Visionary Art in Newgate Prison, 1677

The Lord High Chancellor's Mace

While reading through trial transcripts from late 17th century London I recently came across the story of Thomas Sadler and William Johnson who were executed on Friday, March 16, 1677, at Tyburn, a village in Middlesex long famous for its permanent gallows.

Sadler and Johnson had somehow managed to steal the mace of office belonging to the Lord High Chancellor, as well as two “purses”. The mace is the Chancellor’s symbol of office which accompanies him to any sitting of the House of Lords. The purse is a large bag embroidered with the Royal coat of arms which is also a part of the ceremonial trappings of the Chancellor’s office.

The Purse

Thomas Sadler, it seems, was known to the court as a repeat offender, having already been in Newgate Prison fourteen times. When asked by the court why the sentence of death should not be pronounced upon him Sadler was at first smug and insolent, saying that he already considered himself a dead man and had nothing to add except that the court should proceed and arrange a convenient time for his execution. Once the sentence was passed, however, he quickly changed his tune and went into “a strange kind of Agony with the terrours of his condition, flinging his Hat one way and his Perriwig another, and wringing his hands in a lamentable manner.”

Upon returning to prison Sadler spent his time in his cell “raging like a Wilde beast caught in a Trap, and vainly Shawing the greatness or stubboruness of his Spirit, rather than symptoms of Remorse or Contrition for his Offence.” After being visited by clergy he repented for his crimes, weeping and “confessing what abundance of Robberies and Villanies he had been guilty of, never before discovered.”

Sadler’s co-defendant in the trial was one William Johnson, a harness maker and “a fellow well educated, of good understanding, and great natural parts.” He had lived for a time in Holland and spoke both Dutch and French. Johnson was known to frequent “ill company” but had never been in jail before. He denied being involved in the theft and “fell down at the Bar in a Swoon” when the sentence of death was passed upon him.

Before his trial Johnson, “having an excellent fancie, and a hand no less happy at Limning”, had drawn the scales of justice on his cell wall. In one of the scale’s balances was the stolen mace and in the other was the gallows at Tyburn, the gallows much outweighing the mace. After he was condemned and returned to his cell where he spent “these few remaining moments of his life in Prayers and Tears”, he drew another set of scales, but this time with the gallows on one side and a crucifix on the other, the gallows again outweighing the crucifix. Beneath this drawing he wrote:

My Precious Lord, from all Transgressions free, Was pleas’d, in tender pity unto me, To undergo the Ignominious Tree.

I Suffer justly; but his Sacrifice, I trust, shall make my groveling Spirit rise, And from the Gibbet mount the glorious Skies.

Here we have a man of humble origins, intelligent but likely with little formal education given his previous trade, crying out to the universe through one of the few means available to him: art. How many times has this scene played out throughout history? How many masterpieces of visionary art have been lost to memory, whether scrubbed from the prison wall or tossed onto the midden heap after the death of the artist?

-Stephen Lee Canner

William Hogarth's The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747)


1 Comment

  1. Barbara said,

    November 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    If this was in 1677, the Condemned Hold was the blocked-up southern foot passage under Newgate (the northern passage was retained for pedestrians but had a grill in it through which for a time woman prisoners in the groundfloor cell in the northern block could beg for money from the passers-by) This cell was notoriously dark, damp and had an open sewer running through it. There were some board beds provided plus ring bolts for the shackles. All the (male) condemned were confinded together. In 1726 two blocks were purchased in Newgate Street and the prison enlarged. The Press Yard was virtually doubled in width and a block of 15 condemned cells (5 on three storeys) was built so that the condemned could be kept in solitary confinement and not egg each other on in defiance. The Old Condemend hold was kept on as a temporary place for disciplining the unruly or to terrorise newly arrived prisoners and persuading them to pay their entry fees promptly. It was where the fetters were put on. Thus after 1726 these pictures – if they had survived the damp, dark and stinking conditions – would have had few to appreciate them!

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