John ‘Half-hanged’ Smith

May 3, 2023 0 comments

A man can lose a life in the most silliest of mishaps, like tripping over his own foot and breaking his neck. Yet, some people have an uncanny ability to cheat death. John Smith was one of them.

John Smith was born in 1661 in Malton, New Yorkshire, England. His father was a farmer, but John apprenticed under a packer in London, with whom he served out his time. Later, he became a journeyman. He then went on to serve the navy, first in a merchantman, then in a man-of-war, and was at the famous expedition against Vigo. But on the return from that expedition he was discharged. Soon after that, he enlisted as a soldier, where he acquainted with bad associates and started his career as a housebreaker.

John Smith being cut down from the gallows. Image credit: Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia

In 1705, Smith was accused of four indictments, on two of which he was convicted, and received sentence of death. Smith showed little concern over his sentence, believing his friends would somehow able to save him. Unfortunately, an order came for his execution. The date chosen was 24th December, Christmas Eve.

On the appointed date, Smith was taken to the Tyburn gallows and hanged. As he dangled at the end of the rope, some of his friends present at the hanging tugged at his legs to shorten his suffering, while others held them up for the mere possibility that Smith would not die. After hanging for 15 minutes, the crowd began to demand that Smith be cut down. The reprieve was granted and Smith was taken to a house nearby where a combination of bleeding and other traditional treatment brought him back to his senses.

When he had recovered his senses, he was asked what were his feelings at the time of execution, to which he replied:

I remember a great pain caused by the weight of my body. My spirits were in a great uproar, pushing upwards; when they got into my head I saw a great blaze of glaring light that seemed to go out of my head in a flash. Then the pain went. When I was cut down I got such pins-and-needles pains in my head that I could have hanged the people who set me free.

This incident earned him the name “half-hanged Smith.”

Related: Joseph Samuel: The Man Who Couldn’t be Hanged

Smith was granted freedom a few weeks later, but he returned to his old ways upon release and was caught again for housebreaking. The jury encountered some complication during the trial and deferred the verdict to the twelve judges, who ultimately ruled in Smith's favor, resulting in his release. Despite this second lucky break, Smith was indicted for the third time, and it seemed inevitable that he would be sentenced to execution. However, before the trial began, the prosecutor passed away, and Smith was granted freedom once again.

More than twenty years later, in 1727, Smith, now a 66-year-old man was found picking a padlock to a warehouse. Although it was evident that Smith had intended to burgle the warehouse, he was only convicted of theft of the padlock and subsequently sentenced to transportation to Virginia. Smith made an appeal to Sir John Eyles Knight, the Lord Mayor, requesting physical punishment instead of transportation. Despite his physical disabilities and being a father of two children, the court showed no mercy and upheld his initial sentence, and Smith was transported to Virginia aboard the Susannah.

That was the last anybody heard of the half-hanged Smith.


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