Convicted of Robbery, reprieved while actually hanging upon the Scaffold, 24th of December, I 705, and afterwards had two other Escapes from Death
THOUGH the crimes committed by this man were not marked with particular atrocity, nor his life sufficiently remarkable for a place in these volumes, yet the circumstances attending his fate at the place of execution are perhaps more singular than any we may have to record. He 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 out his time, and afterwards worked as a journeyman. He then went to sea in a merchantman, after which he entered on board a man-of-war, and was at the famous expedition against Vigo; but on the return from that expedition he was discharged. He had not been long disengaged from the naval service when he enlisted as a soldier in the regiment of guards commanded by Lord Cutts; but in this station he soon made bad connections, 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, and received sentence of death. While he lay under sentence he seemed very little affected with his situation, absolutely depending on a reprieve, through the interest of his friends. However, an order 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 in the usual manner; but when he had hung nearly fifteen minutes the people present cried out: "A reprieve!" On this the malefactor was cut down, and being conveyed to a house in the neighbourhood, soon recovered, in consequence of bleeding and other proper applications. When he had 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. 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; yet such was his propensity to evil deeds that he returned to his former practices, and, being again apprehended, was tried at the Old Bailey for housebreaking; but some difficulties arising in the case, the jury brought in a special verdict, in consequence of which 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 what became of this man after this third remarkable incident in his favour; but Christian charity inclines us to hope that he made a proper use of the singular dispensations of Providence evidenced in his own person.
When once the mind has consented to the commission of sin, it is hard to be reclaimed. The memory of the pangs of an ignominious death could nit deter this man from following the evil course he had begun. Thus, by giving way to small propensities, we imperceptibly go on to enormities: which lead us to a shameful fate. let us, therefore, at once resolve never to depart from the path of rectitude.
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 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 one could be successfully charged with the murder of a man who was dead in the law.