Archive for August 13th, 2009

1868: Thomas Wells, the first private hanging in England

4 comments August 13th, 2009 Headsman

The hanging this date at Kent’s Maidstone Prison of Thomas Wells for the murder of the Dover postmaster stamped the understated debut of England’s era of private executions.

It was a shift almost a century in the making; in 1783, Albion had eliminated London’s traditional, disorderly procession to Tyburn in favor of public hangings just outside the walls of the prison — to the chagrin of traditionalists like Samuel Johnson.

As the 19th century unfolded, even this compromised spectacle attracted increasing criticism, noticeably from literary types who decried the aesthetics, effectiveness, and/or morality of public execution.

Eventually, on May 29, 1868,* Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, also known as the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act. The public hanging was no more.

Our day’s otherwise mundane murderer became the first to answer for his crime in this brave new behind-prison-walls world. And if the objective was to banish the spectacle and theater of the scaffold — well, the report in next day’s London Times of Thomas Wells’ hanging would suggest the measure achieved its purpose.

Yesterday morning Thomas Wells, aged 18, who was found guilty at the last Kent Assizes of the wilful murder of Mr. Walsh, the master of the Priory Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, by shooting him in revenge for a reprimand which that gentleman, under whom he served as a porter, had given him for some misconduct, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. This was the first execution under the new Act requiring executions in future to be inflicted within the prison walls.

It was, of course, generally known that the execution would be conducted in private, and that the only sign would be the hoisting of a black flag outside the prison wall. At the moment of the falling of the drop there were very few, if any, strangers in the vicinity of the prison, and the town presented quite its ordinary appearance, presenting a marked and extraordinary contrast to that which it has hitherto exhibited on the occasion of a public execution. The scaffold was erected in a small yard adjoining the debtors’ portion of the gaol, which had at one time been used as an exercise yard for the prisoners. It is enclosed by four high walls. The apparatus is the same that was formerly used, with some slight alterations. The drop is on a level with the stone paving of the yard, and the executioner has to descend several steps to remove the bolt which supports the platform, and the latter then drops into a recess prepared for it. No one was present at the execution but the undersheriff, governor, sergeant, chaplain, and the representatives of the Press.

After his trial the culprit seemed to have been fully aware that there was no hope for him, but he expressed remorse for the act he had committed, and wrote a very penitent letter to Mrs. Walsh, the widow of the deceased, entreating her forgiveness. No efforts appear to have been made in any quarter to obtain a remission of the capital sentence.

The culprit prayed fervently with the Rev. Mr. Frazer, the chaplain, for a few seconds, and as the drop fell he was singing with a loud clear voice the 486th hymn. He appeared to die after two or three convulsive struggles.

Of course, not everything old can be new overnight; this hanging was carried out by longtime public hangman William Calcraft, who’d had his start in the trade back in 1829 and was renowned for unpleasantly strangling his charges with his itty-bitty drops. Though the Times report downplays the climax, other press attendees agreed that Wells died hard.

This day’s milestone, nevertheless, was a way station en route to further innovations, the decisive transition from an ancient form of public corporal discipline to the rational, calculated, mechanistic procedure meet for an industrial empire.

Behind prison walls, Calcraft would yield his own place to William Marwood’s precisely measured drops, and then to the 20th century’s coolly efficient Albert Pierrepoint. The changes may have been incremental, but by the end, little save the rope remained of England’s storied hanging era.

The natural end of that evolution, some would have us believe, is disposing the rope altogether. If Wells’s private hanging held the seed of capital punishment’s eventual abolition, it sprouted quite neatly indeed: it was this same date in 1964 that England conducted its last private hangings — or executions of any kind.

* The act was passed only three days after the last public hanging in England.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder

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