James Payn and the Flowery Land Pirates

james payn Victorian copyright trolls

James Payn, caricatured in ‘Vanity Fair,’ 1888.

These past two days, I quoted from James Payn’s memoir about his encounter with Charles Dickens and his rant against Victorian copyright trolls. In this last installment, we’re moving into capital punishment, specifically his account of the 1864 hanging of the Flowery Land pirates.

At the time, Payn was writing for various journals so in his capacity as reporter he witnessed the hanging of five pirates.

As the Executed Today site notes, the Flowery Land story involves a mixed-race crew consisting of Spaniards, Greeks, a Chinese cook and other races, overseen by the British captain and first mate. There were 17 in all, and while the facts are not in dispute — the bodies of the dead confirm that a mutiny did occur — the question of what drove them to it is still up in the air.

As I read this account, I was particularly struck by the details of a type you would find in the better historical fiction. The ban on headgear, an appearance of crowdsurfing, the cost of a box seat at an execution (20 guineas is expensive!), and the reaction of the reprieved.

Here’s what Payn saw:

Flowery Land pirates

Broadside issued to cash in on the quintuple hanging.

In pursuit of my profession in town (for certainly I had no natural liking for such sights) I went to see the execution of the five pirates of the ‘Flowery Land.’ There was nothing in their case to excite pity. They had, without provocation, cast their captain and officers into the sea, and thrown champagne bottles at them while they were drowning. They were not, I am glad to say, Englishmen (they were natives of Manilla), but even if they had been I should have been in no way distressed at their fate.

Considering the universal unhappiness caused by the Cruel, one would be amazed that they are so lightly dealt with but for the reflection that our laws are made by those who do not suffer from their outrages. The life-long miseries they inflict upon those about them—defenceless women and children—are often far worse than murder; and when they culminate in that crime it is almost a matter for congratulation, for the victim then is freed and the villain at last is hung. I have no sympathy whatever with the spurious philanthropy that would keep such wretches alive to be a curse to their fellow-creatures, but I am rejoiced that the just punishment of their brutality is no longer a public spectacle.

The worst part of the execution to which I refer was not the hanging of the criminals, but the behaviour of the mob, to whom it was certainly no ‘moral lesson.’ Like Lord Tomnoddy I took a room with some friends (for which we paid twenty guineas) to see the sight. My description of it was thought too realistic for the ‘Journal,’ and, as at that date I had undertaken to write for no other periodical, it did not appear elsewhere. It is true it was afterwards published, but in an expensive form, and had few readers; and, as public executions have long been things of the past, I give a short extract from it.

“At three o’clock or thereabouts there was heard a rumbling of some heavy carriage, and there broke forth a horrid yell, half cheer, half groan, from the people without. This was the arrival of the scaffold, a mere block of wood (to all appearance) painted black and drawn by three cart-horses. Then there ensued a horrid knocking, compared with which the knocking in ‘Macbeth’ was but as the summons of a fashionable footman; they were putting up the gallows.

“By this time the snow had begun to fall, flake by flake, but without diminishing the concourse; on the contrary, it grew and grew, so that the dawn presently broke upon a pavement of human heads extending as far as the eye could reach. Hats, because they obstructed the view, were not permitted, and the effect of this sumptuary law was certainly picturesque. Those who had been deprived of their head-gear had substituted for it parti-coloured handkerchiefs, while caps of every hue made the shifting scene like a pattern in a kaleidoscope. Bakers’ white caps, soldiers’ blue caps, provident persons’ night caps, and chimney sweepers’ black caps were now become very numerous, and the mass of mere thieves and ruffians only leavened the multitude instead of forming its sole constituents.

“The chimney sweepers were extremely popular, and encouraged to beat one another, so that the soot should fly freely upon their neighbours; and the military were so far respected that I never saw one of them pushed up from the surging crowd and rolled lengthways over the heads of the company, to which the members of all other professions were continually subjected. Many gentlemen of volatile dispositions (and of physical strength enough to ensure impunity) would themselves leap upon the shoulders of those about them and run along upon all fours on the surface of the crowd; and nobody seemed to resent it, even including the softer sex, except now and then a personal friend, who seemed to consider it as a liberty, although perfectly allowable in the case of strangers.

‘I am sorry to say there were many women, although in no greater proportion to the males than one to ten. They were mostly young girls, who took no part in the rough amusements of their neighbours, unless under compulsion, but kept their gaze fixed on the Debtors’ Door. One in particular, with roses in her bonnet and cruel eyes, never looked anywhere else: she reminded me horribly of the girl in Bulwer’s “Last Days of Pompeii” who was so greedy to see the man devoured by the wild beast.

“No touch of pity, or even of awe, could be read in any countenance. When a black cloth, some two feet high, was placed round the edge of the scaffold, there was a yell of impotent rage, because a portion of the sight—the lowering of the dead bodies into their coffins—would be thereby lost to them. They cheered the hangman when he came out to adjust the ropes, as the herald of their coming treat; they grew impatient as the clock grew near the stroke of eight, and some called, “Time!”

“I am afraid an idea crossed my mind that if all the people there present (except those at the windows) could be put out of the way, like those whose last agonies they had come to see, it would be no great loss.

flowery land pirates

An Australian account of the Flowery Land pirates’ hangings can be read by clicking on the newspaper

‘It is not eight o’clock, but it is very near. A little dog in danger of being trodden to death is rescued by the police, amid approbation, and placed in safety upon the pitching-block—where the porters rest their burdens—at the top of the street. That is a good sign; perhaps it is better to pity dogs than murderers. St. Sepulchre’s bell begins to toll, although the inarticulate roar of voices almost drowns its solemn boom; there is a sharp and sudden cry of “Hats off!” and the parti-coloured carpet shows like a white sheet instantly. Where the barriers are not, in Newgate Street, the concourse bends and swells like the waves of a stormy sea; and where the barriers are, they are only distinguishable by their living burdens. There is a dreadful thronging of officials at the prison door, and five men are brought forth, one after another, to be strangled.

‘Let us turn our backs upon that scene, my friends, if you please, and look rather upon the forty thousand eager faces receiving their moral lesson. They are not so impressed as to be silent— no, not for one instant—but emit a certain purring satisfaction, like that of a cat over its prey. Then a hiss breaks forth, and here and there the word ‘cur’ is heard—that is because one of the wretched victims has fainted, and must needs be seated in a chair—and then there is a tempest of applause because the fifth man goes to his doom with as jaunty an air as his pinioned arms will permit. The priest is speaking the last few words that these wretches shall hear from mortal tongue; they are kissing (through those terrible caps) the crucifix he holds in his hand, and in a few seconds they will have crossed the threshold of life and entered upon the mysteries of eternity. Surely if the moral lesson is to give any visible sign of its working it must be now. It gives no sign whatever.

“The babblement never ceases; there is no hush, no reverence, no fear. Only after a certain dreadful grinding noise—which is the fall of the drop—a flood of uproar suddenly bursts forth, which must have been pent up before. This, the truth is, is the collective voice of the Curious, the Fast, the Vicious, spell-bound for a little by the awful spectacle, while the ceaseless though lesser din arises from the professional scoundrels, the thieves in esse, the murderers in posse, who are impressed by nothing save by the touch of the fatal slip-knot under their own right ears.

“Singularly enough, the crowd increased after the execution, persons of delicate temperament joining it, I suppose, who had not nerve enough for a hanging, but who knew how to appreciate a cutting down.”

Appended to Payn’s account is a cameo by Charles Dickens, who brings a touch of humanity:

“It has often been said that Dickens was in favour of the abolition of capital punishment. It was certainly not the case at this date, nor do I believe it ever was, though he wrote strongly against public executions.

“Speaking of the villainous crew of the ‘Flowery Land,’ he told me that the sheriff had given him a very characteristic account of them. There had been originally seven condemned to death, but two were reprieved. Reprieved criminals are generally much affected, and the fact of their escape is broken to them with great care by the officials.

“In this case, when the two men were told they were not to be hung, one received the news with total apathy, but the other with great vivacity exclaimed, ‘Then can I have Antonio’s shoes (Antonio was one of his less fortunate friends), ‘because they exactly fit me?’”

If you’re still in the mood for another account of the hanging, an Australian newspaper published the Daily Telegram‘s account in all its gory detail.