Saturday, 19 May 2012

19th May 1812: The execution of John Bellingham

The Times of 19th May 1812, carried a report about the execution of Spencer Perceval's assassin, John Bellingham, who was hung less than one week after he had killed the Prime Minister on Monday 18th May 1812. The report does not make it quite clear, but after he was hung, his body was sent for dissection.


The crowd assembled to witness the execution of this man was by no means so great as has been collected on many former occasions. The wetness of the morning, and the recollection of the dreadful catastrophe that happened at the execution of Holloway and Haggerty, no doubt, contributed to lessen the number of spectators. Very soon after seven o'clock, the LORD MAYOR and Sheriffs arrived at the Sessions House, in the Old Bailey, where about twenty Gentleman were assembled. At twenty minutes after seven the LORD MAYOR and Sheriffs went from the Sessions House to the prison, to see the sentence of the law put in execution. At half-past seven, the prisoner, accompanied by the Rev. Doctor FORD, came down from his cell, to have his irons knocked off. He walked up to the block which was prepared for that purpose, with a quick but firm step. Upon coming out, he looked up, apparently to see the state of the weather, and immediately laid his foot on the block with great composure; and while the man was knocking off the irons, he desired him to keep them steady, to prevent their shaking or jarring his leg. He was dressed in a brown great-coat, saying that he wore at his trial, a striped kerseymere waistcoat, light pantaloons, and his shoes down at the heels. As soon as his irons were off, he went, accompanied by Doctor FORD, the LORD MAYOR, and Sheriffs, and two or three Gentleman, to a room adjoining the press-yard, to wait until the time for proceeding to the scaffold.

The hour being nearly arrived at which he was to suffer, one of the attendants proceeded to fasten his wrist together: he turned up the sleeves of his coat, and clasping his hands together, presented them to the man who held the cord. When they were fastened, he desired the attendant to pull down his sleeves, so as to cover the cord. The officer then proceeded to secure his arms by a rope behind him: when the man had finished, he moved his hands 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 possibly struggle, and that he wished to be so secured as to prevent any inconvenience arising from it, and requested that the rope might be tightened a little, which was accordingly done. During the whole of this 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 off a tear. He was then conducted through the press-yard and the prison, to the fatal spot. He walked very firmly, and appeared even more composed than many of the persons were present at this awful scene.

After his irons were taken off, and he had returned to the room adjoining the press-yard, he put on a pair of Hessian boots. He did not appear to be at all emaciated.

The procession, which moved quickly along, was followed by the Gentleman who had been permitted to attend. The Sheriffs and some of the Officers first went out of the Debtor’s door upon a part of the scaffold, between the door and the place of execution, a little lower in situation, covered over from the rain. Here they stood with only their own offices, the LORD MAYOR, and about six Gentleman; the others being left inside the door in the prison. Bellingham ascended the scaffold, accompanied by Dr. FORD, the Ordinary, the executioner, and one or two officers, who kept rather back; the Ordinary and executioner alone going forward with him.

He ascended the scuffle with a rather light step, a cheerful countenance, and a confident, a calm, but not at all and exulting air. He looked about him a little lightly and rapidly, which seems to have been his usual manner and gesture; but he had no air of triumph, nor disposition to pay attention to the mob. On his appearance, a confused noise arose among the mob, from the desire and attempts of some to huzza him, counteracted by far greater number who called “Silence!” He took no notice of this, but submitted quietly, and with a disposition to accommodate, in having the rope fastened round his neck; nor did he seem to notice any thing whatever that passed in the mob, or to be any way gratified by the friendly disposition which some manifested towards him.

Before the cap was put over his face, Dr. FORD asked if he had any last communication to make or any thing in particular to say. He was proceeding about Russia and his family, when Dr. FORD stopped him, calling his attention to the eternity into which he was entering, and praying; Bellingham praying fervently also.

The last thing the Clergyman said to him, was asking him how he felt. To which he answered, calmly and collectedly, saying, “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 might be done without it; but Dr. FORD said that was impossible. While the cap was putting on, and fastening, (it being tied round the lower part of the face by a white handkerchief), and just when he was tied up, about a score persons in the mob set up a loud and reiterated cry of “God bless you! God bless you!” This cry lasted while the cap was fastening on; and though those who set it up were loud and daring, it was joined in but by a very few. The Ordinary asked Bellingham if he heard what the mob was saying. He said he heard them crying out something, but he did not understand what it was, and enquired 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. A perfect silence ensued. The crowd evidently expected he would be turned on instantly, but Dr. FORD continued praying with him 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 it was striking the seventh time, the Clergyman and Bellingham both fervently praying, the supporters of the internal square of the scaffold were struck away, and Bellingham dropped, and he then remained only visible down to his knees. The Clergyman was left standing on the outer frame of the scaffold. When Bellingham sunk, the most perfect and awful silence prevailed, not even the slightest attempt at a huzza or noise of any kind was made. He did not struggle at first, and by very little afterwards, the executioners being below pulling his legs, that he might die quickly; they were concealed in the inclosure from the sight of the populace. As Bellingham dropped, the Clergyman retired from the scaffold, and in ten minutes afterwards the mob, which was not great, began to retire.

The body hung till nine o'clock, and as soon as it was cut down, was placed in a cart, and covered with a sack. The assistant of the executioner and a boy got into the cart, and, preceded by the City Marshal, the body was conveyed up the Old Bailey, along Newgate street. The populace followed the cart close: and as the windows were thronged with spectators, the executioner two or three times removed the sack from the body, that it might be seen. The cart turned down St. Martin’s-le-grand, up Little Britain, and the body was delivered at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, in Bell-yard. The populace then dispersed.

He took the sacrament yesterday morning with great devotion, making the responses most corectly, and shewing he was well used to the practice of the Church of England. When this was over, he seemed much relieved, and thanked God he was now on the point of having an end put to the troubles in which he had been constantly involved for the last thirty years.

He was allowed only bread and water after his condemnation: and observed that he thought such diet preserved his health and spirits better. In this cell he lay mostly on his bed, no chairs and tables being allowed; and he slept a great deal. He slept remarkably sound on Sunday night, and until the time when it was called on to prepare for execution. With all his exclamations about his wrongs on account of Russia, and his lamentations about his family, we could fill our paper; but the substance of them is already accurately given in our preceding accounts. He firmly and uniformly refused to express contrition for his crime, or for Mr. PERCEVAL'S fate; and he is steadily denied having any accomplices.

The scaffold or platform of execution was well guarded with additional wooden and iron-fences, none but peace-officers being in view, or indeed within the city.

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