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The Executioner's Axe

2020 is the 200th anniversary of the last public beheadings in England. This is not a cause for celebration, rather a moment to reflect on the brutality of this form of capital punishment. The fate of the final five victims was neither swift nor just, and in at least one case, that of William Davidson, the only black defendant, it was despicably inhumane. The axe made specifically for that occasion survives in the collections of the Museum of London, and here is the story behind it.

The year 1820 marked the last year of the reign of King George III (who had been on the throne for sixty years) and the succession of his unpopular son, George IV. These were turbulent times, and early that year a group of radicals plotted to assassinate the British prime minister and his cabinet, an event now known as the Cato Street Conspiracy. Before they could carry out their plan, the conspirators were betrayed by a government spy and were apprehended in a loft at Cato Street, near Harley Street in London, with a policeman being killed in the ensuing struggle.

Ten of the plotters were put on trial, charged with high treason. One of their number was William Davidson, son of the former Attorney-General of Jamaica. He maintained his innocence throughout his trial, telling the jury, ‘you may suppose that because I am a man of colour I am without any understanding or feeling and would act the brute; I am not one of that sort; when not employed in my business, I have employed myself as a teacher of a Sunday-school.’ He also demanded of the judge, and received assurance, that he would be treated at his trial as any other British citizen.

William Davidson, as portrayed in George Theodore Wilkinson's An Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy (London, 1820) (image courtesy The British Library)

The first five defendants, Davidson, included, were tried one by one, and each of them convicted. Davidson's defence was flimsy; he had been arrested in possession of a musket, which he claimed he was merely holding on behalf of another. When asked by the judge why he should not be sentenced to death, William Davidson invoked Magna Carta (originally granted by King John in 1215), arguing that the King’s ministers could be called to account if they breached the rights of the people, and this did not amount to treason against the King himself. This did not impress the judge. All five were sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering, the fate of a traitor, whereupon the remaining five defendants all changed their pleas to guilty and pleaded for the King's Mercy, and were sentenced to transportation for life for their pains.

The executions were carried out at the gates of Newgate Prison on 1 May 1820. By this stage, the sentences had been commuted to hanging with posthumous decapitation, with this axe being specially made for that purpose. A crowd of some 100,000 people were in attendance, and the goverment deployed soldiers in readiness around the prison, fearing a serious riot. Their concerns were well-founded, since it had come to public attention that the informant was in the pay of the government, and that he may actually have spurred on the conspirators to commit their crime.

The scene of the execution, in An Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy (London, 1820) (image courtesy The British Library): the axe can be seen propped against one of the coffins

In the event, the axe made for the decapitation was never used. The conspirators were first hanged until they were dead, before their heads were removed by a masked barber-surgeon, using a surgical knife, before being held up to the crowd. In one case, however, which we believe to be Davidson, there is evidence that the hanging was botched, perhaps deliberately. Eyewitnesses reported that when the head of one of the men was removed, blood spurted from his neck, indicating that he was not yet dead (unlike his fellow plotters).

One outcome of this gruesome sequence of events, and the fear of disorder, was the determination that no beheading would ever take place again in public (no such sentence was ever carried out behind closed doors, either). Although never used, the axe bears testimony to the horror faced by these five men on the scaffold, and to the bravery of Davidson in particular.

Julian Harrison for Cradles & Labels

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