Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Rogue Scholars (I)

            When we speak of the “criminal classes” we ordinarily include college faculties only by way of metaphor, but the erudite malefactor is by no means missing from the annals of crime. 

            One of Dr. Johnson’s frequently quoted—and perhaps yet more frequently misquoted—aphorisms is this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully”*.   It was not merely a theoretical speculation, but arose from Johnson’s empirical experience of counseling his fawning admirer, the Reverend Doctor William Dodd, who was convicted of forgery and hanged at Tyburn on June 27, 1777. 

            Dodd (born 1729) rose from modest origins to become a very successful society preacher in London.  He was known as the “Macaroni Parson”—the word macaroni here having its old meaning (as in the early American song “Yankee Doodle Dandy”) of ostentatious foppishness of manner and dress.  Along with his social pretensions and aspirations, Dodd had considerable erudition and affected even more.  Doctoral degrees didn’t always mean too much in those days either, but he had one.  There are some two hundred titles under his name in the catalogues of large libraries.  He was an editor of Shakespeare, and the compiler of a best seller called The Beauties of Shakespeare.

            In earlier times Dodd had earned his bread as a tutor to the rich and famous, especially the youthful Lord Chesterfield: but he always needed more bread, and he didn’t have tenure.  Later, when an attempt to bribe his way into a lucrative post was exposed, he fled to the Continent and lay low for a couple of years.  He now got a new nickname—“Doctor Simony”.  Returning to London and needing to clear his debts he borrowed £4000 (about a million dollars in today’s money) from his old student Chesterfield.  The only trouble was that he didn’t tell Chesterfield about it, finding it more expeditious to write the check himself.  When the old schoolboy did find out about it, by mere chance, the noble lord was not amused.  Even less forgiving was King George III. 

            No American is likely to praise this monarch, but I shall try.  True enough he was a blockhead even before going mad.  But he was actually something of a stickler for public morality, and a sincere one.  In particular he took the view that in a country that prospered by trade no vows could be more sacred than those involved in credit and banking.  Since the broad social consensus of the age agreed that hanging a man for stealing a sheep was just, Doctor Dodd was in deep doodoo.  The mores of the time are perhaps also suggested by the fact that a young man scheduled to die with Dodd was being punished for a failed attempt at suicide!  Medieval “benefit of clergy”, though still not totally abolished, was so weakened as to offer Dodd no comfort.

            He did have friends and supporters.  They wrote letters, and they signed petitions.  Pundits like Dr. Johnson lamented the prospective loss to the Republic of Letters.  Some of the more practically minded among his friends put together a considerable purse with the thought of bribing one of his jailers to allow him to escape, but the Death Machine was not to be so easily defeated.  His cell at Newgate was triple guarded.  So they designed a new tactic.  Dr. Dodd would hang, but he would not die.

            The plan was this.  Though they could not effectively corrupt the prison guards, they hoped for better results with the actual executioner—generally known as “Jack Ketch” in honor of the celebrated hangman of the previous century who had established the gold standard of barbarism in his line of work.  They would pay this man a hefty sum not to let the body long dangle from the rope.  Instead, he was quickly to relieve the dead weight, so to speak, from the tension of gravity and then to join with others in moving the body as expeditiously as possible to a waiting coach.  That was Phase One of the Plan.  Phase Two, of which Jack Ketch had no knowledge, was to rush the body by cab from Tyburn to certain rooms in Goodge Street where a team of Resurrectionists would be awaiting it.  This was a group of medical men, hardly more crackpot than most of their professional peers, who thought that with the help of salves, ointments, an experimental air-pump, and perhaps a particularly adroit application of the Heimlich Maneuver, they might be able to revive the Unfortunate Doctor Dodd (his last nickname, and the one that stuck.)

 The Tyburn "Tree"

           Forget the fact that Phase Two was nutty to begin with.  Unfortunately, it could not be implemented in any event on account of the intervention of Fleming’s Second Historical Law: Nothing fails like success.  The learned William Dodd eschewed the role of the cloistered scholar.  He sought fame in the public arena, and lots of it.  For his final gig he enjoyed a success beyond his wildest dreams.  People used to turn out in significant numbers to listen to his sermons or his lectures on Shakespeare, but those crowds were as nothing compared with the throng that turned out to watch him swing.  You can easily grasp the problem presented by thousands of milling Doddheads.  The hearse was supposed to make its way swiftly from Tyburn (roughly where March Arch is today) to a place near today’s British Museum, moving through streets approximately as clogged as Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  The plan might have been cool, but unfortunately Dr. Dodd’s body was even cooler.

 *Boswell's Life of Johnson (Oxford English Classics, 1826), under September 19, 1777 (vol. 4, p. 150)