William Duell survived a hanging

On Monday November 24 William Duell, 17, was taken by cart along with four others to the gallows at Tyburn. It was the fifth public execution of the year and – like other public executions – a highlight of the social calendar for many curious onlookers.

The weather was vile that morning, which may have deterred some of the crowds, who usually flocked from across the city to see the convicts swing. All the same, hundreds gathered in anticipation of seeing the condemned make their final journey from Newgate to their maker.

Joining the teenager on the scaffold were two women Eleanor Mumpman and Margaret Stanton, and two men, Thomas Clack and William Meers. There were to have been four more Newgate prisoners hanged that morning, but they had been granted a last minute reprieve. Two convicted thieves, George White and Abraham Hancock, a highwayman, had learnt that they would be spared less than two days earlier.

Sentenced To Death For Stealing Clothes

William Duell had no hope of a commutation. Of all the condemned hanged that day his crime was considered the most repulsive, compared by Newgate Prison chaplain – who wrote an account of the events that day – to the Biblical sins of Sodom.

Along with six others Duell had violently raped a female traveler, before robbing her of all her possessions and leaving her to die in a barn. The 17-year-old was the only violent offender to be executed on November 24, and by today’s standards, the crimes of the other men and women who faced the scaffold alongside William Duell seem rather minor.

19-year-old William Meers, who was hanged the same day as Duell, had been convicted for stealing “four Pewter Dishes, 9 Pewter Plates, a Pestle and Mortar, a Brass Warming-pan, a Pair of Brass Scales, three silver Tea-spoons, a silver Boat, and a Brass Pot-lid”, as well as leg of mutton. Thomas Clack had stolen clothes.

Taking A Vegetable Breakfast At The Sheriff’s Ball

The convicts were transported by open cart to the gallows, which had been erected in advance of the execution. Bound back to back, with men in one cart and women in another, once they arrived at Tyburn, the faces of the condemned were covered and the noose was looped around their necks.

At the hangman’s signal the cart was drawn away and the noose tightened around the necks of the unfortunate criminals, until they were suspended, legs kicking the dead air, as they underwent a slow strangulation.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the spectacle of mass hangings at Tyburn had inspired a rich argot of literal gallows humor. Crowds milled around, buying the printed confessions of the condemned and those who died without complaint, were respected as having died jannock, with bravado.

But eventually, the bodies of the dead would grow still and crowd would begin to disperse.

Giving The Hangman His Due

The convicts were then cut down from the gallows. By law the clothes and the bodies condemned belonged to the hangman, who could sell them on as he saw fit; either to the grieving families of the deceased, or to the surgeons’ assistants, who swarmed the place of execution like carrion eaters, in search of fresh corpses for medical dissection.

At some eighteenth-century executions, the bereaved and the anatomists even came to blows over the fate of the corpse, with bodies rescued by force and carried away for quick burial.

But either because his family was too poor to bury the body, or because the anatomists were too quick, by midday William Duell’s body had been cut down from the gallows and taken to Barber-Surgeon’s Hall, in in Monkwell Street.

Once there, it was laid out in a corridor, while preparations could be made for its dissection.

‘He lay very Easy and Composed’

According to the report taken from the 1824 edition of the Newgate Calendar, William Duell was already laid out on the dissection table, when a servant, who was tasked with washing the corpse ahead of its anatomization, noticed that the teen was still breathing.

In an earlier, slightly less sensationalist version from nearer the time, a female servant heard the body groaning in the corridor and called for help from the doctors. In keeping with the standard medical practice of the time, surgeons bleed William Duell until he had recovered his senses.

Only hours after his execution, the recently hanged man was sitting up and talking with doctors. By midnight that same Monday, William Duell was judged well enough to be taken back to Negwate prison, while his ultimate fate was decided.

No Memory Of Being Hanged

Back in the prison cells he was treated kindly by his jailers and fellow prisoners, who brought him warm wine and water, and left him to rest. He slept fitfully, calling out for his mother, but by the next morning was well enough to eat broth, supplied for him by a wealthy prisoner.

As he recovered, William Duell had no memory of the events of his execution, or of anything that had happened in the lead up. His last memory before regaining consciousness outside of the anatomy lab, was of praying in the chapel the night before he was due to be hanged.

When asked, he was able to recite the Lord’s prayer from memory and was determined to have suffered no other memory loss, or significant long-term harm. But despite his miraculous survival, William Duell was still under sentence of death.

Neither Dead Nor Alive

Legally he was neither dead nor alive. When the rope broke during a hanging, which happened not infrequently in eighteenth-century executions, the condemned were simply strung back up and the execution continued.

But on the rare occasions that the condemned managed to survive their execution, the sympathy of crowd tended to be with the hanged man. Public hangings in the eighteenth century were as popular as sporting events today, and had a similar concept of fair play.

In the eighteenth century, the condemned could be jeered or applauded on the gallows. Going bravely to ones death, or approaching death with good humor, was considered admirable by observers, regardless of the nature of the crime that had brought them there. Hanging the same man twice for the same crime struck many as unsporting.

Spared By Divine Providence

There was some precedent for this type of event. In 1650 Ann Green was hanged in Oxford for the murder of her stillborn child. Protesting her innocence all the way to her death, the unfortunate woman swung from the gallows for a full thirty minutes, before she was cut down and sealed in a coffin.

But in a belated stroke of luck for Green, that coffin had been provided by Drs. Thomas Willis and William Petty, who had the rights over the bodies of any criminals executed with 21 miles of Oxford. As she was being taken for dissection, faint sounds from inside the box made it obvious that Ann Green was still alive.

The authorities wanted to hang her for a second time, but Dr. Willis – who went on to become one of the founding fathers of neurology – successfully argued that Green had been spared due to Divine Providence, because she had been wrongfully convicted.

The court agreed and Ann Green was set free. She went on to marry and have three more children.

Transportation For Life

However, in William Duell’s case his guilt was unambiguous. He had given a full account of his crimes, which was backed up by the testimony of his victim as she lay on her death bed.

But William Duell had faced his death fairly, and survived. It wouldn’t be right to make him go to the gallows a second time. His sentence was commuted to life transportation to North America.

From there his story goes cold. Although court records state that he was ‘successfully transported to the colonies’, there is no record of his being on any passenger lists arriving in America within the appropriate time-frame.

Many of those who tried to reach America, both free and in penal transport, died before they reached land. Ocean travel was dangerous in the in eighteenth century, with many passengers falling victim to fatal diseases while at sea. Trans-Atlantic voyages lasted many months, with convict travelers held in terrible conditions, in which cramped quarters and poor rations created the perfect environment for infection to thrive. 

But there is also the slim possibility that William Duell, may have escaped his transport ship before it left London, or that he embarked in America under a different name. However his story ended, teenage convict William Duell goes down in history as one of the very few to dance the Tyburn jig and live to tell the tale.

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