March 5, 2012

Forest Row Hanging

written by Rosa Morgan
My name is John Beatson, a Scotsman who spent the better half of his life finding adventure on the high seas. My wife suffered my absences and my children barely recognized me, and so when I could no longer scale the yards, nor scrub the deck, I begrudgingly came home and bought a little tavern in Edinburgh. It was a respectable establishment with timbered ceilings and inglenook hearth. I accepted no smugglers and prided myself on serving the strongest stout in the shire. However, the time came when I handed the whole kit and kaboodle to my eldest son, William, who suffered the most from me being away. Not long after, he sold the business and bought another, but having fallen into bankruptcy, he sought refuge at Hartfield in Sussex and lived on the wreck of his property.

By this time, I was white haired with purse depleted, and felt all opportunity of exploit beyond me. I was serving as butler with a good family when William approached me with a dubious scheme to restore our joint fortunes. I accepted it despite serious reservations, and on Saturday, 18th July, 1801, we traveled down to Godstone and stayed the night at the coaching inn, "Rose and Crown".

Having not slept a wink due to jangled nerves, we set out in the morn and journeyed south through Blindley Heath to East Grinstead. Upon reaching Wall Hill, Forest Row, we set about our plan, which with several pints belted back had previously glowed with promise.

It was a moonless night, nigh onto the midnight hour when I hunched down beside the road and waited. With knees knocking, I whispered, “William, my boy, ‘tis not too late to alter our course; let us not fall prey to greed and thievery.” I did not hear my lad’s response, for the rumble of the mail coach was upon us, and William, quick as lightning was atop it with a pistol to the driver’s breast. “Your money or your life!” he demanded. It grieved me further that the coachman was a boy himself, and cried most passionately as we left him hog tied.

We made off with our plunder to Hartfield, and with a cornfield as cover, examined our spoils. Never had I beheld so many bank notes in my life, thousands to be sure; and fearful of being detected, we agreed to take only a quarter of it, abandoning the rest.

With £3,500 lining our pockets, we made our way to Westerham, thence to Deptford and onto London. There we lived the lives of kings until we saw handbills offering a reward for our capture, and we thought it prudent to remove ourselves from the country. We made it only as far as Liverpool, where I awoke in bed at the inn and found myself in custody. We were returned to Sussex and ultimately Horsham Gaol, where I had much time to reflect upon the folly of my short lived days as a highwayman.

The next Assizes at Horsham came on 29th March, 1802, where we, as the last pair of mail robbers in Sussex, were brought before Baron Hotham. The judge's words still ring in my ears: “John Beatson, you are to be fed on bread and water till Wednesday next, when you are to be taken to the sight of your thievery, and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; after which your body is to be publicly dissected and anatomized, agreeable to an Act of Parliament in that case made and provided; and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul."

At seven in the morning on 17th April , we were conveyed in a cart with our coffin beside us to where a special gallows had been erected. By a strange twist of fate part of the structure had been stolen the night before, while enough remained to accomplish the deed. A rowdy crowd of nearly three thousand onlookers congregated, hurling insults and rotten fruit at us. Here the blacksmith removed our handcuffs and leg-irons and the Yeoman of the Halter tied the rope around our necks and tied our hands in front, allowing us freedom to pray. The only thing I asked God for was that the hangman had accurately considered my height and weight to calculate an efficient drop.
The hangman, who was a condemned criminal reprieved on condition he execute others, pulled white night caps over our faces, and with the priest's blessing, pulled the lever. I felt the initial yank at my neck, the sensation that the top of my head would burst open, and finally my dear sister Louise pulling on my legs to deliver me from my writhing agony.

With my spirit free of my corporeal body, I hovered above the scene, watching as our bodies were cut down and given to Horsham's surgeons, Messrs. Price and Popay. They took us back for dissection, selling our skin to the tanner and odd bits and pieces as tokens to the public, who were hungry for gruesome entertainment. Dear reader, I tell this as a cautionary tale, so you may be content with life's simple pleasures life: a loving mate by your side and faithful dog at your feet.

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