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1875: Joseph Le Brun, the last public hanging

August 12th, 2018 Headsman

Joseph Le Brun starred in the U.K.’sthe British Crown Dependencies’ last public execution on this date in 1875.

Although capital punishment had been moved behind prison walls in Great Britain several years earlier, the relevant statute did not apply to Crown dependencies like the Channel Islands. And it is upon one of these rocks, Jersey to be precise, that Joseph Le Brun allegedly killed his sister. The names in this post are Gallic, as was much of the Channel Islands populace.

The milestone case was a strange and unsatisfying one. It entered the view of the judiciary on the evening of December 15, 1874, when a neighbor of Nancy’s reported to the police that Nancy had been murdered and her brother-in-law Philip Laurens wounded in a shooting. The unmarried Le Brun was a frequent dinner companion of this couple as he had been on this night as well, and there was no hatred known to exist among the trio. According to a True Crime Library summary, police

asked Laurens, who had face injuries and an arm wound, who had attacked him, and he replied: ‘My brother-in-law Joseph shot me.’ They found the body of Nancy covered in blood sitting on a sofa. There was a shawl covering her face and her stockinged feet were in a bucket of water.

They arrested Le Brun, who was in bed, and took him to the house where Laurens was awaiting a doctor. Laurens called Le Brun a ‘hangdog,’ and asked, ‘Why did you fire at me?’ Le Brun replied, ‘It wasn’t me.’

At the inquest on Nancy, Philip Laurens said that when he opened his front door on returning home Le Brun pointed a gun at him and shot him in the face. I said to him, ‘What have you done? You have shot me.’ He made no answer.

This evidence of Philip Laurens’s cinched the hemp for Joseph Le Brun. Certainly Philip did know his brother-in-law well. But on the other hand, well, the guy cracked open his front door, in the dark, and immediately got the business end of a rifle in his face. These are circumstances not conducive to the orderly cognitive processes that you’d prefer in a witness.

There was the suggestion that Le Brun might have contemplated such a crime to rob his sister of 28 quid she had recently come into; however, “there was no blood on his clothes, no powder on his hands, and only small change in his pockets” … besides which Nancy was a drunkard who could have been easily relieved of her windfall without the need for homicide. In fact, all three of the principals involved were known to get into their cups.

The crown prosecutor was openly discomfited by the prospect of executing Le Brun on this evidence and the jury likewise. It returned a guilty verdict for the non-fatal shooting of Laurens, but could not come to a unanimous decision about Nancy — the murder charge that would demand the prisoner’s hanging. It was only because Jersey permitted majority verdicts that Le Brun went to the scaffold after the court polled the 24-man panel. Even so, jurors joined the island’s public sentiment and wrote the Home Secretary begging in vain for a reprieve.

Le Brun too maintained his innocence all the way to the end. On the eve of his death, his brother-in-law paid a visit to the man his evidence had doomed, and their queer exchange only deepened the mystery.

Laurens: Joe, I’m sorry to see you here.

Le Brun: And you still wish to say that it was I who did it?

Laurens: Yes, I repeat, you murdered my wife, as you wished to murder me, and no one else but you did it.

Le Brun: You have proof of that?

Laurens: I did not come here to argue with you. I forgive you, but I say that you committed the crime. Adieu!


On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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6 thoughts on “1875: Joseph Le Brun, the last public hanging”

  1. Philip says:

    A point of information. Jersey has never been a part of the U.K. It is Crown Dependency because it, along with the other Channel Islands, is the remnant of Crown lands in Normandy that were lost in 1204 after a brief war with France.

    Jersey is not independent of the UK but it enjoys a high degree of autonomy.

    1. Headsman says:

      Thank you for the correction. Sloppy work on my part.

  2. Public hangings and other executions were discontinued during the early 19th century in West and Central Europe. While this is the last public hanging in America the human remains of famous murderers were still on semi-official display till the 1930s in America and some gruesome visitors took a grissly souvenir. Nowadays Iran is the only country with public executions.

    1. Sorry, not in America but in Britain was this public hanging.

    2. Becky says:


      You are incorrect to assume that Iran is the only country where executions are conducted in public. While death penalty nations are now a minority, the majority of those nations (and potentially executions).

      Among the top 5 capital punishment states are China (pubic, mass executions), Iran (public, mass executions), Iraq (private executions), Saudi Arabia (public, mass executions) and Pakistan (private executions. It is most likely that imagery of executions you have seen if of Iranian executions, but they are far from the only country that executes in public.

      Have a great day!

      1. Becky, I graduated on ethnic minorities, not on capital punishment. Pakistan is a newcomer as regards executions. I assumed the Chinese executions were private, not public. However, my sources say the executions in Saoudi-Arabia are usually private, not public anymore but they are indeed mass executions. And Iran has twice the population as SaoudiArabia but more than three times as many executions. Syria should be on the list also but the regime keeps it private in every sense. Best, J..

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