Friday 1 October 2010

Thomas Derrick, Jack Robinson and Dr Guillotin

Once upon a time, hanging was the punishment for almost any crime. Even Ben Jonson, for the trivial offence of murder, was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted when he proved that he could read and thus got Benefit of the Clergy. He had a T branded on his thumb and was sent home with a warning.

The T stood for Tyburn, which is where the hangings used to take place. The man who would have executed Ben Jonson was called Thomas Derrick. Thomas Derrick was a nasty man. There hadn't been enough applicants for the role of executioner and so the Earl of Essex pardoned a rapist on condition that he would take on the job. That rapist was Derrick.

Modern recruitment companies could learn a thing or two from the Earl of Essex.

Which isn't to say that Derrick was technically bad. In fact, he was something of an innovator. Rather than just slinging the rope over the beam, he invented a complicated system of ropes and pulleys, and it was by this method that he, in 1601, executed the Earl of Essex.

There's a moral in that, but I haven't the foggiest notion what it is and this is an counterethical post because Derrick's name survives. The rope system he invented started to be used for loading and unloading goods at the dock and that is why modern cranes still have a derrick.

There are three main theories on why things happen before you can say Jack Robinson. The first is that Robinson used to be the French term for an umbrella (because of Robinson Crusoe), and that French servants were usually called Jaques. This meant that when rich Frenchmen visited England and were surprised by the inevitable rain they would shout "Jaques, robinson."

The second theory is that there was an eccentric fellow in early nineteenth century London who would walk out of parties without warning, often before you could even say his name, which was Jack Robinson. However, there is no contemporary evidence for his existence.

The third and most plausible theory is that it comes from Sir John Robinson who was constable of the Tower of London from 1660 to 1679. He was therefore in charge of executions and was a stickler for efficiency rather than solemnity. The prisoner was marched out, put on the block and shortened without any opportunity for famous last words. He did not even have the time to appeal to the overseer by crying 'Jack Robinson.'

So derricks and brief spans of time are both named after cruel and psychotic executioners. The guillotine, on the other hand, is named after a jolly nice chap.

Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing whatsoever to do with the invention of the Guillotine. In fact, so far as anybody can tell, he was against the death penalty. Nobody's sure who designed the first modern guillotine, but it was built by a German harpsichord-maker called Tobias Schmidt.

It was Guillotin's kindness that got the machine named after him. You see, in pre-revolution France poor people were hanged, whereas nobles had to the right to be executed, which was considered less painful (although I'm not sure how they worked that out). When the poor French were revolting, one of the key demands was the right to be beheaded. Dr Guillotin was on the committee for reforming executions. He decided that the mechanism with the blade was the least painful and most humane method available. He recommended it.

In the debate that followed, on the first of December 1789, he made one silly remark: "Avec ma machine, je vous fais sauter la tete d'un coup-doeil, et vous ne souffrez point." With my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it.

It's a great line. People loved it. They composed a comic song about it. Here's an English translation:

And physician,
Bethought himself, 'tis plain,
That hanging's not humane
   Nor patriotic;
And straightway showed
A clever mode
   To kill - without a pang-men;
Which, void  of rope or stakes,
Suppression makes
   Of hangmen.

'Twas thought, and not in vain,
   That this slim
   Hippocrates limb
Was jealous to obtain
The exclusive right of killing
By quicker means than pilling.

   The patriot keen,
The best advice to have
   Before the next debate
   Consults Coupe-tete
Chapetier and Barnave;   
   And then off-hand
   His genius planned
   That machine
That 'simply' kills - that's all -
Which after him we call

So Thomas Derrick and Jack Robinson were both sadistic, heartless thugs, whose names live on in innocence, if not glory. Poor Dr Guillotin's family were so embarrassed that they had to change their name.

There is, as the fellow remarked in the empty magistrates court, no justice.

The Inky Fool catches forty winks


  1. I heard about a guillotine operator who would do his job and then rush off and put on some different clothes. He got sacked for always chopping and changing.

  2. Err...sorry to be a pedant, but Derrick didn't use his derrick to execute the Earl of Essex. An a noble and a traitor, Essex had the right to have his head chopped off, and Derrick made a complete hash of the job. It took him three strikes before he was able to wave the head about to a great cry of 'God Save the Queen'.
    Dr Guilloutin's machine was designed to avoid this sort of messy and, frankly, barbaric spectacle.

  3. And while I'm about it, the derrick in your photo is an oil derrick and not like Derrick's derrick at all. His invention had a post with a spar hinged at the bottom. The top end of the spar was held in place by a rope running through a pulley on the top of the post, so you could hoist a malefactor off the ground quickly and easily.
    Dockers using derricks to unload ships would bring the spar to the centre of the hold by hanging a weight on the hook at the end of the rope - which was called a 'deadman' (

  4. You're quite right about the execution of Essex, and have left me feeling a complete noodle.
    The picture is merely to illustrate the spread of his name.

  5. OK so what is the origin of the term 'noodle'? Enquiring minds need to know....

  6. My family,surname Derrick, have gone back in time to find that Thomas Derrick was a rapist and not a particularly nice person as stated . Apparently he was brought from France to execute Guy Fawkes although that failed due to Fawkes falling and breaking his neck.

  7. He is my ancestor on my mother's side