On a small traffic island near the junction of London’s Edgware Road and Oxford Street is an unobtrusive plaque bearing the words HERE STOOD TYBURN TREE, REMOVED 1759. What tales that site could tell, for it was there that a permanent gallows, a large triangular structure with three overhead beams known as the Triple Tree, was used to hang as many as 24 men at a time in front of baying holiday crowds.
Yet, of all its tales, one is more remarkable than most. This is the case of John Smith, whose unexceptional name belies the quite exceptional story of survival that was to make him one of the leading criminal celebrities of his age.
A native of Malton, near York, Smith settled in London early in the eighteenth century after spending some years at sea. Once on dry land, he enlisted in the Second Regiment of Foot Guards but soon embarked on a life of habitual crime, by no means unusual for a soldier at that time.
Soon enough, he was in big trouble with the law. On 3 December 1705 he was apprehended on suspicion of breaking and entering and two days later was arraigned at the Old Bailey on four separate indictments. Each involved theft; valuable quantities of shoes, cloth, China silk and gloves were the booty, and each was a capital offence.
Although Smith, then in his forties, managed to talk his way out of blame for two of the alleged offences, he was found guilty of the two others. He had, after all, been caught red-handed on the premises with 148 pairs of gloves ready to go. It was a clumsy burglary attempt and his explanation that he was all fingers and thumbs was a futile one.
He was sentenced to death and incarcerated in the Condemned Hold of Newgate Prison, where he vainly hoped for a reprieve, which didn’t come. At least not yet.
On 12 December he was carted to Tyburn, strung up and turned off the wagon to swing. The hangman pulled his legs for good measure, a merciful act intended to prevent undue suffering, for all hangings prior to the nineteenth century were of the ‘short-drop’ variety involving a fall of just three or four feet and many victims survived for some considerable time before life finally left them.
That proved to be Smith’s salvation, for even the final tug didn’t finish him off quickly, although witnesses who say he swung for fully fifteen minutes swore that he looked as dead as can be.
As last-minute reprieves go, the one that was then inexplicably and dramatically delivered by a messenger on horseback looked to be a classic case of ‘too late was the cry’, but Smith was swiftly cut down all the same and conveyed, still apparently lifeless, to a nearby public house.
It was there that John Smith secured his fame. One of the first to be impressed was the diarist Narcissus Luttrell, who wrote: ‘He was immediately lett blood and put into a warm bed, which, with other applications, brought him to himself again with much adoe.’
Smith was neither the first nor last man to survive the noose, but what really made his case celebratory was the mileage he subsequently got from his miraculous escape.
When he was taken back to Newgate Prison he quickly became the centre of attention among his fellow prisoners; members of the public queued up and paid to view him as a star exhibit; he related a sensational published account of the hanging itself in which he described ‘my spirits in a strange commotion, violently pressing up to my head, then a great blaze of glaring light which seemed to come out of my eyes with a flash before I lost all sense of pain’.
It was all good stuff. Nowadays he’d have employed a PR guru to create the image for him, but John Smith was a natural long before the age of spin, and the hype worked a treat.
His reprieve was followed by an unconditional pardon and he was released from prison on 20 February 1706.
And there his story might end, but, having survived the ultimate penalty, John Smith seemed intent on chancing his arm yet again. Although he kept on the straight and narrow for almost ten years, during which time he kept a pub at Southwark, he was back to his old tricks by January 1715, when he was picked up near Fenchurch Street after breaking into a warehouse. Again it was a capital offence and a date at the Old Bailey beckoned.
But Smith’s charmed life continued. He spent eighteen months in Newgate but was at length found not guilty on a technicality. And so it went on: further crimes followed in 1720 and 1721, but on the first occasion he was acquitted and for the second offence he again went back to Newgate.
Only in 1727, when he once more transgressed, did the English legal system finally rid itself of the man they called ‘half-hanged Smith’. Twenty-two years after his famous Tyburn appearance he was transported, in his 66th year, to the American colonies.
Had the hangman done his job properly on 12 December 1705, plain old John Smith would be a mere statistic instead of a celebrity criminal akin to a ‘soap star’ of eighteenth-century society.
Avid strangeologists may be disappointed to know that the late-nineteenth-century executioner William Marwood spoilt all the fun when, in 1874, he introduced the merciful ‘long-drop’ method of hanging, by which the victim had to fall between six and ten feet based on a calculation involving their state of health, build and weight.
That sure-fire scientific method seemed certain to signal the end of the grand old age of execution cock-ups. But despair not, for where there’s technology the gremlins will surely follow. Turn to ‘Three-Times-Lucky Lee’ (1885) for the ropiest hanging of all time.