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The Black Dog of Newgate

Halloween is upon us, so I decided to explore one of London’s spookiest spots, the former site of notorious Newgate prison. The prison stood for 1000 years and was rebuilt several times, most notably after being destroyed in The Great Fire of London in 1666 and was built onto the foundation of the old Roman fortication. It had a reputation for brutality, deprivation, disease and death and was home to the savage medieval justice system of England’s unreformed; a cruel, unforgiving system of institutional violence.

The cold, damp, terrifying prison was packed with murderers, arsonists, fraudsters and highwaymen with 350 crimes warranting death. A stay at Newgate was never going to be a long affair, before meeting a violent and humiliating demise at the gallows in front of a bloodthirsty crowd. These public executions took place each Monday morning and provided the city with its most popular entertainment, with jeering crowds jostling for prime position to witness the condemned man or woman dance their jig at the end of the Newgate rope. Inmates were never guaranteed a quick death as sometimes the rope would be too long, denying them a quick snap of the neck and instead they would be slowly and agonisingly strangled to death in front of the
excitable baying mob.

Charles Dickens visited the prison on a few occasions and referred to Newgate prison in his novels, including Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities. The 18th Century writer Henry Fielding referred to Newgate as the ‘prototype of hell’ due to its appalling conditions and general wretchedness and Bram Stoker referred to Newgate’s most famous inmate Jack Sheppard in Dracula. Sheppard managed to escape the prison three times before meeting his sticky end in 1724.

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The condemned inmates would be made to walk along a passageway called Deadman’s Walk, now Amen Court, from the prison to the gallows outside and it is here that ghostly sightings have been reported. One being the ‘Black Dog of Newgate’, a shapeless black form that slithers along the top of the wall, slides sloppily down and vanishes. It is always accompanied by a nauseous smell and the sound of dragging footsteps. Its origins date back to the reign of Henry III when a fearsome famine struck London and the poor felons of Newgate prison were forced to turn to cannibalism for survival. A scholar was imprisoned at the time on charges of sorcery. Within hours of his arrival he was killed and eaten, pronounced as ‘good meate’.

However fellow prisoners who had feasted upon this unfortunate soul soon had reason to regret their actions when a hideous black dog with ‘eyes of red and jowls that dripped with blood’ appeared in the night and tore prisoners limb from limb. Their anguished screams of terror echoed through the prison and the beast’s ghostly panting and heavy paws prowling the corridors struck such intense fear into the inmates souls that some literally died of fright. Others were so terrified that they killed their guards and escaped. But no matter where they went and how far they traveled, the beast hunted them down and killed them one by one.

Only when the murder of its master, the sorcerer, had been fully avenged did it vanish as fast as it appeared. When the prison was demolished in 1902, the legend of the Black Dog was slowly forgotten. There is nothing left of Newgate prison today; however, in its place now stands the Old Bailey, which was built using as much stone from the old prison as possible. Perhaps the horrors that took place within the walls of Newgate prison are now embedded within the walls of the Old Bailey instead, and some people have reported that, when walking at night near the passageway of Deadman’s Walk, they have witnessed a seething black mass that shues across the wall, slides slowly into the courtyard and melts into nothingness.