The most famous site in London for executions was Tyburn, now Marble Arch, and Silas Told spent some 20 years ministering to the condemned and accompanying them to the site where they would be ‘turned off”. The crowds attending were often large and rowdy, but their behaviour depended on the nature of the crime, and whether the convicted showed any signs of remorse. In an earlier post, a brave highwayman was cheered as he refused a blindfold and stepped off the ladder, accepting his fate with gallantry. The mob’s response was to steal his body and bury it with quicklime to keep it from the surgeons. This is Silas’s account of his first visit to the condemned:
“… it was not without much shame, because I perceived the greater part of the populace considered me as one of the sufferers. when we came to the fatal tree, Lancaster lifted up his eyes, thereto, and said, “Blessed be to God!” then prayed extempore in a very excellent manner, and the others behaved with great discretion. John Lancaster had no friend to procure him a proper interment; so that when they had hung the usual time, and were cut down, the surgeon’s mob secured his body, and carried it over to Paddington. when the mob was dispersed, a remarkable occurrence took place:-
A company of 8 sailors, with truncheons in their hands, looked up to the gallows with an angry countenance, the bodies having been cut down some minutes previous to their arrival. An old woman, who sold gin, observing them to grow violent, by reason of their disappointment, mildly said, “Gentleman, I suppose you want the man that the surgeons have got.” “Ay,” replied the sailors, “where is he?” She told them that the surgeon’s crew had carried them over to Paddington, and pointed out to them the road hither. They hastened away and as they entered the town, inquired where the surgeon’s mob was. On receiving the information they wanted, they went and demanded the body of John Lancaster. When they had obtained it, 2 of them took him on their shoulders and carried it round by Islington. They being tired, 2 others laid themselves under the body, and carried it from thence to Shoreditch; then 2 more carried it from Shoreditch to Coverlet’s Fields; at length, after they were all weary, and unable to carry it farther, they agreed to lay it on the step of the first door they came to. They did so, and went their way.
This gave birth to a great riot in the neighbourhood, which brought an old woman, who had lived in the house, downstairs. when she saw the corpse at the step of the door, she cried out, “Lord, here is my son, John Lancaster!” This being spread abroad, the Methodists [ie Silas’s people] made a collection, and got him a shroud and a coffin. This event was the more singular, as the seamen had no knowledge of the body nor to whom he belonged when living. My second wife went with me to see him previous to the burial; but neither of us could perceive the least alteration in his visage or features, or any appearance of violence on any part of his body. A pleasant smile appeared in his countenance, and he lay as in a sweet sleep.”