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“Treason!” “That’s quartering,” said Jerry. “Barbarous!” “It’s the law,” remarked the ancient clerk, turning his surprised spectacles upon him, “It is the law.”

Darnay’s trial, in A Tale of Two Cities, is based on the trial of Francis Henry de la Motte.  De la Motte, a French baron residing in England because of pecuniary difficulties, was charged with treason; his trial is reported in the 1781 Annual Register (of which we know Dickens possessed a copy) and State Trials (which he also consulted). The connection between Darnay’s trial and de la Motte’s was first identified by James Fitzjames Stephen in a hostile review of A Tale of Two Cities in the Saturday Review, December 17, 1859.

According to the Annual Register for 1781, de la Motte was apprehended on January 5, 1781 when, climbing the stairs to the Secretary of State’s office, he dropped a bunch of papers. Among them were

…particular lists of every ship of force in any of our [England’s] yards and docks, the complement of men they have on board at the time of their sailing, with remarks of their being well manned, when short of the regulated number, &c. He has even gone so far as to furnish the most accurate lists of the seamen in the different hospitals at Portsmouth and Plymouth. In consequence of the above papers being found, Henry Lutterloh, Esq. of Whickham, near Portsmouth, was afterwards apprehended and brought to town. (162)

Lutterloh and other accomplices were arrested after de la Motte’s apprehension, and Lutterloh ultimately informed against de la Motte at his trial. An account of his testimony is also given in the Annual Register of 1781:

This morning [the 14th of July, 1781] came on before Judge Willes, at the Old-Bailey, the trial of Mr. de la Motte for high-treason. Mr. Lutterloh, the chief evidence against the prisoner, swore, that he had been employed by Mr. de la Motte to procure from the French ministry the most authentic intelligence respecting our naval operations, at 50 guineas per month. A number of papers found in Mr. Lutterloh’s garden were produced, and proved to be his hand-writing, giving an exact detail of the state of our docks, the sailing of our fleets, the number of men on board each ship, and other useful information, which had been obtained through the means of a clerk in one of the public offices in the naval department. Among other circumstances contained in these papers, was an account of Governor Johnstone’s intended operations. The trial lasted 13 hours, when the jury, after a short deliberation, pronounced the prisoner Guilty, when sentence was immediately passed upon him, “To be hanged by the neck, but not till dead; then to be cut down, and his bowels taken out and burnt before his face, his head to be taken off, his body cut into four quarters, and to be at his majesty’s disposal.” The prisoner received the awful doom with great composure, but inveighed against Mr. Lutterloh in warm terms. (184-5)

De la Motte’s anger at Lutterloh is understandable. The latter had apparently played both sides, informing against de la Motte in hopes of a reward from the British government while blackmailing him (promising to withhold evidence) at the same time (Sanders 59).

Dickens’ version of the de la Motte trial is of course altered: Darnay’s trial predates de la Motte’s by a year (it is held in 1780 instead of 1781), and Darnay is ultimately acquitted. Like de la Motte’s trial, however, Darnay’s coincides with the American Revolution (in which France sided with the American colonies against the English), and, according to Sanders’ Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, “The indictment against de la Motte occupies seventeen columns of State Trials and has much in common with the ‘infinite jingle and jangle’ which accompanies the indictment against Darnay” (59).

They hanged at Tyburn, in those days, so the street outside Newgate had not obtained one infamous notoriety that has since attached to it.

Tyburn was the site of public executions until 1783 – three years after Darnay’s trial (which occurs in 1780) (Baedeker 98). From 1783 to 1868 (after which executions took place inside the prison), the condemned were executed at Newgate. Tyburn, according to one 19th-century guidebook, was originally named after “a small brook coming from Kilburn and flowing [southward] into the Thames” (Baedeker 284). In the 18th century, Tyburn was at the northwest extremity of London, opposite the entrance to Hyde Park (near the location of the present Marble Arch).

Newgate, which “obtained [the] infamous notoriety” of public executions in 1783, was the prison in Old Bailey from 1770 until 1902. Named for “New Gate” – originally a gate in the London city wall – the Newgate in A Tale of Two Cities is actually the second prison of that name (the first having been closed because of an epidemic of “gaol fever”). The new Newgate, however, was scarcely finished in 1780 (the year of Darnay’s trial) when the Gordon Riots broke out in London, and a number of prisoners escaped (Darnay’s trial occurs early in the year, but was probably one of the last trials heard in 1780, as the riots erupted in June [Sanders 59]). Restored, Newgate stood until 1902 (when the current Central Criminal Court was constructed [Woodley 128]). When its “infamous notoriety” of public execution commenced, prisoners were executed “in front of that wing of the prison called Debtors’ Door, before which the scaffold [was] erected”; executions took place at 8:00 a.m. on Mondays (Gaspey 26-8; Dickens’s Dictionary of London 199-200).

But, the gaol was a vile place, in which most kinds of debauchery and villainy were practiced, and where dire diseases were bred, that came into court with the prisoners, and sometimes rushed straight from the dock at my Lord Chief Justice himself, and pulled him off the bench. It had more than once happened, that the judge in the black cap pronounced his own doom as certainly as the prisoner’s, and even died before him.

Gaol fever was rampant in the English jails of the 18th century, and had necessitated the destruction of the first Newgate Prison and subsequent construction of the second (newly completed when Darnay stands trial in 1780). Tallis’s Illustrated London (1851) tells the story of gaol fever in Newgate:

In 1750 that frightful distemper, the gaol-fever, broke out in the prison [of Newgate], and Sir Samuel Pennant, the Lord Mayor, Alderman Lambert, two judges, one of the undersheriffs of Middlesex, several barristers, jurors, and other persons, were sacrificed to its virulence. This fearful pestilence led to some attempt on the part of the municipal authorities to amend the internal economy of Newgate, in which the prisoners were separated as far as practicable, and a better system of ventilation introduced. Nevertheless, the gaol still remained in a disreputable condition, and in 1770 the corporation of London applied to and obtained from parliament a grant of fifty thousand pounds, to enable them to construct an entirely new prison, of which the first stone was laid by Sir William Beckford, the Lord Mayor. Mr. George Dance was the architect under whose direction it was commenced and finished. It was hardly completed, when, in 1780, Lord George Gordon’s rioters burst open the doors, rescued nearly three hundred prisoners, and destroyed the whole interior by fire; the massive stone walls remained standing, uninjured by the flames…. Money was afterwards voted by the House of Commons to make the necessary restorations, and in 1782 the existing prison was completed, the cost of its erection having exceeded the original estimate of forty thousand pounds. (vol. 1, 26-7)

Dickens’ allusion to the “black cap” (which announces the judge’s death as well as the prisoner’s) refers to a black cap assumed by English judges when announcing the death sentence.

For the rest, the Old Bailey was famous as a kind of deadly inn-yard, from which pale travelers set out continually, in carts and coaches, on a violent passage into the other world: traversing some two miles and a half of public streets and road, and shaming few good citizens, if any. So powerful is use and so desirable to be good use in the beginning.

In the 18th century, Tyburn – where public executions were held until 1783 – was at the northwest extremity of London: Condemned prisoners were conveyed in a cart from Newgate Prison along Holborn, St. Giles High Street, and Oxford Street to Tyburn, which stood opposite the entrance to Hyde Park (Sanders 61). The passage can be traced on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784).

Click on map for larger view

This journey through the city toward execution in “carts and coaches” suggests a parallel between London and Paris, foreshadowing the journey of the French tumbrils from the Revolutionary Tribunal to the guillotine.

It was famous, too, for the pillory, a wise old institution, that inflicted a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent; also, for the whipping-post … ; also, for extensive transactions in blood-money, another fragment of ancestral wisdom, systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven.

The OED describes the pillory as

[a] contrivance for the punishment of offenders, consisting usually of a wooden framework erected on a post or pillar, and formed, like the stocks, of two movable boards which, when brought together at their edges, leave holes through which the head and hands of an offender were thrust, in which state he was exposed to public ridicule, insult, and molestation. In other forms, the culprit was fastened to a stake by a ring round his neck and wrists.

In England, the pillory was used from the medieval period forward; it was abolished except in cases of perjury in 1815, and totally abolished in 1837 (OED). As Dickens notes, it was “a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent,” for though people in the pillory were exposed to public ridicule, and were often pelted with missiles like “cats, dung, and rotten vegetables” (Maxwell 450-1), the experience was not necessarily fatal. Some, however, died from the effects of confinement or exposure. For example, The Book of Days (a miscellany of 1868) records that in “1780 [the date of this part of A Tale of Two Cities] a coachman, named Read, died on the pillory at Southwark [south of the Thames, across from London proper] before his time of exposure had expired” (830). In its general account of the pillory, The Book of Days agrees with Dickens, describing it as “a mode of punishment so barbarous, and at the same time so indefinite in its severity, that we can only wonder it should not have been extinguished long before [1837]” (830). It includes illustrations of an individual and a group pillory, and the following history of the device:

The pillory was for many ages common to most European countries. Known in France as the pillori or carcan, and in Germany as the pranger, it seems to have existed in England before the Conquest in the shape of the stretch-neck, in which the head only of the criminal was confined. By a statute of Edward I it was enacted that every stretch-neck, or pillory, should be made of convenient strength, so that execution might be done upon offenders without peril to their bodies. It usually consisted of a wooden frame erected on a stool, with holes and folding boards for the admission of the head and hands, as shown in the sketch of Robert Ockam undergoing his punishment for perjury in the reign of Henry VIII. In the companion engraving, we have an example of a pillory constructed for punishing a number of offenders at the same time, but this form was a rare occurrence…. (vol. 1, 830-2)


Though Dickens was writing about the pillory over two decades after it was abolished, pillories could still be seen in England. In 1864, as The Book of Days reports, “A pillory [was] still standing at the back of the market-place in Coleshill, Warwickshire, and another [lay] with the town engine in an unused chancel of Rye Church, Sussex. The latter is said to have been last used in 1813” (vol. 1, 832).

The “whipping-post, another dear old institution,” came into use in the 16th century – though public whipping was considerably older. Whipping was originally a punishment for vagrancy, the vagrant stripped naked and whipped through town behind a cart; it was only under Queen Elizabeth (r. 1558-1603) that it became a stationary punishment, often combined with the stocks in a single post. The Book of Days (1864) illustrates a “Whipping-post and Stool” and describes this method of punishment:

Sometimes a single post was made to serve both purposes [i.e. the whipping-post and the stocks]; clasps being provided near the top for the wrists, when used as a whipping-post, and similar clasps below for the ankles when used as stocks, in which case the culprit sat on a bench behind the post, so that his legs fastened to the post were in a horizontal position. Stocks and whipping-posts of this description still exist in many places, and persons are still living who have been subjected to both kinds of punishment for which they were designed. Latterly, under the influence, we may suppose, of growing humanity, the whipping part of the apparatus was dispensed with, and the stocks left alone…. The stocks was a simple arrangement for exposing a culprit on a bench, confined by having his ankles laid fast in holes under a movable board. Each parish had one, usually close to the churchyard, but sometimes in more solitary places…. The whipping of female vagrants was expressly forbidden by a statute of 1791. (599-600, vol.1)

Finally, “blood-money” is, in the sense used here by Dickens (“systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven”), a “reward for bringing about the death of another; money paid to a witness who gives evidence leading to the conviction of a person upon a capital charge” (OED).




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