In the early 19th century the travellers who were to approach London through its harbour were witnesses of a macabre exhibition: the river was running along the gallows platforms from which a few corpses were hanging while decomposing, exhibited in iron gates. The wind was swinging the bodies, provoking a sinister creaking that was scaring the sailors nearby.
Below: picture by Toby Bradbury shared via Flickr – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
The renown Execution Dock of London was for more than 400 years one of the places designated for hanging execution.
Below: an engraving from the 1795 representing the execution of a pirate at the Execution Dock. This might be Captain James Lowry, hanged in 1762
During that time the English crown was facing a phase of strong expansion of its empire. The colonies, spread in far away locations, were representing a huge economic resource both for raw materials and as possible importers of the English productions.
The sea trade, in order to be convenient, had to have safe routes. For this reason, during the reign of Elizabeth I, the pirates were supported by the crown, which was exploiting them as a tool to contrast the ships of other colonial powers and “indie” pirates. When these mercenaries of the sea lost the support of the queen, they all immediately turned into criminals threatening the sea trade.
The only punishment for such a fault was the death
Below: a xylography showing the execution of two pirates in 1583
All those people committing crimes in the sea (pirates, mutinied, smugglers) were locked inside the Marshalsea prison, waiting to be transferred to the Execution Dock for the public execution. London had different places where they were executing the death sentences, yet the dock on the Thames was mainly used for pirates.
Below: the body of the Captain Kidd, executed in 1701
The condemned would walk by foot from the prison to the Execution Dock accompanied by the marshal of the Admiralty or a representative who was riding a horse with a silver oar, symbol of the Authority of the Ministry of the Marine. The roads were full of people, as well as the banks of the Thames, while others used to enjoy the scene from the river, on board of ships purposely prepared for the occasion. Men, women, elderly people and children, a massive crowd was attending the horrific show of a man who was dying hanged.
Along the road to the gallows there was a pub (today café), where the condemned could drink his last gallon of beer. At the feet of the gallows they had the freedom to pronounce their last speech of regret for their bad actions or of accusation towards the guilty party of their sad fate.
Below: a pirate that hangs from the gallows, Wax Museum, Madame Tussaud. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
With their last words, the time of the condemned was up. The criminal was then hanged by the neck up until death was taking over. Pirates were subjects to an even worse future though. They were hanged by a short rope which did not allow the breaking of the neck bone. For this reason they were dying of a slow death caused by suffocation.
During the agony the victim was wiggling and this macabre show took the name of Marshal’s Dance.
Below: pirates hanging from the gallows along the Thames banks, for a promo video of the Tv series “Black Sails”
The hanging was executed during low tide, but the corpses were removed only after they had been washed by the tide for at least 3 times. The pirates though would remain exposed, with their body caged in an iron structure for a longer period, as a warning for those ones who were going to follow their footsteps.
Below: a pub facing the Thames named after the famous Captain Kidd. Picture by Felix Cohen shared via Flickr – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
The renown Captain Kidd was the most famous pirate and before corsair amongst those hanged at the Execution Dock. He was sentenced in 1701, and his body remained hanged for a number of years that change according to the different version of the tale; for some they were 2, for others 3 but it seems improbable for as long as 20 years even if they had submerged it into tar.
Below: picture by xpgomes10 shared via Flickr – licence CC BY-SA 2.0
The last hanging at the Dock on the Thames took place on the 16th December 1830. Today no one really knows with precision where the gallows were placed back in the day, but a replica popped up outside a historical pub from 500 years old, “The Prospect of Whitby”.
Below: picture by Ales-quattromori shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons