• Email
  • Print

The London Hanged’

In response to:

How Britain Made It from the November 19, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

Sir Keith objects to my argument in The London Hanged [NYR, November 19] that the gallows were central to the labor discipline of capitalism, because more people were hanged in pre-industrial than industrial England. But are industrialization and capitalism the same thing? There was plenty of capitalism before the factory and the steam engine. This was axiomatic to an earlier generation of historians such as Paul Mantoux and R.H. Tawney, and behind them to Karl Marx. First, they explained that capitalism existed in the domestic mode of production and in the manufacture stage, called now proto-industrialization. Second, we must add, in the factories of west Africa and in the machinery of the Caribbean sugar mills it becomes clear that the power of English capital to command labor long preceded industrialization.

To read his characterizations of The London Hanged as “careless in detail,” “frequently careless with names and references,” “worryingly unreliable” causes me grief. Four times Sir Keith generalizes, and three times he provides no evidence at all. Coming as it does from an historian known for his voluminous citation of examples, I note that he finds only a single instance, and he gets that one wrong. It is the case of the unhappy John Masland.

There are many omissions which have the effect of putting the accused in a more favorable light and their prosecutors in a harsher one,” he charges. He criticizes me for informing the reader that Masland was an unemployed sailor while omitting that he “was hanged for rape and had been guilty of child abuse, infecting his own daughter with a venereal disease.” It is true I do not bring this up. Sir Keith finds Masland guilty on reading the Ordinary’s Account of the Malefactors Executed at Tyburn. Had Sir Keith read Masland’s trial perhaps he would not have been so quick to judgment. At the trial, on three different occasions Masland said, “I am as innocent as an Angel.” Was he? Opinions varied then, and they may vary now. In any event, it was not my business to try him again. Why does Sir Keith?

But I cannot leave the matter there. Sir Keith does some omitting of his own. In fact I do not write about Masland merely that he was unemployed. I write of his employment: “John Masland was a man who had spent most of his working life in the Guinea trade, and he looked it. A hatchet scar across his face was the result of a mutiny and shipboard slave rebellion.” I should not have thought that this was to slant the evidence in favor of the accused. Does Sir Keith? If so, what exactly is it about the slave trade that is favorable? It seems that Masland had a relation, a merchant in the City, involved in this trade. He was apprehended at the hanging of another sailor of the slave trade.

Does Sir Keith assume that it is more favorable to be a sailor in the slave trade than to abuse his homeless daughter? Does he think it more favorable to suppress violently a slave rebellion than to befoul his family with venereal disease? Why compare them? Surely, it is not a question of what is favorable or harsh in the case. This is simple-minded moralism. The question is understanding a violent syndrome, fueled by alcoholism, of huge profit to City merchants, of lasting consequence to three continents, and producing sick and diseased men whose cruelty has been a violent scourge to those weaker. Owing to its methodology The London Hanged can avoid such moralizing which it leaves to magistrates, jurors, the Ordinaries, and Oxford dons. Moralizing, whether it is pity or condemnation, has a way of putting an end to investigation.

Sir Keith admits that his knowledge of the Ordinary’s Accounts is casual, but he is wrong to imply that mine is. I have collected them for modern scholarship, and I have evaluated them as a source of historical knowledge in “The Ordinary of. Newgate and His Account” in J.S. Cockbur (ed.), Crime in England 1550–1800 (Princeton 1977). Sir Keith accepts the Ordinary’s language, a discourse based upon the triumph of private property. It is not that I challenge this, but that, as an historian, I bring forth evidence that the propertyless challenged it, and they were criminalized for doing so.

Sir Keith is an eminent historian of the 16th and 17th centuries, but his touch is unsure in the 18th century. Jack Sheppard was not a highwayman, as he writes, but a burglar. He writes of “Tyburn prison” and there was no such place. In confusing Tyburn, the site of hangings until 1783, with Newgate prison, three miles away, he omits the municipal salience of the procession of the condemned across the town. What on earth does he mean by “unofficial perquisites”? There is a complex argument here that Sir Keith is only partly familiar with. It is notorious how weak Marx is on the subject, at least in his chapter on wages in Capital. And why does Sir Keith speak of “the poor” so? It is a gentry-made locution.

Finally, may I say that in comparing my book with Linda Colley’s, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, Sir Keith misses an opportunity to explore the relationship between the Nation and the gallows? Whose Britain was it and to whom was it Great? These are the unanswered questions of this review.

Peter Linebaugh
Brookline, Massachusetts

Keith Thomas replies:

I am sorry that Mr. Linebaugh has been upset by my review of The London Hanged. I tried to give a fair and honest impression of a book which seemed to me stimulating and often original, but sometimes perverse in argument and careless in detail. I must, though, plead guilty at once to two of his charges. Jack Sheppard was, of course, a burglar; it was Dick Turpin, mentioned in the same sentence, who was the highwayman. I am afraid that the description got transposed in the typing. “Tyburn prison” was not my term, but an editorial insertion into my text. I am sure that my knowledge of the eighteenth century leaves a lot to be desired, but I am not as ignorant as that. Otherwise, I think that Mr. Linebaugh protests too much. I see nothing wrong with the expression “unofficial perquisites” to indicate appropriations which the workers made as if of right, but which employers refused to recognize, or with “the poor” as an objective description of a large segment of the eighteenth-century population. As for John Masland, I would not presume to judge his guilt or innocence. I merely noted that he was convicted of a sexual crime which Mr. Linebaugh chose not to mention, but which surely helped to determine Masland’s fate.

Mr. Linebaugh asks, rather masochistically, for more evidence of his carelessness with details. Let me confine myself to cases in which his text omits or misrenders passages in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account in such a way as to put the accused in a more favourable light. My copy of The London Hanged is heavily annotated with examples which I excluded from my review out of consideration for your readers. For instance, I did not think that they would want to know that James Appleton was hanged for stealing not just three wigs, but also two suits, six guineas, and other goods (p. 130); that Mary Cut-and-Come-Again was hanged not merely for stealing an apron worth 6d, but also for assaulting a woman on the highway and putting her in fear, and for stealing an apron worth 3/-, a shift worth 12d, and a mob cap (p. 145); that Sarah Allen did not suffocate her infant in the workhouse, but threw the baby out of a window in Holborn and was sent to the workhouse when arrested, and that she was not forced to leave her job when she became pregnant (p. 148); that William Brown was not “cast off” his lands in Wiltshire, but spent beyond his income and had to give up his lease (p. 185); that the dowry brought by the wife of George Robins was £300 not £30 (p. 185); that the reason for John Tarlton’s unemployment was that he had idled his time and taken up with “loose women” (p. 254); that John Lancaster did not make the remark attributed to him (p. 258); that James Buquois was not out of work, but had a job as a bricklayer’s assistant and fell into bad company (p. 258); that John Ross was a house-breaker not a highway robber, and did not have a wife and three children (pp. 258–259); that Patrick Bourn (not Brown) was hanged for stealing a watch worth £3 and money, not just his employer’s spurs (p. 295); that Patrick Hayes was hanged not merely for stealing keys and spectacles, but for letting in thieves to rob his mistress’s house and assault her and her maid (p. 295); that William Bruce stole money as well as a wig and a silk handkerchief (p. 295); and that only one of these people appears in Mr. Linebaugh’s index.

I could prolong this tedious list, though I have checked only a tiny portion of Mr. Linebaugh’s book. If he really wants more examples of this sort of thing he can easily compile them for himself by comparing his text against the sources on which it is based.

I should stress that none of this detracts from the larger intellectual interest of Mr. Linebaugh’s book, which is considerable. Historians will continue to discuss the many important general issues which he raises and they will look with fresh eyes at the material he has unearthed. But authors who put forward controversial arguments are well advised to follow the ancient advice (given by another Oxford don, I am afraid) that they should always verify their references.

  • Email
  • Print