Freelance writer from Cornwall
It’s been a while since I last posted due to work and other commitments, so I’ll be offering a series of shorter posts dedicated to the etyomology of crime in general, interspersed with the occasional longer post about other things. It’s always been curious to me how many words and phrases have crept into common usage courtesy of the underworld. A great many of them are used by that perfectly honest, law-abiding people who probably haven’t the slightest idea of their original meaning. So, for openers, I’ll start off with the dreaded Tyburn, Tyburn being roughly where Marble Arch now stands and once the site of London’s premier public entertainment. That entertainment being public executions.
Condemned prisoners were held at the old Newgate Prison, now long-demolished and where the Central Criminal Court (AKA the ‘Old Bailey’) now stands. Prisoners were held in the ‘Condemned Hold’ at Newgate, where their legal status was of being, technically speaking, neither alive nor yet dead. Hence, according to the jargon of the time, they were ‘In Limbo.’
Having been taken from ‘Limbo’ they would be shackled and the hangman’s rope placed around their necks. They were then transported aboard a cart also containing their own coffins which they often used to sit on. Along the way it was customary for them to stop at a tavern or two for a final drink, known in the trade as ‘One for the road.’
Having had their ‘One for the road’ they were put back on the cart and continued on to Tyburn. Now, having taken the last drink they’d ever be having, they were officially ‘On the wagon.’ Tyburn (Marble Arch nowadays) was West of Newgate Prison, so any inmate executed there had, in convict jargon, ‘Gone West.’
Tyburn had it’s own gallows, a purpose-built triangular contraption capable of hanging up to 24 inmates at once (it never actually did, by the way) and it was known as the Triple Tree. In the days before purpose-built gallows it was common for a condemned prisoner to be placed on a ladder resting against a tree and the ladder would then be turned so they fell and slowly strangled. Hence, a condemned inmate in those days would be thoroughly justified in feeling somewhat ‘Turned off.’ which is also the origin of the old wive’s tale that it’s unlucky to walk under a ladder.
With purpose-built scaffolds there were often thirteen steps between the ground and the scaffold itself and thirteen turns of the rope made up the original hangman’s knot. Hence, thirteen has historically proven extremely ‘Unlucky for some.’
One atop the ‘scaffold’ (yes, this is where the word for today’s builder’s scaffolding comes from) the hangman was, in those days, publicly nicknamed ‘Jack Ketch’ after a particularly notorious, clumsy, wretched executioner. ‘Jack Ketch’ is also the hangman who appears in puppet show ‘Punch and Judy.’
Ever had the feeling that people were ‘Pulling your leg’? Not in it’s original sense, you haven’t. Modern judicial hanging involves a precise ‘drop’ calculated using the inmate’s height, weight, physical condition and build. This didn’t appear until the 1870’s so, at Tyburn, death was by a standard drop for every prisoner. In order to avoid seeing a prisoner suffer unduly from slow strangulation a prisoner’s friends (or perhaps ‘Jack Ketch’ himself) would grab their ankles and pull, tightening the noose and either strangling them faster or breaking their neck. Hence, if somebody’s ‘Pulling your leg’, what they’ve said or done might seem spiteful but it’s meant in the nicest of ways.
Not much consolation, really.