The Ordinary of Newgate was the clergyman responsible for taking the final confessions of condemned criminals at Newgate prison on London. Prisoners were held at Newgate before being publicly hanged at Tyburn (at the site of what is now Marble Arch) until the late 18th century. The Ordinary also had the right to collect and print their confessions as a way to supplement his income and discourage criminality, probably in that order. The Newgate Calendar was originally these confessions, published in the form of broadsheets (and frequently before the body was cold), but the title was eventually taken by other publishers to collect together any sensational crime story that took their fancy.
The classic edition of the Calendar was published in four volumes between 1824 and 1826 by Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin. This fantastically-covered edition is from Panther and dates from 1976.
I call this series on non-fiction Just the Facts, but to be honest most of the Calendar is a load of nonsense. Even the true stories are editorialised to the nth degree, railing against drunkenness, loose women, Catholicism and, oddly, soldiers.
A typical story is that of Half-hanged Smith, a thief who somehow survived being hanged for a full 15 minutes and was reprieved. Undeterred, he continued his career and appeared at the Old Bailey not once, but twice more – both times getting off on a technicality. As usual the Calendar tops and tails the sensational story with moralistic bookends. ‘Christian charity inclines us to hope that he made a proper use of the singular dispensation of Providence evidenced in his own person.’
But it is the tale of Sawney Beane which stretches the limits of credulity.
‘The following narrative presents such a picture of human barbarity, that were it not attested by the most unquestionable historical evidence, it would be rejected as altogether fabulous and incredible.’
Sawney Beane was a Scottish hedger who took a life of crime and with his wife moved to a remote cave in Galloway. And then – well, the next paragraph takes some beating.
‘To prevent the possibility of detection, they murdered every person that they robbed. Destitute also of the means of obtaining any other food, they resolved to live on human flesh. Accordingly, when they had murdered any man, woman or child, they carried them to their den, quartered them, salted and pickled the members and dried them for food. In this manner they lived, carrying on their depradations and murders, until they had eight sons and six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters, all the offspring of incest.’
Finally, after years of this, one of their victims escaped and managed to lead a party of troops, led by King James VI in person, to the cave. There, amongst pickled body parts and piles of treasure, Sawney’s clan were apprehended. Texas Chainsaw Massacre, eat your heart out.
Next time: Another Newgate Calendar star – and this one went to my school.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.