Clever Tom Clinch, Going To Be Hanged, Jonathan Swift


As clever Tom Clinch, while the Rabble was bawling,
Rode stately through Holbourn, to die in his Calling;
He stopt at the George for a Bottle of Sack,
And promis’d to pay for it when he’d come back.
His Waistcoat and Stockings, and Breeches were white,
His Cap had a new Cherry Ribbon to ty’t.
The Maids to the Doors and the Balconies ran,
And said, lack-a-day! he’s a proper young Man.
But, as from the Windows the Ladies he spy’d,
Like a Beau in the Box, he bow’d low on each Side;
And when his last Speech the loud Hawkers did cry,
He swore from his Cart, it was all a damn’d Lye.
The Hangman for Pardon fell down on his Knee;
Tom gave him a Kick in the Guts for his Fee.
Then said, I must speak to the People a little,
But I’ll see you all damn’d before I will whittle.
My honest Friend Wild, may he long hold his Place,
He lengthen’d my Life with a whole Year of Grace.
Take Courage, dear Comrades, and be not afraid,
Nor slip this Occasion to follow your Trade.
My Conscience is clear, and my Spirits are calm,
And thus I go off without Pray’r-Book or Psalm.
Then follow the Practice of clever Tom Clinch,
Who hung like a Hero, and never would flinch.

Eugene Byrne has an interesting piece on the background of this poem as well.

If William Hogarth represented all the exuberant chaos of 18th-century London life in paint, here’s Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) doing something similar in verse, with the fictitious Tom Clinch being taken from Newgate to his appointment with the ‘Tyburn tree’ to be ‘nubbed’, frummagemmed’, ‘hempstered’, ‘turned off’ or to ‘cry cockles’.

(It’s sometimes claimed 18th century Londoners had more slang and cant expressions relating to executions than for any other subject, apart from money.)

From eyewitness accounts of hangings you can see that Swift’s satirical verse is not too far removed from what frequently happened at Tyburn a lot of the time. Hangings were big events. People would take the day off work to attend and struggle for the best viewpoints. A few years after Swift wrote these lines, a grandstand was even built nearby. It was called ‘Mother Proctor’s Pew’ after the woman who owned it, and who made a fortune from selling seats on it. Hawkers, tradesmen and women and pickpockets all came to earn a few shillings from the crowd, and you could often buy the last speech and confession of the condemned man (or less usually, woman), a printed pamphlet written by some grubby hack which was almost always “a dam’d Lye”.

Some went to their deaths loudly repenting their sins and man would call from the scaffold for young people not to follow their terrible example. However, it was also often the case that young men went to their deaths with a great deal of flash. So here Tom Clinch jokes that he’ll pay for his bottle of wine on his return, and is dressed fashionably, as though going to his wedding. The ladies swoon as he bows to them and he treats the hangman with contempt. Given the chance to address the crowd, Tom does not “whittle” – confess his crimes or grass on his friends – but instead says he has no regrets. He thanks the notorious Jonathan Wild (1683-1725) who made a fabulous living as both thief and thief-taker for lengthening his life with a “year of grace”, presumably because Wild had been hanged the previous year and so Clinch hadn’t been caught.

Swift’s point was that talk of the terrible majesty of the law, and the deterrent effect that executions had on the public, were nonsense. Public hangings plainly had no deterrent effect at all; they were holidays for the mob. Provided the condemned man hadn’t committed some especially repulsive crime, he had the option of enjoying his 15 minutes of fame by fighting back against the system with an extravagant bravado which only excited admiration.

While reading this poem, which is one of my favourite Swift poems, I kept thinking that today’s public executions come in the form of reality TV shows and singing contests. You have an unfortunate victim hoping for fortune and fame being hauled up in front of millions and millions of viewers to perform for a few minutes. Nobody knows what is going to happen. Will they choke? Will they be great? Will they be so awful the paint will peel from the walls and the audience will laugh and point before coaxing the judges on to come up with the best putdown, the most scalding comment, or maybe the cold hearted bastards will be turned to jelly at some sad story. A cancer stricken mother. A lost sister.

But in the end they only get their fifteen minutes of fame and then it is gone, replaced by the next person. And they must know it, that they are doomed from the start but they go on regardless, wearing weird, garish, flamboyant clothing and makeup to stand out from the crowd and inevitably they face the same  fate as they fade back to the obscurity they emerged from.

I guess the real question is whether it is better to have and lost than to never have had it at all.

From public executions to X-Factor/American Idol/ Britain’s Got Talent. Bit of a leap there I know.

But in the end they all hang, some just a little faster than others.