The Groans of the Gallows


This is an angry account of the life of William Calcraft (1800–1879), who for 45 years served as the official Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex. Originally employed to flog juvenile offenders at Newgate Prison, he ascended to the executioner’s role in 1829 on the death of his predecessor and mentor John Foxton. This tract paints an ugly picture of Calcraft’s manner and practices:

He appropriates whatever property might be on the persons of those he executes, including the clothes they die in, unless when especially ordered in accordance with the dying wish of a favoured criminal to be given to the survivors, for the value of which he is allowed.

In other words, if a family wanted their loved-one’s things back, they had to pay for them. 

Many of the details of this account are unverifiable, but Calcraft remains notorious for two things: the estimated 450 executions he performed in his lifetime, and his favouring of the ‘short-drop’ method of hanging. In a short-drop hanging, the prisoner is likely to strangle to death (sometimes over a long period of time). Longer drops increase the likelihood of the prisoner’s neck breaking, ending their lives immediately. Calcraft would often have to swing from the prisoner’s legs or even climb on their shoulders to end their lives; something he rather appeared to enjoy. 

This sheet shows exactly how a chapbook was printed, with the pages sometimes upside down, and in a special order, so that when folded, they would become the right way up and in correct reading order. With six pages on one side and six on the other, folded across twice and along its length once, it is not difficult to see how, with a minimum of sewing along the hinge and a few judicious cuts to separate the pages, a small chapbook with an illustrated front cover would emerge.

Full title:
The Groans of the Gallows; etc, the past and present life of William Calcraft, the living hangman of Newgate
estimated 1847, London
Chapbook / Illustration / Image
William Calcraft
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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