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The death penalty . . . for forgery?

I was reading a fascinating review by Ian Gilmour in the London Review of Books of a book called “The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period”, by William St. Clair. (I’m a sucker for books about what people read, or used to read. I recently read and enjoyed “A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers”, by Hugh Kenner. And this St. Clair book looks even more interesting because it is apparently full of statistical data.

Anyway, in his review, Gilmour has a little aside about William Dodd, eighteenth-century printer of Shakespeare who was hanged for forgery. Really?? I guess I realized that they used to hang people for minor offenses, but still! The authorities must really have felt that the social order was pretty fragile, or life was cheap, or something. Couldn’t they have just flogged him or something?

Now I was curious, so I googled “dodd hanged forgery”. The ninth entry was the winner, as far as I’m concerned: it has a reprint of the entry on Dr William Dodd (“Doctor of Divinity, Prebendary of Brecon, Chaplain-in-Ordinary to his Majesty, and Minister to the Magdalen Hospital. Executed at Tyburn, 27th of June, 1777, for Forgery”) from the Newgate Calendar, a collection of gruesome accounts of court cases from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century in England.

The Newgate Calendar is helpfully public-domained at, a site of so called ex-classics: “An ex-classic is a book which used to be a classic, as defined above, but is no longer read much, or at all.” Here is their list of “best-known cases” from the Newgate Calendar:

Sawney Bean
The cannibal of Galloway

Dick Turpin
The most famous highwayman of all

Jack Ketch
Hangman, who was himself hanged

Moll Cutpurse
Mistress of all the thieves in London, whose obituary was written by John Milton

Claude Du Vall
The amorous French highwayman who “made every man stand, and every woman fall”

Captain Kidd
Pirate, known as the “Wizard of the Seas”

Richard Savage
Poet and friend of Samuel Johnson, who narrowly escaped hanging for murder

Jonathan Wild and his gang:

* Jonathan Wild
Master criminal, whose story was told by Henry Fielding
* Jack Sheppard
Whose daring escape from Newgate is described in a first-person narrative actually written by Daniel Defoe
* Joseph Blake Alias Blueskin
Who tried to murder Jonathan Wild by cutting his throat

Other members of the Gang:

* Nathaniel Hawes
* William Burridge
* Richard Oakey
* Edward Bellamy

Captain John Porteous
Lynched by a mob in Edinburgh, as described by Walter Scott in The Heart of Mid-Lothian

Eugene Aram
Murderer whose guilt was discovered many years after his crime, and whose story was told by Bulwer Lytton.

Earl Ferrers
Tried by his Peers for murder, and hanged in white satin

John Wilkes
Champion of liberty

Lord George Gordon
Who inspired the riots described by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge

Robert Emmet
The Darling of Erin

John Williams
Whose crimes were described by De Quincey in “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts” as “the sublimest and most entire in their excellence that ever were committed.”

John Bellingham
Who Assassinated Spencer Perceval, Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the House of Commons

The Cato Street Conspirators
Who in 1820 planned to seize the Tower of London, the Bank of England and Military Barracks, and to murder Cabinet Ministers

Maria Marten
Murdered in the Red Barn; the truth was revealed to her mother in a dream

The Colleen Bawn
The “Lily of Killarney” whose youth, beauty and innocence did not save her from her husband’s cruelty

Burke and Hare
Edinburgh lodging-house keepers, who murdered their guests and sold the bodies to the anatomists

The Tolpuddle Martyrs
Transported for organising a Trade Union

A Valet who murdered his master in 1840; Dickens and Thackeray attended his execution

It reveals some aspect of my ignorance that I had never heard of the Newgate Calendar before, but I guess I’m off the hook since it’s officially an ex-classic and thus “no longer read much, or at all.”

One Comment

  1. Sir Robert Peel, the same man who founded the London Police in the late 1820s, removed most of the hanging penalties — reserved the penalty for murder and treason. Admittedly, lots of things were shifted from hanging to transportation to Australia, but that was still an improvement.