Chapter 13 A Hanging

The execution of the notorious axe murderess Emma Barnes on August 28, 1854, was a well-publicized affair. On the evening prior to the execution, the first of the crowds began to gather outside the high granite walls of Newgate Prison, where they would spend the night in order to be assured of a good view of the spectacle the following morning. That same evening, the gallows was brought out and assembled by the executioner's assistants. The sound of hammering would continue long into the night.

The owners of nearby rooming houses that overlooked Newgate square were pleased to rent their rooms for the evening to the better class of ladies and gents eager to get a room with a good view over the site for a "hanging party." Mrs. Edna Molloy, a virtuous widow, knew perfectly well the value of her rooms, and when a well spoken gentleman named Pierce asked to hire the best of them for the night, she struck a hard bargain: twenty-five guineas for a single evening.

That was a considerable sum of money. Mrs. Molloy could live comfortably for a year on that amount, but she did not let the fact influence her, for she knew what it was worth to Mr. Pierce himself--- the cost of a butler for six months, or the price of one or two good ladies' dresses, and nothing more substantial than that. The very proof of his indifference lay in the ready way he paid her, on the spot, in gold guineas. Mrs. Molloy did not wish to risk offending him by biting the coins in front of him, but she would bite them as soon as she was alone. One couldn't be too careful with gold guineas, and she had been fooled more than once, even by gentlemen.

The coins were genuine, and she was much relieved. Thus she paid little attention when, later in the day, Mr. Pierce and his party filed upstairs to the hired room. The party consisted of two other men and two women, all smartly turned out in good clothes. She could tell by their accents that the men were not gentlemen, and the women were no better than they looked, despite the wicker baskets and bottles of wine they carried.

When the party entered the room and closed the door behind them, she did not bother to listen at the keyhole. She'd have no trouble from them, she was sure of it.

Pierce stepped to the window and looked down at the crowd, which gathered size with each passing minute. The square was dark, lit only by the glare of torches around the scaffolding; by that hot, baleful light he could see the crossbar and trap taking shape.

"Never make it," Agar said behind him.

Pierce turned. "He has to make it, laddie."

"He's the best snakesman in the business, the best anybody ever heard speak of, but he can't get out of there," Agar said, jerking his thumb toward Newgate Prison.

The second man now spoke. The second man was Barlow, a stocky, rugged man with a white knife scar across his forehead, which he usually concealed beneath the brim of his hat. Barlow was a reformed buzzer turned rampsman--- a pickpocket who had degenerated to plain mugging--- whom Pierce had hired, some years back, as a buck cabby. All rampsmen were thugs at heart, and that was precisely what a cracksman like Pierce wanted for a buck cabby, a man holding the reins to the cab, ready to make the getaway--- or ready for a bit of a shindy, if it came to that. And Barlow was loyal; he had worked for Pierce for nearly five years now.

Barlow frowned and said, "If it can be done, he'll do it. Clean Willy can do it if it can be done." He spoke slowly, and gave the impression of a man who formed his thoughts with slowness. Pierce knew he could be quick in action, however.

Pierce looked at the women. They were the mistresses of Agar and Barlow, which meant they were also their accomplices. He did not know their names and he did not want to know. He regretted the very idea that they must be present at this occasion--- in five years, he had never seen Barlow's woman--- but there was no way to avoid it. Barlow's woman was an obvious soak; you could smell the gin breath across the room. Agar's woman was little better, but at least she was sober.

"Did you bring the trimmings?" Pierce asked.

Agar's woman opened a picnic basket. In it, he saw a sponge, medicinal powders, and bandages. There was also a carefully folded dress. "All I was told, sir."

"The dress is small?"

"Aye, sir. Barely more'n a child's frock, sir."

"Well enough," Pierce said, and turned back to look at the square once more. He paid no attention to the gallows or the swelling crowd. Instead he stared at the walls of Newgate Prison.

"Here's the supper, sir," said Barlow's woman. Pierce looked back at the supplies of cold fowl, jars of pickled onion, lobster claws, and a packet of dark cigars.

"Very food, very good," he said.

Agar said, "Are you playing the noble, sir?" This was a reference to a well-known magsman's con. It was said sarcastically, and Agar later testified that Pierce didn't care for the comment. He turned back with his long coat open at the waist to reveal a revolver jammed into the waistband of his trousers.

"If any of you steps aside," he said, "you'll have a barker up your nose, and I'll see you in lavender." He smiled thinly. "There are worse things, you know, than transportation to Australia."

"No offense," Agar said, looking at the gun. "No offense at all, no offense--- it was only in the manner of a joke."

Barlow said, "Why'd we need a snakesman?"

Pierce was not sidetracked. "Bear my words carefully," he said. "Any of you steps aside and you'll stop a shot before you can say Jack Robin. I mean every word." He sat down at the table. "Now then," he said, "I'll have a leg of that chicken, and we shall disport ourselves as best we can while we wait."

Pierce slept part of the night; he was awakened at daybreak by the crowd that jammed the square below. The crowd had now swollen to more than fifteen thousand noisy, rough people, and Pierce knew that the streets would be filled with ten or fifteen thousand more, making their way to see the hanging on their route to work. Employers hardly bothered to keep up a pretense of strictness on any Monday morning when there was a hanging; it was an accepted fact that everybody would be late to work, and especially today, with a woman to be hanged.

The gallows itself was now finished; the rope dangled in the air above the trap. Pierce glanced at his pocketwatch. It was 7:45, just a short time before the execution itself.

In the square below, the crowd began to chant: "Oh, my, think I'm going to die! Oh, my, think I'm going to die!" There was a good deal of laughter and shouting and stamping of feet. One or two fights broke out, but they could not be sustained in the tightly packed crush of the crowd.

They all went to the window to watch.

Agar said, "When do you think he'll make his move?"

"Right at eight, I should think."

"I'd do it a bit sooner, myself."

Pierce said, "He'll make his move whenever he thinks best."

The minutes passed slowly. No one in the room spoke. Finally, Barlow said, "I knew Emma Barnes--- never thought she'd come to this."

Pierce said nothing.

At eight o'clock, the chimes of St. Sepulchre signaled the hour, and the crowd roared in anticipation. There was the soft jingle of a prison bell, and then a door in Newgate opened and the prisoner was led out, her wrists strapped behind her. In front was a chaplain, reciting from the Bible. Behind was the city executioner, dressed in black.

The crowd saw the prisoner and shouted "Hats off!" Every man's hat was removed as the prisoner slowly stepped up the scaffolding. Then there were cries of "Down in front! Down in front!" They were, for the most part, unheeded.

Pierce kept his gaze on the condemned woman. Emma Barnes was in her thirties, and looked vigorous enough. The firm lines and muscles of her neck were clearly visible through her open-necked dress. But her eyes were distant and glazed; she did not really seem to see anything. She took up her position and the city executioner turned to her, making slight adjustments, as if he were a seamstress positioning a dressmaker's dummy. Emma Barnes stared above the crowd. The rope was fitted to a chain around her neck.

The clergyman read loudly, keeping his eyes fixed on the Bible. The city executioner strapped the woman's legs together with a leather strap; this occasioned a good deal of fumbling beneath her skirts; the crowd made raucous comments.

Then the executioner stood, and slipped a black hood over the woman's head. And then, at a signal, the trap opened with a wooden crack! that Pierce heard with startling distinctness; and the body fell, and caught, and hung instantly motionless.

"He's getting better at it," Agar said. The city executioner was known for botching in executions, leaving the hanged prisoner to writhe and dangle for several minutes before he died. "Crowd won't like it," Agar added.

The crowd, in fact, did not seem to mind. There was a moment of utter silence, and then the excited roar of discussion. Pierce knew that most of the crowd would remain in the square, watching for the next hour, until the dead woman was cut down and placed in a coffin.

"Will you take some punch?" asked Agar's tart.

"No," Pierce said. And then he said, "Where is Willy? "

Clean Willy Williams, the most famous snakesman of the century, was inside Newgate Prison beginning his escape. He was a tiny man, and he had been famous in his youth for his agility as a chimney sweep's apprentice; in later years he had been employed by the most eminent cracksman, and his feats were now legendary. It was said that Clean Willy could climb a surface of glass, and no one was quite certain that he couldn't.

Certainly the guards of Newgate, knowing the celebrity of their prisoner, had kept a close watch on him these many months, just in case. Yet they also knew that escape from Newgate was flatly impossible. A resourceful man might make a go of it from Ponsdale, where routines were notoriously lax, the walls low, and the guards not averse to the feel of gold coin and were known to look the other way. Ponsdale, or Highgate, or any of a dozen others, but never Newgate.

Newgate Prison was the most secure in all England. It had been designed by George Dance, "one of the most meticulous intellects of the Age of Taste," and every detail of the building had been set forth to emphasize the harsh facts of confinement. Thus the proportions of the window arches had been "subtly thickened in order to intensify the painful narrowness of the openings," and contemporary observers applauded the excellence of such cruel effects.

The reputation of Newgate was not merely a matter of aesthetics. In the more than seventy years since 1782, when the building was finished, no convict had ever escaped. And this was hardly surprising: Newgate was surrounded on all sides with granite walls fifty feet high. The stones were so finely cut that they were said to be impossible to scale. Yet even if one could manage the impossible, it was to no avail, for encircling the top of the walls was an iron bar, fitted with revolving, razor-sharp spiked drums. And the bar was also fitted with spikes. No man could get past that obstacle. Escape from Newgate was inconceivable.

With the passing months, as the guards grew familiar with the presence of little Willy, they ceased to watch him closely. He was not a difficult prisoner. He never broke the rule of silence, never spoke to a fellow inmate; he suffered the "cockchafer"--- or treadmill--- for the prescribed fifteen-minute intervals without complaint or incident; he worked at oakum-picking with no surcease. Indeed, there was some grudging respect for the reformed aspect of the little man, for the cheerful way he went about the routine. He was a likely candidate for a ticket-of-leave, a foreshortened sentence, in a year or so.

Yet at eight in the morning on that Monday, August 28, 1854, Clean Willy William had slipped to a corner of the prison where two walls met, and with his back to the angle he was skinning straight up the sheer rock surface, bracing with his hands and feet. He dimly heard the chanting of the crowd: "Oh, my, think I'm going to die!" as he reached the top of the wall, and without hesitation grabbed the bar with its iron spikes. His hands were immediately lacerated.

From childhood, Clean Willy had had no sensation in his palms, which were thickly covered with calluses and scar tissue. It was the custom of homeowners of the period to keep a hearth burning right to the moment when the chimney sweep and his child assistant arrived to clean the flue and if the child scorched his hands in hastening up the still-hot chimney, that was not any great concern. If the child didn't like the work, there were plenty of others to take his place.

Clean Willy's hands had been burned again and again, over a period of years. So he felt nothing now as the blood trickled down from his slashed palms, ran in rivulets along his forearms, and dripped and spattered on his face. He paid no attention at all.

He moved slowly along the revolving spike wheels, down the full length of one wall, then to the second wall, and then to the third. It was exhausting work. He lost all sense of time, and never heard the noise of the crowd that followed the execution. He continued to make his way around the perimeter of the prison yard until he reached the south wall. There he paused and waited while a patrolling guard passed beneath him. The guard never looked up, although Willy later remembered that drops of his own blood landed on the man's cap and shoulders.

When the guard was gone, Willy clambered over the spikes--- cutting his chest, his knees, and his legs, so that the blood now ran very freely--- and jumped fifteen feet down to the roof of the nearest budding outside the prison. No one heard the sound of his landing, for the area was deserted; everybody was attending the execution.

From that roof he jumped to another, and then another, leaping six- and eight-foot gaps without hesitation. Once or twice, he lost his grip on the shingles and slates of the roofs, but he always recovered. He had, after all, spent much of his life on rooftops.

Finally, less than half an hour from the time he began to inch his way up the prison wall, he slipped through a gabled window at the back of Mrs. Molloy's lodging house, padded down the hallway, and entered the room rented, at considerable expense, by Mr. Pierce and his party.

Agar recalled that Willy presented "a ghastly aspect, most fearsome," and he added that "he was bleeding like a stuck saint," although this blasphemous reference was expunged from the courtroom records.

Pierce directed the swift treatment of the man, who was barely conscious. He was revived with the vapors of ammonium chloride from a cut-glass inhaler. His clothes were stripped off by the women, who pretended no modesty but worked quickly; his many wounds were staunched with styptic powder and sticking plaster, then bound with surgical bandages. Agar gave him a sip of coca wine for energy, and Burroughs & Wellcome beef-and-iron wine for sustenance. He was forced to down two Carter's Little Nerve Pills and some tincture of opium for his pain. This combined treatment brought the man to his senses, and enabled the women to clean his face, douse his body with rose water, and bundle him into the waiting dress.

When he was dressed, he was given a sip of Bromo Caffein for further energy, and told to act faint. A bonnet was placed over his head, and boots laced on his feet; his bloody prison garb was stuffed in the picnic basket.

No one among the crowd of more than twenty thousand paid the slightest attention when the well-dressed party of hangers-on departed Mrs. Molloys boarding house--- with one woman of their party so faint that she had to be carried by the men, who hustled her into a waiting cab--- and rattled off into the morning light. A faint woman was a common enough sight and, in any case, nothing to compare to a woman turning slowly at the end of the rope, back and forth, back and forth.