They called it ‘the deadly nevergreen’, the tree which bore fruit all year long. The scaffold at Tyburn consisted of three posts—each ten to twelve feet high—held together by three wooden crossbars at the top. For those who gazed upon it, it was a chilling reminder that life outside the law could indeed be as Thomas Hobbes had described it: ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

Tyburn had been a place of execution since the 12th century, although a permanent scaffold was not erected there until the late 15th century. Between 1169 (when the first recorded execution took place) and 1783 (when hangings were moved to Newgate Prison), an estimated 40,000-60,000 died at Tyburn. Amongst these were Perkin Warbeck (1499), pretender to the throne; Elizabeth Barton (1534), the prophesising nun; Francis Dereham (1541), Queen Catherine Howard’s lover; and Jack Sheppard (1724), the notorious thief and escape artist.

Beginning in the 18th century, Tyburn became a battleground between the surgeons who needed to procure corpses for dissection and the mob who fought ferociously to protect the dead from this indignity. Samuel Richardson, writing in 1740, described such a scene:

As soon as the poor creatures were half-dead, I was much surprised before such a number of peace-officers, to see the populace fall to hauling and pulling the carcasses with so much earnestness, as to occasion several warm rencounters [sic], and broken heads. These were the friends of the persons executed…and some persons sent by private surgeons to obtain bodies for dissection. The contests between these were fierce and bloody, and frightful to look at. [1]

Before the day of reckoning, the condemned went to great lengths to protect their bodies from the dissection table. They appealed to family, friends, lovers and acquaintances. Martin Gray begged his uncle to come to his execution in 1721, ‘lest his Body should be cut, and torn, and mangled after Death’. [2] Sarah Wilmhurst, who was convicted of murdering her bastard child in 1743, was more concerned that her father and brother would fail to secure her body after the execution than with the prospects of death itself. [3]

Most telling of all was a plea made by Vincent Davis, who was condemned to die after murdering his wife, Elizabeth, ‘by giving her with a Knife one mortal Wound in the Right Side of the Breast’. During his consignment, Davis

…sent many Letters to all his former Friends and Acquaintance to form a Company, and prevent the Surgeons in their Designs upon his Body…So great were these Apprehensions that he should be Anatomiz’d, that…he desired and wish’d he might be hang’d in Chains to prevent it, and with that view affronted the Court of Justice. [4]

The court did not acquiesce to his pleas; however, on the day of execution, Davis’s friends fought the surgeons for his body and won. He was later buried in Clerkenwell. [5]

These battles were not for the faint-hearted. Accounts from the Barber Surgeon’s Company reveal how violent scenes around the gallows could become. An entry from 1739 records: ‘Paid the Beadles for their being beaten and wounded at the late execution £4.4.0.’ Another entry from 1740 reads: ‘Paid for mending the windows broke upon bringing the last body from Tyburn. £0.6.0.’ In one record we discover that the ‘dead man’s clothes…were lost in the scuffle’. The hangman who had procured the body thus required 15 pence compensation as the clothes of the executed rightly belonged to him. [6]

Even after the passage of the Murder Act in 1752—which dictated that the bodies of all murderers be dissected and anatomised—battles between surgeons and the mob continued to escalate. Eventually, ‘the deadly nevergreen’ was taken down after the last criminal—John Austin—was hanged there on 3 November 1783. From that point forward, public hangings took place just outside the walls of the Newgate Prison. Given the close proximity of Surgeon’s Hall to the site of execution, it was easier for surgeons to procure bodies for dissection away from the prying eyes of an angry crowd.

Nonetheless, surgeons continued to be the object of public loathing and ridicule well into the 19th century, until the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally severed the links between dissection and punishment forever.

Tyburn, however, has been immortalized in the imagination of the public as a place of horror and death. In the words of the 17th-century poet, John Taylor:

I have heard sundry men oft times dispute
Of trees that in one year will twice bear fruit.
But if man note Tyburn, ‘will appear
That that’s a tree that bears twelve times a year.

1. Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, 1928 edn., p. 219.
2. The Ordinary’s Account, 3 April 1721.
3. The Ordinary’s Account, 18 May 1743.
4. The Ordinary’s Account, 30 April 1725.
5. Peter Linebaugh, ‘The Tyburn Riot Against the Surgeons’, in Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1975; repr. 1988), p. 81.
6. S. Young, Annals of the Barber-Surgeons of London (1890).