An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn (1725)

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University of California, Los Angeles



Richard C. Boys, University of Michigan
Earl R. Miner, University of California, Los Angeles
Maximillian E. Novak, University of California, Los Angeles
Lawrence Clark Powell, Wm. Andrews Clark Memorial Library



John Butt, University of Edinburgh
James L. Clifford, Columbia University
Ralph Cohen, University of California, Los Angeles
Vinton A. Dearing, University of California, Los Angeles
Arthur Friedman, University of Chicago
Louis A. Landa, Princeton University
Samuel H. Monk, University of Minnesota
Everett T. Moore, University of California, Los Angeles
James Sutherland, University College, London
H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., University of California, Los Angeles


Edna C. Davis, Clark Memorial Library


The Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn was originally published as a series of letters to the British Journal. The first letter appeared on February 27, 1725;[1] just twelve days before, Jonathan Wild, self-proclaimed “Thief-Catcher General of Great Britain and Ireland,” had been arrested and imprisoned in Newgate. Thus the Enquiry had a special timeliness and forms a part of the contemporary interest in the increasingly notorious activities of Wild. Wild’s systematic exploitation of the London underworld and his callous betrayal of his colleagues in criminality (he received £40 from the government for each capital conviction he could claim) had created public protest since at least 1718 when an act (which Mandeville cites in his Preface) directed against receivers of stolen goods was passed, most probably with the primary intention of curtailing Wild’s operations. Wild’s notoriety was at its peak in 1724-5 after his successful apprehension of Joseph Blake (“Blueskin”) and Jack Sheppard, the latter figure becoming a kind of national hero after his five escapes from prison (he was recaptured by Wild each time).[2]

The timeliness of Mandeville’s pamphlet extends, of course, beyond its interest in Jonathan Wild, who after all receives comparatively little of Mandeville’s attention. The spectacle of Tyburn itself and the civil and moral failures it represented was one which Londoners could scarcely ignore and which for some provided a morbid fascination. Mandeville’s vivid description of the condemned criminal in Newgate, his journey to Tyburn, and his “turning off,” must have been strikingly forceful to his contemporaries, who knew all too well the accuracy of his description.

“Tyburn Fair” was a holiday. Apprentices deserted their posts, pickpockets, dram-dealers and other free-lance caterers, prostitutes, grub-street elegiasts armed with dying speeches or commemorative verses, went to theirs, to swell the enormous and unruly holiday mob, a mob given a certain tone by the presence of the respectable or aristocratic curious (Boswell says “I must confess that I myself am never absent from a public execution”) who came in their coaches or even rode along with the condemned in his cart. The mob at Tyburn reached enormous proportions. Thirty thousand people witnessed an execution in 1776; eighty thousand an execution in Moorfields in 1767.[3] Richardson, in Familiar Letters on Important Occasions (Letter CLX) refers to the “pressure of the mob, which is prodigious, nay, almost incredible.”

When such popular madness was climaxed by the generally unrepentant criminal’s drunken bravado (Richardson’s criminals “grew most shamefully daring and wanton…. They swore, laugh’d and talked obscenely”[4]), and by their glorification by the mob (according to Fielding the criminal at Tyburn was “triumphant,” and enjoyed the “compassion of the meek and tender-hearted, and … the applause, admiration, and envy, of all the bold and hardened”[5]), serious-minded men rightly wondered what valid end the execution of the law served. And of course it was not merely that the criminal died unrepentant or that the spectators remained unedified and undeterred. The scene at Tyburn also reflected society’s failure to utilize a significant portion of its “most useful members,” a failure disturbing to the dominant mercantile attitude of the time which valued “the bodies of men” as potential sources of wealth (Mandeville’s concern with the usefulness of the lower class is obvious throughout the first part of the Fable of the Bees and in the Essay on Charity, and Charity-schools).

Mandeville’s subject, then, was one familiar to his readers and one whose importance they recognized. His attitude toward his subject was for the most part a thoroughly conventional one. For instance, his primary assumption that the penal code must be harsh since its function is to deter, not to reclaim, pervades eighteenth-century thought on the subject and is clearly reflected in the number of offences carrying the death penalty (160 when Blackstone wrote; 220 in the early nineteenth century). Its logical culmination may be found in arguments such as George Ollyffe presented in 1731. Ollyffe, noting that the frequency of the death penalty was not deterring criminals, suggests that more horrible forms of punishment be devised, such as breaking on the wheel, “by which the Criminals run through ten thousand thousand of the most exquisite Agonies … during the unconceivable Torture of their bruised, broken, and disjointed Limbs,” or “twisting a little Cord hard about their Arms or Legs,” which would produce the “keenest Anguish.”[6] Ollyffe’s public-spirited ingenuity should be a warning to modern readers who assume that Mandeville’s attitude is unusually harsh and unfeeling.

Most of Mandeville’s specific proposals too may be paralleled in the many pamphlets of the time concerned with the criminal and the lower class. To point out some of the similarities between Mandeville’s and Fielding’s proposals (which he states most fully in An Enquiry into the late Increase of Robbers, 1751) is not to posit direct influence but to suggest the uniformity of opinion on these matters during many years. Both Mandeville and Fielding argue for closer control over receivers of stolen goods, against advertising in the paper to recover stolen goods, against the false compassion of the tender-hearted who fail to prosecute or of juries which fail to convict the guilty, against the indiscriminate imprisonment of young with old, hardened criminals with first offenders, men with women, and against frequent pardons. They agree in demanding that the condemned should meet his death, soberly, shortly after his conviction.[7]

Mandeville’s suggestion that the bodies of the executed be turned over to surgeons for dissection is not to be found in Fielding’s pamphlet. It does, however, become a part of the “Act for preventing the horrid Crime of Murder” (25 Geo. II. c. 37), an act for which Fielding is often given credit.[8] This suggestion, and that in Chapter VI to trade felons into slavery (which as far as I know is Mandeville’s own), clearly stem from the impulse to increase the deterrent power of the law by making it more terrible.

What distinguishes Mandeville’s pamphlet (in addition to the characteristically hard-headed bluntness of its author) is a quality present in one degree or another in all his work: an exuberant delight in creating scene. Throughout the Fable of the Bees, for example, but especially in the first part, the argument is punctuated by vivid scenes in which an idea is acted out or illustrated. Invariably these scenes have a merit and interest beyond that owing to their function in the argument. They are lively, vivid, picturesque, humorous or touching in their own right. The reader can scarcely doubt that Mandeville enjoyed composing them—he admits as much in the Preface to the Enquiry when he acknowledges, in defending the “lowness” of his subject, the “Pleasure there is in imitating Nature in what Shape soever.”

The gusto and vitality of the description of the events at Tyburn well illustrate Mandeville’s art. He puts us on the scene, lets us see and hear the various actors, gives us telling detail: a bully rolling in the mire; a putrified wig; a drunken old woman on a bulk; refuse flying through the air; trollops in rags; a gin seller “squeez’d up in a corner”; carcasses of dogs and cats. The scene is filled with objects and has movement as well: the mob is a torrent which “bursts through the gate,” a “floating multitude.” There is “jostling,” “kicking dirt,” “rolling”; peddlers “stir about,” and one who has “ventured in the Middle of the Current” is “fluctuating in the irregular Stream.” The air is filled with “oaths and vile expressions,” and “loud laughter”; a peddler “tears his Throat with crying his commodity.” Mandeville orders his scene spatially and chronologically, and he enforces its vividness by relating the action in the present tense. Its basic unity, however, is owing to the evaluation and control provided by the various tones of the narrator’s voice, which is alternately scornful and disgusted (“abandoned Rakehells”) and almost playfully ironic (“he is the prettiest Fellow among them who is the least shock’d at Nastiness”; “their darling Cordial, the grand Preservative of Sloth, Jeneva”).

For one reader at least Mandeville is eminently successful in capturing what must have been the appalling uproar and the dismaying quality of the events at Tyburn. His vivid, circumstantial realism sets the Enquiry apart, as far as I know, from all other pamphlets dealing with this sorry subject. If his views for the most part are conventional, his style and technique are not, and in this respect the Enquiry is best compared not with other pamphlets but with Hogarth’s portrayal of the demise of the idle apprentice (Plate XI of the Industrious and Idle Apprentice, 1747), in which Hogarth represents visually many of the same details which Mandeville reports and in which he conveys a comparable sense of the violent and brutal activity of the Tyburn mob.


[1] See “A Note on the Text” below.

[2] A useful account of Wild’s career and fame appears in William R. Irwin’s The Making of Jonathan Wild (New York, 1941), pp. 3-32.

[3] The figures are taken from Leon Radzinowicz’ A History of English Criminal Law (New York, 1948-56), vol. I, p. 175, n. 45.

[4] Compare the hero of Swift’s “Clever Tom Clinch going to be hanged” (1726), “Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.” He “Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling,” and adjured his friends to “Take Courage, dear Comrades, and be not afraid, / Nor slip this Occasion to follow your Trade.”

[5] Henry Fielding, “An Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers,” Works, ed. Henley (London, 1903), vol. 13, p. 122. Fielding might have added that the criminal-hero also enjoyed the amorous admiration of the fair: when clever Tom Clinch rode by “The Maids to the Doors and the Balconies ran, / And said, lack-a-day! he’s a proper young Man”; according to Mrs. Peachum “The youth in his cart hath the air of a lord, / And we cry, There dies an Adonis!”

[6] George Ollyffe, An Essay Humbly Offer’d, for an Act of Parliament to prevent Capital Crimes, and the Loss of many Lives; and to Promote a desirable Improvement and Blessing in the Nation, second edition, (London, 1731), p. 8.

[7] Fielding’s and Mandeville’s positions may be compared to that of an anonymous pamphleteer writing in 1701: “I might add, that it were not amiss, if after Condemnation they were allowed nothing but Bread and Water; a good way to humble them, and bring them to a sense of their Condition, as to a future state, and to put a stop to their murthering their Keepers, and attempting to break Gaol. And it were well, if a Particular Habit (Black the most proper Colour) were assigned them, at least at their Executions; and that they might not be suffered to make their Exits in gay Clothes (as they sometimes do like Men that Triumph) but rather as becomes Those, who are just going to undergo the Curse of the Law, and that are intended to be a Warning to Others.” R. J., Hanging not punishment enough, for Murtherers, High-way Men, and House-Breakers, p. 21.

[8] Both the criminal and the “mob” detested the anatomists. In the British Journal of March 20, 1725—one of the issues in which Mandeville’s letters appeared—a captured murderer is reported to have said “d——n my Soul; but I desire I may not be Anatomiz’d.” In the same issue is recorded a mob’s assault on a doctor whom they suspected, rightly it seems, of grave-robbing. He was forced to flee for his life and his stable was “pulled down.”


The letters (which Mandeville tells us were composed before Wild’s capture) appeared in nos. 128-133 of the British Journal (Feb. 27, Mar. 6, Mar. 13, Mar. 20, Mar. 27, and Apr. 3, 1725). The differences between the text of the newspapers and that of the pamphlet have some significance, for what alterations there are suggest that Mandeville was a fairly careful editor. The Preface to the pamphlet is entirely new—its addition is one of several changes Mandeville made to put the articles in pamphlet form. He also, for example, added a Table of Contents, and gave headings to each chapter and, in one instance, changed “Papers” to “Chapters.”

Throughout minor changes (not clearly purposeful) in punctuation, italicization, and capitalization occur, and occasionally a word is changed (“Holland” becomes “Leyden,” p. 27) or a word is inserted (“none of them should” becomes “none of them likewise should,” p. 13), but only three changes may be called substantial. (1) In the first newspaper article the following sentence appeared in the text in brackets after the footnoted sentence on p. 3 of the pamphlet: “Here I beg leave to observe, that the greatest Part of this Treatise was wrote some Months before Jonathan Wild was apprehended; and that as nothing was said of him, but what may be equally applied to any one, who either now follows, or shall take upon him the same Employment, I keep to the original Manuscript, imagining the Reader will be better pleased to see the Author’s Sentiments concerning Jonathan, and the Trade he drove before his Commitment, than any Alterations that might be expected from what has happen’d since.” (2) The phrase on p. 17, “with Applause, and repeated with Impunity,” corrects the newspaper version “with Impunity, and repeated with Applause.” (3) On p. 25, lines 3 through 17 appear only in the pamphlet, the newspaper version reading merely “… of Course, we seldom meet with any Thing that is edifying, or moving.”

The pamphlet is reproduced from the copy at the Huntington Library.











A Proposal for some Regulations concerning Felons in Prison, and the good Effects to be Expected from them.

To which is Added,

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