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COMMENTARY BY LUKE BOYD: Grey on Gray Tyburn: Dont hang out there

We have a number of unusual places in this country. Proportionally, England has more because they have been at it longer than we have. One such English place is Tyburn.

Tyburn was once a village west of London. Its name comes from ”Teo Bourne” which means “boundary stream,” a tributary of the River Thames. For many centuries its name was synonymous with capital punishment since for almost 600 years it was the place of execution for criminals, traitors, and religious martyrs.

The first recorded execution there took place in 1196 when William Fitz Osbern, the populist leader of the poor of London, was cornered in a church, dragged naked behind a horse to Tyburn, and hanged. Sadistic sentences were common with persons sentenced to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered” appearing often in the records. This was accomplished by hanging and then, preferably while the person was still alive, slicing open the crotch and drawing out the entrails and other organs. Lastly, the body was cut into four parts (quartering). Two of King Henry VIII’s courtiers received this sentence in 1541 for being sexually involved with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. However, because he had previously had a good relationship with the King, Henry commuted Thomas Culpeper’s sentence to beheading, a much more humane death. The other suffered the full sentence.

In 1571 the “Tyburn Tree” was erected in the middle of the roadway where three streets came together. The “Tree” was a triangular gallows with three legs and three cross beams on which several felons could be hanged at once. Mass executions became the rule. The most recorded was in June 1649 when 23 men and one woman were hanged simultaneously. The gallows was called a “Triple Tree” or “Three-legged Mare” and quickly became a London landmark with a language all its own. A person who was “taking a ride to Tyburn” or “going west” was going to be hanged.  The public hangman was dubbed the “Lord Mayor of Tyburn” and “dancing the Tyburn jig” was the act of being hanged.

There were other types of executions carried out at Tyburn. A 1746 map of London shows the gallows with an adjoining field labeled “where soldiers are shot.”

With executions being public spectacles, enterprising residents erected large spectator stands and sold “Tyburn Tickets.” On one execution day, a large section of overloaded stands collapsed, killing and injuring hundreds. However, this did not diminish the size of future crowds.

These events also produced any number of side spectacles. As a felon was in his death throes, it was not uncommon for a woman who was suffering from some malady, to strip to the waist, rush to the gallows, and let the trembling hands of the dying man massage her torso. It was thought that this power leaving a dying person had curative properties.

 Those who had no one to claim them had their bodies given to the surgeons for dissection. These were highly sought after since bodies for this purpose were always in short supply. At one execution representatives of different surgeons laid claim to the same body. When it was cut down a serious fight ensured. With all the tugging in different directions, the body was literally torn apart.  Each group departed with only the parts they had been able to collect.

Prisoners were transported to Tyburn from Newgate Prison in oxcarts or wagons. There would be a stop at a pub where they would be allowed to have a “last pint.” Of course, the guards would have one as well. If a bartender happened to ask a prisoner if he wanted another pint, a guard would reply, “No more for him. He’s on the wagon,” thus giving rise to our current expression.

Some of the criminals were well known and had quite a following among the common folk. Their hangings would draw a large and raucous crowd. The condemned would wear their finest clothes and were expected to put on a good show. It was important to die well. The crowd would cheer a “good dying” but would jeer at any display of weakness.

The Tyburn Tree claimed its last victims in November 1783 and is now relegated to history. On a trip to London a few years ago, Honey and I visited the site that has been engulfed by the city. However, the three roads—now busy city streets—still meet at the same location and on the large traffic island in the center are three brass triangles representing the legs of the gallows and at their center a stone medallion engraved “The Site of Tyburn Tree.” Good or bad the English always remember their history.


Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at



Posted on: 12/11/2012


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