Selections from Boswell’s London Journal

A Visit to Tyburn and Newgate


This morning Erskine and I expected the reviews on our letters. So we breakfasted at Dempster’s. However, our time was not yet come. Dempster this day gave us an excellent dinner. We went with him and saw his Honour lay out half a guinea in the article of fish. Johnston the advocate was one of the guests. He pleased me by talking about a man’s having vigour of mind. Indeed, there is such a kind of human beings, and happy are they in comparison with the feeble and fluctuating. We drank tea here. Yet I still remained very low-spirited.


I walked up to the Tower in order to see Mr. Wilkes come out. But he was gone. I then thought I should see prisoners of one kind or other, so went to Newgate. I stepped into a sort of court before the cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in, but stood in the court, where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. Mr. Rice the broker was confined in another part of the house. In the cells were Paul Lewis for robbery and Hannah Diego for theft. I saw them pass by to chapel. The woman was a big unconcerned being. Paul, who had been in the sea-service and was called Captain, was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was dressed in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver, with his hair neatly queued and a silver-laced hat, smartly cocked. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said, “Very well"; quite resigned. Poor fellow! I really took a great concern for him, and wished to relieve him. He walked firmly and with a good air, with his chains rattling upon him, to the chapel.

Erskine and I dined at the renowned Donaldson’s, where we were heartily entertained. All this afternoon I felt myself still more melancholy, Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud. Poor Lewis was always coming across me. I felt myself dreary at night, and made my barber try to read me asleep with Hume’s History, of which he made very sad work. I lay in sad concern.


My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it, although I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the Lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. I also wished to see the last behaviour of Paul Lewis, the handsome fellow whom I had seen the day before. Accordingly I took Captain Temple with me, and he and I got upon a scaffold very near the fatal tree, so that we could clearly see all the dismal scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.


I awaked as usual heavy, confused, and splenetic. Every morning this is the case with me. Dempster prescribed to me to cut two or three brisk capers round the room, which I did, and found attended with most agreeable effects. It expelled the phlegm from my heart, gave my blood a free circulation, and my spirits a brisk flow; so that I was all at once made happy. I must remember this and practice it. Though indeed when one is in low spirits he generally is so indolent and careless that rather than take a little trouble he will just sink under the load....

When I went home at night, I was tired and went to bed and thought to sleep. But I was still so haunted with frightful imaginations that I durst not lie by myself, but rose and sallied straight to Erskine, who really had compassion on me, and as before shared his bed with me. I am too easily affected. It is a weakness of mind. I own it.