Gallows Thief

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Gallows Thief
BernardCornwell GallowsThief.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorBernard Cornwell
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreHistorical mystery
Publication date
1 Oct 2001
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages384 pp (first edition, hardback)
ISBN978-0-00-712715-3 (first edition, hardback)

Gallows Thief (2001) is a historical mystery novel by Bernard Cornwell set in London, England in the year 1817, which uses capital punishment as its backdrop.

Plot summary[edit]

Rider Sandman, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, is hired as an investigator as a formality to rubber-stamp the death sentence of a condemned murderer. Instead, he discovers a conspiracy to conceal the real killer. In the slang of the time, a “gallows thief,” (also a “crap prig”) is a person who prevents the hanging of an innocent person.

Plot Synopsis[edit]

Day One[edit]

Captain Rider Sandman, formerly of His Majesty's 52nd Regiment of Foot, arises in his attic room above the Wheatsheaf Tavern in Drury Lane. Sandman is a gentlemen, but is hurting for cash. His father, a rich but dishonest speculator, recently committed suicide after his finances collapsed, and Sandman has assumed a large debt owed by the estate and is supporting his mother and sister. Sandman is a star cricket player, and makes occasional earnings from playing games on commission.

Sandman was a good soldier, but is naïve about the other side of life in England. He's only belatedly realised that the Wheatsheaf is a "flash" tavern – a regular haunt of pickpockets, highwaymen, and other petty criminals.

Sally Hood, an actress who lodges at the Wheatsheaf with her brother, brings a letter summoning Sandman to the office of the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth.

A man named Charles Corday has been sentenced to death for the murder of the Countess of Avebury. As usual, a condemned man's family and friends may petition the Crown for clemency or a pardon. Most petitions are rejected, but Corday's mother happens to be one of Queen Charlotte’s seamstresses, and the Queen has taken a personal interest. Occasionally the Home Office will appoint an investigator to look into a case, and Sandman was recommended by his former commanding officer, Sir John Colborne. Lord Sidmouth makes clear that he has no doubts that Corday is guilty, and regards Sandman's job as an empty formality. His task should be simple, to visit Corday and obtain a confession. Corday is due to hang in one week.

Sandman visits Newgate Prison. Corday, who is only eighteen years old, is physically unprepossessing, even effeminate, and Sandman, though repulsed, admits that Corday doesn’t seem capable of raping and killing a woman. He asks Corday to confess, but Corday insists that he's innocent. Corday is an apprentice portrait painter, and the Countess's husband, the Earl of Avebury, commissioned a boudoir painting of his wife (after the style of Canova’s famous sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte). The Countess was sitting for Corday in her London house. He says he was ordered out of the house when another visitor knocked, and the next thing he knew, he was arrested at his master's studio. He also says that the Countess's maid, Meg, was in attendance, but did not appear at his trial. Corday then bursts into tears, thinking Sandman doesn’t care. Embarrassed, Sandman promises to make inquiries.

Sandman goes to a cricket game to meet his old school friend, the Reverend Lord Alexander Pleydell. A marquess’s son, Alexander is rich, intellectual, and radical in his political views. When Sandman asks his advice, Alexander is scathing about the criminal justice system in England, saying that justice is impossible in the Old Bailey, where four judges adjudicate more than a hundred cases a week, and as often as not the accused is not defended by a lawyer. Alexander's theory is that the estranged Earl killed his wife, or had her killed. The Countess was an actress, and probably a high-class prostitute, before she married the Earl, after which she was a notorious adulteress.

Day Two[edit]

Sandman reads a newspaper account of the murder. The Countess was found brutally stabbed to death, and her clothes were torn off, suggesting that she had been raped. Corday’s palette knife was found on her body. The Countess’s house is abandoned, but a neighbour confirms the existence of the maid, Meg.

Sandman visits the studio of Sir George Phillips, Corday’s master. He is embarrassed to find Sally there, posing nude. Sir George admits that “Charlie” isn’t likely to have raped and murdered the Countess – for one thing, he's homosexual – but frankly doesn’t care if he's hanged, apparently jealous of his apprentice's talent.

Over lunch, Sally, like Alexander, is scathing about “justice” in the courts, and informs Sandman that "Black Jack", the judge who tried Corday, is a notorious hanging judge. She knows Charlie from the studio, and confirms that he's a “pixie.” She also overheard that it wasn’t the Earl who commissioned the portrait of the Countess, but instead a men's club in London – the Seraphim Club.

At the Club's premises, Sandman is admitted by a club servant, an ex-Army sergeant named Sam Berrigan. Sandman is met by the young Marquess of Skavadale. Skavadale claims to have no idea what Sandman is talking about. Before Sandman leaves, another member, a hot-head named Lord Robin Holloway, angrily declares that he is one of the elder Sandman's creditors, and challenges Sandman to a fencing duel. Sandman wins easily.

Sandman reluctantly visits the home of Sir Henry Forrest. Sandman was engaged to Sir Henry's daughter, Eleanor, but his father's suicide and financial ruin intervened, and Lady Forrest insisted that the engagement be broken off. Because the Forrests’ home is close to the Countess's, Sandman asks to question the servants, to see if any of them know Meg. Eleanor eagerly offers to question her own maid.

At the Wheatsheaf, two of the Seraphim's Club's servants enter with pistols to try and kidnap Sandman. Rider bests them easily, but is then held at gunpoint by Sam Berrigan. Berrigan tells him that Lord Robin sent the two thugs, but Skavadale sent him. Sally enters and Berrigan is instantly taken with her. He puts away his pistol. Berrigan served with the 1st Foot Guards at Waterloo, in the same division as Sandman's regiment. He warmly shares his memory of Sandman's courage with Sally, though Sandman is embarrassed. Berrigan would rather warn Sandman off than kill him. He tells Sandman that the Seraphim Club is made up of young, aristocratic rakes who commit robbery, rape, and even the occasional murder, just for the fun of it. Servants like Berrigan clear up after them, which is why Berrigan doesn’t think one of the Club killed the Countess.

Alexander introduces Sandman to Lord Christopher Carne, the Earl of Avebury's son. Christopher, a bookish young man with a stammer, says that he hardly knew his stepmother, but fully supports the theory that his father did the murder, as he was jealous and spiteful. His father, he confides, hates him because Christopher's grandfather decided to pass over his son and entail his estate onto Christopher, meaning he will inherit a vast fortune when his father dies, while his father is merely living off the income.

Day Three[edit]

Sandman feels there is a chance that the house's servants were moved to the Earl's estate in Wiltshire. Before leaving, Sandman meets Sally's brother, Jack, who is in fact the notorious “Robin Hood,” a wanted highway robber. Jack tells Sandman that someone has posted a large bounty on Sandman's head, but he doesn’t know who.

Sandman meets the Earl, an elderly and shameless lecher (he openly fondles his housemaids in front of Sandman). He is also a military enthusiast, and is working on a huge model recreation of the Battle of Waterloo when Sandman enters. Since Sandman belonged to the regiment that drove off the advance of the Imperial Guard in the battle's climax, Sandman can tell the Earl exactly how it happened – or he can make sure that no other veteran will talk to the Earl if he doesn’t answer Sandman's questions.

The Earl grudgingly shares what he knows. He didn’t kill his wife, and doesn’t know who did, but he hated her all the same. He was captivated enough by her to give in to her demand that he marry her before she would sleep with him. She spent all his money, and was unfaithful to him, so he turned her out of the house and ordered her allowance cut off. She laughed it off, telling him she was supplementing her income through blackmail of her various lovers – usually when they became engaged to wealthy or aristocratic heiresses. When pressed for details, the Earl admits, with a glimmer of shame, “I didn’t want to know names.”

Day Four[edit]

Returning to the Wheatsheaf, Sandman finds Skavadale and Lord Robin waiting. In the most genteel terms, they offer him an enormous bribe to stop his inquiries. Skavadale gently points out that Sandman has discovered no proof of Corday's innocence, and has no other conceivable source of income. Tempted though he is, Sandman refuses.

Alexander brings Sandman to the theatre, where a rich lord is mounting a private show in an attempt to launch his mistress as a “serious actress.” Sally is performing in the chorus. The show quickly descends into chaos when a rowdy section of the audience starts yelling for the lead performer to strip. In the chaos, a hidden sniper fires a rifle at Sandman, missing narrowly. Sandman jumps down onto the stage, and flees back to the Wheatsheaf, with Sally following.

Berrigan is waiting for him. The Club has ordered Sandman killed, but Berrigan swears that he is the only one the Club sent, and has no idea who the sniper in the theatre was. Berrigan has decided to leave the Club and work with Sandman. He respects Sandman as a soldier, and also has been captivated by Sally.

A theory has begun to form in Sandman's mind: one of the Seraphim Club killed the Countess. The Club as a whole decided to buy him off, but Lord Robin, who was putting up most of the money, privately decided to have him killed.

Day Five[edit]

Sandman and Berrigan meet Corday at Newgate, where he draws them a portrait of Meg.

A letter comes from Eleanor, telling Sandman she has news. They meet in an ice cream parlor, and she tells him that her maid saw Meg taken away from the house in a coach belonging to the Seraphim Club. When Sandman mentions Skavadale, Eleanor excitedly tells him that Skavadale's family is close to bankruptcy, but, as the heir to a dukedom, he has managed to become engaged to the wealthiest heiress in England. To both of them, it seems obvious: Skavadale was one of the Countess's many lovers, and he killed her when she attempted to blackmail him – in which case he has probably killed Meg.

Eleanor tells Rider she is still in love with him. He says the same. He says he will ask Sir Henry for her hand once more, and if her mother objects, they will elope.

Sandman and Berrigan return to Sir George Phillips's studio. Phillips confesses that it was the Club, not the Earl, who commissioned the portrait, but he doesn’t know the one person it was for. Berrigan confirms that it is a Club tradition to commission a portrait of any woman that three or more members have slept with, and hang it in the Club's gallery as a trophy.

That evening, Sandman, Berrigan, and Sally sneak into the Seraphim Club. The coachman confirms that the coach has been driven to Skavadale's estate in the country.

Day Six[edit]

The trio quickly rides out of London. Skavadale's estate is a good day's journey away, which means they have just enough time to reach there, find Meg, and travel back to London in time to meet the Home Secretary on the morning of Corday's execution.

While camping, Berrigan mentions that a good number of people have developed a taste for Spanish cigars, which are exceptionally hard to come by in England. He has a source for them in Spain, but doesn’t speak the language. Sandman does, and could obtain financing from Sir Henry. They agree to be partners.

Day Seven[edit]

At Skavadale's estate, they break in and find Meg, still alive. She is surly and uncooperative, and refuses to answer any questions. She has two strange characteristics: a fondness for raising chickens, and an overwhelming terror of wasps. Skavadale has offered her a comfortable position on his estate, raising a large brood of hens. The heroes force her to travel back to London. On the way, Meg still insists she knows nothing. She challenges Sandman to explain why Skavadale would leave her alive if he was the killer. Sandman admits he can’t. But after badgering, Meg admits that the Countess was still alive when she saw Corday out of the house; that is enough.

The Last Day[edit]

On the morning of the execution, the heroes present Meg to Lord Sidmouth. She refuses to talk, and screams that she's been kidnapped. Sidmouth prepares to dismiss them all, but then Sally mentions obstruction of justice, punishable by transportation to Australia, where the wasps have “stingers like hatpins.”

In the presence of the Home Secretary, the threat becomes frighteningly real to Meg. She confesses, and Sandman is wrong: Lord Christopher is the killer. His own stepmother seduced him and then blackmailed him, with her eye on the earldom's vast fortune. He came to the house, begging her to return his love letters; she mocked him, and he lost control and stabbed her with his pocketknife. Meg discovered him, as did Skavadale when he arrived shortly thereafter. He concealed Meg at his estate, preparing to blackmail Christopher once he inherited the earldom. It was also Christopher, not the Seraphim Club, who put out the bounty on Sandman's head.

Lord Sidmouth, for all his sour complacency, acts quickly: he writes a hasty pardon while ordering horses and a police escort to speed Sandman to Newgate. He reminds them that, unfortunately, they have no proof to take action against Skavadale.

Sandman rushes to the gallows while the execution unfolds in the same meticulous detail as in the prologue. Alexander and Lord Christopher are sitting in the prize seats. Sandman arrives just as the trap doors are opened, and manages to save Corday, while his police escort seizes Lord Christopher. Sandman limps away, on his way to Sir Henry's house, to ask him for a loan and his daughter's hand.

Major themes[edit]

Detective fiction[edit]

Cornwell's book is another example of a particular branch of historical mystery that might be called the "proto-detective" genre: taking place in a historical time period predating the modern concept of the professional detective. The novel takes place in 1817, while Great Britain did not establish its professional police force until 1829, under one of Lord Sidmouth's successors as Home Secretary, Robert Peel.

In his Historical Note, Cornwell says the primary inspiration for the story was V.A.C. Gatrell’s book, "The Hanging Tree," a work of history on capital punishment in late 18th and 19th century England. A footnote in Gatrell's book mentions the fact that sometimes the British Home Office would appoint a temporary investigator to look into petitions for clemency.

Cornwell said he thought it would be interesting to write a detective novel with a "detective" who had no training or experience, nor was expected to. Sandman, an ex-soldier, is intelligent and self-reliant, but has no investigative background, and is frequently bewildered when thinking about his next step. His predecessor simply beat confessions out of suspects. His main assets are his integrity and his tenacity – once he sees enough to raise doubts about Corday's guilt, he is unwilling to stop until he finds out the truth.[citation needed]

Capital punishment[edit]

The book is set during the existence of the so-called "Bloody Code," a set of English criminal laws that contained over two hundred capital crimes. During the code's existence, crimes punishable by execution included not just murder but also rape, petty theft, forgery, and sodomy. The Code was abolished in 1831, and public executions were abolished in 1868.

Gatrell's book, writes Cornwell, combines scholarship with "a fine, controlled anger against capital punishment." In several places, Cornwell arouses a similar anger in the reader. First, there is the opening scene in which an execution by hanging is rendered in graphic detail. The victims include a teenaged maidservant accused of theft, who dies screaming that she is innocent. Later, when Sandman visits Newgate, the door porter mentions the execution and repeats a rumour that the girl's accuser afterwards found the "stolen" pearl necklace fallen behind a couch. The warder finds it funny.

The entire book has a highly accusatory tone, both toward the draconian criminal laws of the time, and the general complacency of the public. The reader will notice that it takes Christopher and Skavadale a minimum of effort to frame Corday; they create only a vague appearance of his guilt, yet that is quite enough for the law to sentence him to death.

Unlike many detectives, Sandman is working against a setting where the majority of the other characters – not just the villains – don’t want him to find out the truth, or just don’t care. Lord Sidmouth regards the whole investigation process as a waste of time; Corday's master, Sir George, is willing to let him hang out of petty jealousy; even the hero, Sandman, admits to himself that he's never before thought seriously about the institution of hanging; like everyone, he's taken it for granted that if a person is tried and convicted, he must be guilty; that if the law says hanging is a just punishment for a crime, it must be; and that execution serves a useful and necessary purpose to society. Alexander makes reference to William Paley and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom argued that the occasional execution of an innocent person is unavoidable, and certainly preferable to the restriction or abolition of capital punishment.

The book also mentions the fact that the contemporary law of Scotland is (and remains) much less draconian than that of England or Wales – yet the crime rate is no higher.

Hanging, as it was practised in 1817, was particularly cruel and inefficient. The story predates the adoption of the "long drop," calculated to end the condemned person's life quickly by breaking the neck. During this time, all deaths by hanging are caused by slow choking. In the novel, James Botting, the executioner at Newgate Prison, accepts bribes from the prisoners to tug on their legs and quicken their demise.

Cornwell condemns the whole process as a "barbaric punishment."

Gatrell's book noted that the French guillotine, while more grisly in effect, was undoubtedly a swifter and less painful means of death. Yet the English stubbornly refused to adopt it, because of its association with the anarchic mob justice practised during the French Revolution.[1]

Because death was not instantaneous, many condemned criminals survived hanging, if they were cut down prematurely. Obadiah Hakeswill, a villain in Cornwell's Sharpe novels, was just such a survivor and the experience convinced him that he was invincible.[2]

Rank, money, and influence[edit]

Cornwell's Sharpe novels frequently rail against the Napoleonic British Army's purchase system, which allowed men with enough money or influence to advance in rank, regardless of their military qualifications.

Gatrell's book pointed out a similar institution, the petition system. During the years of the Bloody Code's existence, there were several hundred executions, but actually several thousand death sentences passed. 90 percent of those condemned had their sentences commuted to imprisonment or deportation to Australia. Cornwell insists that this discrepancy is not explained by mercy, but rather by the petition system, under which the families and friends of condemned persons could plead for leniency, and their petitions were more likely to be granted if they could persuade wealthy or influential persons to add their signatures. Thus, the system was another tool through which the upper classes exercised control over the lower orders.

Cornwell also writes with detestation about how the British aristocracy is regarded with awe and worship, despite their lack of noble qualities. Eleanor's mother dreams of her daughter marrying a man with a title; Sandman has none, and it was only his father's wealth that persuaded her to accept him as Eleanor's fiancé. By contrast, Skavadale, who belongs to an upper-crust gang of robbers, rapists, and killers, and conspires to have Corday condemned, is on the brink of bankruptcy, but he remains confident of attracting a rich heiress, just because he is the heir to a duke's title.[citation needed]


Besides Gatrell's book, Cornwell refers to James Hardy Vaux's Dictionary of the Flash Language, a translation book of the slang used by the London criminal sector during this time.

Cornwell also uses the sport of cricket as a background.

Connections with Cornwell's other works[edit]

Allusions to real-life historical persons or events[edit]

(Mentioned Only)


  1. ^ V. A. C. Gatrell. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770–1868. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  2. ^ Bernard Cornwell. Sharpe's Company, London: HarperCollins, 1982. ISBN 0-00-222131-4
  3. ^ Bernard Cornwell official site – Author answers "Your Questions"