Today (January 13) in London History – the last highwayman to be gibbeted

Jerry Abershaw was the last highwayman in England to have his body gibbeted after he was hanged. Today, January 13th, is the anniversary of the crime that led to Jerry’s date with the hangman. This is his story.

Jerry Abershaw portrait.TRANSCRIPT

London calling. 

Lots of grisly, macabre London history today. 

Starting with a gibbet on Wimbledon Common. A gibbet with a highwayman’s body in it. The last highwayman’s body to be so exhibited. 

We’ll start with that event – which happened in August of 1795 – and work back to today, January 13, 1795 – work back to the event that set everything in motion.

The story of Jerry Abershawe

The highwayman was 22-year-old Jerry Abershawe. He was a nasty piece of work – probably a psychopath. A psychopath who, into the bargain, was the coolest customer in English judicial and penal history. 

The law, like every institution, had its own rituals, its own little ceremonies, its own dramatic touches. One of them was for the judge to put on a black cap when he was about to pronounce a death sentence. Come that moment in his trial, Jerry Abershawe mocked the judge. More than mocked him. He aped him, put on his own cap, patted his head and eyeballed the judge with a look of the utmost contempt. 

Death row for Jerry Abershaw was Horsemonger Lane Gaol, a mile from the gallows at Kennington Common. Come the appointed hour for Jerry to meet his maker – August 3 1795 – Abershaw played the crowd all the way from the jail to the gallows. He was insouciance itself. He had a sprig of myrtle in the corner of his mouth, he was louche, his shirt open to his waist. All the way there he bantered and laughed and nodded to his friends and acquaintances, as if they were just off to the seashore for a picnic on the beach. 

At the gallows, Jerry spurned the proffered book of prayer. Threw it to the crowd. He kicked off his boots in a last act of defiance to his mother who had said he would die with his boots on.

Ok, now some corporal punishment London history. In 1795 the county of Surrey – Kennington was in Surrey – still used the horse-and-cart method of hanging. The condemned man or woman – for the record, two other people were hanged that day with Jerry Abershawe, one of them a woman who was put to death for murdering her bastard child – anyway, the condemned man or woman stood in the cart that had conveyed them to the gallows. The hangman put a hood over their head and the noose round their neck. The rope would then be thrown over the gallows crossbar and attached to the horse. The horse was then led away, pulled the cart out from under the feet of the condemned, leaving the victim to dangle and strangle. That was the way it was done but Jerry Abershawe wasn’t letting them have their way with him. When the horse started to move he leapt off the cart before it could be pulled out from under his feet. Leapt off the cart and uttered a final curse, in a sense that was two fingers to the law, Jerry was master of his fate right to the end.

That way of conducting business would end five years later. The so-called ‘New Drop’, which had already been used at Newgate for nearly 20 years, was adopted in Surrey in 1800. The New Drop gallows was erected on the roof of Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Obviating the need for a procession, a circus-like cavalcade to Kennington Common. It wasn’t that the authorities were trying to find a more humane way of ending a life – it was that they’d had their fill of the riotous, debauched, carnival-like goings-on that were part and parcel of that procession, part and parcel of every hanging day on Kennington Common. 

Now before we get to the gibbeting, what happened on this day – what happened on January 13, 1795 – that set the wheels in motion for Jerry Abershawe’s appointment with the hangman and his final, consummate performance of contempt – his upstaging of the high and mighty and their law.

That January 13th moment is a tale of two flintlock pistols, two red waistcoats, and a lot more red – blood.

The setting is the Two Brewers public house in Maid Lane in Southwark. Jerry Abershawe is standing just inside the door, a cocked flintlock pistol in each hand. Two men, wearing red waistcoats – that’s the giveaway, they’re Bow Street runners, members of London’s Ur police force – approach the public house. They have been sent there to arrest Jerry Abershawe. He guns them down when they come through the door. Officer David Price is killed. Officer Barnard Turner takes a ball in the head but survives. Abershawe escapes. A fugitive, he’s finally captured and brought to justice a few months later. 

Now it bears repeating, there was nothing gallant, nothing to admire about Jerry Abershawe. He was a cold-blooded killer, several times over. He was brutal. He was much feared. He was a nightmare for travellers on those approach roads to London in the Kingston-Wimbledon-Putney region. 

But that combination – the ice water in his veins and his being the last highwayman to be gibbeted – rightly or wrongly that’s got him a seat on the history bus. 

Three final points, takeaways, really. Two of them about the gibbeting. The other, about Jerry Abershawe’s guns. Those flintlock pistols. What jumps out at you is that he had them at all. This, coming from the perspective of life in 21st century England, a country that practices strict gun control. Clearly that wasn’t the case in the 18th century. The right to bear arms – as the American saying goes – was alive and well in Georgian England. Packing – or not packing – that was simply a matter of how deep your pockets were. Flintlock pistols will have been expensive, beyond the reach of most people. But not beyond the reach of highwaymen who were professionally successful. The other thing that’s striking is the openness about it. They were good-sized affairs, those flintlock pistols. Hard to conceal. And indeed, in most cases 18th-century English NRA types partial to pistols will have carried a brace of them, at least two. Because they were very much a one and done affair. Pull the trigger you were looking at probably a minimum of 30 seconds of close, careful work to get it reloaded. Ergo the need for more than one weapon. I did a podcast a few days ago about The Siege of Sidney Street. Now the fact of the matter is the police were badly outgunned by the Latvian revolutionaries. A couple of days ago I interviewed Donald Rumbelow, Britain’s foremost crime historian, about the Siege of Sidney Street. Don wrote a book on the subject. The interview will come out as a podcast in a couple of weeks. Anyway, I asked him about all that. Don said, “they just openly brought them in, there was no gun control.”

Now, finally, the gibbeting. Gibbeting – putting the body of an executed criminal in chains or affixing it in a cage – like a man-sized birdcage – and hoisting it up to hang from a crossbeam linking two posts – and positioning the grisly affair at the side of a main road – or just outside a city gate – leaving it hanging there for months, rotting, the birds picking away at the carrion, that was supposed to be a deterrent. This is what will happen to you if you break the law. Proved not to be the case. In so many ways. For starters it was a chance for Jerry’s mates to get souvenirs. Like telephone pole linemen they got up there and took what they wanted from Jerry. What they wanted was the bones of his fingers and toes. They used them as stoppers for their pipes. But also buttons from his coat. They made good mementoes. People believed relics from the bodies of executed criminals had special powers, including beneficial medicinal effects. It was a form of witchcraft, really. 

And finally, as part of my research for this piece I unearthed an old old newspaper story – it appeared on March 11, 1796. It’s short. I’m going to read it to you. Goes like this: 

“On Sunday last, about twelve o’clock in the day, a daring robbery was committed on Wimbledon Common by two highwaymen, who stopped Mr Marsh of Old Palace-yard, and his friend, in their own post-chaise, nearly opposite the gibbet of Abershaw, lately erected there, and robbed them of their watches and money, then turned round, and rode a foot pace on towards town.”

The kicker in that little news story is of course those six words: “nearly opposite the gibbet of Abershaw.” If gibbeting was a deterrent you’d think there of all places it would be able to do its thing. If it couldn’t, if it wouldn’t deter there – where would it deter?

Ok, so there you have it, I have stood and delivered here in London. So on that note let me wish you from London – and from London Walks – fare thee well, one and all.

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