English courts during the Bloody Code were strewn with all manner of weird pre-modern juridical relics, among which one must surely number the peine forte et dure — the “hard and forceful penalty” applied by courts against a defendant who refused to submit a plea.
The jurisdiction of criminal courts that we take for granted today initially emerged opposite potentially rival legal mechanisms for dispute resolution: ecclesiastical courts, weregild, even trial by combat. In principle, a defendant entering a plea at the bar was submitting himself to the specific jurisdiction of the court … a submission that, in principle, he could decline.
The march from that point to the present — when refusing to plead means the court simply enters an automatic “not guilty” plea on your behalf — consisted of gradually making the principle impossible in practice by dint of physical violence to force open the prisoner’s lips. It doesn’t matter if you lift a finger to defend yourself at trial, Mack, but we need you to say “guilty” or “not guilty” first.
The French term itself dates to a statute of Edward I in 1275, under the heading “The Punishment of Felons refusing lawful Trial” — one of those situations where the existence of the legislation proves the existence of the phenomenon. “Notorious Felons, and which openly be of evil Name,” the text complains, “will not put themselves in Enquests of Felonies, that Men shall charge them with before the Justices at the King’s Suit, shall have strong and hard Imprisonment (la prisone forte et dure), as they which refuse to stand to the Common Law of the Land.”
The text’s language suggests close confinement, fetters and guards, crummy rat-gnawed rations in the dumpiest hole of the dungeon: probably the king who introduced hanging, drawing, and quartering could make “hard imprisonment” quite persuasively uncomfortable.
But by the time of Queen Elizabeth, the state saw the need to narrow this potential refuge from the law down to the size of a pinprick. From the 16th century, we find that a special form of torturing to death is designed for prisoners refusing to plead:
the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fastned to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day.*
“Which grievous death some resolute Offenders have chosen,” we understand, “to save their Estates to their Children.” Even this potential pecuniary loophole — the one once sought by Salem witch trials victim Giles Corey when he preferred pressing to death to the certainty of condemnation as a warlock — had vanished, for “in case of High Treason, the Criminal’s Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death.”
The crown was trying to open an impassable gap between theory and practice, and it was accomplishing that end: this stuff happened once in a blue moon.
People threatened to withhold their plea, sure. What would follow is that a judge would read out in chilling detail everything that was about to befall the fellow (it was usually a fellow, though not always), then a bailiff would seize him and painfully tie his thumbs together right there in court, then march him off to the staking-out room to get things ready. Just showing the instruments of torture was the first rung on the torture-ladder, and usually somewhere in this whole process the defendant — be he ever so hardened — would chicken out and agree to make a plea before the first weight was ever loaded onto his torso.
A Tyburn hanging is the focus of this post: it’s a mass execution of seven souls on the 8th of February in 1721. So the peine forte et dure did indeed do its job, force its plea, and noose its man.
But even though William Spigget/Spiggot died at the end of a rope, he was the rare soul who did go so far as to force the awful pressing torture, and to endure it for a little while.
Spigget led a robber gang of eight or so men preying on the roads out of London; one of those men, Thomas Phillips aka Thomas Cross, hanged alongside his boss. They had been caught only days before their eventual trial on January 13, and Spigget bravely, stubbornly, or foolishly refused to submit his plea. (Cross at first refused too, but he was in the chicken-out camp.)
The Ordinary of Newgate, plainly struck by the experience (and not a little aware of its potential to move copy), dwelt at greater length on Spigget’s 30 minutes under the stones than he did on the whole lives of some of the other February 8 hang-day compatriots.
Before he was Put into the Press, I went to Him, and endeavour’d to dissuade him, from being the Author and Occasion of his own Death; and from cutting Himself off from that Space and Time which the Law allowed Him, to repent in, for his vicious Course of Life: He then told me, that if I came to take Care of his Soul, he would regard Me, but if I came about his Body, he desired to be excused, he could not hear one Word. After a while, I left him, and when I saw him again, it was in the Vault, upon the bare Ground, with the Weights (viz. 350 pounds) upon his Breast. I there pray’d by him; and at Times ask’d him, why he would destroy his Soul as well as Body, by such an obstinate Kind of Self-Murder:** All his Answer was, Pray for Me; Pray for Me! In the Midst of his Groans, he sometimes lay silent, as if Insensible of Pain; then would fetch his Breath very quick and fast. Two or three Times, he complained that they had laid a cruel Weight on his Face; tho’ nothing was upon his Face, but a thin Cloth; That was however remov’d and laid more light and hollow; but he still complain’d of the prodigious Weight they had laid upon his Face; which might be occasion’d by the Blood being flush’d and forc’d up into his Face, and pressing as violently against the Veins and small Tendrills there, as if the Pressure upon them had been externally on his Face. When he had continu’d about half an Hour in the Torture, and 50 pound more of Weight had been laid on his Breast, he told the Justice of Peace who committed him, and myself, That he would Plead.
Having thus been awed by 400 pounds of the law’s majesty — and restored to something like sensibility with a splash of brandy, and several days’ rest during which Spigget’s post-ordeal health at times turned so precarious that he besought the last sacrament — both the apex robber and his henchman were easily convicted of several specific robberies upon the roads. One victim was able to identify the two as his assailants; in other cases, specific victims’ stolen goods were recovered from Spigget’s own lodgings, like Neal Sheldon’s valuable wig. Any one of these crimes would have been good enough to hang them.
Showing honor among thieves, the two men concentrated their few remarks on clearing a third confederate tried with them: the evidence against William Heater being circumstantial, and Spigget and Cross insisting that he was more incidental flunky than accomplice, his neck went un-stretched.
So why endure the hard and forceful penalty at all? By all appearances Spigget’s reason in the end resolved to pride: a violently exaggerated performance of the same criminal bravado that led so many of his peers to make a show of dying game at the gallows. “The Reasons, as far as I could learn from Him,” the Ordinary reported,
were, That he might preserve his Effects, for the use of his Family; That it might not be urged to his Children, that their Father was hanged; and that — Linsey should not tryumph over him, by saying he had sent him to Tyburn.
(Joseph Lin(d)sey was a former fellow-robber who saved his own life by turning crown’s evidence against his former mates. Spigget, we are told, was particularly galled by this betrayal “because Spigget had once rescued him [Lindsey] when he was nigh being taken, and in the defending him was wounded, and in danger of his Life.”)
As we have noted, Blighty’s seizure laws had already made the first objective a nonstarter, which leaves our man aspiring to a desperate exertion of masculine defiance. The Spigget of his own mind’s eye was a knight of the road so scornful of death that he would even let them slowly crush him to death. He fell short on that score, but dared much more than anyone had done in years, and no wonder: even the moments he endured as if hours might have been enough to shorten his years had he received an unlikely reprieve.
Sometimes he would say, that he wish’d he had dy’d in the Pressing, For that all sence of Pain was by the Pain taken from him, and he was fallen into a kind of Slumber. At other Times he express’d himself, that he was glad he did not cut himself off, by his Obstinacy, from that space the Law had allow’d him, for his Repentance, for the Sins of his whole Life.
On Monday, February 6, before the Execution, he receiv’d the Sacrament; and said that he desir’d not to Live, for he could be only a weak and unhealthy Man; and added that he could raise his Breath only in the lower Part of his Stomach
** The Ordinary really fixated on the suicide angle, just as if entering the trial were not an equally suicidal choice; the whole lot of the condemned got to hear as part of his sermon
That it was a False-Courage, for Malefactors assured that they shall dye, to lay violent Hands upon Themselves, to prevent the effects of the Law; and that if it was an Action fit for Socrates and Cato, and the greatest Heathens; it was yet too mean and indecent for the lowest Christian; as there is something Cowardly and Base, in cutting off our Lives, for fear of Pain and Shame. Nor would Sampson perhaps have obtain’d Licence from God, to Murder Himself, but that in his Person the Name of his God was mocked and ridiculed, and made a Jest for Dagon.
18th century engraving (via the British Museum) shows a procession through the streets of Cambridge, with a separate scene depicting men burning both books and the two scholars in their coffins.
Both were Rhenish eminences of the reform movement, such early adopters that they embarked on their heresies from personally attending one of Luther’s earliest disputations, before his doctrines were officially excommunicate.
Bucer was a leading figure in the 1530s and 1540s struggle to keep unity among the competing strains of German Protestantism, and maintained an active correspondence with both Luther and Zwingli. The price of disunity was starkly underscored by the military rollback the Church achieved in the Schmalkaldic War of the late 1540s — and under growing pressure, both men accepted the invitations of Thomas Cranmer to cross the sea and reform the English liturgy.
Their labors there were but brief.** Each appointed to the Cambridge faculty, Phagius promptly died of the plague in 1549; Bucer outlived him, but he was in his late fifties and his health was failing. Before he too died in February of 1551, he produced a treatise to the young king Edward VI on government both ecclesiastical and secular, as well as recommended liturgical revisions that helped shape Cranmer’s 1552 version of the Book of Common Prayer.
If Bucer was fortunate to predecease Edward VI, his bones and Phagius’s would not be spared the Catholics’ wrath. In 1556, heresy proceedings (recounted at admiring length in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) were opened against them by a deputation sent to cleanse Cambridge of its theological novelties. The Bishop of Chester conceived it a merciful example to be made:
If we had desired revengement, we might have showed cruelty upon them that are alive: of the which (alas! more the pity,) there are too many that embrace this doctrine. If we thirsted for blood, it was not so to be sought in withered carcases and dry bones. Therefore ye may well perceive, it was no part of our wills that we now came hither … but especially for the care and regard we have of your health and salvation, which we covet by all means to preserve. For you yourselves are the cause of this business; you gave occasion of this confession, among whom this day ought to be a notable example, to remain as a memorial to them that shall come after …
[I]f God, as he is slow to wrath and vengeance, will wink at it for a time, yet notwithstanding if we, upon whom the charge of the Lord’s flock leaneth, should permit so execrable crimes to escape unpunished, we should not live in quiet one hour.
Their condemnation was reversed a few years later, when Mary’s Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded the throne.
* 1557 by our present reckoning; England at the time recognized the new year in March, so it was 1556 to contemporaries.
** Though they hardly had time to make the impact on the English Reformation that they might have aspired to, Bucer had already influenced it in an important way: tracts of Bucer’s from years prior supporting more liberal divorce options, which had made Luther think the man a sybarite, had been fixed upon in the young Cranmer’s effort to construct a respectable theological framework for Henry VIII’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn.
On this date in 1802, disgraced colonial administrator Joseph Wall was executed in London for crimes committed on the appropriately named island of Goree, off the coast of modern-day Senegal in Africa.
Paterson, who formerly kept a hatter’s shop in Catherine-street, Strand … was brought to the gangway by order of the Governor, without drum-head, or any other Court-martial, and flogged with a Boatswains cat, until his bones were denuded of flesh. Still the unfortunate man never uttered a groan. The Governor, who superintended the punishment, swore he would conquer the rascals [sic] stubbornness, and make him cry out, or whip his guts out … the flogging was continued until the convulsions of his bowels appeared through the wounds of his lacerated loins, when he fainted under the lash, and was consigned to the Surgeon’s care; but died in a few days.
The Irish-born Wall came from an “ancient and respectable family.” He became a soldier and distinguished himself in Cuba during the Seven Years’ War, but as a civilian he wasn’t up to par: he allegedly assaulted a girl he was courting, and later killed a man in a duel. In 1779, he became Lieutenant Governor of Goree, where he quickly developed a reputation for brutality.
Over the next few years his health began to suffer and, in 1782, he decided to return to England.
On July 10, 1782, shortly before Wall’s departure, a deputation of his men approached him and asked to be paid their back wages. Outraged by the effrontery of the help, Wall ordered the petitioners arrested on charges of mutiny. Without benefit of court-martial, seven of the men were sentenced to flogging, four of them to an incredible 800 lashes each. Three died a few days after the beatings.
Wall was charged with cruelty on his return home, but the charges were initially dropped for lack of evidence. After more witnesses turned up, Wall had to flee to the Continent, where he lived under an assumed name for several years. He came back to England in 1797 and in 1801 he surrendered himself to stand trial.
Since all but two of the witnesses against him had died by then, Wall may have expected that the case against him had weakened. Instead he found himself convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged.
His execution didn’t go well: it was a “short drop” hanging, and when the trap sprung, the knot on the rope slipped around to the back of his head. He strangled to death slowly over twenty minutes.
An Elegy written by himself
in the Marshalsea after his condemnation.
Break heart, be mute my sorrows past compare,
Cosbie complain no more, but sit and die,
Tears are no tokens of such dreriment,
As thy true grief pours to the angry heavens,
The heavens offended with thy foul misdeeds,
O great Commander of this glorious round,
The workmanship of thine immortal hand,
Thou that doest ride upon the Cherubins,
And tunest the deeps in dreadful harmony,
Cast down thine eye upon a wretched soul,
And from thy throne of grace great Jacob’s God
Rain mercy on me miserable man,
Fallen into snares of sin and shameful death,
From thee sweet Savior, Savior of the world.
O world, vain world, unconstant, & unkind,
Why hast thou bred me, nursed me, brought me up,
To see this day of sorrow and of shame:
Cosbie complain. Captains and men of war,
With whom I wholime spent my careless days,
Days dated but to this, to end in shame,
Farewell, adieu to you and all the rest
That follow armes, and armes and life adieu,
From armes and life I pass drenched in the pit
Digged by my desperate hands, hands full of blood.
Bleed heart to think what these accursed hands
Have perpetrated, Pardon heaven and earth,
And gentle Lord misled by my amis,
Foully by me sent to this longest home,
O pardon Cosbie’s cruel mind,
His mind enraged, and gentle blood by wrath
And fury tainted and empoisoned.
Why do I kill my doleful dying heart,
With sad rehearsal of this heavy chance.
O death rock me asleep, Father of heaven
That hast sole power to pardon sins of men,
Forgive the faults and folly of my youth,
My youth misspent in waste and wantonness,
And for sweet Jesus sake forgive my soul,
Foully defiled with this above the rest,
And lastly you whose fame I have defiled,
My kin, my Countrymen, friends, and allies,
Pardon, o pardon, such as men to men
Can give, I beg for wronging you in all,
For shaming you in this my wretched end,
The fruitless crop, the meed of my desert,
My bad, my base deserves, sweet Friends forget,
Friends, countrymen, and kinsfolks all forget,
My name, my face, my fact, o blot me out,
Out of the world, put me out of your thoughts,
Or if you think, o think I never was,
Or if you think I was, think that I fell,
Before some fort, some hold in Belgia,
With this suppose beguile your sorrows friends,
Think that I fell before the Canon’s mouth,
Even in mine honors heigth that blessed day,
When in advancement of my name, I left
My countries enemy in his base reuolie:
A wretched man to talk of honors high,
Fallen so basely into the pit of shame,
The pit of death: my God, my God forgive me,
Next to my God, my country pardon me,
Whose honor I have stained and laws infringe,
And thou my sovereign Mistress and my Queen,
Bright star of England’s globe, forgive my fact,
Nor let it touch thy Royal Princely heart,
That Cosbie hath misdone so heinously.
The circle of my time is compassed,
Arrived to the point where it began.
World, country, kin, and friends farewell farewell,
Fly thou my soul to heaven the haven of bliss,
O body bear the scourge of thine amiss.
On this date in 1318, for kidnapping and robbing some churchmen, the Northumberland knight Sir Gilbert Middleton was condemned to be “hanged and drawn in the site of the cardinals which he had robbed” — the sentence thought to have been executed immediately.
Thus is the ordre of kniht turned up-so-doun,
Also wel can a kniht chide as any skolde of a toun.
Hii sholde ben also hende as any levedi in londe,
And for to speke alle vilanie nel nu no kniht wonde
And thus knihtshipe is acloied and waxen al fot-lame.
Knihtshipe is acloied and deolfulliche i-diht;
Kunne a boy nu breke a spere, he shal be mad a kniht.
And thus ben knihtes gadered of unkinde blod,
And envenimeth that ordre that shold be so god
Ac o shrewe in a court many man may shende.
The author of this verse would have recognized Gilbert Middleton for sure, but before we come to the unkinde blod, appreciate the dastard’s situation. Post-Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce raided into Northumberland with impunity. Estates in that zone could suffer the pillage or pay the Scots off, but in either event they had no protection from the crown … since King Edward had his hands full in a virtual civil cold war against the powerful Earl of Lancaster.
In this tense situation, Middleton shockingly attacked the king’s cousin Lewis de Beaumont on September 1, 1317 while the latter was en route to be consecrated Bishop of Durham. Seized in the same party were Beaumont’s brother Henry, plus two Italian cardinals they had escorted back as emissaries to hammer out a truce between England and Scotland. (The papacy’s interest here was to redeploy Britain’s armed men to Crusading.)
The reasons for this attack have always been mysterious: the Pope blamed those marauding Scots for putting Middleton up to it, but Lancaster was also an ally of the errant knight as well as the promoter of a candidate for bishop rival to Lewis de Beaumont.
However it was intended to play out, the ambush quickly went pear-shaped. Perhaps raiding and holding for ransom was the sort of elbow one could throw in intra-elite politicking of the 14th century, but the presence of the cardinals changed everything.
Middleton might even have been unaware such august dignitaries were in the party when he first attacked it, and one chronicler reports that his party “at first spared the cardinals and their men, for they were not seeking to injure them” until this clemency started leading Beaumont’s retainers too to assert “themselves to be servants of the cardinals, and neither the cardinals nor others were spared, but all were despoiled.”** Regardless of how they came to do it, the sacrilegious rapine of holy cardinals and their retinue was the shocking crime that would thrust Middleton beyond the pale, either of friendship in his rebellion or of reconciliation afterwards. (Beaumont had not yet been consecrated, so the indignities he suffered were all in a day’s work.)
The Beaumonts became Middleton’s unwilling guests at Mitford Castle.† The cardinals had their effects restored and, after enduring their now-excommunicate captors’ unavailing petition for a suitable penance, were given over to Lancaster; they returned all the way to London under his safe conduct … and as they went they “published a terrible sentence upon their assailant and upon all in any way adhering to them … demand[ing] execution of this sentence through all England.” Before September was out, there was a royal proclamation against Middleton’s “sons of iniquity.”
This rebellion, whatever its dimensions, lasted for a vague span over the autumn and winter months. Sir Gilbert and his too-few friends held some fortifications in Northumberland and Yorkshire; where possible they added more noble types to his collection in Mitford but in spite of the tense situation in England no wider rising materialized.
And living by plunder quickly caught up with Gilbert Middleton.
certain nobles of the countryside … went to him under safe conduct, as if for their [the hostages] deliverance, and after many words and quibblings, a certain price for them being settled, they set free certain ones and left certain ones as hostages until full payment of the money. Thereupon, the day of the final payment arriving, and the appointed time, when the attendants of the same Gilbert were roaming in various places, in order to plunder and pillage, those who ought to have made the payment came to speak with him, saying that they had the money secretly in the town, and asked that free exit and entrance might be granted to them to fetch it. This granted, when they came to the gate of the castle as if to go out, the porters’ throats being cut in a moment, they led in a multitude of armed men hiding outside, who suddenly, rushing with blows upon him [Gilbert], who was thinking of no such thing, bound him tightly with iron chains.
The captive Middleton was shipped to London and there condemned to “be dragged through the city to the gallows and there be hanged alive, and alive be torn apart and afterwards be beheaded … heart and organs to be burnt beneath the aforesaid gallows, also the body of the same Gilbert be divided into four parts, so that one quarter of his body be sent to Newcastle, another to York, the third to Bristol, and the fourth to Dover, there to remain.”
** Quoted (as are many other period citations) in this useful public domain biography of Middleton. This author’s take was that Lancaster was behind the affair, believing “that it would be popular in the North of England, and would make a signal for a general rebellion throughout the country. The presence of the cardinals ruined the scheme” — and Lancaster himself had the wit and the pull to dissociate himself before it all came down on Middleton’s head.
An unusual handbill was distributed in the areas of North Somerset and North Devon in the late summer of 1858, about a somewhat peculiar criminal case: a child had been murdered, and a suspect arrested, but authorities had yet to find a body.
The handbills read,
£10 REWARD — Whereas I have received information which leads me to suppose a Girl of six years of age, named Hannah Burgess, has been murdered and her body concealed either on Exmoor Forest or in the vicinity of Porlock, I am therefore authorised to offer a Reward of Ten Pounds to any Person who shall discover the said Body. Should the Body be found, the person finding it is requested not to move it or remove anything on it, but immediately to communicate the circumstances to the nearest Police Constable, or to Mr. Superintendent Jeffs at Exford. The above stated Reward will be paid by Valentine Good, Esquire, Chief Constable, to any person who may become entitled to it under the conditions of this notice.
CRESANT JEFFS, Superintendent
Exford, August 24, 1858
The dry legalese of those notices had a tragic story behind it, involving “a man of weak character” with “dissolute habits,” and a little girl, his own daughter. William Burgess was hanged for her murder on this date in 1859.
William Burgess was a widower with several children and, like most men in that time and place, he was poor and made his living doing hard physical labor in the mines and farms. Unlike most men, however, he was not too proud to beg, going around to wealthier people’s homes and asking them to put up a collection for him and his motherless offspring. At one point the locals did raise a sum of money on behalf of the Burgess family, but the father spent it all on a drinking binge and people were far less sympathetic to him after that.
By the summer of 1858, William had placed all of his older children “in service,” working for landowners as domestics or farmhands. Only the youngest, Hannah Maria, remained with him; at six, she was too young to go to work. At first he asked his sister and brother-in-law in Porlock to take her in, but that arrangement fell through and William arranged for Hannah to be fostered by a local couple for two shillings a week.
Then, in June, he removed Hannah from her foster home and they both moved into a lodging house, Gallon House Cottage, run by Sarah Marley in the village of Simonsbath on Exmoor. William paid half a crown a week in rent for his bed, which he shared with Hannah and another lodger. For an extra two shillings and sixpence, Mrs. Marley looked after the child, fed her and did her laundry.
At the time, William had a steady job at the local iron mine and was paid two shillings a day, so Hannah’s care ate up a significant, but not unaffordable, part of his income.
Hannah’s father is described a placid man except when he was in drink, which apparently happened quite often. From comments that he made, it was obvious that he begrudged paying Sarah Marley the halfacrown each week, probably desiring instead to spend it on drink … It was also claimed that he did not appear to have any love for the child, no doubt this was assumed because of his attitude towards the child, although the reports do not clarify why this was thought.
Only three weeks after Hannah was placed in Sarah Marley’s care, William announced that he planned to move her again. He told Mrs. Marley to have Hannah cleaned up and her clothes packed and ready to go by the evening of Saturday the 24th because in the morning he was going to take her to stay with his sister in Porlock.
At half-past three in the morning on Sunday — a most unusual hour to be starting a trip of this kind — William got up, dressed Hannah and left the house with her and her spare clothing, what there was of it, wrapped in a bundle.
Their bedmate, a fellow laboring man named Cockram, was the last person to see her alive. William returned to Simonsbath later that day without his daughter.
Some time later, men working in the surface mines had noticed that some earth had been moved from the top of one of the shafts. Burgess was present and suggested somebody had stolen a sheep and buried the carcass for retrieval later on. (This was apparently a common practice.) The miners decided to exhume the dead sheep, butcher it and share the meat, but when they dug down, they didn’t find anything. They shrugged and returned to work.
William did not have a reputation for honesty, and as the weeks passed, when he was asked about Hannah he gave conflicting answers as to her whereabouts. He said once that she was at Brimsworthy, and another time that she was with her aunt.
On the tenth of August, he left town in a hurry, saying he was going to leave the country and take Hannah with him.
On the eleventh, a farmowner’s son was walking across one of his father’s fields and noticed a place where someone had had a small fire. The following morning, he and his brother went to the site again and stirred through the ashes. They found some charred bits of cloth, a piece of fur, and some buttons and hook-and-eye fasteners.
These rumors and suspicions caused several people to take an interest in the matter, and on Sunday 15th August, Mary Fraley, who also lived at Gallon House cottage, walked across the fields to where John Mills had discovered the pile of ashes. Mary also stirred about the remains and picked up a piece of lilac cotton print and a piece of black yard stocking. She later said she knew this piece of print to be part of the pinafore that Hannah had worn, in fact she had washed it at Sarah Marley’s house. Still intent to unravel what was ominously becoming what appeared to be the foreboding of a terrible tragedy, Mary Farley took the pieces to Mrs. Marley and asked her if she recognized them, to which Mrs. Marley replied, “Yes, it is a piece of Hannah Burgess’s pinafore.”
The concerned local vicar, W.H. Thornton, sent people to both Brimsworthy and Porlock to look for Hannah. When they came back and said she wasn’t in either place, Thornton was so alarmed he made a five-hour ride on horseback to the Chief Constable’s home in Somerset to tell him his suspicions.
Thornton brought the police to Simonsbath and was met by a crowd of villagers who told them about the disturbed soil they’d seen near the mine, which, in retrospect, was beginning to seem ominous. A group went back to the spot and found fresh turf had been laid over it. They raised the sod and found a rectangular hole, about four feet long by two feet wide. It was empty, but there was the telltale stench of decaying flesh. Something, or someone, had been buried there recently.
By the sixteenth of August, Superintendent Jeffs had put the word throughout rural North Devon and North Somerset, and its fishing villages and ports, to find William Burgess, as he was wanted on suspicion of murder. They learned he’d gotten a ferry ride to Swansea in Wales, and began looking there.
It didn’t take long: on the nineteenth, Jeffs personally arrested Burgess, who had found a job at the docks in Swansea. When Jeffs told him why he was being arrested, Burgess replied, “I done it and must die for it. I would sooner die than live. I shall never be happy no more.”
He wasn’t kidding about wanting to die: a few days after his arrest, Burgess tried to commit suicide by stabbing himself in the throat with a pair of scissors, opening them up to widen the wound, and struggling against the four police officers who held him down while a doctor stitched it shut. His jailers kept a much closer eye on him after that.
Meanwhile, the police and the community continued looking for Hannah’s body.
Although Burgess claimed he’d dumped it far off at sea, searchers focused on local mines where he’d previously worked. One of them, an iron mine known as the Wheal Eliza, had been shut down and was flooded. Deeming it too risky to send down a diver, the authorities spent months having the water pumped out “at great expense,” stopping from time to time when the mine became filled with foul air. It wasn’t until the evening of December 2 that conditions were safe enough to send someone down. By then the water level was down to just a few feet.
On some staging in the mineshaft, 207 feet down, rested a coarse hemp sack, tied with cord.
They brought it up on a windlass and untied it. Inside that bag were two large, heavy stones and another bag, containing the remains of a small child.
The search for Hannah Burgess was over.
The body was in surprisingly good shape, considering how long it had spent in the water. Sarah Marley, the Burgesses’ landlady, and William Cockram, who shared Hannah and William’s bed, identified it. Sarah said the child was wearing the clothes she was dressed in the morning she was last seen alive. She also identified the raincoat as William Burgess’s. Burgess had had a pair of child’s boots among his possessions when he was arrested. They were Hannah’s: Sarah knew them very well, for it was she who had laced the little girl’s boots every morning and tied them for her.
The local surgeon had a look at Hannah’s body and noted there were clods of dirt and bits of gravel stuck to her clothes and under her shawl — soil that matched that in the area of the apparent gravesite. Hannah had a skull fracture that would probably have been fatal, but not instantly so; the doctor thought the actual cause of death was suffocation.
William Burgess was tried less than two weeks later. It wasn’t much of a trial. Given the damning circumstantial evidence and his confession to Superintendent Jeffs, there was very little he or his defense counsel could say.
The defense lawyer, a Mr. Rotton, presented no evidence and merely made a statement to jury claiming there was no motive for the crime and suggesting Burgess was insane. He said he could have presented a better case for insanity, but a lack of time and money made this impossible. As it was, the only evidence he count point to was Burgess’s suicide attempt while in custody, and the fact that one of his brothers had died in a lunatic asylum.
The jury voted for conviction more or less immediately.
In the brief interval between his conviction and his execution, Burgess was visited by the usual stream of clergymen, including W.H. Thornton, the man who had brought Hannah’s disappearance to the attention of the police. To all of them he admitted his guilt and said he deserved to die. He continued to make threats of suicide and the authorities watched him very closely, lest he try to cheat the gallows. At least two and possibly four of his surviving children came to visit him during his last days.
In his final confession to the Reverend Thornton, he supposedly said,
I murdered my child for the purpose of saving two shillings and sixpence per week, that I might be enabled thereby to indulge myself in more drink; and to indulge in drunkenness I committed this awful deed. Do you sir, go back to Simonsbath and tell the drunkards there to forsake drunkenness and strong drinks, or they may yet stand a condemned felon as I now stand.
On the morning of his hanging he had the usual breakfast that was served to every inmate, and was allowed to attend chapel during the eight a.m. service, but he was not permitted to take Communion.
It was said that the prison officials were afraid Burgess might put up a fight when the time came, but he surprised them with “a fortitude that had not been anticipated.” His executioner was the famous William Calcraft.
This date in 1863 saw the last hanging ever at Worcester — that of a decrepit old drunk, William Ockold, either 69 or 70 years of age, who had beaten his wife to death in one of the brutal thrashings that had been a mainstay of their half-century of married life.
We’ll let the period’s press tell the tale.
Birmingham Daily Post November 10, 1862
On Saturday morning a shocking murder was committed at Hales Owen Street, Oldbury, and as might be expected, the inhabitants of that locality manifested no small interest in the matter.
The facts, so far as we have been enabled to ascertain at present are as follow: — William Ockold, tailor, in his 70th year, and his wife, Sophia Ockold, aged seventy-three, lived together in the above-named street. They lived in a very poor way, and were known to indulge together in intoxicating drinks.
For a few days prior to Saturday last Mrs. Ockold was unwell, but not confined to her bed; and at about a quarter past nine on the morning in question a young woman, named Maria Glazebrook, aged about nineteen or twenty years, went into the house to enquire as to Mrs. Ockold’s health. The young woman was very intimate with the Ockolds, and though not related to them, she called them respectively “grandfather” and “grandmother.” She is a domestic servant at the George and Dragon public house, in Hales Owen Street.
When she went to Ockold’s house she asked him how “grandmother” was.
He replied, “I don’t know.”
The girl then said, “Where is she? Is she in bed?”
Ockold made answer, “I suppose she is.”
The girl then noticed that there was some blood upon Ockold, and she said to him “Laws, grandfather, how did that come there?” and he said, “I have given the old woman a punch or two.”
The girl then went to the foot of the stairs, and called out “grandmother,” and, receiving no answer, she asked Ockold if his wife was asleep. She again called at the foot of the stairs two or three times, and still receiving no answer, she said she would go upstairs. Ockold told her she must not; but he did not get up to prevent her doing so, but continued as he had been during the time of the ialogue given above, working on the board. She, however, said “I will go up,” and went upstairs accordingly.
Here a shocking spectacle presented itself to the view of the affrighted girl. The body of Mrs. Ockold was stretched upon the floor, covered with blood, life being quite extinct.
The girl screamed out, and ran down stairs, exclaiming, “Why, grandfather, you have killed her.”
He said “Her ain’t dead, is her?” and the girl replied “She is, though.”
She then ran out of the house, and fetched in some neighbours, Mr. Weston, butcher, who lives next door, with his wife, being the first to come into the house. In the meantime Ockold went upstairs, took up the body of his murdered wife, and laid it upon the bed.
The police were then communicated with, and Sergeant Simmons was speedily in attendance.
By the time he arrived the news of the sad affair had spread rapidly through the town, and a crowd of from 200 to 300 persons had assembled. Mr. Simmons went into the house, and saw the old man standing in the chimney corner apparently careless of what was going on around.
The officer went upstairs, and briefly examined the body of deceased, observing that the face was covered with blood, and that one of the eyes presented the appearance of having been battered in. He came downstairs, and then observed that there was blood all the way down …
No one saw the murder committed, yet the facts are so concise and significant that there exists not the slightest doubt as to how and when it was done. When the body was found life had not been extinct more than an hour or two, and the heart was still warm. It is supposed that Ockold had been at work al night, that he had been disagreeing with his wife, and that in a moment of passion he committed the awful crime.
There are rumours abroad that deceased and his wife were heard having high words at four o’clock on the morning of the murder, and the police-constable on duty heard him cursing her at about that time. Another rumour is that the old woman was heard begging for mercy at about the hour named. A broken mopstick was found in the pantry by Sergeant Simmons, and this leads to the suggestion that the prisoner broke it over the head of his victim. Deceased and her husband were well known in the parish, the latter for certain peculiarities of conduct in working all night and playing all day. They frequently went out together drinking, and used to return home arm in arm, the worse for what they had taken.
The prisoner had half-a-pint of beer at six o’clock on the morning of the murder. There is some pretence that he was very much vexed at his wife for having been drinking with another man; but this seems to be too ridiculous a notion to be entertained seriously, especially as deceased had been very unwell for two or three days prior to her death …
Birmingham Daily Post, December 15, 1862
WORCESTER WINTER ASSIZES
Mr. Benson proceeded to the task of defending the prisoner. The learned counsel, in a powerful speech, contended, first that there could not have been any motive on the part of the prisoner to murder his wife. It had been shown that for almost half a century the deceased had shared the humble bed and board of the prisoner, and in the manner of the rough part of the country in which they lived, they lived in terms of conjugal love and fellowship …
That the wife fell by the hand of her husband he would at once concede, but arguing upon the absence of motive, of malice, or forethought, the learned counsel, contended that the crime of the prisoner was not greater than the crime of manslaughter, and asked the Jury to spare the prisoner the few short years which Providence might still allot to him, and not send his tottering feet to the gallows, and leave a gibbet over the prison gate as a legacy of their labours that day.
There was no doubt that on the night when the woman met her fearful death, the husband and wife were quarrelling, and the man made use of passionate words, which would in all probability be met with taunting words by his wife … The man had gone upstairs to get his wife from bed, and used the violence which had caused her death in a moment of passion; he appeared indifferent the next morning when asked where his wife was, for the simple reason that he in ungoverned anger had thrown his wife down without knowing that he had hurt her. He was callous, harsh, brutal if they would, but not guilty of murder and malice aforethought. The learned counsel went into a careful and searching analysis of the evidence offered on behalf of the prosecution, and concluded by an eloquent appeal to the Jury for the life of the old man at the bar.
The learned Judge then proceeded to sum up to the Jury, and charged them to disabuse their minds of all compassion and indignation, and return a verdict which would be a just one. He carefully stated to the Jury the facts which had been brought before them, and fully explained the law of the case.
The Jury then retired, and after an absence of an hour returned into Court. The prisoner was brought up from the cell and again placed at the bar. The indifferent look which he had borne during the trial was now passed away, and his twitching lips and moistening eye showed the state of his feelings.
Amid solemn silence the Foreman of the Jury said that they had found the prisoner guilty, but desired to recommend him to mercy, on the ground that nothing had transpired during the trial which was adverse to his previous good character, and also on account of his extreme age.
The Clerk of Arraigns called upon the prisoner whether he had anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced upon him, and his lips moved as though he would have spoken, but the words died in his throat, and he stood calm and silent.
The learned Judge then assumed the black cap, and in a tremulous voice addressed the prisoner and said: William Ockold, you have been found guilty of this dreadful crime, the murder of your wife, to whom you had been married, by your own statement made to your son, near upon fifty years.
It is a most painful thing indeed to see a man at your advanced period of life, convicted of such a crime, and a crime committed against the wife whom you had sworn to love and cherish.
The Jury have recommended you to mercy. That recommendation I shall take care to transmit to the proper quarter. I have no power whatever to hold out any hopes to you; the power is entirely vested in the breast of the Sovereign, and it is only from her clemency that any possible mitigation of your sentence can proceed. What may be the course taken is not for me to say, and I should be deceiving you if I were to hold out hopes of any remission of the sentence.
I beseech you, therefore, by penitence and prayer to apply yourself to the Throne of Mercy, that you may obtain that mercy which you denied your poor ailing unfortunate wife, and that the short remainder of your days may be spent in preparation for the doom which awaits you, and the other Judge, before whom you will have to stand; and may God in his infinite mercy have mercy upon your soul.
His Lordship then passed sentence of death in the usual form, and the prisoner was removed from the dock.
Birmingham Daily Post, December 16, 1862
In the name of humanity as well as of justice, we feel bound to call attention to the case of William Ockold, found guilty and sentenced to death, on Saturday, at Worcester Assizes, for the murder of his wife.
The facts of the sad history may be very briefly told. Ockold, who is in his seventieth year, was a tailor at Oldbury, his wife, who was about the same age, assisting him in his business. They seem to have been very poor, and their means were still further reduced by their addiction to drinking. Drink led to its natural result, — frequent quarrels, accompanied by violence; and, indeed, the wretched pair seem to have led a sadly dissipated, wrangling, miserable kind of life — tolerably good-tempered when sober, but when drunk perpetually quarrelling. Several witnesses deposed to this — one of them adding that “the people round there [the place where Ockold lived] are very rough people.”
On the 7th of November Mrs. Ockold was ill — as one of the witnesses stated, “she was groaning very much and seemed in great pain.” Ockold, evidently disbelieving his wife’s illness, expressed great annoyance at having been kept awake by her groans during the previous night, and declared that she should not keep him awake again — evidently meaning that he would give her a beating.
In the night a policeman heard the wife groaning and the prisoner cursing her from the bottom of the stairs; but such noises being frequently heard upon his beat the officer took no further notice of them. On the morning of the 8th Mrs. Ockold was found dead in her bedroom, death having evidently resulted from blows inflicted on the head with a mopstick.
Ockold who was seated at work downstairs admitted at once that he had beaten his wife, but was evidently unconscious that the poor woman was dead. Dead, however, she was, manifestly killed by the blows inflicted by her husband.
On this evidence the Jury returned a verdict of wilful murder, coupled with a recommendation to mercy; but the Judge while promising to send the recommendation to the Home Office, held out no hope that it would be complied with.
We call attention to this case because while entirely assenting to the recommendation of the Jury, we dissent from the grounds on which their merciful conclusion was arrived at. The Jury endeavoured to save the life of the unhappy convict “because nothing had transpired during the trial which was adverse to his previous good character, and also on account of his great age.”
The latter reason is a good ground for abstaining from hanging this wretched old man, but the former, if acted upon, would free from punishment half the murderers who are arraigned at the bar of justice.
The strongest ground in favour of a remission of sentence is, we think, that urged by Mr. Benson, the prisoner’s counsel — that the prisoner was deeply irritated in a quarrel with his wife, that the blows were given in a moment of uncontrollable passion, without premeditation, and with no design to cause death; and therefore, that the offence was not murder but manslaughter.
With all respect for the Jury, we submit that the whole probabilities of the case favour this view, and that it is very hard to reconcile the incidents narrated by the witnesses with any other. The girl Glazebrook proved that Ockold did not believe in the reality of his wife’s illness, the policeman and a neighbour deposed to the occurrence of a quarrel in the night, and the demeanour of the prisoner next morning was perfectly consistent with the supposition that he meant to beat his wife, but did not mean to kill her. There was plenty of evidence to support this view of the case; but none at all to indicate the malicious motive and design which the law regards as the very essence of murder.
If we felt sure that the recommendation of the Jury would produce its effect we should not trouble our readers with these remarks. But we are inclined to think that some further effort may be needed to induce a reconsideration of the case; and as there is no time to spare, we urge some benevolent persons to take the matter in hand at once.
To hang a gray-headed man, who has nearly run out the period allotted to human life, would be bad enough under any circumstances; but it would be infinitely worse in a case like this where so much doubt hangs over the nature of the offence.
Even if he were guilty of murder, what would justice gain by hanging this wretched old man, already tottering on the brink of the grave, and so sunk in ignorance, so debased by constant association with scenes of violence that he scarcely knows the character or the consequences of his acts? In the “rough neighbourhoods” of the black country blows and curses are unhappily the commonest arguments of domestic life, and a passionate man living within constant sight and hearing of such teaching might easily carry his violence to a fatal issue, without the least intention either to kill his victim or to bring himself within the grasp of the law.
We have no doubt that this was Ockold’s case, and therefore we feel that, despite the serious nature of his crime, it would be a grievous perversion of justice to hang an old man, with the snows of seventy winters upon his head, for an offence which substantially does not amount at the utmost to more than aggravated manslaughter.
Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, December 27, 1862
THE CONDEMNED CONVICT, W. OCKOLD
Unless the sentence of death passed upon this old man at the late Worcestershire Assize, for the murder of his wife, is commuted, the dreadful spectacle of an execution will be witnessed in Worcester city on Friday next. A memorial to the Home Secretary, praying for a commutation of the sentence, has been got up, and there is a strong feeling that it will meet with success, and that the prisoner will not be hanged.
The Morning Post, January 01, 1863
THE CONDEMNED CONVICT OCKOLD
This wretched old man, now lying in Worcester county gaol, condemned to death for the murder of his wife at Oldbury, will, it seems, be executed.
Friday next is the day fixed for the execution, and workmen are already engaged in erecting the drop.
On Tuesday the following communication was received from the Home-office, in answer to a memorial sent up by the city magistrates, praying for some commutation of the sentence: —
Whitehall, Dec. 27, 1862.
Sir, — I am directed by Secretary Sir George Grey to acknowledge the receipt of a memorial presented by you from the mayor and magistrates of Worcester, on behalf of William Ockold, now under sentence of death for the murder of his wife.
Sir George Grey would have been very glad if he could have satisfied himself that there were sufficient grounds for complying with the prayer of this memorial, and of another which he had previously received, which prayed for the commutation of the sentence on the ground that the prisoner was not of sound mind when he killed his wife.
Of the latter allegation — which, indeed, is rather suggested as probable than affirmed as a fact — there is no evidence whatever.
He has, therefore, only to consider the evidence given at trial, which he has carefully read, and the recommendation to mercy with which the verdict was accompanied.
The attack by the prisoner on his wife appears from the evidence to have been wanton and unprovoked. She was so weak and ill as to be unable to make any effectual resistance, and the violence used and the repeated blows which must have been struck were such as, under such circumstances, would not fail to produce death.
She was heard crying out to him “not to kill her,” or “that he would kill her;” and the state of her body, as proved by the medical witness, afforded ample evidence of the determination with which the prisoner acted in the commission of the crime.
The jury recommended the prisoner to mercy on account of his extreme age, and nothing having transpired detrimental to his previous character. Character may be entitled to much weight where doubt exists as to the facts, but not so where the crime is clearly proved to have been committed; but were it otherwise, the recommendation on the ground of character seems in this case scarcely consistent with the evidence of the bad feeling of the prisoner towards his wife, and of the language used by him to her.
The age of the prisoner, Sir George Grey is informed, is 69. He cannot agree in the opinion that a murder committed by a person of this age is on that account only to be exempt from the penalty attached to it by law. He fears that if he yielded to the consideration, he should be establishing a precedent which would be detrimental to the due administration of the criminal law.
Under these circumstances, he much regrets that he oes not feel it consistent with his duty to advise any interference in this case with the ordinary course of law.
–I am, sir, your obedient servant,
Sir E. Lechmere, High Sheriff of Worcestershire
Birmingham Daily Post, January 3, 1863
THE OLDBURY MURDER.
EXECUTION OF OCKOLD, YESTERDAY.
(From our own Reporter.)
Within the calm old city of Worcester, yesterday — in the early light of the second morning of this new year — while we were yet keeping high festival in honour of Christmas — and while the departing echoes of that angel-song of peace and goodwill, sung eighteen centuries ago, still lingered on the confines of thes eason — William Ockold, a hale old man of seventy, white-headed, rosy-faced, and kindly-looking, was publicly hanged, in the presence of gaping thousands, for the wilful murder of his wife, at Oldbury.
It was a harrowing spectacle — a sight to make the heart sick.
Hard upon threescore and ten years had the old man journeyed through time, and for nearly half a century had the old woman, who was older than he by some three or four years, borne him company. They had children; and, on the whole, seem to have lived as happily as people in their class of life and of their tastes do in the Black Country.
When the old man — who was a tailor — worked, the old woman helped him; when he went out drinking — which was often — she went with him, and they generally staggered home in company.
They mostly lived upon the parish, and spent their scant earnings in drink.
Occasionally the old man best his wife, but not very often and not very badly — perhaps not oftener than he conscientiously thought she deserved it, for he does not look like a cruel man, and report speaks somewhat kindly of him for a drunkard.
And thus they travelled on through life — loving each other very much, in their rude way, at times, and falling out now and then when provisions or money ran short. It was a long journey in married life — fifty years; and they had nearly completed it. A peaceful grave lay before them, and a few more tottering paces would have brought them to it. The old woman, indeed, was well nigh there, for she was very infirm and sorely diseased.
But they were never destined to reach it.
In the last stage, just before the final step was to be taken, the old man either unwittingly or wilfully — a Jury of his countrymen say wilfully — hurled the old woman into eternity before her time, and followed her, red-handed, to the presence of their common Maker, by way of the gallows, yesterday.
It is a fearful story.
Instead of waiting a few brief moments, till Death came, the hoary patriarch dragged his seventy years through blood to meet him, and while earning for himself a murderer’s grave, leaves nothing to his children but the bitter legacy of shame and sorrow.
And what is more dreadful is the fact that he never seems to have realised to the full the enormity of his crime.
Utterly ignorant, accustomed no doubt in his younger day to constant scenes of brutality, his mental acuteness blunted by the wear of drunk and years, and his dim notions of right and wrong almost entirely obliterated, he has shown hardly any symptom either of sorrow for what he has done, of pity for his victim or of fear regarding his own fate. He seems indeed to have been a man, not brutal by nature, but one who overcome by the stupor of ignorance, mingled blindly with the class amongst whom he fell; never dreaming, even, that there was anything nobler in life than eating and drinking, and sleeping and dying.
And to this besotted callousness rather than to any actual, premeditated guilt perhaps his violent death yesterday was owing.
Imminent death upon the scaffold seemed to have no terrors for him, and as to that mystic other world, he did not comprehend it. The chaplain of the gaol (the Rev. J. Adlington) was unremitting in his endeavours to impress the old man with a due sense of his position, but without any apparent effect.
Sometimes he would sit and listen as to a strange story that had pleased him, and at others as to a dreary narration that wearied him, but at no time did he seem to grasp hold of and understand the truths laid before him.
With what he occupied his mind during the long night watches in the silence of the condemned cell is a secret that none mortal may know, for he revealed his mind to no one … when he displayed any emotion of the mind at all it was generally of a cheerful character; as, for instance, when on one occasion he congratulated himself that the prison apartments were like those of a palace when compared with his wretched home at Oldbury.
[F]rom first to last, his conduct was that of an old, old man, whose uneducated faculties were dimmed by age, who had no very refined ideas of right and wrong, who thought beating a righteous correction for a wife who displeased him, and who, in an untoward moment of passion, under-rated his own strength, over-rated his poor old wife’s powers of endurance, and dealt her a blow that unhappily proved fatal to both of them.
And so the old man of seventy, half unconscious of having committed any crime at all, utterly incapable of comprehending the enormity of it, and too sunken in ignorance to lay hold on the comforts of religion, was publicly and judicially strangled in front of the County Gaol at Worcester, yesterday.
And thousands came as witnesses. Not many thousands — four or five perhaps — of whom several hundreds were strangers in the city. The mere anticipation of the sickening sight had proved sufficiently attractive to bring crowds from their warm beds miles away, and that on a miserably windy stormy night.
Early on the previous evening the wind blew up briskly, and brought with it some sharp sprinklings; and as the night wore on the breese [sic] broke up into cold gusts, and bore upon its wings still heavier loads of rain. It whistled dismally through the streets all night long, and sung mournfully through the gallows which had been put up ere midnight.
Some few hundreds of citizens ventured out in the storm to see it, but after gazing at it, and finding no signs of early crows, they shivered drearily, and betook themselves homewards. As time went on, and three and four o’clock came, a pedestrian party or two from the black country, drenched but hilarious, tramped up to the gaol front, and finding all still clear, sauntered off to neighbouring public-houses. Five came, and with it a continual plashing of footsteps along the sloppy streets. More people had come in from the country, some in traps and some on foot, and there were two continual streams of them passing each other to and from the gallows; for few cared to take their places even yet.
At six, however, the wind came unladen with rain, and from that time onward sunk to a low soft breeze. And then the crowd began to assemble in Infirmary Walk, a road running straight out in front of that part of the gaol on which the drop had been erected. Some few had come from Birmingham overnight.
Seventy years ago it seems the old man was born there, and six and fifty years ago he was apprenticed by his mother, who carried on business as a pawnbroker, to a tailor in Steelhouse Lane … From the villages and hamlets immediately around Worcester, too, there came a large sprinkling of agricultural labourers. But what was most revolting was the fact that women and children formed a very large part of the crowd. There were mothers there — not one or two, but many — with infants in their arms, and there were old men with their grandchildren.
There were people of all ages, from the man well stricken in years to the baby in arms; there were people of all classes, from the well-to-do tradesman to the pauper; and there were hundreds of little boys and girls mingling with them everywhere.
And by half-past seven in the gray morning they had crowded up the three avenues to the gaol. And there they stood gazing upon the gallows fixed high up on the castellated gaol, and looking more like some ghastly remnant of feudal barbarity than an engine of modern punishment in a Christian land.
As the morning light intensified, and the sky cleared, the crowd thickened, and then some three or our Scripture-readers made their appearance to “improve the occasion” — some by distributing tracts, and two by preaching extempore sermons. And so the crowd waited on, very orderly in its conduct, more than usually so, for the harrowing scene to follow.
A strong body of the county police, under the charge of Superintendent Phillips, were the duty inside the gaol railings, and a strong body of the city police, under the charge of Chief-superintendent Power, were on duty outside. But their services were not required.
Meanwhile, the old man inside the gaol was being made ready for death.
He went to bed on the previous night at nine, fell asleep directly, and woke at two. During the remainder of the night he only slept at intervals, and seemed restless but still indifferent. The warder who was with him thought proper to remind him that he was spending his last morning on earth, to which the old man replied, almost jocularly, “That’s a pretty thing to tell a fellow, that is.”
The whole of his conversation during the night was of a similarly cheerful character. Between six and seven he got up and dressed himself, and had breakfast — tea and bread and butter, of which he ate and drank as heartily as usual. At half-past seven he was visited by the chaplain, who remained and prayed with him, the old man remaining to all appearance indifferent the while, until the hour fixed for the execution.
He would have been hanged at eight, but the Governor had deferred the execution till after the arrival of the morning post, hoping to the last that a reprieve would arrive. Shortly before half-past eight Mr. Hyde, the Under-Sheriff, accompanied by his javelin men — for the ceremony was performed in the ancient manner — arrived. The morning post was in, and no reprieve had come, so the usual procession was formed, and the old man was led out of the condemned cell in the east wing, to death.
The chapel bell clanged out three weird notes — and three more — and three more.
And while that awful funeral cortege moved slowly on to the gallows, and that hoar old man was listening to the reading of his own burial service, a dreadful hush ran through the crowd without.
Then followed a brief low murmur of excitement and a gentle surging down upon the gaol railings. And then there were a few brief moments of eager expectancy. The procession had halted in the porter’s tower in order that the old man might be bound. Arrived there he calmly sat down upon a seat provided for him, and was pinioned without displaying the least sign of fear or emotion of any kind until he was told to set forward again.
Then, and not till then, a tear stealing out of his eye rolled down his cheek, and he paled and began to tremble violently. The bell again clanged out three dismal notes, and there was another hush in the crowd without. And then, one by one, the execution[er]s and their victim glided out upon the scaffold.
First came six javelin men, who ranged themselves in front of the scaffold, then six warders, who ranged themselves behind it. Then came the Governor of the Gaol and the Under Sheriff, and then Calcraft — for he had been engaged to end the ceremony — leading along the old man, at sight of whom, bare-headed, pale and trembling, his long white hair fluttering in the morning breeze, the very crowd who came to see him hanged sent up, with one consent, a long low utterance of pity.
Still he was led on, along the scaffold, up the rude steps, beneath the gallows, on to the drop. Once there, while the burial-service was being ended, he looked calmly down upon the thousands of upturned faces before him. The Chaplain, who, though not seen could be distinctly heard, then paused, and Calcraft came forward — with some difficulty drew a too small cap over the white flowing hair, over the furrowed face, down to the thin gaunt neck of the old man — quietly dropped the noose upon his shoulders, while the victim trembled in every joint — drew it tight around the throat — adjusted the knot with deadly nicety upon the blue scaly prominent vein — fillipped the other end of the rope over the cross-beam, looped it into a knot around it — grasped the shrivelled hand in token of farewell — buckled a strap around the thin weak legs — grasped the hand again — and was about to retire, when the old man questioned him.
“I suppose I’m goin now, aint I?” he asked.
“I’ll let you know that,” replied the hangman, and retired.
Then there was one moment in which the chaplain’s voice rose up in the midst of the surrounding silence, and the old man’s weaker voice joined with it, in the antiphon, “Lord have mercy upon us; Christ have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy upon us.”
The words were scarcely ended ere there was a rattling of bolts. The drop fell with a horrible clatter; a wild wail, acute, heart-piercing, arose from the crow, and the body of William Ockold, after a few brief nervous contortions, swung lifeless in the breeze.
In that one moment the pains, many, and the pleasures, few, of a long, sad life were ended — the memories of seventy years driven rudely from their storehouse. In that one moment the soul of the old man had learned more than seventy years could teach it, and appallingly ignorant as he was, that one “leap in the dark” made him wiser than all living.
In one instant the clutch of man had released him from the clutch of man, and had rendered him up to the hand of that All Wise One who will try him truly, judge him righteously, and temper mercy with justice, in a way of which we blind mortals know little and perhaps guess hardly.
As soon as the body had ceased to move the greater part of the crowd dispersed, but large numbers still remained to see it cut own. After it had hung an hour it was removed. It was then found that the neck had been broken and the jugular vein burst in the fall. Cessation of sensation must, therefore, have been instantaneous, and the convulsions after the fall the result of unconscious vitality. The body was at once buried beside those of two other murderers, under the western wall of the prison, hard by the debtors’ promenade.
This makes the seventh execution at Worcester since 1832. In that year two brothers, James and Joseph Carter, were executed the highway robbery near Bewdley; in 1834, Robert Lilley was executed for the murder of Jonathan Wall, at Bromagrove; in 1837, William Lighthand was executed for the murder of Joseph Hawkins, at Areley Kings; in 1849, Robert Pulley was executed for the murder of Mary Ann Staight, at Broughton; in 1855, Joseph Meadows was executed for the murder of his sweetheart, Mary Ann Mason, at Kate’s Hill, near dudley; and now, in the first week of 1863, William Ockold, an old man of seventy, has been executed for the murder of his wife, at Oldbury.
On New Year’s Day of 1831, Edmund Bushby was hanged in Horsham for arson committed during southern England’s great agricultural labor rising, the Swing Riots.
“Captain Swing” was the rebellion’s namesake, a Ned Ludd-like legendary archetype, a figurehead who could never swing from the gallows. Swing was a long-suffering tenant farmer fallen desperately below subsistence and ready to fight back, and it goes without saying that in this the fictional “captain” mirrored his very real cohort — who were known to sign the captain’s anonymizing name to their letters threatening prosperous farmers: “work, money, or fire”.
Wages in Britain, which perhaps were mired in a generations-long slide to begin with, had cratered painfully following the Napoleonic Wars. And few felt the pinch more sharply than the working class in the rural economies of England’s southern half from East Anglia, Essex and Kent clear across to Somerset and Devon. Here, without the wage prop that coal mining was already beginning to confer in the north, the situation in the fields grew desperate.*
Years later, in 1851, James Caird would draw an east-west line through the English countryside — a wages line, he called it. North of that line, Caird noticed, agricultural workers were still being paid better than their brethren to the south by an enormous margin, 30% or more.
And so with the onset of harder times, like a devastating financial crash in the 1820s, this was also the line below which every farmhand existed at the edge of utter destitution — mitigated only by a niggardly allotment of poor relief forever squeezed smaller by its donors, the local landowners.** This zone of rural immiseration was the home of Captain Swing.
From Stuart Macdonald, “The progress of the early threshing machine”, Agricultural History Review, 23:1 (1975). It’s available online in pdf form here.
In 1830, following two consecutive years of crop failures, English radical William Cobbett published his survey of the countryside’s growing want in his Rural Rides. Written over the course of several years previous, it was a prescient appraisal.
As far as I had an opportunity of ascertaining the facts, the farmers feel all the pinchings of distress, and the still harsher pinchings of anxiety for the future; and the labouring people are suffering in a degree not to be described. The shutting of the male paupers up in pounds is common through Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Left at large during the day, they roam about and maraud. What are the farmers to do with them? God knows how long the peace is to be kept, if this state of things be not put a stop to.
Those words Cobbett set down late in 1829. By the summer of the following year, labor rebellions began breaking out in these counties.
This wave of mutually inspired resistance saw villages’ working classes take the offensive against their local grandees. Beginning that summer, farmers’ hay ricks were set ablaze by secret arsonists; resistance rapidly metastasized from that point. (See this pdf.) “Burnings were necessary to bring people to their senses,” one Swing radical proclaimed — to force the rural gentry to come to terms with the plight of their neighbors.
Following a longtradition of English machine-wrecking, Swing rioters also turned their fury on hated threshing machines, which were popping up by the hundreds and promising to displace still more of the shrinking wage share available in the countryside. (A very cheap portable machine invented in 1829 augured especially ill for the workers whose labor it would obviate; see N.E. Fox, “The Spread of the Threshing Machine in Central Southern England”, The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 26, No. 1 (1978).)
Nearly 400 were reportedly destroyed from 1830-1832 — and typically the owner of the machine would then be mulcted £2 per thresher for the dismantling labor. (In the subsequent assizes, these forcibly exactions were prosecuted as highway robbery.)
A countryside threatening to go up in flames like the farmers’ ricks inspired the requisite shock and exercise of state suppression, beginning with an aggressive investigation with widespread prosecutions in the last weeks of 1830. By the time it was all said and done, 252 people were sentenced to die and although all save 19 of those were commuted to transportation, the effect of a few very public examples would scarcely be neglected. Thomas Hardy,† born in 1840 the son of rural Dorset stonemason, would later describe his father’s recollection of the Swing days:
My father saw four men hung for being with some others who had set fire to a rick. Among them was a stripling boy of eighteen … with youth’s excitement he had rushed to the scene to see the blaze … Nothing my father ever said to me drove the tragedy of life so deeply into mind.
Edmund Bushby was one of these misfortunate souls marked for the scaffold instead of Australia. (Another Swing arsonist, Thomas Goodman, was to have hanged immediately after Bushby. Goodman was reprieved but was not told of it until after Bushby died.)
Convicted at the busy Lewes assizes of torching farmer George Oliver’s wheat in East Preston, Bushby hanged firmly‡ before a crowd of “eight to nine hundred persons,” according to the January 4 Morning Chronicle reprint of a Sussex Advertiser report,
three parts out of four of whom appeared to be agricultural labourers, who seemed deeply affected at the awful scene, and the most profound silence prevailed amongst them. The Sheriff’s javelin men surrounded the gallows, and two companies of foot guards were drawn up on the square, in the centre of the town, a considerable distance from the jail, and not within sight of the populace. Every thing passed off with the utmost order and decorum.
After the body had been suspended the usual time, it was cut down and delivered to the friends of the deceased for interment, who were waiting with a cart to receive it.
* The southern counties, nearest London, were also the areas where enclosure was most advanced and the rural labor force most thoroughly proletarianized.
** To add to the woes, comfortable parish parsons also had a customary right to exact a cash tithe that their flock could scarcely afford in bad times.
‡ His reported last words on the scaffold: “I hope you will take warning from my fate; and, my dear fellows, always attend to the Sabbath-day.” If accurately reported — and unironically uttered — this ageless gallows formula so irrelevant to Bushby’s situation surely attests to the power of a cliche. There is a good chance that Bushby heard these words spoken by some other hanged fellow in his lifetime, and knew them described more widely than that as the sort of thing everyone ought to say before turning off.
Two days ago, we noticed imprisoned English radical John Hobhouse, noticing a hanging. (Not his own.)
As jarring and “frightful” as this event was, we are at this moment in England of the Bloody Code — the tail end, to be sure, but still a world answering to Blackstone’s lament that “It is a melancholy truth that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than a hundred and sixty have been declared by act of parliament to be felonies without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death.”
Our wretched sodomite from two days past, John Markham, was the 108th. The 109th and 110th were reserved for New Year’s Eve: John Booth and Thomas Wildish. And two days on from the last execution, our author Hobhouse has already begun numbing to the horror:
Friday December 31st 1819: Two men, Wildish and Booth, hanged at eight o’clock — they had a psalm sung under the gallows — I looked out a moment after they dropped — could not discern any motion except a little tremor in the hands of one of them — I am quite certain that the contemplation of these scenes frequently would very much diminish in me the fear of dying on a scaffold — I felt much less shocked this day than I did on Wednesday last.
Emoting a bit more than Hobhouse, the newspaper report (this version taken from the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle of Jan. 3, 1820) described the exit of these unfortunate crooks thus:
EXECUTION. — The execution of J. Booth, for embezzling money letters from the General Post Office; and T. Wildish, for uttering a quantity of forged 10l. notes upon the Dover Bank, took place in the Old Bailey … Booth had held a situation in the Post Office for some years, and was much respected. His father, it appeared, had been in the domestic service of the King. He was about 10 years of age, and had a wife and child.
Wildish was a fine looking young man, of about 25 years of age. His father is an innkeeper in Kent, and he was also respectably connected. The crime for which he suffered appears to have been his first offence in that way, and he was led to the commission of it by the art of two notorious venders of forged notes, one of whom is at present suffering the judgment of the law for the minor offence.
Great exertions were made to save the life of Wildish, but without success. Mr. Alderman Rothwell, who knew his family, was particularly active in endeavouring to effect this object. Wildish had also a wife and a child, who, together with those of Booth, had a parting interview with the unhappy men in their cells on Thursday afternoon. The scene was truly afflicting, particularly with Wildish, whose wife is extremely young and interesting, and whose infant is but 12 months old.
From the moment of their conviction, each of the unhappy men evinced the most exemplary conduct, invariably acknowledging the justice of their fate, and betaking themselves in the most fervent devotion. The Rev. Mr. Cotton, and some religious friends, spent that night with them alternately in prayer. They were visited by the former at an early hour next morning, and after spending a considerable time in singing and prayer, they partook of the Sacrament. During this ceremony Wildish appeared quite enthusiastic. Booth seemed equally happy, but not so animated as his companion. The latter, upon receiving the cup of wine, (either from thirst or religious fervour) drank off the entire contents, nearly a pint.
On their way to the scaffold, they embraced all they met. Wildish was first le[d] out. He was most ardent in recommending his wife and infant child to the care of the Almighty. Booth, upon being led forth, embraced his companion, and both joined in hymns and prayer together. The fatal preparations being made, and they again joined the Ordinary in a short prayer, and at 20 minutes after eight were launched into eternity.
An old, mad, blind, despis’d, and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn — mud from a muddy spring,
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,
A people starv’d and stabb’d in the untill’d field,
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edg’d sword to all who wield,
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay,
Religion Christless, Godless — a book seal’d,
A Senate — Time’s worst statute unrepeal’d,
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.
Osborne’s execution date was also his 28th birthday.
Mustachioed assistant executioner Harry Allen kept a handwritten journal of the executions he officiated in his 23-year career — a journal recently sold at auction. From it we have notes on each prisoner’s height (5 feet, 6.5 inches in Osborne’s case), weight (188 pounds) and the consequent length of the rope’s drop (8 feet).
Very good job? but not expected to be so. Was hung on his 28th birthday at HMP Leeds by S. Wade got highly complimented on the speed of the job.