One of our books has taken us on many circuitous journeys and along the way we have come across some fascinating characters including a link to Freemasonry in the 1780s. One of our main characters was closely involved in Freemasonry in London and belonged to the same Lodges as this gentleman – The Reverend William Dodd (1729 – 1777). Brother Dodd was initiated into the St Alban’s Lodge No. 29 in 1775.
Dodd led an extravagant life spending far more than he was earning and as such gained the nickname ‘The Macaroni Parson’ due to his extravagant taste in clothes. Born in Bourne, Lincolnshire he attended Cambridge, after which he moved to London and married the daughter of a domestic servant which left him in a precarious financial position. He was a well-respected man and known for his charitable work, Among other things he instituted an unmarried mothers home ( The Magdalen ) for ‘reclaiming young women who had swerved from the path of virtue’; The Humane Society ( for the recovery of persons apparently drowned ) and the Society for the Relief of Poor Debtors.
There was, however, another, more sinister side to his character and in 1774 he decided it was time to improve his financial situation and attempted to gain the lucrative position of rector of St Georges, Hanover Square. In order to attempt to secure this post, he tried to bribe the wife of the Lord Chancellor, Lady Apsley, by offering her £3,000. The letter offering this bribe was traced back to him and he was dismissed from his existing post. He then decided that life wasn’t so good in England so disappeared to Geneva and France until the dust settled. He finally decided it was safe to return two years later.
In February of 1777, Dodd forged a bond for £4,200 in the name of his former pupil, The Earl of Chesterfield to help clear his debts. The bond was accepted in good faith by the bankers who lent him money on the strength of it. It was only later that the banker realized it was a forgery. Dodd confessed immediately and pleaded for time to rectify this. This was to no avail – off to prison he went. He was later tried and sentenced to death despite Samuel Johnson writing papers defending him and a petition signed by 23,000 people.
He was publicly hanged at Tyburn on 27th June 1777. The story, however, didn’t end there.
As was usual practice for the time, those who could afford it would pay for the executioner to steady the body from swaying while suspended from the gibbet – and to cut the body down pretty quickly. Then the body would be placed in a coach and rushed to an undertaker nearby. There a surgeon and a hot bath would be waiting in an attempt to revive the body. It didn’t always work, but it was better than nothing.
The executioner kept his part of the bargain and Dodd hoped to be resurrected by Dr John Hunter. Hunter knew that death by hanging prisoners died a slow death from asphyxiation rather than a broken neck and he believed that if the body arrived with him soon after the hanging that he could revive the prisoner. Ironically, Dodd’s was so popular, and the crowd so incensed at his death, that they mobbed the coach, with his body still in it and held it up for two hours, making any attempt at resuscitation impossible.
Dodd was apparently taken for burial at Cowley, Middlesex. Having checked the parish records there is no entry recording his burial. Rumours continued for several years that Hunter had in fact succeeded in bringing him back to life. Claims were made by people that they had actually met Dodd well after his supposed death – in France and in Scotland. Did he come back from the dead? Who knows, we can but speculate.
Even more ironic, is the fact that Dodd had written a sermon a few years previously titled “The frequency of Capital Punishment inconsistent with Justice, sound policy and religion”, in which he attacked the haphazard application of the death penalty.
The writer Wendy Moore has written a book that tells the whole story, The Knife Man.
Following his death, all his property was sold at auction.