ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Summer 1994


Peter Linebaugh

Days of villainy: a reply to two critics


From International Socialism 2:63, Summer 1994.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FALSTAFF: Thou knowest in the state of innocency Adam fell; and what should poor Jack Falstaff do in the days of villainy? 1 Henry IV, III, iii, 165.

This is the response of one writer to two others who allowed themselves to be provoked by my book, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century [1], which was first published in 1991 in England, and a year later in the USA. [2] I intend to deal with two, not because their views are the only ones which are serious, but because they carry a weight which may endanger the main themes of The London Hanged by sinking them beneath the surface of discussion. Neither Sir Ian Gilmour, the Tory politician, nor Sir Keith Thomas, the Oxford don, the two critics to whom I reply, advance the arguments proposed in The London Hanged, nor much acknowledge them. However, Sir Ian raises questions about Marxism and Sir Keith raises the issue of story telling (‘romanticism’) to which I respond.

The London Hanged is a study of 1,242 men and women who were hanged in 18th century London. By analysing the simple social and economic facts of their lives, it comes to some specific conclusions. It offers an interpretation of the origin of the police, as armed, paid cadres of state authority, and it sees that development in parallel to the mechanisation of the labour process. The building blocks of capitalism, or ‘civil society’ to use 18th century terminology, were constructed in response to working class powers. Thus this book presents, paradoxically, a study of freedom, as it was lived by significant parts of the working class, against the institutions of confinement. The essence of the relationship between the classes was a material exchange that became by the end of the century a waged, or monied, relation. Hence the book analyses crime and the wage as two sides of the same coin. This relation hid the workers who were unpaid and concealed the work that was unpaid.

Sir Ian Gilmour says: ‘return to the drawing board’

FALSTAFF: But, I prithee, sweet wag, shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fubb’d as it is with the rusty curb of old father antic the law? Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief. 1 Henry IV, I, ii, 56–59.

Sir Ian Gilmour criticises The London Hanged in The London Review of Books for 5 December 1991. The date is significant: his review begins, ‘Whatever may have happened recently to the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, Marxist historiography seems alive and defiant. Lenin’s tomb may be under threat, but the historical certainties of Marxism lie undisturbed.’ Marxist historians, he continues, ‘seem oblivious to recent events in Eastern Europe. Of course the final demise of Communism in the Soviet Union came too late for Linebaugh’s book, but earlier developments there and in the satellite regimes did not.’ In this, Sir Ian is joined by J.C.D. Clark,

It is, in its way a peculiar achievement: Linebaugh has produced a perfect compendium of classic Marxist one-liners, redolent of the mood of 1975 when theories like this burst on the world in a volume entitled Albion’s Fatal Tree. But Linebaugh is uniquely unfortunate: his long-meditated magnum opus, written in the vocabulary of the Brezhnev era, is published after the failed Soviet coup. [3]

The London Hanged, it needs to be said, is not a study of either Eastern Europe or of Soviet-style communism, and therefore these insinuations are quite irrelevant, and probably a malign form of the anti-communism that was virulent with the Tories under Lady Thatcher. They indulge themselves in a Eurocentric triumphalism which does not understand the planetary recomposition of a working class, enforced by war in the Middle East and the horn of Africa, stiffened by the surreptitious terror of slavery, stirred by migratory flows from the South to the North. [4] This recomposition in the big cities of the world consists of a low waged, precarious, insecure, part time, temporary, under-employed ‘underclass,’ often as not migrants. Everywhere poverty is feminised. [5]

The date of Sir Ian’s attack is significant for an additional reason. He explains ‘The other day, in a reference to the recent riots in Newcastle, the Archbishop of Canterbury ... [criticised the 18th century Bishop of Chester who] ignored that human wrongdoing is inextricably linked to social deprivation, poverty, poor housing and illiteracy.’ He alludes to the unemployed young people of Newcastle and Oxford who stole cars and then raced them through shop windows. Sir Ian has a particular interest in urban disorder; he was Lord Privy Seal and deputy Foreign Secretary in Mrs Thatcher’s first cabinet. In April 1981 Brixton exploded in riot, ‘the like of which had not previously been seen in this century in Britain,’ as the Scarman report would later say. The debate over the budget within Thatcher’s cabinet that summer was against a background of apparent civil breakdown. In February 1981 in a speech at Cambridge as the Lord Privy Seal he attacked Hayek, the economist whose theories favouring unfettered competition and market forces influenced Thatcher. Thatcher insisted that social disorder ‘had nothing whatever to do with policies but was entirely a problem of indiscipline and motivated by human wickedness.’ [6] ‘Oh, those poor shopkeepers!’ she cried on seeing the first pictures from the July riots in Toxteth. These were the developments that led to, a) Thatcher’s dismissal of Sir Ian Gilmour as a Tory ‘wet,’ and, I suspect, to, b) the beginnings of his own historical inquiries into the 18th century. ‘For a politician, the problems of governance and violence in 18th century England are of particular interest,’ he would later write. [7] When Sir Ian attacks The London Hanged he is also attacking Marxist historiography as a whole. ‘Marxist historians who have seen all history as class struggle culminating in a preordained end – “the proletariat”, in Linebaugh’s words, “would bring to birth a new society from the ashes of the old” – can’t plausibly go on writing as if nothing much has happened, even though the inevitable end has turned out to be a dead one, and a phenomenally false start.’ Preordained end? It is not Marxist historians who have written of ‘inevitable’ ends but the chief triumphalist of the bourgeoisie, Francis Fukuyama, who proclaimed (ordained?) ‘The End of History’. [8]

But Sir Ian persists. [9] ‘Today after the revisionist history of the last two decades, the claim that the English Civil War was a class one seems the historical equivalent of Stalinism.’ Yes, true, I had only a few words for the English Revolution. [10] But what was Stalinism? To Edward Thompson, it was a tyrannical rigidity of mind, an arrogant pride in intellect, and the utter suppression of liberty. To Sir Ian, it seems to be a tripartite model of historical change, of classes supplanting one another according to Official Determinism – first the aristocracy, then the bourgeosie, finally the proletariat – a model whose origin is found among the Scottish philosophers of the 18th century with their doctrine of civil society. Not really very interesting to working people, for as William Walwyn noted of the Cavaliers and Roundheads, ‘their quarrel is all whose slaves the poor will be.’ [11] The London Hanged presented a different argument in its chapter on ‘Old Mr. Gory’. It noticed that with the defeat of the English Revolution the English entered on a massive scale the African slave trade, the expropriation of land in Scotland, Ireland, and England commenced rapidly, and urbanisation threw forth a propertyless proletariat. Might we not identify three such similar themes in the USSR under Stalin: the expropriation of millions from the land, the appropriation through wage labour of the social wealth created by an urban proletariat, and the development, if not of plantations, then prisons and labour camps which organised slavery?

And again Sir Ian returns to smite the old adversary: ‘Yet, despite its Marxist mumbo-jumbo The London Hanged is an unusually enlightening and absorbing book which can be easily enjoyed regardless of its underlying theory.’ [12] What is the Marxist mumbo-jumbo that stumped Gilmour? ‘This book’, he quotes the offending line, ‘explores the relationship between the organised death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital).’ It is an obscure formulation – yes. I was playing with words. In rhetoric, it is a mirror inversion, or a chiasmus, an example of which is ‘When the going gets tough the tough get going,’ only what I wrote is a double chiasmus. Unlike mumbo-jumbo, it was not intended to overawe any one, much less a privy councillor. The purpose is to hook a reader’s attention. Perhaps, we can put the matter more plainly, as a way of making amends for any confusion caused.

We need to explain the meanings of two sets of phrases. What is ‘dead labour’ and what is the ‘death of living labour’? Karl Marx, it is true, defined constant capital as dead labour. He did so, not to confuse Tory MPs, but to remind us that those values in production that are constant, such as raw materials and the tools of production, are themselves the product of the moil and toil of previous labour. From the standpoint of present production this is dead labour. One does not need to be a Marxist to appreciate this: the steel workers of Youngstown, Ohio, for example, have taken legal action against US Steel, which exported both the jobs and equipment of the town. Their case was that what the corporation called its capital, the workers considered the legacy of their forebears. The Gospels make a similar point. ‘I sent you to reap that whereon ye bestowed no labour: others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’ (John 4:38). Entering into the labour of others is what one generation does with the other: this relationship has been inverted and perverted, because the labours of the old have been used to oppress youthful labour. As for the organised death of living labour, it takes on a great many social forms – slavery, plague, famine and war have been the principal scourges. How are these mass mortalities related to the death penalty? [13]

The second set of phrases – ‘capital punishment and punishment of capital’ – may be less controversial and their meaning more apparent. As for the punishment of capital, The London Hanged presents a distinct thesis. It interprets the introduction of machines into production at the end of the 18th century as a means of repressing specific levels of the workers’ control of production as a self conscious example of police science. The major critics have not grappled with this problem, the origin of the police. Is it because police matters are sensitive? Is it because to look at the origins of the police implies the force might one day come to an end?

The punishment of capital must include not only the mutilations, homicides, injuries, stress of the office, mine and mill, it must also include the migrations, the uprootings, the forced confinement, the slavery of the sex industries that have become planetary phenomena. Since Bhopal, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, the workplace itself, Tom Dwyer argues, must ‘be seen as producing death’. [14] Capital punishment has its distinct technical history, in its mechanisation – from the cart to the drop, from hanging to the chair, from the axe to guillotine, from the firing squad to the needle. To this we need to add the death penalty of assassinations, death squads, and disappearings. Why are victims of the death penalty proletarians? Once this question is asked, I think that instead of wondering about the death of the working class, we can ask again the revolutionary question, what is the working class?

Paid and unpaid labour

FALSTAFF: Marry, then, sweet wag, when thou art king, let not us that are squires of the night’s body be call’d thieves of the day’s beauty. 1 Henry IV, I, ii, 23–4.

Sir Ian suggests that ‘the introduction of both capitalist production and capitalist reproduction into Eastern Europe surely now requires Linebaugh to introduce some nuances into his Marxism. Better still, he might take it back to the drawing board.’ Gilmour is right: we need to go back to the drawing board. Nowhere is this more required than in the presuppositions about wage labour. It has been privileged over all other kinds of labour, because it has had power, it has had money. When we look at the working class from the point of view of its lack of money, as The London Hanged resolutely does, we begin to see what it has in common with so many other kinds of workers, full time working mothers, sex workers, slaves, homeworkers, children. [15] The London Hanged owes much, I hope, to two other Marxist distinctions. One is the distinction between abstract and concrete labour; the other is the difference between paid and unpaid labour. Marx wrote that these constituted the originality of his theories. Of course, there is a very large theoretical literature about these. The historical literature, alas, is less large. In fact there are very few guides at all. So, I tended, very loosely, to find parallels between abstract and concrete labour on the one hand, and on the other hand, the quantitative abstractions of economic reasoning and the technics or narration of the labour process. When Marx introduced the distinction between base and superstructure it was in the context of the expropriation of customary appropriations – the ‘theft’ of wood by the Moselle commoners. [16]

The labour process of production and reproduction is the site to locate these problems. The vernacular preserves the distinctions that often get lost in the learned or ‘economic’ language of the wage. In the 18th century for concrete and paid labour, the glossary includes cabbage, chips, waxers, sweepings, sockings, wastages, blessing, lays, dead men, onces, primage, furthing, dunnage, portage, wines, vails, tinge, buggings, colting, rumps, birrs, fents, thrums, potching, scrapings, poake, coltage, extra, tret, tare, largess, the con, nobbings, knockdown, boot, tommy, trimmings, poll, gleaning, lops, tops, bontages, keepy back, pin money. There is a non-Ricardian philology of money and the wage form, which such a list only gestures at. But I think that it is fundamental, and we must overcome our fear of economism, our fears of reductionism, in order to explore it. [17] To understand fully the impact of such a view, reading J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England 1700-1820 is essential. [18]

Professor Meiksins Wood’s review of my book in New Left Review refers to ‘unusual forms of class struggle pioneered by London labourers in the 18th century’. Crime is inherent in class society. Her characterisation of the 18th century struggle and the rise of capitalism does not mention the slave trade. What does it mean to refer to The London Hanged as ‘undisciplined’? [19] It is an odd choice of words; perhaps she means academic discipline. In another sense, indiscipline is inevitable, and needed, because as it has been constituted the discipline of history has separated labour history from slave history, despite the efforts of W.E.B. DuBois. She writes of English society, not as capitalism, but as a cultural entity with geographical boundaries. Its economic and ecological boundaries, however, require us to see the plantation system in the Caribbean and the migration across the Atlantic from Africa. She quotes Thompson in Customs in Common, ‘this is the century of the advance of “free” labour’; and again, ‘a substantial proportion of the labour force actually became more free from discipline in their daily work, more free to choose between employers and between work and leisure ...’ – statements that arise only from the discipline of bifurcation, free/slave, and so on. [20]

Robin D.G. Kelley reviewing the book in Monthly Review helps us overcome this problem of discipline. What If Jack Sheppard Met Malcolm Little in Watts in 1992? he had originally called his paper: [21]

By studying the actual lives of the dead who breathed their last breath at Tyburn, of their friends, comrades, fellow workers, lovers, and enemies, of the places they worked, the markets they attended, the work they did, the money they made, the language they spoke, the things they stole, the laws they struggled over and helped create, and of the people they worked for as well as the profits of their employers, Linebaugh offers us a different historical road map to comprehend how our modern Atlantic world came to be.

Paid and unpaid labour: if that is the nub of Marxism, it was also the crux of the 18th century working class. We can apprehend this via the custom/crime nexus. ‘Indeed,’ Kelley continues, ‘so many scholars forget or ignore the degree to which (property) crime has been a part of working class struggles throughout the Western and colonial world.’ Let us take Frederick Douglass. [22] The first quotation is about his days as a child at Colonel Lloyd’s plantation.

I was seldom whipped by my old master, and suffered little from any thing else than hunger and cold. I suffered much from hunger, but much more from cold. In hottest summer and coldest winter, I was kept almost naked – no shoes, no stockings, no jacket, no trousers, nothing on but a coarse tow linen shirt, reaching only to my knees. I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes.

Why does he write that he ‘stole’ the bag? This was his bedding, and bedding not long enough to keep his feet from becoming pencil cases! His feet thus obeyed the laws of private property, since they did not use the stolen bag. But what if the feet were able to speak back to the head? What would they have said? The body and the head are in contradiction. It is a somatic intelligence. Douglass goes on to discuss ‘allowance’, a military term originally denoting a fixed quantity in addition to regular pay.

We were not regularly allowanced. Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oystershells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.

The mush is allowed, or permitted by authority. It is a slavish way to describe the stomach’s needs. Allowance: subsistence is not regarded as a right but a privilege. The slave relationship is maintained by this diction. Douglass is a child less than seven or eight:

Colonel Lloyd’s slaves were in the habit of spending a part of their nights and Sundays in fishing for oysters, and in this way made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance. An old man belonging to Colonel Lloyd, while thus engaged, happened to get beyond the limits of Colonel Lloyd’s, and on the premises of Mr Beal Bondly. At this trespass, Mr Bondly took offence, and with his musket came down to the shore, and blew its deadly contents into the poor old man.

Here too subsistence is deemed an allowance. The language is not the language of the commons; it is the language of private property. Language of the commons would be language of the labour process. Who owned the oyster in the oyster bed, Colonel Lloyd or Mr Beal Bondly? It is skirting on irony – ‘at this trespass, Mr. Bondly took offence’ – perhaps the only way of escaping the discourse. Homicide enforces the paid/unpaid distinction. It produces a terror long remembered.

Sir Keith Thomas advises: ‘verify your references’

PRINCE HAL: I see a good amendment of life in thee from praying to pursetaking.

FALSTAFF: Why, Hal, ‘tis my vocation, Hal. ‘Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation. 1 Henry IV, 1, ii, 100–103.

J.C.D. Clark and Sir Ian Gilmour praised The London Hanged for its details. Clark refers to the ‘rich and fascinating evidence’, Sir Ian praises ‘Linebaugh’s accuracy’ – and they condemn its Marxism. Sir Keith leaves the Marxism aside, and claims the details are unreliable. This is false. Sir Keith and I have already had one go round in The New York Review of Books. [23] He had reviewed The London Hanged and four times he charged my research with being careless in detail or unreliable. He cited a single instance of an omission having ‘the effect of putting the accused in a more favourable light and their prosecutors in a harsher one’. I had not stated that John Masland was hanged for rape; instead I only noted his appearance, a hatchet scar across his face received during a rebellion aboard a slaver in the Guinea trade – because I was writing about the harsh conditions of sailors in the 18th century this seemed a pertinent selection from the evidence. Yet, having brought the subject up – certainly, it would be interesting to think about the relationship between rape and child abuse on the one hand, and the violence of the slave trade on the other – I sought out Masland’s trial among the records at the Harvard Law library, only to learn that on three occasions during the trial he had protested his innocence of the charge. So I did not think it right that I be castigated for what may have been a mortal error in judgement 250 years ago. I did not think that Sir Keith had proved either his particular point or his general one.

In reply, he wrote, ‘Mr. Linebaugh asks, rather masochistically, for more evidence of his carelessness with details. Let me confine myself to cases in which his text omits or misrenders passages in the Ordinary of Newgate’s Account in such a way as to put the accused in a more favourable light.’ I do not think that it is masochistic that errors be corrected. I studied many thousands of criminal cases in the 18th century; and I made a particular study of 1,242 men and women who were hanged. Error will be inevitable. Furthermore, I confess to approaching the subject of study with sympathy. I agree with Lord George Gordon who asked the turnkey in Newgate in 1786, ‘Don’t you think it is cruel that so much blood should be spilt?’ [24] At the same time I constructed a methodology of analysis that did not deny the human pity that inevitably falls to victims of the gallows but nor did this methodology make such sympathy the centre of interest, or even a main criterion for the success of the method. [25] The London Hanged brings forth an historical and a social context to the condemned; it demonstrates how often in the aggregate and sometimes as individuals the condemned actually helped to shape the economic forces surrounding them. This is set forth in chapter three called Tyburnography: The Sociology of the Condemned where this methodology is explained. It is not quite the ‘Satanic light’ of William Blake that E.P. Thompson proposed in The Making of the English Working Class as a principle of investigation of working class subjects by ruling class sources. But nor do I think that it is a monotheistic, overhead, fluorescent light whose flat judgements wash out all colour, warmth and plasticity. I like to think that the method of The London Hanged permits illumination to arise from the evidence!

So, yes, I did seek to put the accused in a different light than the gloomy, not to say lugubrious, light of the Ordinary of Newgate’s Accounts whose wavering, nocturnal lantern cast only a dubious pool of light, and that surrounded by shadows. He was paid, it must be remembered, to obtain confessions, to prod or cajole under threat of eternal damnation. He described the condemned individually, he accounted for their malefactions with reference to their character defects. In short, he continued the ghoulish process of judgement. Today he would be called a screw. ‘The publick may therefore depend upon having a plain, concise, and ingenious narrative of these unhappy objects, and almost in their own words; with such discoveries as may be useful to particular persons, or of general use to mankind,’ as Samuel Rossell, the new Ordinary, explained on 1 August 1746.

Sir Keith Thomas misunderstands the project of The London Hanged and misrepresents its methodology. I do not write a history of 18th century felonies, nor a history of felons. The book is not a history of crime but of its relationship to the wage form; that is what makes it social and economic history. The book is thus about class. Against the light of money is the dark of surplus value. Against the light of accumulated property is the dark figure of crime. I write about the development of a relationship, the class struggle and the wage. Sir Keith writes as if the issue were one of checking references or data verification! I can’t believe this is intentional. We both attended (he as a distinguished visitor, I as a student) the social history seminar that the late Edward Thompson conducted while he directed the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. Sir Keith will remember the spirit of co-operation that prevailed, the sharing of cases, the citing of evidence, the howlers, and the knockabout discussion.

We can thus say of the misrenderings alleged by Sir Keith Thomas that in every one of them he omits the historical context and ignores the social and economic condition of the condemned. At least he does not stoop to the easy game, condemning the condemned once more, standing before the evidence in exactly the way the judges sat above the accused, barely awake or with a curl on his lip, as does John Langbein whose misrepresentations are both lazy and malicious (‘Linebaugh has never met an 18th century felon whom he did not like’). [26] Nevertheless, I intend to comment on each of the dozen examples Keith Thomas provides. He excluded them from his original review, ‘out of consideration for your readers’ – that would be the New York Review of Books – and I include them for exactly the same reason, out of consideration for the intelligence of readers, who I imagine are interested both in the argument and in the men and women who were ‘launched into eternity’.

The first example is James Appleton who was hanged for stealing not just three wigs as I had written, but also, as Sir Keith adds, two suits, six guineas, and other goods. Now, in The London Hanged in a chapter about the picaresque proletarian, in the subsection about sailoring, I said that Appleton was a sailor. I describe how he went to sea at 12 years of age. I quote the Ordinary of his experience in America, how he was:

scourged and lashed and salted which hardn’d his Mind, and made him hate and defy all Mankind. So that returning to England ... he cast his Mind how most easily to keep himself at the Expense of others, and by spoiling and preying on all whom he thought he could with security.

Surely, this selection from the Ordinary does not put Appleton in a ‘favourable light’? What is the difference between i) three wigs and ii) three wigs, two suits, and six guineas? Is it a mortal one? [27]

The second case arises in a paragraph describing women’s hold on London street selling. It argued this was not simply an economic matter of shopping and commodity trade, but also of subversive communication by ballad singing. I wrote: ‘Mary White, or – to give her the name she was known by in both street and court – Mary-Cut-and-Come-Again, was hanged for stealing an apron worth 6d.’ I then quoted the Ordinary of Newgate: ‘She was queen of the blackguards, pilferers and ballad-singers, universally known amongst them, and partaker in most of their villainies; she acquired the cant name by which she stood indicted for her dexterity in cutting off women’s pockets.’ Again I would not have thought that this was the presentation of a ‘favourable light’. Nevertheless, Sir Keith Thomas objects: she ‘was hanged not merely for stealing an apron worth 6d, but also for assaulting a woman on the highway and putting her in fear, and for stealing an apron worth 3/–, a shift worth 12d, and a mob cap.’ This is not quite true. Let us look closely. Here is the indictment as printed at the trial:

Mary White of St. Ann’s Westminster, spinster, was indicted for assaulting Elizabeth Turner widow, in a certain open place, in or near the King’s highway called Leicester fields, putting her in fear, and taking from her an apron, value 6d. the property of the said Elizabeth Turner; an apron, val. 3s. a shift, val. 12d. a mob, val. 3d. &c. the property of Elizabeth Brough, March 27th.

I mentioned the apron. Sir Keith added the shift and the mob cap. He omits the ‘&c.’ as well as Elizabeth Turner, the second victim. How is the light on the case changed? I am puzzled by his objection in these two cases. I do not inventory the goods stolen. I do quote the Ordinary’s characterisation of the condemned and at length: she was a blackguard, he was a misanthrope. How much more unfavourable can you get? In 18th century indictments there had to be a full itemisation and evaluation of the goods stolen because the punitive system was calibrated against it, as chapter three, Tyburnography, explained.

The third case is the case of the unhappy Sarah Allen who I write about in a section on the women who were hanged for the crime of infanticide. It is true that she did not suffocate her infant in the workhouse; she threw it out the window of a bakehouse. Was this in Holborn as Thomas says, or was it in St Giles-in-the-Fields as the Old Bailey Proceedings say? I think in judicial and quasi-judicial sources there was considerable uncertainty of the geographic, parochial, and administrative boundaries of the sections of London. ‘I asked the Prisoner, how she could be so barbarous to throw her Child out of the Window? All I could get from her was – the Lord knows. Why, says I, it will certainly cry in your Face, she said nothing, but the Lord knows.’ Another lodger in the bakehouse asked her who got the child: ‘twas Horatio Walpole’s under Coachman’s, who goes by the Name of Black Will.’ [28]

The cases of Sarah Allen and Mary White remind us that women had not withdrawn from the streets, yet. Sarah Allen does not have the pervasive English privacy of the 19th century city. That aspect of the ‘English character’ is the result of several generations of policing which has not yet begun. The lure and freedom of the labyrinthine London streets, these two cases remind us, belonged in the 18th century to women. Sexual pursuit, sexual liaison, sexual catastrophes, and birthing had not yet attained the repressive confinement that would be characteristic of what Elizabeth Wilson calls ‘the cesspool city’ of the 19th century. [29]

The fourth instance of alleged misrendering is William Brown, who ‘was not “cast off his lands” in Wiltshire, but spent beyond his income and had to give up his lease’, as Sir Keith points out in a distinction that quite goes by me. Does Sir Keith belong to that school which says homelessness is caused by living beyond the budget? The theme of the chapter is expropriation or economic development, particularly of rural societies, Scotland, Ireland, Wales. The context is a paragraph about thwarted ambition, the striving for independence, and petty capital accumulation. It is a context about class ambivalence. [30] A few pages later (p. 210) I wrote, ‘the economic processes that had squeezed many of them out of customary patterns of work or trade multiplied the possibilities of disposal,’ or how the detail of expropriation was subsequently used for appropriation. Further still into the argument of this chapter, ‘this was a class struggle that took place behind the backs of the producers, that is, it was a dialectical movement, neither consciously understood nor actually intended by the class actors, yet real enough to cause fundamental changes ...’

As for George Robins, Thomas’s fifth case, I am glad to be corrected in the size of the dowry he received on marrying the daughter of one of the richest Clare market dealers. It was £300, not £30, not an error placing Robins in a more favourable light, since it weakens the argument that is being put forward, which was the substantial aspiration and very carnal property these highwaymen had once possessed. Actually, there was much one could add to the Robins case that I wasn’t able to: he had lived in Ireland, he used to duff brandy and tea around town, he was the son of a Bath innkeeper. He stole from a dwelling house and was hanged for stealing four silk handkerchiefs and £7 in money. He was one of those ‘middling sort’ who some historians enjoy discovering in the 18th century. This kind was described in The London Gazette:

We hear for certain that there are a Set of Gentlemen Sharpers who now infest this City and Suburbs, genteely dressed, who call themselves Country Tradesmen, and under that Pretence, sometimes assisted with a sham Recommendation, procure unwary Merchants or Tradesmen to send their Journeymen with such Goods as they pretended to want to some Inn of Repute, in order to be there paid for them in ready Money. [31]

Sir Keith wishes to explain in his sixth instance of alleged misrendering why John Tarlton was unemployed – ‘he had idled his time and taken up with “loose women”’ – implying that I covered this up, when in fact, I merely wrote, ‘Besides being a poet, he was an unemployed bricklayer who once had work rebuilding the Sessions House at the Old Bailey.’ [32] In fact, he had been employed by one of the most eminent bricklayers about the town. He worked on country houses, town houses in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Essex. He stole a mare. Two Reading bricklayers apprehended him on a job in Shoreditch. He was imprisoned in New Prison for stealing turkeys from Countess Harold. His brother and others from Reading came to London for the hanging and made their farewells to him in the cart. Did he idle his time and take up with loose women? I dare say he did. I feel quite boxed in by Sir Keith Thomas. I was writing about clothing. Tarlton had written poetry in prison on the subject. Must this poetry be nullified, does it not count, because he consorted with loose women? May they not have inspired it? In any case what is meant by ‘loose’?

I write that the velvet weaver, John Lancaster, the seventh case, asked the Ordinary, ‘What signified working all Day for a Trifle?’ Sir Keith avers that John Lancaster ‘did not make the remark attributed to him.’ Perhaps not, but I quoted the Ordinary of Newgate. [33] Why is it important to Sir Keith? Falstaff wished he ‘were a weaver; I could sing psalms or any thing.’ The weavers complained about their wages. They organised to improve them, as I described in chapter eight, Silk Makes the Difference. Their employers called the weavers idle. Even Hogarth poked gentle irony at the master weavers: that is what Hogarth’s 12 plate series, published the year after Lancaster was hanged, Industry and Idleness, is all about. Lancaster hanged for stealing 19 yards of velvet worth £9, a considerable sum. He robbed in Moorfields. He was influenced by Whitefield. John Lewis, his partner, ‘peached on him’ (‘The prisoner told me all was safe, and bid me not squeak’). He was collared at the King’s Arms in Gravel Lane (‘’tis a very bad house’), ‘but he would not go without a coach’! His employer testified, ‘He had worked for me some months, but having a very bad character, I discharged him.’ Hogarth may have witnessed this hanging. John Lancaster resembles in several respects Tom Idle, Hogarth’s anti-hero.

The eighth case of supposed misrendering or omission concerns James Buquois. Sir Keith says James Buquois ‘was not out of work, but had a job as a bricklayer’s assistant and fell into bad company.’ [34] I wrote, ‘when the Weaving Business was slack ... he was out of Work,’ giving a partial quotation from the Ordinary who, to provide the complete quotation, wrote, ‘When the Weaving Business was slack, and he was out of Work, he wrought as a Labourer to the Bricklayers.’ So, it seems that both Buquois and the Ordinary said that he was out of work, but that Sir Keith is right in suggesting that this was not literally so. Buquois was out of work only in the sense that one might say a History PhD is out of work though driving a taxi or waitressing on tables. They do not labour in their vocations. The Ordinary continues, ‘He was a malicious, ill-natured, swearing Reprobate, given to ill Women, as well as to drinking.’ He robbed upon Cut-throat Lane going to Stoke Newington. A gentleman’s servant refused to answer the cry for help. The stolen goods were found on him, the complete inventory: an iron key, value 1d, a glass inkbottle cased with brass, value 6d and 2s 8d in money. A master weaver who knew him for 20 years said, ‘I know nothing of him, but that he is a very honest man; and I always took him to be three parts a natural.’ Found to be various in his manners, once he tried to hang himself. Another master found him well behaved, ‘only sometimes he would run down stairs as if he was frighted out of his wits, and call up the apple-people for nothing at all.’ His father called him a hod carrier, as well as a lunatick.

As to John Ross, the ninth misrendering, I gratefully accept Sir Keith’s correction: ‘he was not a highway robber, and did not have a wife and three children’. [35] He robbed with a 17 year old, Thomas Proctor, who had gone to sea at age 11. In London he pawned his only clean shirt. They robbed with a 16 year old named Darby Long who had been picking pockets for two years in London since leaving the sea. They all lodged in a Kingsland Road boarding house with 43 beds. The link man heard them one night quarrelling, ‘charging each other with stealing it from one another.’ They robbed a silversmith’s shop where Ross’s mother used to char, itself a criminalised occupation, at least according to the Account of Workhouses (1732), ‘If any person shall go a begging or charing ... they shall be sent to Bridewell.’

On page 295 of The London Hanged Sir Keith alleges three omissions in the same paragraph. These are cases ten, 11 and 12. The theme of the paragraph is the Irish spalpeens who migrated to England for the harvest. Patrick Bourn, the tenth instance, was hanged for stealing a watch worth £3 and money, not just his employer’s spurs. Let us be complete: he broke and entered the dwelling house of his employer, a Hampstead farmer (‘the prisoner work’d for me for 2 years last past, in harvest-time, but finding him loose, on the 27th of June last I turn’d him away’), and stole from thence ‘a pair of silver spurs, value 15s. a watch with the outside and inside cases made of silver, value £3, a guinea and 22s.’ The farmer soon discovered the loss and gave chase:

I rode up and down the country a great while to no purpose, and as I was returning home at sunset, I spy’d the Prisoner about a gunshot from me. I immediately rode up to him, and laid hold of him: He ask’d me what was the matter; and I told him he knew what he had done, and I would hang him. [36]

Patrick Hayes, says Sir Keith, ‘was hanged not merely for stealing keys and spectacles, but for letting in thieves to rob his mistress’s house and assault her and her maid’. To be precise, three keys were stolen from Jane Frances the widow, value 6d, the spectacles were worth 6d, and in addition to these losses five shillings in money was taken and one cambrick handkerchief worth 3s and nine shillings in money from Jane Edwards, the servant maid. Patrick Hayes was the weekly servant man, a cow keeper in St Pancras. He robbed with Peter Murphy and Laurence Lee who were also from Ireland. Murphy sauntered about the fields looking for chances. Lee was a coalheaver but ‘could not bear it long’. They robbed on Ash Wednesday morning. Patrick Hayes defended himself to the court:

I am a poor innocent young fellow; they took me up and persuaded me to sign that paper when they had made me stupified. I was a foolish young fellow, and lie at the court’s mercy. [37]

William Bruce is the twelfth example of supposed favourable selection from the evidence. Sir Keith peevishly says that William Bruce ‘stole money as well as a wig and a silk handkerchief’. This is true – he stole 8s 10d in money. Though Sir Keith does not say so, this is not a small sum, as can be seen by looking at a working person’s budget from the 18th century. Bruce was Irish. He was caught in a Barnet barn with companions on their way to Coventry to seek work in the coal pits. They were apprehended and placed ‘in the Cage’. Seven Irishmen robbed the post-boy of the Green Man in Barnet. ‘They haul’d me out of the Chaise, and seeing the Irish Mail, said they would not meddle with that; but they took my Wig and Handkerchief.’ I said it was true that they stole a wig and a silk handkerchief worth 8s 10d, but this is not all the truth. Once apprehended and caged, the post-boy went to Bruce and said, ‘You are the Man.’ Bruce said, ‘I did not rob you.’ The post boy agreed, ‘but you are the man that presented the Pistol, and you are the Man that bid me not look in your Face.’ Declaring his innocence, Bruce pleaded:

Please your Honour I came out of Ireland to look for work, I was scarce of Money, and was returning Home; I lay at the Upper End of Barnet; I would have paid for Lodging but they said I was an Irishman and they would not let me have any. We were very cold when the Day-light came; as we were cold we said to one another, we had better be going to Coventry, to get what would carry us Home. [38]

So there they are: the dozen alleged omissions or misrenderings. There is nothing at all ‘alleged’ about two of them. They are actually mistakes. First, Sarah Allen did not suffocate her infant in the workhouse, and, second, John Ross did not have a wife and three children. [39] Otherwise, that leaves ten instances which Sir Keith regards as misrenderings and I do not. The difference arises because he does not understand the methodology and purpose of The London Hanged. Nevertheless, it is not boring to scrutinize his instances. They give us something to think about. Four of them concern people who stole from their employers (Hayes, Bourn, Ross, Lancaster). Three of them concern different views about work, or the labour process (Tarlton, Lancaster, Buquois). Six cases, or one half of the alleged misrenderings, concern property (Appleton, White, Bourn, Bruce, Robins, and Brown), and four of these are about the amount, value, and itemisation of the stolen property. (‘Oh, those poor shopkeepers!’ as Mrs Thatcher said, and Adam Smith called England ‘a nation of shopkeepers’.) Private property – employment relations – the labour process: these are the themes of Tyburn. Of the people Sir Keith cites, two are women and four are Irish. This also is the proportion one would expect from the evidence of Tyburn. Statistically, Sir Keith’s sample reflects, rather than misrenders, the themes of the book.

Telling a story: from London to west Texas and east LA

FALSTAFF: Go hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters! If I be ta’en, I’ll peach for this. An I have not ballads made on you all and sung to filthy tunes, let a cup of sack be my poison. 1 Henry IV, II, ii, 42–44.

The severest critic of The London Hanged resides in the US Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois: ‘What you have in The London Hanged is a collection of facts and suppositions which are interesting but not a story or even a history. Look to Gore Vidal’s historical novels, 1876, Burr, and Lincoln for excellent examples.’ He also commends Dickens to my attention. The criticism is annoying exactly to the extent that it calls attention to more influential forms of ‘history’. Certainly, I hope that a Gore Vidal, or a Spike Lee, will take up the first chapter on Jack Sheppard. Now, there is a story. And it bites. Gilmour and Langbein disagree over Jack Sheppard. Sir Ian purrs, ‘he was brave; he refused, unlike his brother, to betray friends and accomplices, and he had a genius for escaping prison.’ Whereas John Langbein shrieks, ‘to see this nasty thug as engaged in class struggle takes a lot of imagining ... Sheppard was driven not by destitution but by indolence and greed. He preferred to steal for a living rather than work.’ [40] ‘Stop thief, stop thief’, screeches the blue jay.

Nelson Algren is one of those American writers, like Meridel LeSueur or Tom McGrath, who has been rigorously excluded by the universities and the commercial publishers from the canon of acceptable literature. Trained in the proletarian literature of the great depression, he like the others did not apostasise during the Cold War. It needs also to be said, and vigorously, that he never pleased the party hacks, and as readers of A Walk on the Wild Side or The Man With the Golden Arm will know, his proletarians of New Orleans or Chicago were unsuitable subjects for anybody’s Five Year Plan then, or of New Age Mentoring today. Far from a designer of the Marxist drawing board, Algren drew what he saw, or told the truth. Since that was an urban truth, unafraid of cons and ex-cons, and with a Brecht-like fatalism and a Villon-like cynicism, his attitude and approach was an important example to the composition of The London Hanged.

Algren at the age of 24 hoboed to Alpine, Texas, and hung out at Sul Ross State University. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran through this small town in the Big Bend country, near the Mexican border. Formerly it was a stop on the Chihuahua cattle trail. A chicano proletariat worked the mercury mine and a silver mine. He rented a room in town, and met with a professor and students to talk on ‘realism and proletarian writing’:

I wanted a typewriter very bad because I am a writer by profession, I’ve never owned a typewriter of my own, I was eager to finish a manuscript on which I’ve been working in Alpine since October 3, 1933, since it was necessary for me to return to Chicago, since it was also necessary that I have a typewriter to finish my book, I decided to take the typewriter. A typewriter is the only means I had to complete a book which meant either a few dollars or utter destitution. There is nothing that is more vital to my mere existence as a typewriter, it is the only means I have to earn a living. If I can write I can earn my own living.

He shipped the typewriter in a box to his parents in Chicago and then hopped a freight himself. He was arrested in Sanderson, and charged with breaking and entering, theft of state property, and inter-state shipment of stolen goods. On 27 January 1934 he signed a confession:

I went up to the College between 5:30 and 6:00 in the evening or afternoon on 25th of January this year. I walked in the south door and it was in my mind to do some typing. I had permission of Dr Morelock to use the typewriters, and the door to the typewriting room was locked, but the door to the office was open and there was a typewriter there, I assumed that this typewriter was property of the school, the same as the other typewriters as in the room that was locked, I typed on it for about 15 minutes in this office, I don’t know whether I went up there just to type or to take a typewriter, this is not clear in my mind.

The introspection, the guilt, the shame, the self righteousness: distinctly modern, Dostoevsky to Genet. This is not the clear bell of the free born Englishman! He was arrested and jailed to await trial several weeks later. Dr Eason brought his English literature class to attend the trial. The trial lasted most of the day, held in the Brewster County Courthouse. Witnesses called sheriff, the railroad clerk, the justice of the peace, and the typewriter’s owner, John Conner Coleman, described by a man who shared an office with him later, as a ‘wonderful man’.

Nelson Algren was defended by Wigfall Van Sickle, a white haired public defender and frontier lawyer of the old school who learned law by visiting ‘the Walls’, as the penitentiary at Huntsville was known. [41] John Wesley Hardin called on him once. Wigfall Van Sickle defended a poor Mexican charged with stealing a calf from a white man (‘A white jury will railroad that poor devil to the penitentiary, and I know that every mother’s son of them has stolen ten times more cattle than that Mexican ever did’). [42] There are various accounts of the defence. The one accepted by Bettina Drew, Algren’s biographer, says that Wigfall Van Sickle:

went back to ancient English common law which provides that a mechanic is entitled to the tools of his trade, and that these may not be taken from him, the means by which he earns a living and this young man says that he is a writer and most certainly a typewriter is a tool of that trade. He has none and the one which he took was in the possession of one who is not a writer. The details of the law notwithstanding, is there not some justice in his claim that the law and society owe him his tools, the means by which he can make a living? [43]

The jury did not buy this, and they found Algren guilty and he was sentenced to two years in The Walls. However, the jury also recommended mercy, so his sentence was suspended, on condition that he get out of Texas. Thus, his freedom, if not his innocence, rested upon a notion of the Free Born English craftsperson. Did this jury know something that has escaped Sir Keith and Sir Ian?

Robin D.G. Kelley takes the story to east LA:

Following in the best traditions of C.L.R. James and W.E.B. DuBois and Eric Williams, Linebaugh shows us how merchant and industrial capital, with its attendant maritime revolution, created a brand new working class, created misery and immiseration, and simultaneously gave birth to Republicanism, Pan-Africanism, new forms of nationalisms, and a world-wide proletariat.

Just as London pickpockets and prison escapees became heroes in British working-class lore, especially after public executions and other forms of repression became even more prominent, many African-American and Latino youth have accepted and even celebrated an outlaw status. They not only romanticise the outlaw, call themselves ‘gangstas’, and insist on dressing in ways that authority figures associate with delinquency, but view the role of the police ‘To Serve, Protect [the rich] and break a nigger’s neck.’ Their ‘cant ballads’ invade city streets through high decible car stereos and boom boxes. Los Angeles rapper ‘Coolio’ of the group, WC and the MAAD Circle put it like this:

‘Money ain’t everything, but neither is brokeness
Give me a knife, cause I can’t live off happiness ...
A hustle is a hustle and a meal is a meal,
That’s why I’m real and I ain’t afraid to steal.’

And like the cant ballads of two centuries ago, ‘gangsta rap’ constantly acknowledges the power of the state to punish through incarceration or death. It is notable that Ice Cube opens his first solo album with a stroll down death row: that da Lench Mob opens their debut album with a short audio-verité piece called Capital Punishment in America; that a rap group would call itself ‘Capital Punishment Organisation’; or that Dr Dre would name his record label ‘Deathrow’.

As an American I could not help but be impressed that my critics have been knights, as well as historians. Hence, I have played a little (I hope not disrespectfully) by referring to another who shares their dignity, Sir Jack Falstaff, the wonderful Shakespeare character whose tale begins in the drama, Henry IV, Part 1. Falstaff, like Sir Ian, opposed hanging. Sir Jack tutored the future king of England. Together prince and knight had gone a-robbing. But the time inevitably came when the king disavowed Falstaff – ‘I know thee not, old man.’ Even then, at the height of Renaissance disorder under Queen Elizabeth when the terror of English hanging had become pervasive, Shakespeare not only saved Falstaff from hanging but put it in the mouth of the new king to say:

For competence of life I will allow you
That lack of means enforce you not to evils.

What is striking in this gesture of Renaissance statecraft is not the ‘generosity’, but the recognition that evil arises from lack of means. It is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, Malcolm used to say.


1. I thank Iain Boal, Michaela Brennan and Dave Riker for lending a hand.

2. In the short period since publication it has been the subject of a number of reviews, not only in the Atlantic world which was Tyburn’s catchment area, with important discussion from Italy, Canada, Germany, England and America, but also in other parts of the anglophone world such as India, South Africa, Australia and Port Moresby, New Guinea. This discussion has taken place inside and outside of prison walls, thus continuing a tradition that inspired the book to begin with. I cannot in this reply thank these many critics. In addition to the reviews cited in this article, the following made lively contributions to the discussion. G.C.F. Forster, Rough Justice, Yorkshire Post, 29 August 1991; M. Waterhouse, They All Enjoyed a Good Hanging, Literary Review, September 1991; J. Rule, Swinging from a Fatal Tree, Times Higher Educational Supplement, 4 October 1991; A. Campbell Underworld Heroes of the Gallows, Daily Mail, 3 October 1991; R. Porter, Swinging Times, Sunday Times, 20 October 1991; R. Habermas, Die Riten der Macht, Frankfurter Rundschau, 30 March 1991; F. McLynn, Driven to Crime and Capitalist Punishment, Independent, 20 November 1991; J. Vincent, Hanging: a Weapon of Class War?, Sunday Telegraph, 24 November 1991; W. Prest, Tyburn Tree, Adelaide Review, February 1992; J. Robertson, Five Minutes Law, Socialist Review, February 1992; C. Hill, Radicalism and Robin Hood, Tribune, 27 March 1992; J .Charlton, Crime and Class in the 18th Century, International Socialism 54, Spring 1992; B. Nasson, When Poverty Led to the Gallows, Sunday Times (Cape Town), 26 April 1992; M. Merrill, History By the Neck, The Nation, 22 June 1992; D.J.V. Jones, Review, The Journal of Legal History, XIII, 2, August 1992; C. Emsley, Suspending Belief, History Today, 42, September 1992; J. Sainsbury, Review, The Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire, vol 27, December 1992; D. Valenze, Review, The American Historical Review, vol 98, no 1, February 1993; F. Gambino, Pena Capitale in Nome del Capitale, Il Manifesto, xxiii, 140, 15 June 1993; I. Fraser, Review, Common Sense: Journal of Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists, 14, October 1993.

3. It’s the Rich Wot Gets the Blame, Spectator, 16 November 1991.

4. Midnight Notes Collective, Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War 1973–1992 (Autonomedia: New York 1992). See also S. Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton University Press 1991).

5. The London Hanged shows that even in the century of Henry Purcell and Franz Joseph Haydn, the brass flourishes of sacred and martial triumph were performed by Africans (Olaudah Equiano was a French horn player and Peter Fryer opines that the best trumpet in the 18th century was played by Sir Robert Walpole’s African slave, Cato). P. Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (Pluto 1984), p. 80.

6. H. Young, One of Us: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher (Macmillan 1989), pp. 218ff.

7. I. Gilmour, Riot, Risings and Revolution: Governance and Violence in Eighteenth Century England (Pimlico 1993).

8. The End of History? The National Interest, Summer 1989. As ‘for bringing to birth a new society from the ashes of the old’, they are not my words at all, of course. They belong to Solidarity Forever, the labour anthem that Ralph Chapin, the Wobbly, wrote in 1915.

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn.
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.
We can break their haughty power; gain our freedom when we learn
That union makes us strong.

Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
For union makes us strong.

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand fold.
We can bring to birth the new world from the ashes of the old
For union makes us strong.

I can understand that Sir Ian Gilmour may not recognise the words of the most well known song in the American labour movement (he must know the tune!). The allusion to the Wobblies and the American labour movement was intended to remind the reader of what we used to call ‘internationalism’. Moreover, it was meant to place the book in an older tradition of anti-capitalism. Thus it goes back to the drawing board: what is the social force that can expropriate the expropriators?

9. John Charleton wrote The London Review of Books to chide Gilmour for rubbishing The London Hanged; not many months later Edward Thompson expressed surprise at Gilmour for savaging the book. Tory with a Marxist Touch, Guardian Weekly, 19 April 1992.

10. I rely upon Brian Manning, The English People and the English Revolution, 1640–1649, and upon two essays by Christopher Hill, The Place of the Seventeenth Century Revolution in English History and The Word “Revolution” in C. Hill, A Nation of Change and Novelty: Radical Politics, Religion, and Literature in Seventeenth Century England (Bookmarks 1993).

11. My thanks to Norah Carlin for bringing this to my attention.

12. But what is ‘mumbo-jumbo’? It entered the English vocabulary in the 18th century, as a grotesque idol supposedly worshipped in Africa to keep women, especially, in awe. Ever since it has been associated in the English mind with savagery, paganism, and festishism. By the 20th century it comes to mean obscure or meaningless writing. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Times (14 August 1975), ‘Labour’s elected representatives ... mouth the mumbo-jumbo of capitalism: “The pound must be kept strong”, “We must all buy British”.’

13. I pursued an answer to this question through the lens of Edward Thompson’s writings. See One & All, One & All: E. Thompson (1924–1993), Left History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate (Autumn 1993).

14. T. Dwyer, Life and Death at Work (New York: Plenum 1991).

15. Looking at the drawing board of the English Marxist historiography about the 18th century, two draughtsmen in particular stood out, Edward Thompson and Perry Anderson. Edward Thompson after 1956 went back to the drawing board and became preoccupied with the metaphor of base and superstructure. This was the leitmotif of his engagement with Marxism from 1956 to the attack on Althusser in 1979. It has also affected his 18th century study which we see in his brilliant quarrel with Perry Anderson over Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Thompson allies with Tory humanism, denouncing the era of financial capitalism and hissing opprobrium upon the corrupt opportunism of law and money, while Anderson coolly appreciates the ruling genius and capable administration of this durable leader of a ruling class ‘bloc’. They left out slavery; they left out wage relationship; they left out the prime minister’s speech; they left out the fact that Walpole was a cop who failed. None of this would have been possible had paid and unpaid labour been an important part of their Marxism. Merrily they go along, slinging their brilliancies at each other, enjoying, as it were, the superstructure of things, while beneath these comets there was arson and bloody murder at the base. As Marxists they approached class relations without benefit of the concepts of the wage whose irrationality is the beginning of so much hidden politics. On the other hand, their emphasis on the superstructure has had some strange effects. Consider, for example, this observation from Ellen Meiksins Wood’s review, Custom Against Capitalism, New Left Review 195.

Not the least important factor in this symbolism was the ‘majesty and terror’, the ‘theatre’ and ritual, of the law, deployed not only as a means of coercion but also as an instrument of hegemony. If the terror of the law was exercised through the threat of capital punishment in a vastly multiplying number of offences carrying the death penalty, specifically offences against property, the law’s hegemony theatre often worked its effects by making a show of failing to carry out that threat – and, indeed, depended in part on being seen not only to repress but sometimes also to benefit the labouring poor.

I did not consider law to be a superstructure erected upon a base of economic production. The efficacy of the law thus worked when it was not applied. The London Hanged takes the corollary to this view, showing how the law didn’t work even when it was applied. Moreover, it is not theatre that The London Hanged describes but a terror. I wonder how those who so blithely wave aside the difference between theatre and truth will solve the problem of casting for the central role in the drama.

16. P. Linebaugh, Karl Marx, the Theft of Wood, and Working Class Composition, Crime and Social Justice: Issues in Criminology, 6 (1976).

17. Far more is at stake than the loss of some quaint customs, as might be suggested by the recent expropriation of custom at Buckingham Palace of the shoes, soap, suits, and booze enjoyed by the 350 courtiers, chauffeurs, servants and so on. New York Times, 2 October 1993.

18. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

19. Ellen Meiksins Wood, op. cit.

20. Ibid., pp. 73 and 38.

21. Monthly Review, December 1993.

22. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an African Slave (Boston 1845) in H.L. Gates, jr (ed.), The Classic Slave Narratives (New American Library: New York 1987), pp. 270–271.

23. How Britain Made It, The New York Review of Books, xxxix, 19 (19 November 1992), and my response and Thomas’s reply in the issue for 13 May 1993.

24. As Doug Hay has quoted in a wonderful essay, The Laws of God and the Laws of Man: Lord George Gordon and the Death Penalty, in J. Rule and R. Malcolmson (eds.), Protest and Survival: Essays for E.P. Thompson (Merlin 1994), p. 66.

25. H. Prejean, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (New York 1993), for the power that may arise from compassion with those on death row.

26. Culprits and Victims, Times Literary Supplement, 11 October 1991.

27. The London Hanged, p. 130. The Ordinary’s Account, 14, iii, 22. The Proceedings, 30 August 21.

28. The London Hanged, p. 148. The Ordinary’s Account, 18, i, 38. The Proceedings, 13–15 October 37.

29. E. Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women (Berkeley, 1991).

30. The London Hanged, p. 185. The Ordinary’s Account, 19, xii, 33. The Proceedings, 10–12 October 33.

31. The London Gazette, 26 October 1750, p. 185.

32. The London Hanged, p. 254. The Ordinary’s Account, 24, v, 36. The Proceedings, 6–11 May 36.

33. The London Hanged, p. 258. The Ordinary’s Account, 28, x, 48. The Proceedings, 7–10 September or 12–14 October 48.

34. The London Hanged, p. 258. The Ordinary’s Account, 13, i, 42.

35. The London Hanged, pp. 258–259. The Ordinary’s Account, 3l, xii, 50. The Proceedings, 5–11 December 50.

36. The London Hanged, p. 295. The Ordinary’s Account, 16, ix, 41. The Proceedings, 28 August 41.

37. The London Hanged, p. 295. The Ordinary’s Account, 1, viii, 46. The Proceedings, 11–13 April 49.

38. The London Hanged, p. 295. The Ordinary’s Account, I, viii, 46. The Proceedings, 2–3 July 46.

39. In addition to Sir Keith, I would like to thank Gordon Haas, serving time at the Norfolk Penitentiary in Massachusetts, who has also made two factual corrections. He notes that when I write that sailors were allotted only 14 inches for their hammocks in the spaces below deck I neglected to add that work details were arranged in such a way that, when one seaman used his hammock, the one next to his was empty, thus making the serviceable space 28 inches. I had written that ‘widow’s men were imaginary seamen carried in the muster books and whose wages were contributed to a fund for the benefit of sailors’ widows.’ Gordon Haas observes that, ‘Actually, only officers’ widows were paid benefits from that fund. Regular seamen’s widows received no compensation from that or any other fund, save the generosity of the sailors themselves who purchased a dead sailor’s effects at auction on the ship, with all the proceeds to be paid to the sailor’s family.’ Those, then, are the corrections which I am glad to have. G. Haas, Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (Box 54, University Centre, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, R3T 2N2).

40. Culprits and Victims, op. cit..

41. C.B. Casey, Mirages, Mysterious, and Reality: Brewster County, Texas (Hereford, Texas 1972), p. 413. E. Miles, Texan Pioneer in Legal Aid for the Poor, The Tombstone Epitaph, Arizona, vol. xx, no. 3 (March 1993).

42. C.A. Hawley, Life Along the Border (Spokane, Washington 1955), p. 13.

43. B. Drew, Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side (Putnams, New York 1992).

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 11.3.2012