Archive for July 4th, 2018

1828: William Rice but not John Montgomery, who cheated the hangman with prussic acid

Add comment July 4th, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Just before 6:00 a.m. on July 4, 1828, prison officers arrived at the cell of disgraced ensign John Burgh Montgomery in Newgate Prison‘s condemned hold.

They were there to escort Montgomery to his hanging. The 33­-year-­old would have been one of the last in England executed for for the crime of uttering forged notes — except that his wardens instead found him lying stone dead. With the aid of prussic acid, the counterfeiter had cheated the hangman of half his day’s prey, leaving his prospective gallows partner, thief William Rice, to face the hemp alone.

Although his guards had confiscated his razor and penknife as a routine precaution against suicide, no one had expected Montgomery to take his own life. He had pleaded guilty before the court and seemed resigned to his fate. In custody he was a model prisoner, spent his last days writing to his loved ones, and “addressed himself with great anxiety to his religious offices.”

Nobody was able to figure out how the condemned man came by enough poison to kill thirty people and how he kept it hidden, given that he and his cell were regularly searched.

The Irish-­born Montgomery, Nicola Sly records in her book Goodbye, Cruel World… A Compendium of Suicide,

was said to be a very respectable, well­-educated man, who had once held a commission in the Army. However, after inheriting a considerable fortune, he frittered it away and resorted to passing phony banknotes to support his rather dissipated lifestyle. Given his pleasing looks, gentlemanly appearance and good manners, he was very successful, since nobody thought him capable of any wrongdoing. However, he was caught after becoming careless and making the mistake of committing frequent repeated offense in a small geographical area of London.

Montgomery left behind several letters, marked by expansive tragic romanticism but no hint of suicidal intent. One letter was for the prison surgeon, asking that his body be used for dissection. He said that by this he wanted to provide some positive contribution to the public to make up for his crimes. He asked that his heart be preserved in spirits and given to his girlfriend.

To the girlfriend he wrote,

My dear idolized L.,

One more last farewell, one more last adieu to a being so much attached to the unhappy Montgomery. Oh, my dearest girl. If it had been in the power of anyone to avert my dreadful doom, your kind exertions would have been attended with such success. Oh, God, so poor Montgomery is to die on the scaffold. Oh, how dreadful have been my hours of reflection, whilst in this dreary cell.

Oh, how tottering were all my hopes; the bitterness of my reflection is bitter in the extreme. This will be forwarded to you by my kind friend Mrs. D. I should wish you to possess my writing portmanteau. Oh, I wished to have disappointed the horrid multitude who will be assembled to witness my ignominious exit. Farewell forever,

P.S. Here I kiss fervently.

The jury on the inquest into Montgomery’s death recorded a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Montgomery had willfully and knowingly taken his own life whilst of sound mind. As such, his body was buried in the graveyard of St. Sepulchre­-without-Newgate at night, and without any memorial service.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Common Criminals,Counterfeiting,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pelf,Public Executions

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