Perp: John Smith
Also known as : Half-hanged Smith
Crime : House burglary
The Victim: Unknown
Motive: Greed and stupidity
Punishment : To be hanged but failed to die after 15
minutes and was given a reprieve.
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
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.