John Smith

Perp: John Smith

Also known as : Half-hanged Smith

Crime : House burglary

The Victim: Unknown

Motive: Greed and stupidity

Date: 1705

Punishment : To be hanged but failed to die after 15 minutes and was given a reprieve.

Location: Tyburn


THOUGH the crimes committed by this man were not particularly atrocious, nor his life sufficiently remarkable for a place in this work, yet the circumstances attending his fate at the place of execution are perhaps more singular than any we may have to record.

John Smith was the son of a farmer at Malton, about fifteen miles from the city of York, who bound him apprentice to a packer in London, with whom he served his time, and afterwards worked as a journeyman. He then went to sea on board a man-of-war, and was at the expedition against Vigo ; but on his return from that service he was discharged. He afterwards enlisted as a soldier in the regiment of Guards commanded by Lord Cutts; but in this station he soon made bad connexions, and engaged with some of his dissolute companions as a housebreaker.

On the 5th of December, 1705, he was arraigned on four different indictments, on two of which he was convicted. While he lay under sentence of death, he seemed very little affected with his situation, absolutely depending on a reprieve, through the interest of his friends. An order, however, came for his execution on the 24th day of the same month, in consequence of which he was carried to Tyburn, where he performed his devotions, and was turned off (put to death) in the usual manner ; but when he had hung near fifteen minutes, the people present cried out, A reprieve !" Hereupon the malefactor was cut down, and, being conveyed to a house in the neighbourhood, he soon revived, upon his being bled, and other proper remedies applied.

When he perfectly recovered his senses, he was asked what were his feelings at the time of execution ; to which he repeatedly replied, in substance, as follows :—" That when he was turned off, he, for some time, was sensible of very great pain, occasioned by the weight of his body, and felt his spirits in a strange commotion, violently pressing upwards ; that having forced their way to his head, he, as it were, saw a great blaze, or glaring light, which seemed to go out at his eyes with a flash, and then he lost all sense of pain. That after he was cut down, and began to come to himself, the blood and spirits, forcing themselves into their former channels, put him, by a sort of pricking or shooting, to such intolerable pain, that
he could have wished those hanged who had cut him down."

From this circumstance he was called "Half-hanged Smith." After this narrow escape from the grave, Smith pleaded to his pardon on the 20th of February, and was discharged; yet such was his propensity to evil deeds, that he returned to his former practices, and, being apprehended, was again tried at the Old Bailey, for housebreaking; but some difficulties arising in the case, the affair was left to the opinion of the twelve judges, who determined in favour of the prisoner.

After this second extraordinary escape, he was a third time indicted ; but the prosecutor happening to die before the day of trial, he once more obtained that liberty which his conduct showed he had not deserved.

We have no account of what became of this man after this third remarkable incident in his favour ; but Christian charity inclines us to hone that he made a proper use of the singular dispensation of Providence evidenced in his own person.

It was not unfrequently the case, that, in Dublin, men were formerly seen walking about who, it was known, had been sentenced to suffer the extreme penalty of the law, and upon whom, strange as it may appear to unenlightened eyes, the sentence had been carried out.

The custom until lately was, that the body should hang only half an hour; and, in a mistaken lenity, the sheriff, in whose hands was entrusted the execution of the law, would look away, after the prisoner had been turned off, while the friends of the culprit would hold up their companion by the waistband of his breeches, so that the rope should not press upon his throat. They would, at the expiration of the usual time, thrust their " deceased" friend into a cart, in which they would gallop him over all the stones and rough ground they came near, which was supposed to be a never-failing recipe, in order to revive him, professedly, and indeed in reality, with the intention of "waking" him.

An anecdote is related of a fellow named Mahony, who had been convicted of the murder of a Connaught-man, in one of the numerous Munster and Connaught wars, and whose execution had been managed in the manner above described ; who, being put into the cart in a coffin by his Munster friends, on his way home was so revived and so overjoyed at finding himself still alive, that he sat upright and gave three hearty cheers, by way of assuring his friends of his safety. A " jontleman who was shocked at this indecent conduct in his defunct companion, and who was, besides, afraid of their scheme being discovered and thwarted, immediately, with the sapling which he carried, hit him a thump on the head, which effectually silenced his self-congratulations.

On their arrival at home, they found that the " friendly" warning which had been given to the poor wretch, had been more effectual than the hangman's rope ; and the wailings and lamentations which had been employed at the place of execution to drown the encouraging cries of the aiders of the criminal's escape, were called forth in reality at his wake on the same night.

It was afterwards a matter of doubt whether the fellow who dealt the unfortunate blow ought not to have been charged with the murder of his half-hanged companion ; but " a justice" being consulted, it- was thought no one could be successfully charged with the murder of a man who was already dead in law.