It’s high time we looked at the popular gallows jewellery of the 19th century. As wild as it sounds, it was a thing, and a popular thing at that. As much as the Victorians revelled in beauty and sentimentality, they really were a bunch of morbid sods at heart.
Across the centuries, man has always held a fascination with murder and crime, and today is no different. Most of us have a murder podcast or two on our phones and the latest Netflix special about unexplained deaths in Texas/Florida/Iowa (delete as applicable) is sure to gain hundreds of millions of views.
The Victorian’s interest in crime and punishment was no different to what we hold today, but admittedly, was rather more pretty in its interpretation.
One unusual keepsake and jewellery style of the time was that of the hangman’s locket. Prior to the abolition of UK public hangings in 1868, onlookers to executions had the opportunity to purchase their own little keepsake of their grizzly day out. After this point, one would presume the hangman would sell his wares outside the prison walls, or from his own dwelling, but with crowds far smaller than before.
These ‘Hangman’s Lockets’ were simple in construction and could be easily assembled before the condemned man had breathed his last. The locket consisted of a small glass pendant with tiny metal gallows and body – more often than not, a skeleton – suspended on the inside. To link the pendant to a specific hanging, a small piece of ‘the’ rope, being a little twist of fibres, was placed within the locket.
Why? Well, it’s a bit odd and a fun novelty, so of course they sold in huge numbers. They were also regarded to be good luck charms, sometimes with healing abilities relating to the neck and throat, which is unpleasantly ironic. In reality, the pendants were simply an excellent money spinner for the hangman, who could make a few extra pennies after an exhausting afternoon of execution.
Speaking of hangmen, does one exist from William Marwood, Lincolnshire’s finest hangman? You bet your gruesome little heart it does. A hangman’s locket prepared by William Marwood has been recorded in the personal collection of ‘Madame Talbot’. According to Talbot, the rope included in the locket dates from 1875 – 7 years after the abolition of public hangings – and was used to hang six victims in that same year.
Hangman’s lockets had a brief time in the sun, but are confined to the realm of occasional museum oddities today. One can only presume that the vast numbers sold of these keepsakes were forgotten or discarded over the years, either due to their macabre nature, or the drunkenness of the purchaser. Many of us have had a glass of wine too many and bought a few things we shouldn’t have (I’m looking at you, rotating bookshelf), and the Victorians were no different.
During the heyday of public execution, the crowds would be drinking all day by the gallows, a little like a local festival, where the headline act was a death. The next day, the audience would be feeling more than a little rough from their alcohol consumption, and so the term ‘hangover’ was born. The more you know.
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