Today (November 13) in London History – “the execution of the century”

The “Execution of the Century” took place on November 13, 1849. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ok, first an extract from an article published in the Guardian a few years ago.

A question. Well, two questions.

One, who’s the distinguished literary historian who wrote the article? And two, who – apart from Dickens – is he writing about?

Here’s the extract.

One of the liveliest PhD students I ever supervised, an American named David Tucker, with a broad streak of Barnum in his Wisconsin makeup, decided, having completed his dissertation on Dickens, against an academic career. The best way he could serve his beloved author, Tucker resolved, was by conducting street-by-street tours around the sizeable fragments of Dickens’s London that have survived the wrecking ball. He’s made a good living out of it, and done some good practical education in the process.

Tucker’s “Dickens Walks” do not shirk the filthy chimneys where apprentice sweeps like Oliver Twist would – after a year or two’s clambering – contract cancer of the scrotum. Nor Newgate, where Fagin swung, tongue and penis protruding in the rictus of death, for the delectation of many of the same people who enjoyed a Dickens novel. Nor the Thames, where the Hexhams fished out suicide corpses for whatever money and jewellery they took with them in their drop off the bridge. Nor Hungerford Stairs on the South Bank, which Dickens, remembering his boyhood suffering as a child labourer in Warren’s Blacking Factory, would, for the whole of his subsequent life, make long, shuddering, detours to avoid. Dickens did not always like Dickens’s world.

To save you the trouble of looking it up, the author is John Sutherland, Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London.

John was my thesis supervisor at UCL. And yes, that lively American PhD student he’s writing about – the one with the broad streak of Barnum in his Wisconsin makeup – c’est moi, David.

It’s a terrific piece. And of course the show stopper in it is the business about Fagin swinging, I’m quoting here now, “tongue and penis protruding in the rictus of death.”

For the record, that rictus of death detail is not spelt out by Dickens. The Victorians knew of course – better than we know – because thousands of them witnessed executions. But Victorian sensibilities being what they were, Dickens would not have able to draw that picture. Instead it’s left to his readers’ imaginations. He goes into great detail about Fagin’s final hours in the condemned cell but he pulls up at the very end. In many ways what he does – leaving it to our imagination the way he does – is probably more effective than a graphic, highly detailed, blow-by-blow account of the drop and the death struggle.

Here’s how Chapter 52, Fagin’s Last Night Alive, ends.

“Day was dawning. A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.”

So, yes, the Victorians were very familiar – probably more familiar than a lot of them wanted to be – with the so-called death erection. Also known as angel lust – talk about mordant humour – rigor erectus, or terminal erection, 

a death erection is a post-mortem erection, technically a priapism, observed in the corpses of men who have been executed, particularly by hanging.  Apparently it’s an indicator that death was likely swift and violent. 

Now actually the willy-nilly sexual aspect of this ghastly business – if I can get away with using that phrase – the sexual aspect of angel lust mainlines us to our Today in London History tale.

It’s November 13th, 1849 and Dickens, along with perhaps as many as 50,000 of his fellow Londoners has just witnessed the double execution of Mr and Mrs Manning. It’s been described as the first “media hanging.” In both senses of the phrase. The press was all over the story. Just about every day. Normally a London murder, unless the victim was rich and/or famous, would maybe get a passing mention once or twice in the press. And the other sense, it was very much a case of trial by newspapers.

For example, on August 18th, the day after the body of the victim, a fairly well to do 50-year-old Irishman named Patrick O’Connor, the Times ended its day’s coverage of the story with this ripe paragraph:

“There can hardly be any doubt that Manning or his wife committed the murder, as they sold all their goods to a broker in Bermondsey Street on Tuesday last, and exhibited a great desire to leave the neighbourhood. Mrs Manning was also at the murdered man’s lodgings on the dy he left and the day after, when she unlocked his drawers, but no suspicion was attached to her as she was in the habit of doing so in his absence. The deceased was possessed of near 4,000 pounds, chiefly consisting of foreign railway bonds and shares, besides about 300 pounds in cash, the whole of which has been stolen. In fact, nothing of the least value has been left. It is expected that the parties, being well known, will soon be in custody.”

My goodness. Can you imagine the grief a newspaper or broadcast medium would be letting itself in for today if it ran a story like that before the law had taken its course. 

So, yes, a media hanging. And the question is, why? Well, that’s an easy one to answer. There was sex, there were fairly high connections, there was money of course and there was a foreign element. Two foreign elements if you count the victim’s Irishness. We’ve seen that the victim was fairly well-off. The murderess – Mrs Maria Manning – was foreign. She was Swiss. She’d landed a top level servant’s job. She worked as a lady’s maid to the wealthy Lady Blantyre, who was the daughter of the Duchess of Sutherland. The Duchess of Sutherland was a close friend of Queen Victoria. And indeed Maria Manning once meant Her Majesty. And a second indeed, she’d married publican Frederick George Manning at St James’ Piccadilly, the society London church.

A graspy, greedy, devious foreign woman – or so the press had it – she wasn’t as keen on our husband as she was on money. She met the rather better well-off Irishmen O’Connor and it’s believed that they became lovers. With the full knowledge of her husband. So we’ve got a menage a trois of sorts, and you can imagine how tittilating that was to the Victorian public. Indeed, when Mrs Manning was hanged, a woman in the audience was heard to exclaim, thank goodness she wasn’t English. 

Actually O’Connor had courted Marie de Roux – her maiden name – at the same time that Manning had. She’d plumped for the younger man, not because of his youth but, so the story goes, because she believed that he was going to come into a lot of money. He’d told her a lot of porkies. When she realised she’d been led up the garden path she got back onto her older Irish suitor. And soon enough decided she didn’t want him but she did want his money.

The crime was certainly premeditated.  Before the murder Maria purchased quicklime and a shovel.

They invited Patrick O’Connor to dinner on August 8th. This was at their house in Miniver Place in Bermondsey. The crime would come to be known as the Bermondsey Horror. On August 8th O’Connor brought a friend with him. So that scuppered the plan for that night. They invited him to come back the next night. He did. Mrs Manning suggested he wash his hands before they sat down to dinner. While he was doing so she shot him in the back of the head with a revolver. Two shots. 

It didn’t kill him. Husband Frederick finished him off. He battered him with a crowbar. What he called a ripping chisel. They buried him, in quicklime, under flagstones in the kitchen. And then they took off. Not together. And not before Maria went to O’Connor’s house and took everything of value.

Everything pointed to them – as the press noted – and when the police got to their house in Bermondsey they noticed that the mortar between two of the flagstones in the kitchen was still damp. Well, one thing led to another. Arrests were made. They were tried. Found guilty. Executed. It was the first time in 150 years that a couple had been executed together. Mrs Manning wore a dress of black bombazine silk to die in. And black bombazine silk promptly went out of fashion.

Finally, getting back to where we started. Charles Dickens. He witnessed the execution. He was part of that crowd of thousands. The death agony of Mr and Mrs Manning was bad enough. It was said it was nearly fifteen minutes before she gave up the ghost. But what horrified Dickens the most was the brutalising effect it had on the spectators. He went away and wrote a letter to the Times. That letter counted for something in the debate that led – not too many years in the future – to the cessation of public execution. Dickens said he was opposed to capital punishment but if it had to exist the condemned should be put to death away from the public eye. He said they should be witnessed in private by a jury of 28. 

Here’s Dickens’s letter to The Times.

“I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities for doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continued from daybreak until after the spectacle was over…

“I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful and the wickedness and the levity of the immense crowd gathered at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wicked murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language of the assembled spectators.

“When I came upon the scene at midnight the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, swearing and laughing and yelling were rife. 

When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly— as it did— it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten.

And it ends with another appeal for executions to be private.  

Well, so much for the great novelist’s reaction to what came to be known as “the hanging of the century.”

But I think you’ll agree, it’s heavy going isn’t it. Surely Dickens had the thing pinned and writhing.

The Today in London recommendation is a no-brainer. 

The Museum of London Docklands has just opened a major new exhibition called Executions. It explores how public executions shaped Londoners’ lives and the city’s landscape. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

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And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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