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“Criminals do not die by the hands of the law. They die by the hands of other men.”George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman 


Engraving by William Heath (1794–1840).  Image via Durham University 4schools.

Death as a form of punishment has been around for as long as people have existed although the form it has taken has varied with hung, drawn and quartered; boiling in oil; burning at the stake; beheading with a sword and hanging varying in popularity at different times. Hanging for crimes was first introduced by the Anglo-Germanic tribes in the 5th century but was abolished during the reign of William the Conqueror’s and replaced with the more ‘humane’ punishment of castration and blinding for all but the crime of poaching royal deer. Hanging was reintroduced by Henry I and in the 18th century was the ‘principle punishment for capital offenses’[1]. Beheading (last used in 1747 in the execution of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat) was only used for those from the high born classes whilst women found guilty of counterfeiting or murdering their husbands were burnt (witches in England were hung rather than burnt as in Scotland). Burning at the stake was abolished in England in 1790[2]. Public executions were ended in 1868 with the curtain finally falling on capital punishment in the United Kingdom in 1969.

The Bloody Code

by Sir Thomas Lawrence,painting,circa 1806-1810

Sir Samuel Romilly, legal reformer. By Sir Thomas Lawrence via Wikimedia.

“[There is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to the law to be punished with death as in England” Sir Samuel Romilly

In 1688, there were 50 crimes punishable by death in English law, in 1765 this number had risen to 160 and astonishingly in 1815 this figure had reached more than 220. The reason for this was a new penal code introduced in 1791 which turned most minor misdemeanors into capital offences. This code became known by the grim nickname of ‘The Bloody Code’ and between its introduction and abolition in 1822 more than 10,000 men, women and children were sentenced to death[3]. The implementation of the code reveals a deep anxiety in the minds of the wealthy and powerful classes to  any threat to their possessions, rights or properties. This anxiety was intensified by the events of the French Revolution which saw the accepted social order turned on its head.

Amongst the usual offences such as arson, murder, piracy, rape and treason were a number which would seem extremely peculiar to us today.

  • Begging in the company of gipsies for a month
  • Malicious maiming of cattle
  • Damaging Westminster Bridge
  • Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner
  • Strong evidence of malice in children seven to fourteen years old
  • Stealing from a shipwreck
  • General poaching
  • Begging without a licence if you are a soldier or sailor
  • Writing a threatening letter
  • Destroying turnpike roads
  • Stealing from a rabbit warren
  • Pick pocketing goods worth more than one shilling
  • Being out at night with a blackened face
  • Cutting down trees
  • Unmarried mothers concealing a stillborn child

William Hogarth – Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn.  Image via Wikimedia.

Despite the severity of the punishment many people charged with these crimes (with the exception of murder, robbery and burglary) were not executed but instead had their sentences either commuted to transportation or permanently postponed often on the grounds of pregnancy of the offender, benefit of clergy, official pardons or performance of military service[4]. Confusion about punishments and the whims of judges affected the consistency of the rule of law as well affecting the strength of the sentences handed as judges were sometimes unwilling to find a defendant guilty knowing they would be executed[5]. People were in general inured to the death and severity of the punishments handed out to criminals and in a society where children were treated as adults the hanging of Michael Hammond and his sister Ann, possibly aged 7 and 11 respectively at Kings Lynne for theft in 1708 made little impact[6].

The Heinous Crime of Forgery

“[Forgery] the false making or altering of a document, with intent to defraud” Collins Concise Dictionary

In 18th and 19th century law forgery was listed under the category of ‘Deception’ which also included bankruptcy, fraud, perjury and a miscellaneous section which included the illegal procurement of documents such as marriage licences or the unlawful insertion of names into registers. In England the offence of forgery was considered as serious as murder and was treated with the same harshness. Although the early records of the Old Bailey show that many of those convicted of forgery were punished with the pillory and fines later as the Bloody Code legislation was implemented more and more were sent to the gallows.

The earliest cases from the Old Bailey records show that the pillory was initially the punishment of choice for most judges for example in May 1689 a John Ingham was indicted for forging the signatures of two Justices of the Peace. His aim was to obtain the release of an Edward Williams from Newgate. He was sentenced to spend three days in the pillory: the first day at Hick’s Hall; the second at Temple Bar and; the third at Westminster Hall Gate as well as finding sureties for his good behaviour for twelve months[7].


The pillory. Image from Old Bailey Online.

One of the reasons that forgery came to be seen as such a heinous crime was that with the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, the English financial system became dependent on paper credit so any attempt to fraudulently copy or counterfeit documents such as stamps or bonds was perceived as an attack on the very foundations on which England stood. In the 1820s forgery along with arson at the Royal Docks, treason, murder, piracy and burglary was one of the last offences which carried a capital sentence. In 1832 forgery (with the exception of the forgery of wills and certain powers of attorney) was taken off that list by a parliamentary act. Eventually in 1837 all forms of forgery were exempt[8].

The minister, the mastermind and the scammer: Three cases of forgery

William Dodd at Tyburn. Image via Wikimedia.

William Dodd at Tyburn. Image via Wikimedia.

William Dodd – The decadent Anglican minister

William Dodd lived above his means. He enjoyed the good things in life but unfortunately his partiality for fine living resulted in him accumulating bills he was unable to honour. In order to save himself and his wife from bankruptcy he decided to forge a bond for £4200 in the name of a former pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield. All was going well and the banker accepted the bond in good faith. Unluckily Dodd was not the best forger and the banker noticed a blot on the bond and decided to go and see the Earl to get a clean copy signed. Dodd confessed immediately to the fraud and despite a public campaign for a Royal pardon he was hung at Tyburn in June 1777[9]. Dodd was the last person to be hanged for forgery at Tyburn.


Ann Hurle – The master criminal

One of the cleverest and ambitious although ultimately doomed forgery scams was attempted by the 22-year-old Ann Hurle. Her background was sketchy but on the 10 December 1803 she met her friend of six months, a stock broker, George Frenallon at the Bank Coffee House. She persuaded him to obtain a power of attorney for her as she wanted to sell a Bank of England 3% stock which she had been given by a Benjamin Allin of Greenwich. Ann told George that the stock had been given to her as a present in thanks for the good work her aunt, his housekeeper had performed over the years. Once Ann received the power of attorney, she disappeared. On returning with the signed document, she had it witnessed and then took it to Thomas Bateman, a bank clerk at the Bank of England. Bateman who knew Allin’s signature became suspicious as the signature differed from that found on other documents. Despite Ann’s reassurances that the differences were due to Allin’s being over 90 years old, Bateman was not satisfied and he decided to go in person and see Allin. Allin confirmed that the signature was not his. Ann was arrested at Bermondsey and tried and convicted of the charge of attempting to defraud the Bank of England of £500 (which is in today’s money over a quarter of a million pounds). On Wednesday 8th February Ann was hanged near St Sepulchre’s Church[10].

1709 Bank of England Exchequer Bill. Image from Just Collecting website.

1709 Bank of England Exchequer Bill. Image from Just Collecting website.

Thomas Maynard – The shameless scammer

Thomas Maynard was hanged at Newgate on the 31 December 1829. His crime was defrauding His Majesty’s Custom House of the amount of £1973 by counterfeiting a warrant order and fixing the signatures of three Commissioners of Customs to it.  He was also accused of a secondary charge of trying to defraud a Sir William Boothby. Witnesses attested to Maynard’s and his accomplice, Richard Hubbard Jones decadent behaviour after receiving the money. They said that the two men lived extravagantly, showing off their money and allowing women who called themselves their wives to run up huge debts with tradesmen. Both Maynard and Hubbard were arrested trying to travel to France. £280 were found on Maynard and £250 on another unknown man who was traveling with them. Strangely only Maynard was convicted of the crime, for some reason Jones was not tried. Maynard has the distinction of being the last person to be hanged for forgery in England.

Sarah Whitehead:The Black Nun of Threadneedle Street


The Bank of England, Threadneedle Street. Image via Wikimedia.

One of the most famous hauntings in London and the one that always sends chills along my spine is believed to be that of the ghost of Sarah Whitehead, otherwise known as the Black Nun. Sarah’s tragic tale begins in 1811 when her brother, Philip, a disgruntled former clerk in the Cashiers Office of the Bank of England was found guilty of forgery and attempting to defraud the bank. On the day of the trial, Sarah’s friends worried about her reaction kept the news of his conviction from her by persuading her to leave the rooms which she shared with her brother and go with them to their house off of Fleet Street. When her brother failed to return home, Sarah tried to find him. Either her brother had never told her he had left the bank or she had nowhere else to look since she kept going back to the bank in the desperate hope that someone would have heard from him. Eventually either out of annoyance or pity, one of the clerks finally blurted out the truth. The shock destroyed her mind. On her death she was believed to have been buried close to the bank of England on the former site of St Christopher le Stocks, which was demolished in 1781 when the premises of the bank was extended.  The former graveyard became the gardens of the bank.

There are different accounts of what happened after Sarah was finally told the truth. One version is that she visited the bank every day for the remainder of her 25 years asking politely for her brother whilst another that on her visits she was verbally abusive to the bank’s staff.  A third recounts how she became convinced that the bank had stolen money from her and would demand that they return what they had taken. Eventually in 1818 the bank’s governors tired of her constant presence gave her a sum of money on the provision that she would never come back, a promise she kept.

Even though the precise details of the story vary slightly, the one thing they all agree on is Sarah’s appearance. For the rest of her life she always wore full mourning weeds which consisted of a long black gown and full black veil.

Have you seen my brother?

Sarah Whitehead - The Black Nun of Threadneedle St. Public Domain(?)

Sarah Whitehead – The Black Nun of Threadneedle St. Public Domain(?)

For over the next two hundred years Sarah’s spirit has been unable to rest. She has been seen at the Bank of England itself, at Bank station (where railway staff have recalled how she leaves behind a feeling of terrible sorrow and hopelessness[11]) and in the former graveyard of the church where she was originally buried. Those witnesses who have seen her in the garden have said that she walks hesitantly, groping her way along as if she is blind then she falls to her knees and beats the ground with her fists, crying and shaking violently before she suddenly vanishes[12].

She has been most often seen at night wandering the streets around the bank and in particular Threadneedle Street still intent on finding her beloved brother. She has been reportedly seen by numerous people, some who knew the legend, most who didn’t. People of all ages, beliefs and lifestyles, people alone or with others have claimed to have seen a woman dressed peculiarly in black, walking slowly along the road. It is usually her strange attire which first catches their eye. Sometimes she stops them and with eyes downcast asks politely about her brother. Receiving a negative answer she turns and walks dejectedly away, disappearing from sight. Some people seeing her walk past are overcome by a feeling of intense grief and loneliness and approach her asking her if she needs help. Needless to say she just turns and asks her constant question, ‘Have you seen my brother?’

History or urban legend?

When looking at different websites and accounts of the Black Nun they all give Sarah’s brother’s name as Philip. On one of the websites the blogger states that there is no record of a Philip Whitehead appearing in the Old Bailey. Searching through the online records I agree, there is no evidence of Philip Whitehead but there is a Paul Whitehead aged 36 who was convicted of forgery and sentenced to be hanged. Looking at the proceedings of the trial, certain details emerge which fit with the legend surrounding Sarah Whitehead including the date of the trial, the 30th October 1811 and the fact that Whitehead was a former clerk in the Cashiers Office at the Bank of England. The transcript from the trial records that Whitehead was indicted on six counts of forgery, the main charge being ‘’for feloniously forging and counterfeiting an acceptance on a certain bill of exchange for 87 l. 10 s. with [the] intention to defraud [13]”. Whitehead was hanged at Newgate on the 29th January 1812 in front of a large crowd. He was described as being of ‘genteel appearance’ and who together with the five other condemned men “met their fate with decent fortitude, and when on the fatal scaffold shook hands, after which they were launched into eternity…[14].

Courtroom at the Old Bailey. Image via Wikimedia.

Courtroom scene at the Old Bailey. Image via Wikimedia.

Maybe Paul Whitehead is not Philip Whitehead but if he isn’t then why is there no record of the latter’s trial or maybe the legend of Sarah has been fabricated based on Paul Whitehead’s crime and death. Personally I believe that it was a mistake and Philip is Paul Whitehead and that the story of the historical Sarah is true. I also hope that if her spirit is lost that one day she will be reunited with her brother and finally gain the peace of mind she has been searching for, for so long.


Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, 1928

Tim Lambert, A History of the Death Penalty in the UK, http://www.localhistories.org/capital.html

The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1203828/The-222-Victorian-crimes-man-hanged.html

Capital punishment in the United Kingdom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_the_United_Kingdom

The Bloody Code – http://www.slideshare.net/DHUMPHREYS/the-bloody-code

Sir Samuel Romilly, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, 1840

Sara Malton, Forgery in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, 2009

Forgery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgery

William Dodd: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dodd_(priest)

The Black nun, http://legendsoflondon.wix.com/1800s#!the-black-nun

The Bank of England and the Black Nun: http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/greater-london/hauntings/the-bank-of-england-and-the-black-nun.html

The proceedings of the Old Bailey: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/index.jsp

Newgate: http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng749.htm

The Bloody Code, http://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools/Crime/Bloodycode.htm


[1] A Handbook on Hanging, Charles Duff, 1928

[2] Tim Lambert, A History of the Death Penalty in the UK, http://www.localhistories.org/capital.html

[3] The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1203828/The-222-Victorian-crimes-man-hanged.html

[4] Capital punishment in the United Kingdom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_the_United_Kingdom

[5] The Bloody Code, http://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools/Crime/Bloodycode.htm

[6] The Bloody Code – http://www.slideshare.net/DHUMPHREYS/the-bloody-code

[7] John Ingham – https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t16890516-75&div=t16890516-75&terms=forgery#highlight

[8] Forgery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgery

[9] William Dodd: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Dodd_(priest)

[10] Ann Hurle – hanged for forgery in 1804: http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/hurle.html

[11] The Black nun, http://legendsoflondon.wix.com/1800s#!the-black-nun

[12] Black Nun of the Bank of England (or, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street): http://www.watkinsbooks.com/ushahidi/reports/view/83

[13] Paul Whitehead: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18111030-44-defend374&div=t18111030-44#highlight

[14] Newgate: http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng749.htm