JOHN PRICE, COMMONLY CALLED JACK KETCH
A Rogue and Liar, who was not believed when he spoke the Truth. He held the Office of Common Hangman, and was himself hanged in Bunhill Fields in May, 1718, for murdering a Woman
THIS criminal first drew his breath in the fog-end of the suburbs of London, and, like Mercury, became a thief as soon as ever he peeped out of the shell. Fortune having reduced his miserable parents to such extremity that they could not bestow on this their son any education, it was his misfortune to improve himself in all manner of wickedness before he had turned seven. So prone was he to vice, that as soon as he could speak he would curse and swear with as great a passion and vileness as is frequently heard round any gaming-table.
Moreover, to this unprofitable talent of profaneness he added that of lying.
When John Price was about eighteen years of age, a gentleman with whom he lived in the country turned him out of his service purely on account of his excessive lying; when, going towards London, and robbing a market-woman of about eighteen shillings, near Brentwood, in Essex, he was taken by some travellers coming suddenly on him in the fact, and committed by a magistrate to Chelmsford Jail, and pleading guilty at the assizes he received sentence of death.
But his late master, being then High Sheriff of the county of Essex, and taking compassion on his servant's misfortunes, did not permit his sentence to be put into force against him. The sheriff said he knew the fellow to be such an unaccountable liar that there was no believing one word he said; so his pleading guilty to what was laid to his charge was, in his opinion, an eminent sign he ought to be believed innocent of the fact, and he would not be guilty of hanging an innocent man for the world.
Soon after this escape John Price made the best of his way to London, where he associated himself with a tribe of pickpockets and gipsies, with whom he ran up and down the country, frequenting all fairs and concourses of people, till he was caught diving into a pocket that was not his own, and committed to Newgate, in Bristol. Being there severely whipped for his fault, he went on board a merchant ship, and afterwards served in two men-of-war; but not forbearing to pilfer from the seamen, after having been whipped at a gun, pickled with brine, and keel-hauled, he was discharged.
Coming ashore at Portsmouth, he got to beloved London again, where he would not hearken to any wholesome counsel, but resolved to break through all virtuous sentiments, and wholly betake himself to all manner of wickedness. Entering himself into a gang of footpads, they one night divided themselves into three bands, and an attorney then falling into their hands near Hampstead, his money they demanded, with a thousand oaths and curses. According to their demand he gave them what money he had about him, which was eight guineas, rejoicing howsoever that he had now passed, as he thought, all danger, when lo! suddenly, as he came up to the halfway house betwixt that place and London, he was again surrounded with a second band of these rogues, who went to him and demanded whence he came and where he was going.
He related his piteous adventure, and into what cruel hands he had fallen. "Cruel!" answered one of the gang. "How durst you use these terms! And who made you so bold as to talk to us with your hat on? Pray, sir, be pleased henceforward to learn more manners."
Saying which, they snatched his hat and wig off his head, and took a diamond ring off his finger, in all to the value of fifteen pounds. What could our poor lawyer now do? To turn back again was to leap out of the frying-pan into the fire, wherefore he faintly went on, when scarcely had he got past Kentish Town but the third band, who lay as sentinels in this place, made up to him, bringing along with them a man who had not a rag of clothes on his back -- not so much as a shirt -- a dreadful thing, considering the time of the year, it being then in the depth of winter.
"Sir," said Price (who was in this parley), "you'll do a charitable deed to let this poor wretch, whom we have just now stripped, have your upper coat, or rather both upper and under, for you see he is almost dead with cold."
The lawyer would willingly have pleaded that charity begins at home, and that every man is bound by the laws of nature to conserve his own being rather than another's. But alas! his judges were other kind of men than to be moved by the laws of the land or nature either; wherefore they took from him both his coats and his waistcoat, telling him it was a favour that they took not from him his life also, seeing he had made so much bad use of it.
Being at last committed to Newgate for petty larceny, he was only whipped at the cart's tail, and upon paying his fees obtained his liberty again. Afterwards endeavouring to mend his fortune by marriage, he entered into the state of matrimony with a young woman called Betty, whose employment was to attend daily at the jail of Newgate and run prisoners' errands. By this means and his own good behaviour he quickly raised himself to preferment, for he was made hangman for the county of Middlesex.
But the first day he officiated at the sessions at the Old Bailey, going to the Blue Boar ale-house, situated not far from Justice Hall, it was his misfortune to have his burning irons picked out of his pocket, for which he was forced to pawn his waistcoat to have them back again. However, he soon retrieved this loss, for what with slightly putting a "T," which was the only letter he knew in the whole alphabet, on a thief's hand, and correcting others with a gentle lash, he redeemed his waistcoat, and bought a shirt into the bargain.
Moreover, at the first cast of his office he performed at Tyburn he made as much off the executed person's clothes among the brokers in Monmouth Street and Chick Lane as procured him several drunken bouts.
Though he was bad enough in many things, yet he had one good principle in him while he was hangman, for let him be owing money to anybody, if he could not pay them he was very willing to work it out whenever they pleased -- a principle indeed which every rogue is not endowed with.
Whilst he was in this post he took upon him a great deal of state, and on every execution day he had as great a levee as some persons of quality, being attended on by broom-men for old hats, periwig-makers for old wigs, brokers for old coats, suits and cloaks, and cobblers for old shoes. Indeed he was a man in every way qualified for this station, for he had impudence in abundance, cruelty at his finger- ends, drunkenness to perfection, and could swear as well without book as within.
However, these natural parts could not protect him, for several envying his felicity, they endeavoured to lower his top- sail, and at last blew him out of the haven of his reputable business by his manifold failings.
Some were glad he was to catch nobody any more at Hyde Park Corner, and others as sorry, especially those whom he had often obliged with an old shirt or a handkerchief; and indeed that which most troubled him for the loss of his place was only that he could not any more send men out of the world without being called to an account for it. Now he was left to shift for himself again; and indeed, so long as he had any fingers he could make as good a shift as anybody, for there was nothing, except it lay out of his reach, but what he made his own.
What brought him to his end was his going one night over Bunhill Fields in his drunken airs, when he met an old woman named Elizabeth White, a watchman's wife, who sold pastry-ware about the streets. He violently assaulted her in a barbarous manner, almost knocking one of her eyes out of her head, giving her several bruises about her body, breaking one of her legs, and wounding her in the belly.
Whilst he was acting this inhumanity two men came along at the same time, and hearing dreadful groans supposed somebody was in distress, and having the courage to pursue the sound as well as they could, at last came up to the distressed woman, which made Price damn them for their impudence. However they secured him, and brought him to the watch-house in Old Street, from whence a couple of watchmen were sent to fetch the old woman out of Bunhill Fields, who within a day or two died, under the surgeon's hands.
Price was sent to Newgate, where he seemed to be under a great surprise and concern for the death of the woman, till, being tried and condemned for her, he was no sooner confined in the condemned hold, than laying aside all thoughts of preparing himself for his latter end, he appeared quite void of all grace; and instead of repenting for his manifold sins and transgressions, he would daily go up to chapel intoxicated with cursed Geneva, comforting himself even to the very last that he should fare as well in a future state as those who had gone the same way before him.
At length the fatal day came wherein he was to bid adieu to the world, which was on Saturday, the 31st of May, 1718. As he was riding in the cart he several times pulled a bottle of Geneva out of his pocket to drink before he came to the place of execution, which was in Bunhill Fields, where he committed the murder. Having arrived at the fatal tree, he was, upon Mr. Ordinary's examination, found so ignorant on the ground of religion he troubled himself not much about it; but valuing himself upon his former profession of being hangman, styled himself finisher of the law, and so was turned off the gibbet, aged upwards of forty years.
One would imagine that the dreadful scenes of calamity to which this man had been witness, if they had not taught him humanity, would at least have given him wisdom enough not to have perpetrated a crime that must necessarily bring him to a similarly fatal end to what he had so often seen of others: but perhaps his profession tended rather to harden his mind than otherwise.
The murder of which Price was guilty appears to have been one of the most barbarous and unprovoked we ever remember to have read of: and his pretence that he was drunk when he perpetrated it was no sort of excuse; since drunkenness itself is a crime, and one which frequently leads to the commission of others.
The lesson to be learnt from the fate of this man is to moderate our passions of every kind; and to live by the rules of temperance and sobriety. We are told, from the best authority, that "hands that shed innocent blood are an abomination to the Lord."