Excerpt from The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

by Antonia Hodgson

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson X
The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2017, 400 pages

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Prologue

No one thought Tom Hawkins would hang. Not until the last moment.

Gentlemen don't hang; not even ones found guilty of murder. Hawkins wasn't much of a gentleman, that was true, but he came from a good family. A good family with good connections. The pardon would come. Sometimes the Marshal kept it hidden deep in his pocket, only to pull it out with a flourish when the procession reached the gallows. A bit of drama for the mob. A lesson, too: an act of mercy is always a lesson.

This is what Hawkins tells himself as his cart rolls slowly out of Newgate Prison. The pardon will come. I've kept my side of the bargain. I've held my tongue. But Hawkins has a gambler's instinct, and he can feel the odds rising with each turn of the wheel.

He should have been freed hours ago. If he could only catch someone's eye . . . but the Marshal is riding up at the head of the procession, followed by a band of constables armed with staves. Their boots pound hard against the cobbles as they march up Snow Hill. He can't see them. He is a condemned man, and condemned men must ride backwards to their hanging, on carts swagged in black crepe. He sits with his back to the carthorse, chained in iron, long legs stretched out in front of him. He sees only what he has already passed: the muddy road beneath him, the houses, the crowds of people.

The great bell of St. Sepulchre tolls low and heavy as the devil's heartbeat, summoning the town out on to the streets. Hanging day. He has heard the bell toll many times before. He has followed the carts to the gallows. He has watched men die slowly, blind beneath a white hood, their legs kicking the air. Now it is his turn to dance upon the rope, while the world cheers him to his death.

No. He must stay calm. The journey to Tyburn will take two hours through all these crowds. There is still time. He has done everything that was asked of him. Surely his loyalty, his silence, will save him now? A thin, snake's voice whispers in his head. There's nothing more silent than a corpse.

He pushes the thought away, concentrates on his breathing. This, at least, is still his to control. There is a smudge of dirt on the ankle of his left stocking. His eyes fi x upon it as the cart arrives at the steps of St Sepulchre.

The horse gives a sudden lurch and he is flung forward, then back. He winces in pain as his shoulders slice against the sharp edge of his coffin. They have tied it behind him for the journey.

Breathe.

Four prisoners will hang today. Higgs and Oakley are footpads, betrayed by a fellow gang member. Mary Green was caught lifting a few yards of mantua silk from a shop in Spitalfields. Cherry red, the newspapers said, as if such a thing mattered. Hawkins is the only one convicted of murder. He is the one the crowds have come to see. Even with his head down, he can feel them staring. They hang out of every window; line the narrow streets five or six deep, on the brink of riot. They curse his name, tell him he will hang like a dog. The two guards flanking his cart grip their javelins hard, watching for trouble.

Sometimes the town shows pity, but not today. Not for a man who won't confess his crime. Violence smoulders in the air, ready to catch flame. It would be safer to keep the carts moving, but there are traditions that must be observed on the road to Tyburn and this is one of them. Perhaps they will push the cart over. His arms are pinioned, but he could still run. He lifts his eyes to the crowds; sees only hatred, fear and fury. Aye, he could run — straight into the arms of the mob. They would tear him to pieces.

The church bellman appears on the steps. He is a narrowboned, fretful man, and the hand bell is too big for him. He rings it twelve times, holding onto the handle with both hands. It is a struggle and he looks relieved when it's over. The crowd, delighted, applauds him as if he were a comic turn at Sadler's Wells. He frowns at them. This is meant to be a solemn moment and they are ruining it. 'Pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners,' he pipes, fighting to be heard over the din, 'who are now going to their death.'

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Excerpted from The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson. Copyright © 2016 by Antonia Hodgson. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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