Thursday, February 26, 2015

John Price: The Executioner Executed

By Catherine Curzon

 “The execution of John Price, the late Hangman, in Bunhill-Fields, is put off till the latter End of this Week.”
Post Boy (London, England) 20th May 1718

This simple line, glimpsed in the pages of the Post Boy, caught my attention as I browsed through the Burney Collection in an idle moment. The mention of an executioner on the scaffold sparked my imagination as I wondered what could possibly have led to such a reversal of fortune as John Price, once the hangman, found himself on the wrong end of the noose. This tale is one of violent death and swift Georgian justice, as the executioner became the executed!

As a villain, John Price seems torn straight from the pages of sensationalist literature. Born in 1677 in St Martin’s in the Fields, following the death of his soldier father in Tangier, the family found itself plunged into poverty. Thanks to their situation, there was no question that Price might undertake any education and instead he began on the lowest rung of the rag selling trade, supplementing his income with any number of petty crimes. Of course,  this was no job for boy with a wanderlust and ambition and eventually the young man went into the navy, where he remained for the better part of twenty years.

Newgate
Upon his return to England, Price lived at first from the proceeds of petty crime, existing as a pickpocket on the streets of the capital and drinking his way into regular oblivion. He was in and out of trouble yet managed, for the most part, to avoid anything too serious, yet things were hardly going well. However, Price's years at sea had left him with a talent for knots and this was to come in very useful during his search for an honest wage. The gallows at Bunhill Fields in London needed a hangman and the former seaman was the ideal candidate for the role, which he assumed in 1713 at the age of thirty six. For approximately three years, it seemed, Price's life might be some way to being on track yet his weaknesses for drink and gambling were to prove ruinous.

There was nothing that Price liked more than to spend his wages in the alehouse and the more he drank, the more he gambled until, as sure as night follows day, his debts overwhelmed him. Thrown into Marshalsea, Price languished for two long years yet he would not be cowed and, after two years, he made good his escape by smashing a hole through the wall of the prison itself!

On 13th March 1718, Price found himself in Moorfields where Elizabeth White, a woman who sold baked goods and gingerbread on the street, was making her way home after a day of work. At ten o’clock that evening she had been out of the house for twelve hours and was, no doubt, ready for her bed before another long day of toil. Instead, Price accosted Elizabeth in the street and attempted to rape her. She resisted with a fierce might yet Price beat her mercilessly, leaving Elizabeth with broken bones, blinded in one eye and with a catalogue of horrific injuries.

The sound of the assault alerted Alexander Dufey, a passerby, to the crime and he found Price standing over Elizabeth’s body. At first Price claimed that she was simply drunk yet Dufey could see despite the night that she was seriously injured and half naked. The poor woman was rendered unable to speak by her injuries and could only groan in agony, though her assailant maintained that she was uninjured and drunk. Dufey's cry for help brought other witnesses running and Price was detained and taken into custody. In a sad twist, Elizabeth’s own son, a watchman, was at the watch house that night. He had gone back to the home he shared with his mother and found it locked up so returned to work, little guessing that he would find his own mother’s murderer there under arrest.

Thrown into Newgate, Price continued to maintain his innocence and, after lingering on for four agonising days, Elizabeth died without regaining consciousness. On trial at the Old Bailey, Price claimed that he had done nothing but find the woman in the street and was, in fact, attempting to help her as he believed she was drunk. The jury, however, disagreed, and John Price was sentenced to hang.

Taken to Newgate to await his death, Price turned to drink once more as he had throughout his life. He passed the days from court to gallows in a fog of insensibility, maintaining right until the day of his death that he was an innocent man. However, as he was prepared for his journey to the scaffold where he had once worked, Price confessed. Even now he could not bring himself to take full responsibility and pleaded that he had been drunk and was not in control of his own actions.

On 31st May 1718 John Price was hung before a crowd and told them, as the hood was placed over his head, that they should take a lesson from what had become of him. In his final moments he asked those who had gathered, perhaps optimistically, that they pray for his sorry soul.

References

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 22 February 2015), April 1718, trial of John Price, the quondam Hangman (t17180423-24). Post Boy (London, England) 20th May 1718
Cawthorne, Nigel, Public Executions: From Ancient Rome to the Present Day, Arcturus Publishing (2006)
Nelson, John, The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Islington, in the County of Middlesex, T Lester (1829)
Wade, Stephen, Britain's Most Notorious Hangmen, Wharncliffe Books (2009)
Webb, Simon, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain, The History Press (2011) 

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Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

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