Sunday, 6 May 2018

Forgotten London: The Tyburn Tree (London)

This post inspired by the YouTube channel Plainly Difficult.

So how can this be gamified?

There are a few things that can be played with:
  • The gallows themselves.
  • The location of the gallows.
  • The artifacts associated with the hangings eg broadsheets.
  • The psychic impact of the event.
The gallows are a folkloric gold mine. Most people with any interest in horror folklore know about the Hand of Glory, and how it can be used by sorcerers. The condemned on the way to the gallows were especially prized for their curative hands, both before and after the event. There would always be a congregation of sufferers gathered at the three-legged tree hoping for a stroke from the soon-to-be departed, and the hangman could often be bribed to let the chronically ill have a few minutes with the corpse after its last jig was done.

However it wasn't just the hands that were valuable. The gallows themselves were magically potent. Plainly Difficult notes that the permanent gallows Tyburn is famous for were eventually taken down because of persistent vandalism. People were taking great chunks out of the gallows because they believed the wood itself was magical after being watered with the blood of the condemned, a theme that recurs again and again in ghost stories. The wood could cure ague, toothache, and bring luck at cards. 

So, a story seed:

John Rann's Chair A pub in East London claims to have an antique chair made from wood taken from the gallows that took the life of Sixteen String Jack, hung in 1774 for his many crimes. It's said the chair was originally made at the instruction of one of London's most prominent gamblers, Samuel William Rowlinson, a regular at notorious gambling club Brook's. Rowlinson is supposed to have died of a heart attack while playing Hazard at Brook's. Two nights ago a pub regular died sitting in that chair while playing cards, and there's been talk of a curse. What's going on? 

The location of Tyburn Tree is slightly in doubt. It's popularly supposed to be at the junction of Oxford Street, Edgeware Road and Bayswater Road, there's reason to think it might actually have been at Connaught Square.  This Georgian landmark is very exclusive, and has a private shared garden park in which a party is held each year. 

So, a story seed:

The Unwelcome Corpse Each year, the night before the party, the heads of each Connaught Square household gather for a quiet ritual at which they 'hang' a corpse - usually a dummy, though in the early days it's said they obtained their corpses from medical schools - with the intent of keeping Tyburn Tree quiet for another year. This ritual has been going on for longer than anyone can remember, and deadly secrecy is essential since some of the country's most important citizens live at Connaught Square. They couldn't afford the scandal. However this year Connaught Square was horrified to find an actual corpse strangled at the very spot their ritual was to be carried out. Nobody knows who did it, or who the body belongs to. Can this scandal be hushed up? How did this happen, and why?

Bookhounds of London characters will be interested in the broadsheets. Printed cheap and sold for peanuts, surviving copies of these scurrilous rags can be very valuable to collectors. Often the condemned sold her life story to the highest bidder, and had the satisfaction of seeing it sold at the same moment her limbs twitched for the last time. Or perhaps it was a poem, a song, some kind of political pamphlet - but whatever it was, there's bound to be a market for it. Even the lies are valuable, and Lord knows there were plenty of lies to go around. When in need of copy, broadsheet sellers plagiarized old sheets and added just enough new detail to make it seem as if the current condemned actually did all those things. Sex & violence always sells, particularly when mixed with a healthy dose of punishment for the wicked.

Provenance A book scout fallen on hard times and sodden with drink keeps coming up with vintage Tyburn broadsheets, which sell for just enough to keep the scout sozzled. In almost every respect the sheets seem genuine; the right paper, subject material, historical details, even the ink. The one thing wrong about them is they seem too good. Nothing that's been around for two to three hundred years has any business being in this condition. It's as if they were printed yesterday. Where is the scout finding these broadsheets? Why does the scout keep going back to Tyburn?

A Tyburn execution was a popular event. A famous one drew crowds to watch the condemned on his two mile procession to the Tyburn Tree. Wealthy spectators had their own stands built, or rented rooms along the route at one of the many inns or houses, while the poorer mob stood in the heat or rain - and in Britain rain is more likely. The trip to the gallows might take as long as three hours, as the condemned's passage was constantly interrupted. The prisoner often stopped at an inn to have one last drink - after all, a drunken prisoner was a compliant one, particularly if someone thought to slip drugs in his drink. Sometimes the prisoner would be pelted with rotten vegetables, eggs and other things, if they were unpopular or their crimes particularly heinous. More likable condemned would be better treated, but they all came to the same place in the end. 

Traffic Violations The church of St Giles has a traffic problem. Three times in the last three months there's been a serious accident in the street outside its gates, and each time the driver or passenger of the vehicle involved swore the accident happened because the road was slick with what seemed to be blood. Loose talk links the accidents with Tyburn dead buried in the churchyard, and some parishoners are getting hysterical. What's really causing these accidents? Is it to do with Tyburn, or something else? [Esoterrorists Keepers take note: this could be a scheme to weaken the Membrane.]

That's it for this week!

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