FolkWorld-Article by Henry Mayhew (compiled by Walkin' T:-)M)

Of the Gallows Literature of the Streets

Excerpts from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor (1861)

Ballads on a Subject are always on a political, criminal, or exciting public event, or one that has interested the public. After any great event, a ballad on the subject is often enough written, printed, and sung in the street, in little more than an hour. The broad-sheet known in street-sale is an unfolded sheet, varying in size, and printed on one side. The word is frequently used to signify an account of a murder or execution, but it may contain an account of a fire, an awful accident and great loss of life, a series of conundrums, as in those called Nuts to Crack, a comic or intended comic engraving, with a speech or some verses, or a bill of the play.

Under Of the `Gallows' Literature of the Streets I class all the street-sold publications which relate to the hanging of malefactors. That the question is not of any minor importance must be at once admitted, when it is seen how very extensive a portion of the reading of the poor is supplied by the Sorrowful Lamentations and Last Dying Speech, Confession, and Execution of criminals. The procedure on the occasion of a Gallows I good murder, or of a murder expected to turn out well, is systematic. First appears a quartersheet (a hand-bill, 9½ in. by 7½ in.) containing the earliest report of the matter. Next come half-sheets (twice the size) of later particulars, or discoveries, or - if the supposed murderer be in custody - of further examinations. Then are produced the whole, or broad-sheets (twice the size of the half-sheets), and, lastly, but only on great occasions, the double broad-sheet.

The most important of all the broad-sheets of executions, according to concurrent, and indeed unanimous, testimony is the case of Rush. The sheet bears the title of The Sorrowful Lamentation and Last Farewell of J. B. Rush, who is ordered for Execution on Saturday next, at Norwich Castle. There are three illustrations. The largest represents Rush, cloaked and masked, shooting Mr. Jermy, Sen. Another is of Rush shooting Mrs. Jermy. A prostrate body is at her feet, and the lady herself is depicted as having a very small waist and great amplitude of gown-skirts. The third is a portrait of Rush from one in the Norwich Mercury. The account of the trial and biography of Rush, his conduct in prison, &c., is a concise and clear enough condensation from the newspapers. Indeed, Rush's Sorrowful Lamentation is the best, in all respects, of any execution broad-sheet I have seen; even the copy of verses which, according to the established custom, the criminal composes in the condemned cell - his being unable, in some instances, to read or write being no obstacle to the composition - seems, in a literary point of view, of a superior strain to the run of such things. The worst part is the morbid sympathy and intended apology for the criminal.

This vain world I soon shall leave, dear friends in sorrow do not grieve;
Mourn not my end, though 'tis severe, for death awaits the murderer.
Now in a dismal cell I lie, for murder I'm condemn'd to die;
The scaffold is awaiting me, for Jermy I have murdered thee;
Thy hope and joys - thy son I slew, thy wife and servant wounded too.
My cause I did defend alone, for learned counsel I had none;
I pleaded hard and questions gave, in hopes my wretched life to save.
Oh, Emily Sandford, was it due that I should meet my death through you?
If you had wish'd me well indeed, how could you thus against me plead?
I've used thee kind, though not my wife: your evidence has cost my life;
A child by me you have had born, though hard against me you have sworn.
The scaffold is, alas! my doom, - I soon shall wither in the tomb:
God pardon me - no mercy's here for Rush - the wretched murderer!

The next broad-sheet is the Life, Trial, Confession, and Execution. This presents the same matter as the Lamentation, except that a part - perhaps the judge's charge at the trial, or perhaps the biography - is removed to make room for Street Ballads the Execution, and occasionally for a portion of the Condemned Sermon. I cite the Life, Trial, Confession, and Execution of Mary May, for the Murder of W. Constable, her Half-brother, by Poison, at Wix, near Manningtree:

"At an early hour this morning the space before the prison was very much crowded by persons anxious to witness the execution of Mary May, for the murder of William Constable, her half-brother, by poison, at Wix, Manningtree, which gradually increased to such a degree, that a great number of persons suffered extremely from the pressure, and gladly gave up their places on the first opportunity to escape from the crowd. The sheriffs and their attendants arrived at the prison early this morning and proceeded to the condemn cell, were they found the reverend ordinary engaged in prayer with the miserable woman. After the usual formalities had been observed of demanding the body of the prisoner into their custody she was then conducted to the press-room. The executioner with his assistants then commenced pinioning her arms, which opporation they skillfully and quickly dispatched. During these awful preparations the unhappy woman appeared mently to suffer severely, but uttered not a word when the hour arrived and all the arrangements having been completed, the bell commenced tolling, and then a change was observed, to come over the face of the prisoner, who trembling violently, walked with the melancholy procession, proceeded by the reverend ordinary, who read aloud the funeral service for the dead. When the bell commenced tolling a moment was heard from without, and the words Hats off, and Silence, were distinctly heard, from which time nothing but a continual sobbing was heard. On arriving at the foot of the steps leading to the scaffold she thanked the sheriffs and the worthy governor of the prison, for their kind attentions to her during her confinement; & then the unfortunate woman was seen on the scaffold, there was a death like silence prevailed among the vast multitude of people assembled. In a few seconds the bolt was drawn, and, after a few convulsive struggles, the unhappy woman ceased to exist."

I cannot refrain from calling the reader's attention to the copy of verses touching Mary May. They seem to me to contain all the elements which made the old ballads popular - the rushing at once into the subject - and the homely reflections, though crude to all educated persons, are, nevertheless, well adapted to enlist the sympathy and appreciation of the class of hearers to whom they are addressed:

In Essex boundry I did dwell, my brother lived with me,
In a little village called Wix, not far from Manningtree.
In a burial club I entered him, on purpose him to slay;
And to obtain the burial fees I took his life away.
His tea for him I did prepare, and in it poison placed,
To which I did administer, - how dreadful was his case.
I strove the money to obtain, for which I did him slay,
By which, also, suspicion fell on guilty Mary May.
And for this most atrocious deed I at the bar was placed,
The Jury found me guilty, - how dreadful was my case.
The Judge the dreadful sentence pass'd, and solemn said to me,
You must return from whence you came, and thence unto the tree.
Good people all, of each degree, before it is too late,
See me on the fatal tree, and pity my sad fate.
My guilty heart stung with grief, with agony and pain, -
My tender brother I did slay that fatal day for gain.

To show the extent of the trade in execution broad-sheets, I obtained returns of the Gallows II number of copies relating to the principal executions of late, that had been sold.

  Of Rush  2,500,000 copies  
   "   the Mannings    2,500,000    "
   "   Courvoisier  1,666,000    "
   "   Good  1,650,000    "
   "   Corder  1,650,000    "
   "   Greenacre  1,666,000    "

Reckoning that each copy was sold for 1d. (the regular price in the country, where the great sale is), the money expended for such things amounts to upwards of 48,500l. in the case of the six murderers above given.


Street-Sellers, Chaunters and Minstrels (FW#26)
London Labour and the London Poor

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