Jemmy Botting 1783-1837
James Botting was born on 7 May 1783 and lived in a property owned by his father, just off West Street, Brighton. The building, which was behind Westfield Lodge, became known as ‘Botting’s Rookery’. Vagrants, villains and felons of every description frequented the property and the immediate environs. Most had little choice in the matter and were subjected to Botting’s endless boasting and bouts of drunken violence. Needless to say he was not a popular character and few mourned his passing or the circumstances of his death.
Botting was appointed Public Executioner at Newgate Gaol in 1817 and it appears, like thousands today, he regularly commuted to London to perform his duties.
Between 1817 and 1819 he boasted of hanging 175 individuals. It’s claimed that in one week alone he executed thirteen people. According to Newgate’s records for multiple hangings, Botting used a gantry type gallows with parallel beams above a foot-hinged platform, he then released this platform by a lever.
Unsurprisingly Botting favoured the short drop. He was well aware that whole families would show up for public hangings and they demanded theatre and entertainment. They did not want a quick drop and a sudden end to a criminal’s life, they wanted to see the villains, literally, dancing at the end of the rope or at least appearing to do so. It’s more than likely that Botting enjoyed the spectacle as much as the crowds.
Bernard Cornwell gives a marvellous account of Jemmy Botting practising his ghoulish trade in his 2001 novel, Gallows Thief. Cornwell notes that families with a bit of extra cash would pay the hangman or others to pull down on the legs of the person dangling on the rope to hasten the death along. Such people were called hangers-on; the practice may also have been the origin of the expression “pulling someone’s leg.”
Paid by the Guinea
It’s been reported that as an executioner he was paid a guinea (21 shillings) a week plus a guinea per execution. (Appears an enormous amount to me) At that time tradesmen were paid in pounds and gentlemen were paid in guineas. Barristers were paid in guineas but gave the shilling to their clerks. It has been suggested that the executioner was paid in guineas because his job was loosely associated with the legal profession.
The Cato Street Conspirators
For me the most prominent execution he attended to was that of the Cato Street Five. These were a group of Londoners who did not agree with the way the government was ruling England. They planned to murder Members of Parliament (MPs) and to parade through the slums of London with their heads on poles. On the night of 22 February 1820, the conspirators met in a flat in Cato Street. Nearby was Grosvenor Square in central London, where they wrongly assumed several of the MPs were dining. But government spies had infiltrated their group and tipped off the police. So before they could do anything, police burst into the flat. One of the spies shouted, ‘We are peace officers. Lay down your arms,’ but an officer was killed as the conspirators tried to escape.
The five included former butcher James Ings, who had once worked in Cranbourne Street, Brighton. In 1820 Botting hanged the five and then handed their bodies over to a masked surgeon who undertook the final part of the court’s sentence, that of decapitating the corpses. This was the last time that a legal beheading was performed in England.
This account Published in History Today Volume 3: Issue: 12 1953
‘At a quarter to eight May 1st 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, James Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd stepped on to the scaffold newly erected outside the Debtors’ Gate of Newgate Prison to expiate their crime of treason. It was an occasion long remembered by all who witnessed it. From the early hours sightseers had been streaming in and occupying points of vantage. Shortly before the execution part of the railing of St. Sepulchre’s Church, on which a great number of people had climbed, collapsed, resulting in the injury of many. Certain observers affected surprise at the extraordinary number of women, some of them well dressed, who had joined the crowds waiting “for this most awful exhibition.’
Perhaps Botting’s most notable execution was the hanging of Henry Fauntleroy. Although a brilliant forger Fauntleroy was arrested on 10 September 1824. He stood trial at the Old Bailey in October, and was found guilty on 12 counts of deception and fraud.
Last Person Hanged for Forgery
Nearly 100,000 people gathered to watch the execution. Many of the roads were blocked and every window, room and roof that commanded a view of the proceedings was occupied. It was, in fact, the largest audience that James Botting ever achieved in his career as a public hangman.
Henry Fauntleroy was the last person to be hanged for forgery in this country.
Botting’s career came to an end when he contracted paralysis. Incapacitated and unable to turn his hand to anything else he had to survive on a pension of five shillings a week granted by the Court of Aldermen of the City of London. He managed to earn a few drinks by recalling tales of his days as Newgate Gaol’s official executioner. Eventually, his disability became so great that he had to haul himself around using an old seat with wheels.
Disliked, loathed and Left to Die
Unfortunately he appears to have been disliked and in many cases positively loathed by locals many of whom avoided him if they could. When he fell out of his wheelchair at the corner of Codington Place and Montpelier Road nobody rushed to help him and he was simply left to die sad, lonely, disillusioned and in pain.
It’s reported that while he was laying on the pavement people passed by laughing at him. Many people saw him lying there but they did nothing to help him. Maybe this shows how much the townspeople disliked him or perhaps it says something about the times he lived in.
Botting died on 1 October 1837. He left no money for a burial and upon an application to the police committee, a sum of two pounds was made available for his funeral.
It’s said that when he fell, ‘Brighton breathed a great sigh of relief that it wouldn’t have to hear the exploits of this unpleasant raconteur ever again.’
He died where Waitrose supermarket now stands.
Material on James Botting is fairly limited and although there are plenty of pages to be found on line it is clear that most, including this are heavily reliant upon an original source that has simply been reworked and at times largely copied.
Historical Consultant David Rowland