Monday, June 18, 2012

It's not easy being hanged...




On a Sunday morning in 1668, a sixteen year-old apprentice named Thomas Savage escaped his master’s watchful eye and ran to one of London’s brothels. When Savage’s money ran out, one of the prostitutes, a woman named Hannah Blay, urged him to rob his master and return. Savage agreed, but was caught in the act by his fellow-servant, whom he beat to death with a hammer. Upon learning of Savage’s crime, Blay (understandably) would have nothing to do with him, and he fled towards Greenwich, where he was arrested and taken by hue and cry.

And that’s when the fun really began, for Savage’s soul and body became a battleground, political and religious leaders fought to impose their agenda on the life and crimes of Thomas Savage. While executions were more common in the past than they are now, a “good” execution was hard to pull off, and  Savage’s case offers an excellent example of what could go wrong when the state tried to make an example of a criminal.

The battle over Savage’s soul began shortly after he had been sentenced to death when a group of puritan ministers visited him in prison, hoping to convert him to a more enthusiastic kind of Protestantism. Many felons received this sort of treatment, for the minister who saved the soul of a notorious could garner a great deal of fame, presumably by word of mouth but also in print. The ministers who converted Savage published a book about their exploits called A Murderer Punished and Pardoned, which remained in print for nearly forty years. (Fun fact: ministers from different religious denominations would compete with each other to save a condemned prisoner’s soul!)

In most cases such as this, the story is pretty basic. A man commits a crime, is caught, and imprisoned. The ministers convince him of his sinful nature, he repents, and goes happily to his place of execution, where he once again confesses his sins and warns others to take heed of his fate.

And while Savage initially resisted the ministers’ efforts, he soon “dissolved into tears...and admitted the heinousness of his sin.” So far so good, right?

Unfortunately, according to one of the ministers, “the Devil was loath to lose such a prey when he had brought him to the very mouth and gates of hell, to have him snatched out of his hands by the free grace of God.” And so Savage, “was by some former acquaintance (who showed their love to a death-deserving sinner no other way than by calling for drink did twice relapse into that sin of drunkenness.”

Nor was this the end of Savage’s backsliding, for the ministers had to include yet another disclaimer at the end of their account, writing:

Take notice that the report that the reason he was not executed on Monday was that he was drunk is an abominable falsehood. For to our knowledge he did not eat nor drink that morning.

It thus seems that despite his notoriety, Thomas Savage proved an uncertain model for religious conversion, and we can only wonder what readers would have made of his winding path to redemption. Would they wonder if his conversion was genuine? If so, would they go on to question the redemptive power of God’s free grace?

But this was not the end of Thomas’s troubles, for the officials charged with hanging him had strikingly similar problems getting the job done.

After Savage’s conviction, he was escorted to the gallows where he made a suitably contrite speech warning other young men to avoid the path he’d taken, and was turned off the cart without a fight. According to one witness:

He struggled for a while, heaving up his body which a young man (his friend) seeing, to put him out of his pain, struck him with all his might on the breast several times, then no motion was perceived in him.

Such struggles cannot have been uncommon, but they did not speak to the competence of the officials in charge of the hanging – execution was not supposed to involve audience participation! In any event, once it was agreed that Thomas was dead, he was cut down and taken to a local inn for be prepared for burial. And then the trouble began again.

To the astonishment of the beholders, he began to stir and breath and rattle in his throat, and it was evident his life was whole within him. He was carried to a bed, where he breathed more strongly and opened his eyes and mouth and offered to speak, but could not recover the use of his tongue.

Thomas’s undertakers turned caretakers also sent for the sheriff so they could have another go at the hanging. Thomas apparently felt that one hanging was enough, and fought tooth-and-nail all the way to the gallows, “giving a kick to the executioner and one of the bailiffs a blow to the mouth.”

As in the case of his conversion, Thomas’s execution raises as many questions as it answers. And what do we make of a government that cannot successfully hang a sixteen year-old boy?

While Thomas’s execution was meant to simultaneously display God’s mercy and the state’s majesty, it wound up doing neither of these things. In fact, a teenage boy undermined them both.     

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