Hangman’s story

 Execution dock
Execution dock

Based on a true event and yes, the pub really does exist.  Turn left as you exit the tube station at Wapping


 

“Do you know what you’re looking at?” inquired a voice from behind me.

I turned, my blank stare indicating that I obviously did not.

“That’s Hangman’s Dock,” said the man, pointing downwards over the low parapet wall.

He had just gained my undivided attention!

It was the 23rd of May and I was sitting in the beer garden of an old London pub, gazing idly at the river Thames. The ancient view of churches and warehouses on the far bank was the same as it had been for hundreds of years. Water flowed in on the rising tide, and out again as it fell. It was now low tide, and a sandy beach stretched between the base of the wall and water’s edge.

“And that’s where the gallows stood,” he continued, pointing to a number of blackened timber stumps protruding from the sand.

In the narrow cobbled street outside the public house, the level of noise had been increasing steadily, as the ever swelling throng of eager people clamored to get a better view. Urchins ran excitedly about and emaciated dogs barked fiercely, until the cacophony of sounds was almost deafening. Everyone was here to view the execution of a condemned pirate.

Further up the street, a horse-drawn cart bearing the prisoner inched it’s way forward. The man it conveyed looked not at all like a pirate, for although his hands were tightly bound he was well dressed and fine of stature. In attendance beside him stood two ugly brutes who clearly relished the thought of the hanging that was to follow.

The procession drew to a halt outside the public house, and the High Court Marshal at its head, dismounted. He nodded to the guards who untied their charge, half pushing, half throwing him from the cart. They too jumped down, giving the captive little chance of escape, then pulled him roughly to his feet and guided him hastily into the public house.

“One quart of ale for the prisoner, landlord,” barked the Marshal. The guards stood back and glared stony-faced, for they must merely watch. The irony of the situation would not have escaped the prisoner, but he did not smile. He drank down the beer, almost to empty, then paused and looked about. All eyes were upon him. Defiantly he threw back the remainder of the ale, then marched resolutely towards the door.

Except for a small area around the gallows, the sandy beach was now packed with people, restrained by a line of soldiers ensuring no one came too close. Today’s spectacle had been eagerly awaited. Boats of all shapes and sizes jostled to hold their positions as close as possible to the shore.

A spontaneous cheer arose from the crowd as the execution party emerged from between two buildings and descended the steep wooden stairs onto the sand. The prisoner needed no urging; he held his head high as he mounted the steps to join the other figures already on the gallows platform. The executioner removed the prisoner’s hat and placed the rope around his neck. A white silk scarf he wore crumpled as the noose tightened. The attending Chaplain, who not for one moment had ceased his incantations, now raised his voice to even higher pitch, and cried out for the condemned man to confess and repent. Such entreaties however had no effect on the prisoner; his face remained expressionless, masking any emotion.

The Marshal gave a signal. The rope snapped taught as the trapdoor opened and the condemned man dropped. A collective gasp issued from the expectant crowd, and for one brief moment, utter silence prevailed. Time froze.

The spell was broken as the Marshal and Chaplain turned, visions of their postponed quarts of ale drawing them swiftly back towards the public house. The guards climbed the gallows steps and began hoisting the body back up, but the prisoner was not dead! The fall had been insufficient to break his neck. His bloodstained eyes protruded wildly, his wide open mouth gasping for air. The entire body shook with spasmodic convulsions in a most grotesque manner.

I could endure to look no longer. I turned to the man behind me, smiled weakly, thanked him for his information, then made my way out of the pub. On a pole beyond the door, a painted sign hung limply in the lifeless air. I glanced up at the picture of a pirate, and above it the name, ‘CAPTAIN KIDD’.

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