Vicar's little black book of death

List of names in book The diary is not ideal bedtime reading

John Baker. John Brown. John Roberts. The names go on.

But this is no phone book.

It is a document so utterly chilling and macabre that the hairs on one's neck literally stand on end to hold it.

Because each of these Johns - along with the 413 other men listed in a fastidious and swooping calligraphy - were hanged by the neck.

Start Quote

This is penology at its rawest”

End Quote Glenn Mitchell Peter Harrington's bookseller

And for reasons that will remain forever opaque, the chaplain at London's Newgate Prison in the early 19th Century felt compelled to record their passing in a personal diary.

The Reverend Horace Salusbury Cotton assiduously listed every execution to take place there between 1812 and 1839.

It looks innocent enough: a small leather-bound volume that sat on someone's bookshelf for a century-and-a-half.

Then it turned up at a provincial auction in West Sussex last year. It has never been published or studied.

The names begin without ado. Page after page after page of them.

'Launched into eternity'

One of the names is John Smith - sentenced to death for stealing a letter.

He was "turned off", notes Cotton. "Launched into eternity."

Britain's 'Bloody Code'

An execution at Newgate Prison, circa 1809
  • In 1815, there were more than 200 offences on the statute book that carried the death penalty
  • A criminal could be hanged for petty theft, damaging Westminster Bridge or pretending to be a Chelsea Pensioner
  • The so-called "Bloody Code" was a response to increasing panic by the ruling, landowning class
  • Hangings were often held in public, attracting large crowds, and were intended to act as a deterrent
  • But crime and punishment was changing by the end of Cotton's time, with the Victorian era ushering in more progressive thinking

Source: The National Archives

If that sounds callous - well, it is, certainly to the modern mindset.

Glenn Mitchell, of Peter Harrington booksellers in Chelsea, west London, said: "Cotton feels part of a process which is absolutely correct in the way it's punishing people - and perhaps it didn't go far enough.

"He bought into fire and brimstone."

Cotton's modus operandi was to scream at the condemned man that he was going to burn in hell for all eternity.

And his sermons were so awe-inspiring they found their way into the lexicon of the day: people were said to be "dying with Cotton in their ears".

Mr Mitchell, who is now offering the book for sale, said: "Cotton felt the importance of informing the prisoner of God's vengeance was not played up enough by the system.

"He managed to do something in his sermons that absolutely petrified people.

"He was actually cautioned by his employers once for so terrifying a man who was about to be hanged."

Mr Mitchell added: "I'm trying to think of moments of sympathy in the diary - but there really aren't any."

Another John: John Ashton, highway robber.

Cotton records that he was pushed off the scaffold - only to clamber back on.

The executioner gave him a little shove - also "turned off".

Not for public consumption

So did Cotton create this volume merely to satisfy his own ghostly foibles?

"He seems to have had a personal interest in the executions," says Mr Mitchell. "It was not intended for public consumption.

Glenn Mitchell and Peter Berthoud Mr Mitchell and Mr Berthoud consider the book

"We have a document here which is genuinely unique - there's lots of information in there you simply cannot get from other means."

And here is one of those little details, just discernable through the gap. Another John: John Wattle, forger.

Fascinatingly, the diary records: "Wattle had recently been a respected grocer at Bristol."

What could have turned an upstanding member of the community into a condemned fraudster, on the receiving end of one of Cotton's excoriating terminal lectures?

Who knows. But we can be sure the last thing poor Wattle heard was Cotton's booming voice.

And the good vicar had similarly little sympathy for one Mr Faun, a banker convicted over nefarious financial dealings.

"Much mistaken sympathy" was extended by the public, the holy man notes.

'Loved his job'

Reflecting on the discovery, Peter Berthoud, a London historian, said: "When I saw it I was amazed.

"This is a little black book someone has immaculately and with pleasure filled with all the deaths he had officiated over.

"I knew straight away it would have a worldwide interest."

Mr Berthoud added: "I have a feeling Cotton loved his job."

BBC London



10 °C 2 °C

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC


  • Former al-Qaeda double agent Aimen DeanHARDtalk Watch

    Islamic State is about revenge says former al-Qaeda member turned spy Aimen Dean

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.