May 18 1812: Bellingham's Execution Byron Mocked

On May 18, 1812, at about 3 o’clock in the morning,  Lord Byron,  accompanied by two of his school friends, is making his way to a house that he has rented and where he hopes to see the execution of John Bellingham. Byron has come early because he anticipates that there will be a large riotous crowd to watch the spectacle. Executions of famous criminals drew crowds of great size; dangerous crowds where people could be crushed or trampled. The authorities,  for Bellingham's execution, have placed large placards at all the avenues of the Old Bailey with the following warning: "Beware of entering the crowd! Remember thirty poor creatures pressed to death by the crowd when Haggerty and Holloway were executed.”

William Wordsworth thought the execution was going to take place at the Palace Yard so he made arrangements to be a spectator on a stand on top of Westminster Abbey. When he found out that the execution was to take place in front of Newgate Prison, he decides not to go since he had not made arrangements to watch in safety. On May 18 he would write to his wife Mary that "I did not think myself justified for the sake of curiosity of running any risk." 

Byron had made arrangements to watch the execution in safety. The house he rented had a window opposite Newgate Prison. That is why at about 3 o'clock in morning, he and his two friends, "Long" Bailly and John Maddocks, are walking the streets of London toward Newgate Prison. They  find the house is not open. Maddocks goes to see if could find someone to open it, while Byron and Bailey, arm and arm, walk down the street. Byron spots a woman on the street lying on the steps of a door. He stops to offer her a few shillings; but, instead of accepting the money, she pushes away his hand, and laughing shrilly starts to mimic the lameness of his walk. Bryon says nothing, but Bailly will recall “I could feel his arm trembling within mine, as we left her.”

Three hours later John Bellingham awakes at six o'clock in his cell at Newgate Prison. He dresses himself and reads from the Prayer Book. Dr Ford, a minister, joins him and takes him to another room, where he receives the sacrament and his chains are removed. He is told that the sheriffs are ready to take him to which he answers 'I am perfectly ready also.'

The executioner then fasten his wrists together, with Bellingham turning up the sleeves of his coat, and clasping his hands together, presenting them to the man who holds the ropes, saying “So.”  Bellingham asks that his sleeves be pulled down to cover the ropes. His arms are secured behind him. Bellingham moves his hand upwards, as if to see if he can reach his neck, and asks whether they think his arms are sufficiently fastened. He says that he might struggle, and that he wishes to be so secured as to prevent any inconvenience. He is told that the ropes are quite secure, but Bellingham requests that they might be tightened a little more, which is done. As Bellingham leaves the room to the place of execution, he bends his head and appears to wipe away a tear.

Bellingham is then led by Dr. Ford, the Lord Mayor, sheriffs, under-sheriffs and officers, through the press yard and time prison to the place before the Debtors' door at Newgate to the scaffold. He calmly climbs the scaffold. Dr. Ford asks if he has anything to say. Bellingham begins to talk of Russia and his family, when Dr. Ford stops him and reminds him that now is not the time and that he has to pay attention to the "eternity into which he is entering." The executioner begins to put the cap over Bellingham’s face, but he objects, and asks to if it is possible not to have it. He is told no. As the cap and ropes are being put over his head, some  of the crowd shout: “God bless you!' 'God save you!”  "Farewell poor man, you owe satisfaction to the offended laws of your country, but God bless you! you have rendered an important service to your country, you have taught ministers that they should do justice, and grant audience when it is asked of them."

The cap in place, the executioner leaves him. The crowd grows silent but one could still hear their echoing murmur, like the beating of waves on the ocean, mingling with the whispers of  Dr. Ford at prayer. The executioner descends the scaffold, and prepares to strike away the supporters to the trap door. The clock strikes eight, and while it is striking the seventh time, Bellingham praying, the main supporters are struck away, the trap door opens, and Bellingham drops down as far as his knees, his body in full view, and dies. 

Byron returns to Melbourne House for breakfast. He is now strangely calm telling Caroline "I have seen him suffer and he made no confession."

The above account of the execution is taken from the Newgate account which is reproduced below.

...On the Monday morning, at about six o'clock, he rose and dressed himself with great composure, and read for half-an-hour in the Prayer Book. Dr Ford being then announced, the prisoner shook him most cordially by the hand, and left his cell for the room allotted for the condemned criminals. He repeated the declaration which he had frequently before made, that his mind was perfectly calm and composed and that he was fully prepared to meet his fate with resignation. After a few minutes spent in prayer, the sacrament was administered to him, and during time whole of the ceremony he seemed to be deeply impressed with the truths of the Christian religion, and repeatedly uttered some pious ejaculations. After the religious ceremony was ended, the prisoner was informed that the sheriffs were ready. He answered in a firm tone of voice, 'I am perfectly ready also.'

   The executioner then proceeded to fasten his wrists together, and the prisoner turned up the sleeves of his coat, and clasped his hands together, presenting them to the man who held the cord, and said, 'So.' When they were fastened, he desired his attendants to pull down his sleeves so as to cover the cord. The officer then proceeded to secure his arms behind him. When the man had finished, he moved his hand upwards, as if to ascertain whether he could reach his neck, and asked whether they thought his arms were sufficiently fastened, saying that he might struggle, and that he wished to be so secured as to prevent any inconvenience arising from it. He was answered that the cord was quite secure, but he requested that it might be tightened a little, which was accordingly done. During the whole of the awful scene he appeared perfectly composed and collected: his voice never faltered, but just before he left the room to proceed to the place of execution, he stooped down his head and appeared to wipe away a tear. He was then conducted by the Lord Mayor, sheriffs, under-sheriffs and officers (Dr Ford walking with him) from the room, in which he had remained from the time his irons were taken off; through the press-yard and time prison to the fatal spot, before the Debtors' door at Newgate.

   He ascended the scaffold with rather a light step, a cheerful countenance, and a confident, a calm, but not an exulting air. He looked about him a little, lightly and rapidly, which seems to have been his usual manner and gesture, but made no remark.

   Before the cap was put over his face, Dr Ford asked if he had any last communication to make, or anything particular to say. He was again proceeding to talk about Russia and his family, when Dr Ford stopped him, calling his attention to the eternity into which he was entering, and praying. Bellingham prayed also. The clergyman then asked him how he felt, and he answered calmly and collectedly, that 'he thanked God for having enabled him to meet his fate with so much fortitude and resignation.' When the executioner proceeded to put the cap over his face, Bellingham objected to it, and expressed a strong wish that the business could be done without it; but Dr Ford said that was not to be dispensed with. While the cap was being fastened on, it being tied round the lower part of the face by the prisoner's neckerchief, and just when he was tied up, about a score of persons in the mob set up a loud and reiterated cry of 'God bless you!' 'God save you!' This cry lasted while the cap was fastening n, and, though those who raised it were loud and daring, it was joined in by but very few. The ordinary asked Bellingham if he heard what the mob were saying. He said he heard them crying out something, but he did not understand what it was, and inquired what. The cry having by this time ceased, the clergyman did not inform him what it was. The fastening on of the cap being accomplished, the executioner retired and a perfect silence ensued. Dr Ford continued praying for about a minute, while the executioner went below the scaffold, and preparations were made to strike away its supporters. The clock struck eight, and while was striking the seventh time, the clergyman and Bellingham both fervently praying, the supporters of the internal part of scaffold were struck away, and Bellingham dropped out of sight down as far as the knees, his body being in full view. The most perfect and awful silence prevailed; not even the slightest attempt at a huzza or noise of any kind whatever was made.

   The body was afterwards carried in a cart, followed by a crowd of the lower class, to St Bartholomew's Hospital, and privately dissected.

The greatest precautions were adopted to prevent accidents among the crowd. A large bill was placarded at all the avenues the Old Bailey, and carried about on a pole, to this effect: 'Beware of entering the crowd! Remember thirty poor creatures pressed to death by the crowd when Haggerty and Holloway were executed.' But no accident of any moment occurred.

To prevent any disposition to tumult, a military force was stationed near Islington and to the south of Blackfriars Bridge, and all the volunteer corps of the metropolis received instructions to be under arms during the whole of the day

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