Barbara Zdunk was executed on this date in 1811 in the Prussian city Rößel (today the Polish city Reszel).
Zdunk is the chronologically latest candidate for the elusive distinction of “the last witch execution in Europe”. Devastating fires that hit Reszel in 1806 and 1807 activated her neighbors’ suspicions of Zdunk witchery; however, enlightened Prussia had dispensed with its witch-burning laws long before the books in the 19th century so Zdunk must have been formally prosecuted simply as an arsonist — whatever the actuating superstitions behind that charge. The idea was that she caused the conflagration by torching the house of her faithless fiance.
Reszel Castle, the 14th century citadel whose dungeon entombed Ms. Zdunk for a couple of years prior to her execution, is today an atmospheric hotel, allegedly haunted by spirit of its famous former inhabitant.
On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.
An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!
After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.
Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.
The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …
Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.
Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.
In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.
Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.
On this date in 1883, the illustrious hanging career of executioner William Marwood came to an inglorious conclusion.
The Billy Beane of the Victorian gallows, Marwood brought metrics — that is, calculated drop distances designed for killing precision — to a craft long characterized by clumsy amateurism.
James Burton, 33, had killed his 18-year-old wife in a violent quarrel earlier that same year; according to his confession, after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened to swear his life away,
my temper got the best of me, and I struck her, and we both fell. She got up first to check me not to hit her any more. At that time I could not see out of my own eyes for tears, and she cried out, ‘Oh, Jim Burton, I am only trying you don’t hit me any more,’ and I said it was too late now, for I have not a home for myself. I was blind at the time with passion, and I picked up a stone and hit her with it, and she fell down in the same place where her body was picked up. Then she said, ‘Jim, don’t, for that is my last; do come with me, Jim.’ (Glasgow Herald, Aug. 8, 1883)
Hardly a criminal mastermind, Burton proceeded to wander the town of Tunstall for several furtive days trying to screw up the nerve to commit suicide.
The 174th and last client of the great executioner surely didn’t present any difficulties in the Mass * Acceleration department, but even for Marwood there’s more to a hanging than striking force. By some last-moment faint, stumble, or twist Burton fell through the trap wrong, dinging the side of it and getting the long slack of the noose caught under his arm.
Marwood, who was an aging man of declining strength at this point, had to haul poor Jim Burton up through the trap. “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” one reporter on-site put it.
As Burton moaned “Oh Lord, help me!” Marwood readied for an inelegant do-over: not bothering to reset the trap, he hurriedly unwound the rope and positioned it as it ought while Burton stood heaving on the platform. When all was in readiness, Marwood simply shoved the uxoricide back into the hole.
This time, Burton died. But Marwood himself had not long to outlive him: he passed away four weeks later, on September 4, at the age of 65.
On this date in 1844, Eliza Joyce was hanged on the roof of Cobb Hall at Lincoln Castle for the murders by poison of her two daughters and her stepson.
She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.
Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.
However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s … where she picked not that medication, but arsenic.
Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.
Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.
The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.
However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.
Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.
When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”
By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.
The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.
-The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844
But on this date in 1797, that terrible death was visited on American citizen David McLane in Quebec for attempting to topple British authority in that Canadian province.
David McLane, a Rhode Island merchant, was arrested in the suburbs of Quebec City in May of 1797 and accused of conniving with French diplomats to recover their former colony by dint of an invasion of raftborne pikemen across the St. Lawrence to support a planned French landing. This tome claims it to be Quebec’s first treason trial under British rule; the Attorney General prosecuting it thought it the first in the North American colonies since Nicholas Bayard‘s in 1701. (Cobbett’s State Trials has the entire trial transcript.)
The Quebecois spectators crowded the courts in dread of hearing the ancient English punishment pronounced. They were not disappointed.
Writing many decades later about an execution he had witnessed as a 10-year-old boy, Philippe Aubert de Gaspe recollected its grisly particulars — and the surprising (to the audience) fact that McLane was hanged to death before the emasculating-and-disembowelling portions of the sentence were visited on him.*
The government having little confidence in the loyalty which the French Canadians had proved during the war of 1775, wished to strike terror into the people, by the preparations for the execution. From the early morning was heard the noise of the pieces of aitillery that were being dragged to the place of execution outside St. John’s gate; and strong detachments of armed soldiers paraded the streets. It was a parody on the execution of the unfortunate Louis 16th and all to no purpose.
I saw McLane conducted to the place of execution, he was seated with his back to the horse on a wood-sleigh whose runners grated on the bare ground and stones. An axe and a block were on the front part of the conveyance. He looked at the spectators in a calm, confident manner, but without the least effrontery. He Was a tall and remarkably handsome man. I heard some women of the lower class exclaim, whilst deploring his sad fate:
Ah if it were only as in old times, that handsome man would not have to die! There would be plenty of girls who would be ready to marry him in order to save his life!
And even several days after the execution, I heard the same thing repeated.
This belief then universal among the lower class must, I suppose, have arisen from the fact that many French prisoners, condemned to the stake by the savages, had owed their lives to the Indian women who had then married them.
The sentence of McLane, however, was not executed in all its barbarity. I saw all with my own eyes, a big student named Boudrault, lifted me up from time to time in his arms, so that I might lose nothing of the horrible butchery. And Dr. Duvert was near us, he drew out his watch as soon as Ward, the hangman, threw down the ladder upon which McLane was stretched on his back, with the cord round his neck made fast to the beam of the gallows; thrown sideways by this abrupt movement the body struck the northern post of the gallows, and then remained stationary, with the exception of some slight oscillations.
“He is quite dead,” said. Dr. Duvert, when the hangman cut down the body at the end of about twenty-five minutes; “he is quite dead, and will not feel the indignities yet to be inflicted on him.” Every one was under the impression that the sentence would be executed in all its rigor, and that the disembowelled victim, still alive, would see his own entrails burnt but no; the poor unhappy man was really dead when Ward cut him open, took out his bowels and his heart which he burnt in a chafing dish, and cut off his head which he showed all bloody to the people.
The spectators who were nearest to the scaffold say that the hangman refused to proceed further with the execution after the hanging, alleging “that he was a hangman, but not a butcher,” and it was only after a good supply of guineas, that the sheriff succeeded in making him execute all the sentence, and that after each act of the fearful drama, his demands became more and more exorbitant. Certain it is that after that time Mr. Ward became quite a grand personage; never walking in the streets except with silk stockings, a three-cornered hat and a sword at his side. Two watches, one in his breeches pocket, and the other hanging from his neck by a silver chain, completed his toilet.
I cannot refrain, in parting from this doer of worthy deeds, from relating a fact which I have never been able to account for. When I arrived in Quebec in order to go to school, at about nine years of age, people seemed to regret a certain good hangman named Bob; he was a negro, whom every one praised. This Ethiopian ought to have inspired the same horror which is always felt towards men of his calling; but, on the contrary he visited at all the houses like the other citizens, enjoyed a name for unimpeachable honesty, ran errands, in fact was a universal favorite. As well as I can remember, there was something very touching in Bob’s history; he was a victim of circumstances, which compelled him to become a hangman in self-defence. He used to shed tears when he had to perform his terrible task. I do not know why my memory, generally so tenacious concerning all I saw and heard in my early childhood, fails me in the matter of explaining the reason of the universal sympathy extended to Bob.**
Now I return to McLane. Such a spectacle as I have described could not fail to make a great impression on a child of my age; hence it arises that I have thought a great deal about the fate of a man, whom many people looked upon as a victim to the politics of the day. I have tried to satisfy myself as to his greater or less guilt. I could say a great deal on this subject; but I will be silent. Suffice it to say, that if in these days a boasting Yankee were to proclaim to all comers, that with five hundred able men, armed with sticks hardened in the fire, it would be easy to take the town of Quebec, the young men would crowd round him to humor him and encourage him to talk, and then giving him lots of champagne to drink, would laugh heartily at him, without the government dreaming of having him hung, drawn and quartered.
It has been said that McLane was an emissary of the French government; I do not myself believe so; the French republic, at war with all the European powers, had too much work on its hands to concern itself about a little colony, containing some millions of acres of snow; to use an expression not very flattering to us.
The policy of our then rulers was crafty and hence cruel. Every where they thought they discovered emissaries of the French government. There were two Canadians banished from the country, their crime being that they had been to Martinique in, I believe, an American vessel, to transact some commercial business: they granted them the favour of allowing them to take with them their wives and children.
* Actual complete hung, drawn, quartered sentences were already passe in Great Britain.
** Colonial Quebec had several black executioners; the best-known was Martinican slave Mathieu Léveillé from 1733 to 1743. (There an interesting .pdf about Leveille and his world here.)
The identity of the affable “Bob” our narrator half-remembers is a bit of a mystery; he has been identified with George Burns, a black man who held the job in the early 1800s, but the timetable isn’t quite right relative to de Gaspe’s admittedly distant memories. (The diarist thinks Bob was the former executioner by the time concerned with our post.) Frank Mackey in Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal, 1760-1840 suggests we take the name at face value and identify this executioner as either or both of “Bob a Nigro man” jailed as a felon in 1781 (we don’t know that Bob a Nigro man became a hangman), or “Robert Lane the Hangman” who was charged with a crime in 1789 (we don’t know that Robert Lane the Hangman was African). Mackey suspects that these are one and the same man.
Implemented early in Western Australia’s convict era as the influx of criminals made existing settlers jumpy, this law made a wide variety of violent but non-fatal crimes potentially subject to the death penalty when committed by an escaped fugitive.
Robert Thomas Palin was a newcomer to Australia, having debarked from a convict ship only in January 1860. Despite his burglary conviction back in the mother country, he was an exemplary prisoner and earned his ticket of leave (a sort of limited furlough). He even kept a house in Fremantle and took lodgers.
In May 1861, he threw every away every bit of good will and more by burgling another Fremantle home. A Mrs. Susan Harding awoke in the moonlight to find this invader looming over her bed — and he greeted her in that classic of convict argot, “Your money or your life.”
Mrs. Harding didn’t have any — in the words of her testimony on July 3:**
He repeatedly told me to “hush.” He took hold of me by the arm and pulled my hair about, and then pulled the bed clothes down, and felt about the bed. I was afraid he was about to commit some assault — he touched my night dress, not to move it, and then I got so dreadfully alarmed, that I jumped out of bed on the opposite side of the bed. I went to my looking-glass drawer, and took out a watch and chain, which I handed him, and prayed him to leave me.
Palin did so.
Although terrifying for Susan Harding, the encounter did not result in any injury; as Palin’s boot-prints were easily followed back to his own house, even her watch and chain were recovered. To send this offender to the gallows seemed like a punishment out of the wrong century, as Perth’s Inquirer and Commercial Newseditorialized (June 10):
Burglary attended with violence, however brutal that violence might be, so long as it did not result fatally, is not punished with death in the United Kingdom.
… What was the violence on this occasion? Catching hold of the arm of the principal witness; and it does not appear from the evidence that even the grasp was violent, nor was it necessary to be so according to the acceptation of the meaning of the word laid down for us. It was propounded by the Chief Justice that, strictly speaking, merely laying a hand upon a person, under such circumstances, constituted violence. Is this truly the spirit of the law? …
Palin might have taken everything in that house, yet he would not have been hung. He might have threatened with the presumed pistol, have gesticulated, have stormed and terrified the occupant of the chamber almost to the verge of insanity, and yet he would not have been hung, but he touched her arm, and death is the penalty. There is something horrible in this. But there is something more fearful still when we further look into the matter and find that had he committed any enormity, even to the shedding of blood, he could not have had awarded to him a more extreme measure of punishment. …
[It is our] fervent hope that never again may the pages of our Colonial History be inscribed with so terrible a record; that never again will it be our province to allude to an event of so dreadful a character as that which has lately passed away.
The fervent hope was realized. In the only other case where Ordinance 17 Victoria Number 7 was used to secure a death penalty for an ordinarily non-capital crime, the sentence was commuted.
* As of this writing, Wikipedia avers July 6. References from 1861 newspapers make it clear that this is erroneous. (example, another).
** Yes, that’s six days before the execution occurred.
On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.
Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1725, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**
Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†
Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.
“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.
A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.
Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the going practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡
* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our going practice has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)
England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.
I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.
** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.
† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like theseblokes.
‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.
On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.
Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.
From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.
On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.
But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.
Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.
In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.
But it was Bonnie Prince Charlie who won the charisma check in this encounter, and ere ’45 was out Archibald was fighting under the Pretender’s colors. (Donald, too.)
Sadly for Donald and Archibald, they were as prescient as they were unpersuasive, for by the next spring the Jacobites had been decisively put down in a battle that cost the Clan Cameron alone hundreds of casualties. Both sons followed their father’s path to exile.
Archibald Cameron did, however, venture a couple of furtive visits back to his native soil, and on one of these missions he was betrayed and captured by the British. There were indeed a variety of refugee Jacobite intriguers in this period who were bold enough to canvass the heather for yet another possible rising, a circumstance which Lord Amulreecredits for the severity of the Crown against our principal when it caught him.
Dispatched to London to be made an example of, Cameron was condemned to be drawn on a hurdle and cut down still alive for a traitor’s dismembering. He was, in fact, permitted to hang long enough to die, and his corpse was not quartered. After all, there’s making an example, and then there’s making a martyr.
“I the more cheerfully resign my life as it is taken away for doing my duty to God, my king, and my country,” Cameron wrote on the eve of his execution. “Nor is there anything in this world I could so much wish to have it prolonged for, as to have another opportunity to employ the remainder of it in the same glorious cause.”
England held its last-ever public execution on this date in 1868, and made it big game indeed: Fenian Michael Barrett, whose Clerkenwell Prison bombing long remained one of the most infamous atrocities of the Irish nationalist cause.
The bill certifying the end of that distinctive institution, the public hanging, would be finalized three days hence, so the occasion’s milestone was anticipated in advance. Elites increasingly disdained the boorish carnivals that unfolded under the gallows, like Dickens who complained that “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes” redeemed the 1840 hanging of Courvoisier.
“The crowd was most unusually orderly,” ran the Times‘ report of Barrett’s death — a sort of dual eulogy — “but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”
It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield — a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.
Michael Barrett’s ticket to this last assembly was punched by a different execution six months previous — the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs. This trio of Irish patriots were part of a mob who liberated some comrades from a police van, shooting a policeman in the process — though it was far from certain that any of these three actually fired shots.
Of importance for our purposes today was the crackdown on other Fenians occasioned by the Manchester affair. In November of 1867, a Fenian agent named Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested with his companion Joseph Casey in London purchasing weapons for the movement. They were clapped in Clerkenwell Prison pending trial.
The bombing that brought Michael Barrett to the gallows was a bid to liberate these men … and it did not pause for subtlety. The conspirators simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was there, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell.
But numerous working-class families lived in little tenements opposite the prison and were there, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy. This monstrous new “infernal machine” tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead and numerous buildings near to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block.
Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell Prison reduced to rubble by the December 13, 1867 Fenian bombing.
Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”
English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,” he wrote.
Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the “Fenian Guy Fawkes“.
Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it. That Barrett was that someone did not sit well for many.
Five men and a woman stood trial at the Old Bailey in April for the Clerkenwell outrage, but Barrett was the only one of them convicted, a terribly inadequate investigation/prosecution outcome given the infamy of the crime.
That conviction stood on the basis of disputed eyewitness identifications: Barrett produced witnesses who said he was in Glasgow when the bomb went off, while the crown found others who would swear he was actually in London. (The length of Barrett’s whiskers on specific dates in late November and early December forms a running subplot of the dueling testimonies.)
The reliability and even the good faith of all such winesses might well be impugned. A highly questionable stool pigeon named Patrick Mullany who ducked prosecution by turning crown’s evidence, charged that Barrett personally set off the ordnance.
To give me credit for such an undertaking is utterly absurd; being, as I am, a total stranger to acts of daring, and without any experience which would in any way fit me for engaging in such an enterprise. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that in the City of London, where … there are ten thousand armed Fenians, they would have sent to Glasgow for a party to do this work, and then select a person of no higher standing and no greater abilities than the humble individual who now stands convicted before you? To suppose such a thing is a stretch of imagination that the disordered minds of the frightened officials of this country could alone be capable of entertaining.
If it is murder to love Ireland more dearly than life, then indeed I am a murderer. If I could in any way remove the miseries or redress the grievances of that land by the sacrifice of my own life I would willingly, nay, gladly, do so. if it should please the God of Justice to turn to some account, for the benefit of my suffering country, the sacrifice of my poor, worthless life, I could, by the grace of God, ascend the scaffold with firmness, strengthened by the consoling reflection that the stain of murder did not rest upon me, and mingling my prayers for the salvation of my immortal soul with those for the regeneration of my native land.
Benjamin Disraeli’s government could not in the end realistically entertain the agitation from liberal and radical circles for sparing Barrett, because that would mean that nobody would hang for Clerkenwell. But as the next day’s edition of Reynold’s News noted, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”
Three months after Barrett made that expiation, England officially began its era of fully private hangings behind prison walls.
* James Joyce hung out with a (much-older) Joseph Casey in Paris in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s in Ulysses too: “He prowled with Colonel Richard Burk, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and crouching saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry. In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me.”