her Neck. A Man’s Voice demanded with an Oath the Delivery of her Husband’s Plate and when her Ladyship at first demurred, the Point of the Knife was pushed against her Throat, thereby drawing Blood. Fearing for her life, she led the Assailant to the Pantry wherein the Plate was stored, and unlocking the Door handed to him three silver Vessels and two Trenchers of value fifteen Pounds, whereat the man also demanded and received the Ring from her Finger, which being set with Diamonds Her Ladyship valued at ten Pounds. He led her to a Window at the Rear of the House by which it seemed Ingress had forcibly been made and climbed out into the Garden, boldly bidding Her Ladyship Goodnight and thereby making an Escape. Her Ladyship described the Malefactor as young, small and lithe, with a Young Man’s Voice which had the Accent of the County. Her Ladyship evinced great Fortitude in giving her Testimony in the Presence of the Accused.
The Next called was a Mr Samuel Banks a Jeweller and Silversmith having Premises adjoining Fore Street, Exeter. He identified the Defendant as the Person, previously unknown to him who had come to the back Door of his Shop on 22th May shortly after he had closed it for the Night, and who offered to sell to the Tradesman a quantity of Silver Plate. Mr Banks purchased a Vessel at an advantageous Price, but he became suspicious when News of the Robbery became Public and he informed the Magistrates. Having treated with the Seller at some length he was able to give the Justices a description of the Young Man.
The final Witness was the Sergeant of the Watch Mr Edward Annacott, who informed the Court that having been given certain Information by the Justices he was taking his Leisure in Bury Meadow on 26th May when he saw the Accused in the Company of a Young Woman. He followed the Pair to Bedford Street, and having enlisted the Help of another Constable, detained the Defendant on the Steps of the New Theatre. A Search of his Pockets disclosed the stolen Ring, whereon the Accused was lawfully arrested and conducted to the City Gaol. The Accused said to Mr Annacott on being pinioned, “So it’s to be you Sergeant that takes me at last. I suppose I’ve had my Run and now must make an End.” A subsequent search of the accused’s home in Exe Island by Sergeant Annacott also discovered one of the missing silver Vessels. The remainder of the Plate had not been Recovered, but beneath a broken Floor Board Mr Annacott found a Pistol that wanted a Firing Pan and a silver snuffbox engraved with the Name R.Templeton Esq. Mr Annacott recognised the Same to have been the proceeds of a Robbery on the Honiton Toll Road some twelve months previously and surmised that although of considerable Value the Engraving made it more difficult of Disposal.
The Accused made no Statement from the Dock, but despite his Plea of Not Guilty appeared to accept his Fate, whereby the Jury having considered ten Minutes, duly brought in a Conviction upon both Counts of the Indictment. Mr Justice Bell passing the aweful and only possible Sentence that Narramore be taken from the Court to suffer Death by Hanging on a Date to be fixed, warned the Accused that in the light of the Prevalence of such Offences which encompassed an Attack not only on a Gracious Householder in her own Home but upon the Sanctity of such Property itself, he should expect no Respite from the Process of the Law. The Accused was led from the Court appearing pale but maintaining a firm Step.
The Confession and Account of the Life of John Narramore
Given in his Cell at the Exeter City Gaol on the Night before his Execution in the Presence of the Ordinary who the Sunday previous had preached to the Condemned Man and his fellow Prisoners on the Text from Psalms IX, Ver 16 : The Wicked is snared in the Work of his own Hands.
I was brought up in a tender State in the parish of St.Leonard’s, and at the age of twelve was apprenticed by my Parents to a Saddlemaker whose workshop was below Stepcote Hill in this Town. I was put to lodge with him. The Saddler was demanding of me but at first I took to the Work and thought that I would make Good in the Trade. But after a few Years I found I liked the Work less and my Master scolding me I began to fall into bad Company. In due Course and on bad Advice I left off the Saddling Work and found Labouring Work where being young and strong I could better my Wages. But it pains me to tell my Money I spent on strong Liquor and in Gaming at Cock Fights and Such. It was then I met a young Woman whose name I would not have recorded, but who was in my Company at my Arrest. Having little Experience of the Sex I was persuaded that I loved her as I loved my Life, and so to keep her close and happy I thought that I needed to maintain her as she wished, no matter that I knew she was walking out with Others, which near broke my Heart. I fretted many a Night and Day on this Score, but at last I found a Friend – a false Friend no doubt – who procured for me a Pistol. I did not think to learn how to use the Weapon, as all my Intent was only to alarm. I knew little of the Trade of Highway Robbery, so on my first Occasion I walked out to that Notorious Place on the Plymouth Road where it climbs the Haldon Hill and where I knew others to be successful. I secreted myself there among the Trees, but such was my tremulous State that I let several unlikely Travellers by before accosting two Men who were aboard of a Gig. As it climbed the Hill but slowly I was able to jump nimbly beside them and demand their Money of them with the Pistol held to the Driver’s Ear. They paid up with such alacrity and I made escape so swiftly that I congratulated myself as a clever Scamp and never feared then that my Neck might pay for all. And so I concluded that I should make a Success of this new Career, and please as well my Sweetheart, who never asked the Source of my sudden Riches. I seldom visited the same Spot twice, for fear of a Trap being set for me, and thus I pursued my new Vocation on several Occasions between Chudleigh, Crediton, Honiton and this town. It is said that in my two years, for that they say is the Sneaksman’s allotted Span, I robbed Dukes and Lords and such, but I only know that I took from those who had it to give. Milady Anne Masefeld was such a one too, but I would not have turned Housebreaker so different a Craft is it save that my dear Girl found herself with Child and the Temptation was put in my Way when I was told that Sir Stephen was absent from Home. It is True I had to threaten Lady Nancy with the Knife that slipped the Shutters for me, but she is a sweet Thing with such golden Hair I would not have hurt a Lock of it. How she came by a Mark on her Neck I durst not say. But I curse the Fate that drew me out of the County and into the City where Ned Annacott keeps his Vigilance. I might in Vanity crave six blooming young Maids to carry my Pall, with their Gloves and white Ribbons and Bold Highwaymen with Broadswords too. But I will never see my unborn Child, and my Fate must serve as a Warning to such as me whom all will remember as a wild and wicked Youth yet I pray to my Redeemer that God will take my Soul at last.
At eight o’clock on the Morning appointed the Bell above the Gaol began its mournful Toll and the Condemned Man was brought forth in the Cart that was to convey him to his Fate. He was accompanied therein by another Malefactor Peter Sawyer of St Thomas whose vile and unnatural Crimes from Delicacy we will not describe. When the Cart was halted at Heavitree Bridge Narramore drank off the customary Bumper that was offered him. A large crowd had assembled around the fateful Tree. The two Men talked briefly with the presiding Undersheriff and Narramore appeared calm and resigned while the Ordinary helped the Doomed through their final Prayers. Narramore had no Words for the Crowd having made his Confession as we have here recorded, so that the Ropes about them being tied above they were soon launched into Eternity. Having hung for one hour the Body of Narramore was given over to his Friends for burial, and the Body of Sawyer for Dissection in accordance with the Order of the Court.
Printed in High Street Exeter by E.Brice.
-That’s a sad tale children, ain’t it, said Jo when William had reached its end.
- I trust they’ll mark it, he said, but the children seemed more interested in the comings and goings roundabout them.
- Or ifn they don’t, then I prays the hanging for real will serve. Or us have boxed their ears for nort. She glared fiercely at the pair, who screamed in feigned terror, while she leaned over and ruffled their hair. Weren’t there a rhyme though? she asked William. There usually is.
- It seems not.
-What, no pictures and no song neither? I ought have scanned it more close. That broadside man is taking the piss. Us can sometimes fit ‘em to a tune, or they’re writ that way, and then I got something to sing to Granny, and can gain some money at the next few markets too. Speaking o’ that, us bain’t come for frolics. Too much noise here – us’ll find a pitch down the Exeter road where I can give a song to them that’s arriving. Prickle-eye bush serves to start.
-The Maid freed from the Gallows?
-That’s the one. You going to try your luck?
William considered, but shook his head. The crowd was too big, fretful, for his taste. And he wanted to watch the goings-on while he had a chance. May be I will see you in a while, he said.
-You might. But us’ll be away soon as the cart‘s drawn from under. Granny’ll ‘spect us back tonight. No time to watch the poor buggers twisting and tweedling.
And taking the children by the hand she was off without more.
The crowd had maybe doubled in size while the reading took place. Those at the front found themselves hemmed in and pressed to the wall, and when William tried to join them he was elbowed sharply for his pains. There was the smell of rancid bodies in the press: sweat and wool. So in the end he contented himself with standing a few yards back, but there was still a deal of pushing and shoving. Something sharply poked the back of his leg. He turned round to find a man behind who looked him boldly in the eye.
-Oh, I am sorry, young man, said the stranger, lifting the stout cane that must have done the damage. Though the man didn’t seem unduly dismayed. ‘Tis like a cloud of crows on carrion, this girt mob, and there’s no room to move. My own fault as should have set out earlier.
This gentleman, if I can call him that, was stout, red in the face, dressed in a suit of brown woollen stuff such had been quality once but long since. He pulled off his hat and his wig with it and after a bit of difficulty in the press wiped his seamy brow with a large handkerchief. ‘Tis uncommon hot for the time of the morning, he remarked.
-A fine day, William agreed.
-But not for them as must swing. The man rolled his eyes. Is your leg mending? Good. Can I just squeeze beside you?
William gave way as best he could, but the consequence was the man stood in front of him and William could barely see above his hat. With a little more jostling they were shoulder to shoulder.
-I do need a proper sight and in hearing of the proceedings, said the man. I have to record these miserable occasions for Mr Trewman, and in general he’s a stickler. You are familiar with Mr Trewman? No? You must be from out of the county then.
-Ah. Come here especially for this? William explained he was on his way to Plymouth. The man went on: So you thought you would have some diversion on the way?
-I haven’t seen a hanging before.
-That so? Well, they’re all different and then of a muchness too. Some go to the halter like sheep and others a-begging and a-pleading, but the crowd is the same each time. It’s a jolly for them in a curious way, but they like to see fair play. When they turned off Mrs Furniss, the executioner’s man couldn’t get the rope to stay aloft because he tied it wrong, and Mrs Furniss, with her handkerchief over her face just had to stand there on the cart for another five minutes while they sorted it out. The crowd didn’t like that – keeping the poor woman waiting.
-So you have seen many?
-It’s my employment, Sir. Or a part of it leastways. I help Mr Trewman get out the Exeter Flying Post. You’ll not know it being up country. We do sell a few copies in Dorchester if the mail coach takes ‘em. It’s our weekly journal here. I’m Samuel Hall. The two shook hands and at that very moment a baited silence fell all round. From the distant town came the slow dull clang of a bell. The people listened for a second or two only, before their hubbub broke out anew. So, said Mr Hall, the procession is on its way.
-You’re lucky to see this, continued the news-writer. It’s all done differently in London now, young Sir, all the world’s run mad for innovation. They took the tree down at Tyburn and hang the malefactors outside Newgate Gaol itself, so they don’t have the final journey. It will happen here soon. It’s not an improvement, or even a kindness, if any such can deserve it. The whole point is to draw spectators so the mass of people are thereby deterred. The criminals are supported by the crowd who turn out to see ‘em and the people are gratified by a procession. Why does that not answer? Now this Narramore, one of the two they’re topping today, he was a Larkbeare lad, so he gets a final sight of the village that raised him up, and his friends there are more likely to turn to and see him off. I anticipate there will be a goodly few of them, since he’s made a name for himself. Lady Masefield. Good Lord!
At this, William was reminded of the broadsheet, which he had stuck in his pocket. He pulled it out and showed it to Mr Hall. I was given this, he said. The writer looked through it. Ho, he said eventually, it’s one of Mrs Brice’s. She’s fast off the mark, I have to say.
-But the execution it tells of, said William, it hasn’t happened yet.
-Oh well, no-one’s going to be too particular. Madame Brice does lots of this stuff. She’s probably got the last paragraph all set up ready, and just chops it in from the last hanging – it could be anybody’s. Launched into eternity. That’s hackneyed but very traditional. People expect such stuff. The important thing is to get it to ‘em when they want it, which is mainly today. And if something different transpires afore us, well it’s easy for her to make an amendment and have that something different in the street tomorrow. Few will much remember and they’ll care even less. It’s not the same for the Flying Post of course: we have our subscribers to think of, and like to think they pay good money and the stamp duty too for a fair record – or as fair as Mr Trewman thinks it should be. Now what other stuff has she put in here?
Mr Hall scanned it again, and William said: Why has he he confessed to all that robbery on the highway? He wasn’t brought up to court for any of it.
-Yes, curious ain’t it? Someone has put him up to that, I’ll be bound. Now Mrs Brice, she’s been around in printing since Caxton. Same family as used to publish the Old Exeter Journal. Good enough paper, but too Whiggish for my taste, Mr Trewman‘s neither. What’s likely happened is she’s inveigled herself into the gaol yesterday, and there’s been a promise of a few guineas paid. After all, she wants the best confession she can fill her sheet with, and if it boosts the condemned man he’ll get a better reception from the crowd, and maybe take some heat off his fellows. Who knows? But he’s going to swing tomorrow anyway, so why not? So he tells her what she needs to hear and the money will be handy for someone. His little trollop is expecting it seems.
There was a sort of cheer from the crowd to their right, which parted at length to let through a drab and unmarked coach. Two large men in ill-fitting blue coats jumped from the back, and picking javelins from the roof cleared a path through the press to the yard gate. This made space for the three passengers who to a roar, or maybe it was a jeer, entered the yard. The javelin men cuffed the ears of two ragamuffins who had been notching the base of the gallows with a penknife. The waifs vaulted onto the wall and gurned at the constables behind their backs, to the amusement of the bystanders. The three passengers conjobbled amongst themselves.
-That’s George Turvey, the undersheriff, Mr Hall said to William, he in the old laced three-corner. In a moment the writer caught the eye of Mr Turvey, who acknowledged him with a nod, but straightway turned back to business. Mr Hall went on: Twenty years I‘d guess old Turvey’s done this job, epitome of solemnity, but then you will see him in the London on Sidwell Street tonight and he’ll be laying his money down and cracking stories with the best. Distasteful you might find it, but it’s another day’s work to him. His missus has a little pastrycook’s shop, back of Cathedral Yard.
-And the other two?
-Can’t you guess?
For the first time that morning William felt a chill grip him, struck of a sudden by the reality of this occasion. To his mind’s eye came the remembrance of boys in the village hanging a kitten to see what happened. It scratched and yowled and wriggled and died messily till they laughing, shamefaced, threw the little corpse over a fence. He thought he maybe should have stopped them. It was a long time ago. That’s what boys did.
The hangman, and it must be him because the other was just a youth, his ‘prentice, he wore a yellowed wig from which grey hair escaped almost to his shoulders. Otherwise, you might think he was turned out smart. He was tall, heavy, resting easy on the cane held behind him. He was listening to Mr Turvey, but all the while looking measured around the crowd. No-one wanted to catch that eye though all were watching. This knowing gaze, you see, it drew them all in. Like it asked questions which none could answer.
For a moment, William thought even Mr Hall, seasoned though he be, a bit took on. But the news-writer soon continued on his way, like he was pleased to share his knowledge with a raw newcomer. He said: This man, meaning the hangman, he’s had Exeter’s pelf a while. Done a few in Plymouth as well. Burnt little Becky Downing too, that poisoned her master. You’ve not heard of her over Dorset? It was just a few years back. Bad business all round. I don’t want to see that again, thank you, for all it was right and proper. It sold a few papers though, that one, so it’s an ill wind….. I don’t think I could be cast for a Cynic, do you?
-And this other man, Sawyer, what of him?
Mr Hall made a noise of disgust. He’s a molly, born to hang, and so they all should, just as the Bible says.
-Pshaw. What do they teach you down there in Dorset? They must have ‘em there too, those denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now if anyone‘s for burning, that there’s the Biblical antecedents, but hanging will do. This crowd will likely roast him first though. Ha! Of course I was at the trial at the Guildhall. He wasn’t going to get much kindness from a stout Devon jury, Sir, and it was all done in a twinkle, indictment, trial, sentence. You could tell when they put him up he didn’t expect better.
As so often since setting out, William thought the world stranger than he knew, but he asked: And what manner of man is he?
-Man? Well hardly that, save that he has a pizzle to put about where it’s not fit to go. It seems he was a drawer in the Globe Tavern and he fell in with this buye who came to work there, just starting out, running errands up and down stairs , that sort. But John Bentley, who is the landlord, the owner too, he’s a true Christian for all that he’s a publican, and why not of course and I’ve had many a glass in his tap-room, he grew suspicious. He wasn’t going to have that sort of behaviour in his establishment, and so his first thought was to tell Sgt Annacott. I got this from Mr Bentley himself. They had these buggers watched, but they couldn’t catch them at it, and in the end Mr Bentley decided to get rid of Sawyer for the good of his house. But that weren’t enough for Ned Annacott, he’s a little terrier that man, so he kept his eye on Sawyer, and in the end one of his Watch caught the two together in a stables off North Street. The Watch laid hold of this little catamite, but Sawyer made off. But then the younger molly was afraid for his own neck and he turned approver, so they got Sawyer in haste. Even then, they might just have made a charge of indecent assault, saving his neck, but the Magistrate recognised him as a sodomite from having pilloried the man a while back. Enough is enough.
There was another rough cheer, this time from the Exeter direction. Over the heads of the crowd William could make out descending the hill the glinting points of javelins borne on the shoulders of what he took to be a little company marching, or rather as they were just the local watch, shuffling, down the hill past the straggle of cottages that was Heavitree, and behind them a cart bearing several figures and indeed a couple of coffins. Two more javelins were following on behind.
In a few moments the little train was in amongst the throng. The cart being brought almost to a halt, the foremost constables were obliged to use their javelins to push a route through to the gate. Only the sick or the condemned wear their nightcaps in broad day, and thuswise were these two unfortunate felons marked out. Coming closer, William could see their upper arms crudely tied to their waists, leaving their hands free; which allowed Narramore, for such it must have been by his youth, to lean from the cart and take the proffered hands of acquaintances. But the second felon was sat on the floor of the cart, half-hidden by its rail, and despite of that some in the crowd took the opportunity to lob stones and horse-shit and such at him where he cowered. And all the while alongside the men and clinging to the cart’s rail as it jolted about, the Chaplin-in-Ordinary from the Gaol was doing his best to read from some text which could not be heard over the tumult. And so the cart entered the yard to halt beneath the gallows tree at last. The bystanders near the wall and round William fell silent, the better to catch what transpired, but the crowd behind continued almost as noisy as before, and an orange-man bawled his wares.
The hangman put aside his cane and mounted casually into the back of the cart, where he shook hands with Narramore as if they were met in the church gate of a Sunday. Then he helped Sawyer to rise while the Ordinary supported him to lean on the rail. There was no drama in this. The hangman paid no heed of the eyes upon him. His appearance was no more than a journeyman carrying out his necessary chore. The Undersheriff stepped up beside the cart to speak to the condemned, but had to duck as some brickbat came out of the crowd and flew over the cart. It missed Sawyer and struck the gallows upright behind him. The crowd gave an ironic jeer.
-Now, said the Undersheriff, I won’t have unruliness. These two buyes are lawfully doomed to die by hanging, and hang ‘em we will. I won’t be interrupted. So let’s have respect for the process of the law.
-That’s right Garge, came a voice from the crowd. Just do the job.
The Undersheriff turned back to the cart and pulled from his coatpocket a sealed document. This here’s the warrant, he said to the two men, and I’m bound to read to ‘ee. He began in a halting tone, for he was not a clerkly man, and when he paused for breath he made the mistake of looking up. Narramore seized the opportunity.
-Mr Turvey, I begs of you, he said, I’m fit to die ifn I must, but you can’t turn me off with this creature. I won’t die in scorn.
The Undersheriff looked perplexed a minute and blew out his cheeks. Now John, he said, the Judge has given out the sentence and ‘ee must know buye, I’m bound to carry it out.
-But not thus wise, Narramore argued. You can hang me first ifn you must, but I won’t hang from the same tree as this damned molly.
A little murmur of agreement came from those in hearing distance, but those further back were restive. While Mr Turvey puzzled what to do, the poor molly himself was retching over the side of the cart. Oh Jesus, said Narramore in some disgust. You had to esteem his coolness.
-Mr Turvey, he said, for pity’s sake. My friends are gathered about.
You could see the Undersheriff hardening to his task. What choice had he? He said:
-John, you’m bound to die, and when you’m gone, won’t matter to ‘ee noways.
For the first time, Narramore looked properly anguished, but the Undersheriff waved the hangman on.
The prentice had swarmed the ladder and attached the ropes to the beam, and now the hangman gave a good tug on them for security. He pulled Sawyer away from the rail to have the support of the Ordinary, who catched him about the arm. The Undersheriff called up to the felon: Have ‘ee anything to say? If not, I should say nort, or you’ll just antagonise ‘em against ‘ee else. Sawyer looked too sick or took on to say a word, and to be honest, he didn’t get much chance to collect himself before the Undersheriff moved on. How about you, John? he asked Narramore.
-My Jane. Has she had the money?
-What’s that about then? asked Mr Turvey.
-For what I give the writer, said Narramore.
A woman waved at the cart from the other side of the wall. She was middle-aged, a round body dressed in a shiny green gown that may once have been black.
-Oh, there’s Mrs Brice, said Mr Hall. Never absent from the stalls, I’ll say that for her.
An answer from Mrs Brice seemed to satisfy Narramore, so he just told Mr Turvey he had nothing more to say. She’s got it all writ down, he added. I only wish this hanging were more respectful. Mr Turvey shrugged but nodded to the Ordinary, who began his reading of the psalm:
-Have mercy upon me O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin…
And so the reading continued, but the crowd had heard all this before and their chatter began again round William, till at last they recognised the concluding prayer, which promised the last act:
…who now sits on the right hand of God, to make intercession for as many of you as penitently return unto him. You who are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears. Lord have mercy upon you. Christ have mercy upon you.
And so that would still ring in the ears of the condemned at their last, the hangman in his own mercy directly pulled the nightcaps over their faces, adjusted the halter round each neck and signalled to the driver of the cart.
Now Sawyer had till this moment remained supported by the Ordinary. On hearing the signal and on the first jolt of the cart he broke free and in two steps flung himself in the air and off the back, so that the crack of his neck could be heard across the crowd. From whom there came an instant drawing of breath, like it was their own demise. And so in their surprise, or dismay, they failed for a moment to witness Narramore’s send-off in its turn. But there he was, kicking and jerking at the rope’s end with the life choking slowly slowly from him so that William could look no longer, but still in his mind was the kitten scratching and fighting and when he looked back expecting it to be over the man even now was dancing and turning above his head in that frame of blue sky till the crowd growing restive at last the hangman swung from his feet and put an end to John Narramore.
-Sweet Oranges of Portugal, the cry carried above the crowd. Two a penny. Some of the spectators were already turning away.
-I doubt Mr Turvey will be happy with that, said Mr Hall. It’s the hangman’s job to keep ‘em close and not disappoint the crowd thus. And then you could see Narramore was a lightweight. The rope was too short for him. In general the people only want what’s fair.
Beside the toes of the dead men, the Undersheriff was indeed berating the executioner, though the man was as before, inclined on his cane with his wandering gaze.
-Who’d have thought that the molly had it in him though, continued Mr Hall, to do that? I’ve never seen such a thing.
-What will your paper say of it? asked William.
-Oh, I expect both will be launched into eternity, Sir. Whither then, who knows? That’s good enough for Mr Trewman’s public. And for all of us, to be sure.
William discovered then that he felt a little sick, something uneasy at the pit of his stomach. Death you know, you grow up with it daily on a farm, from the lamb that’s born and gone again next morning, to the family pig that’s raised up by hand for a twelve month, just so as you may cut its throat at Michaelmas. Even the chicken, whose neck you wring talking with a neighbour across the fence and you hardly draw breath. Another death of something which won’t be born again on this earth. But that’s how it must be, for we do not live by bread alone, and so God has given us dominion over all things. But I don’t remember where it says He gave us dominion over our fellow man. For all the stonings and smitings in Holy Writ, each soul stands here only once, leastways till the Resurrection and who knows when that may be.
So William was grateful when the crowd thinned and he could turn away at last. His gypsy company were not to be seen. Mr Hall was pencilling notes in a pocket-book. William was moved to say: I don’t think I could be so indifferent.
-This man Narramore. He had no concern for the ending of his life, only the manner of it.
Mr Hall snapped the book shut, pushed it into a pocket. It was a very little life, he replied.
-But great enough for him.
Mr Hall shrugged. I don’t doubt he’s died with the acclamation of Exe Island in his ears, young sir. Mrs Brice and my publication will preserve his name a while. His friends will toast his memory tonight. Jack Narramore, he was the boy, they’ll say. And next month, nay, week, he’ll be forgotten.
-And his child?
-His whore will have her money, and another diligence will shortly be along to bear her, you may believe. Narramore thought she was free with her favours, or so Mrs Brice implies.
As often happens William was suddenly aware on the instant of its absence that the distant bell had ceased to toll. As the two men walked up the road, the day had become ordinary.
-But then again, if you are troubled, said Mr Hall, it might be that Mrs Brice for once has penned the truth. Even a common felon such as Narramore is entitled to place his faith in his Redeemer. Or sure it will be that everlasting hellfire will soon lend perspective to his long minutes at the rope’s end. I pray that it is so, for all of us, that we will be justified in our turn. And now, if you will give me leave I am pressed to my appointment in this Heavitree hostelry.
Mr Hall touched the brim of his hat in farewell, and promptly turned in at the door of the tavern, where he was immediately swallowed up by the crowd inside. It seems there is something in a hanging that gives a man a thirst. William continued on his way along the road, but when he reached the top of the little hill, and with the old gates of the town now in view, he discovered he had no wish to enter. The dust rose around his feet as he trudged and the warm morning had become hot day, and it bore down upon him. A cloud shadow passed over the roofs of the cathedral, and the reek of the town's sulferous chimneys marred the air. His earlier curiosity was all abated. He no longer felt invited. Beside the famous old alms houses he dropped onto a low wall and took a drink from his flask, but the water was warm and did not much refresh him. Little knots of people continued to pass, returning to the town from their morning’s diversion. Those not excited were subdued, or so it seemed to him. There was, he learned, a new bridge across the Exe downstream and just off the Topsham road. He took direction, and shouldering his bag set off slowly. So he never entered old Exeter town.
This is a variant on numerous eighteenth century hanging ballads. The only recording of the Exeter version may be by Jim Causley on his album Dumnonia