For Doctor Johnson it was ‘legal massacre’. Dickens called it ‘the Punishment of Death’, and to the particoloured unfortunates who themselves passed under the gallows at Tyburn and elsewhere, it was variously known as ‘the cheat’, ‘cramp jaw’ or ‘the breath stopper’.
To be hanged during the Hanoverian reigns was not unusual. In 1721, when the notorious Waltham Black Act was passed, two hundred capital offences were recognised on the statute book. Between 1703 and 1772, the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account records the hanging of 1,242 men and women on 243 hanging days in London. The judiciary regarded execution as the chief instrument of punishment for crimes as minor as the theft of two woollen caps.
Some historians interpret the increase in capital punishment in the eighteenth century as the natural response of the propertied classes to the unprecedented levels of crime which resulted from the city’s rapid expansion and accumulation of wealth. In the absence of any effective means of detection – a police force