The research for one particular scene in Flame of Findul took me back several hundred years to a time when a little crossroads town named Tyburn had become synonymous with capital punishment. Built in 1571, the massive triangular gallows known as the Tyburn Tree became one of the main places of execution for the criminal population of London. It was large enough to accommodate mass hangings, such as on June 23, 1649 when 24 prisoners—23 men and one woman—were hanged at the same time.
Monday was hanging day. Condemned prisoners from London’s Newgate Prison were carried in open carts the few miles out of town to the crossroads in the country where the massive structure stood. Public hangings drew tens of thousands of spectators. One enterprising property owner even built risers on her property and charged admission!
It is estimated that as many as 60,000 people lost their lives at Tyburn between 1196, the year of the first recorded hanging at the site, and 1783, when public executions were moved to Newgate Prison. It has also been estimated that 90% of those executed were young men under 21.
Interestingly enough, two people survived their executions. One fellow named John Smith dangled for fifteen minutes before the crowd began to call for a reprieve. He was cut down and taken to a nearby house where he revived. A second young man was cut down and taken to the Surgeons’ Hall for dissection but began showing signs of life. He was revived and his sentence changed to transportation out of England. These two stories form the basis for the tale of the hanging of the pirate Bartholomew Swain in my book.
Today, the site of the Tyburn Tree has become a London traffic island. It is marked by a round stone plaque.
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