Posts filed under 'England'

1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

Add comment January 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.

That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.

Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.

On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.

The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.

As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.

Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.

In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)

The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.

But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.

No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)

The Crown was not interested:

It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.

Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.

Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.

“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”

At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.

Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.

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1874: Three for misshapen love

Add comment January 12th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1874, two men and a woman hanged at H.M. Prison Gloucester for unsatisfactory affairs of the heart.

Charles Edward Butt

On August 17 of the previous year, Charles Edward Butt had besought the company of a Miss Amelia Phipps for an excursion to the next day’s Gloucester Cheese Fair.

Miss Phipps, long the object of the young farmer’s amorous suit, had unfortunately pledged her company to another gentleman, which disappointment Butt remedied by shooting the young lady to death.

Mary Anne Barry and Edwin Bailey

On that very same August 17, a Bristol teen mother named Mary Susan Jenkins attempted to relieve her baby’s colic by reaching for a packet of Steedman’s Soothing Powders.

Plumped for use by teething children, these packets had been helpfully delivered by the local Dorcas Society, a charitable network set up to provide essentials to the poor. And Miss Jenkins was quite poor indeed, after having been dismissed from her domestic service by a prosperous cobbler named Edwin Bailey after the latter impregnated her, and then refused to pay for the upbringing of his whelp.

Minutes after the treatment with Steedman’s, however, the whelp had breathed his last.

Investigation soon determined that the packages had been laced with lethal quantities of strychnine, and the package from the “Dorcas Society” in fact appeared to have been addressed by the hand of Edwin Bailey himself — whose maintenance payments of five shillings per week had now been mandated by a court.

Bailey’s motivation in the affair is obvious; much less so is that of Mary Anne Barry. Barry was another of Bailey’s servants, and she had taken to visiting the Jenkins family over the preceding months under the name only of “Anne” — representing herself as an emissary of the Dorcas Society.

Barry claimed that she had simply been dispatched by Bailey to attempt to ferret out the bastard child’s real paternity which he still violently denied. But a few days before the rat poison was administered it was she who had recommended Steedman’s powders and suggested that they could probably be procured of the Dorcas Society. Though this surely convinced her jury, that panel strongly recommended her to mercy, perhaps not entirely certain on the judge’s charge to them “whether there was not a view of her case consistent with her innocence.” Considering that she was informing Edwin Bailey of the conversations in what she perhaps thought was merely the capacity of a detective, there is indeed such a view.

Robert Anderson Evans

Aging executioner-relic William Calcraft, who would be forced into retirement later this year, was too sick to officiate, so the honors were done by Welsh hanging-hobbyist Robert Anderson Evans instead. Evans only rates a faint and distant blot on the British executioners’ star chart; this date’s trio was probably his piece de resistance. At Evans’s suggestion, the gallows was constructed not as a rising stage, but as a platform level with the ground, and built over a pit.

Evans was a doctor by training, but despite this he gave these patients an increasingly outdated physic: the short drop hanging, soon to be rendered entirely obsolete by William Marwood‘s variable-drop tables.

While the fall Anderson allowed on this occasion was sufficient for the men, the lightly-built Mary Anne Barry — for whom Marwood’s calculations would have called for a longer fall — choked to death for several minutes. Anderson even had to resort to pressing down on her dangling body to speed her death, possibly reflecting as he did on the advantage the elevated stage had for effecting this sort of extremity. (It was a regular occurrence at Calcraft executions.)* Ms. Barry, who confided on the platform that her dreams had long foretold this fate for her, turned out to have the distinction of being the last Englishwoman to die with a short-drop hanging.

* Anderson’s undistinguished hanging career might have been lengthened had he taken to heart the idea that the separation is in the preparation. Anderson didn’t even bring three ropes with him because he assumed that the woman in the group would be reprieved (and that he wouldn’t break a rope and have need for a handy backup). Mary Anne Barry’s noose was made up at short notice in the prison by a former navy man.

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1830: William Banks, housebreaker

Add comment January 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1830, William Banks, the leader of a gang of West Moulsey robbers was hanged at London’s Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

Despite a freezing day and a ferocious northerly wind that newsmen enhanced “almost to a hurricane” (London Morning Chronicle, January 12, 1830), a vast concourse of onlookers turned out to witness the execution.

The case attracted such enormous public interest for the boldness of the thieves in plundering the home of a Rev. William Warrington and his wife. That couple “had just undressed for bed,” explain the newspapers (this the Dec. 30, 1829 London Morning Chronicle), “when they were alarmed by the sound of several footsteps walking towards the door of their room.”

Mr. Warrington grabbed for a pistol he kept at the ready as the gang barged into the room, but couldn’t get a shot away before both were seized, trussed up, and deposited in the cellar with two tied-up maids.

Having the place at their disposal now, the robbers made a leisurely search of chests, drawers, cupboards, and the like and loaded up the domestic valuables on one of the house’s own gigs, finally driving it off under the locomotion of one of the house’s own horses at about 4 in the morning.

Though widely reported at the time it happened — way back in November 1828 — there was no break in the case until a year later when a gang member in prison on an unrelated case started informing against them in exchange for a remittance of his own punishment.

The gang’s leader, our man William Banks, “had repeatedly sworn that he would not be taken alive,” the Morning Chronicle reported in its January 12, 1830 account of the hanging. But with a gun literally to his head, he thought better of resistance and surrendered with the accurate prophecy, “I am a dead man.”

Even in 1830, housebreaking was among the two hundred-odd non-homicide crimes eligible for a capital sentence by the terms of England’s Bloody Code; indeed, Frank McLynn observes that it “was treated particularly harshly, as it violated privacy and exposed householders to assault.”

Banks, “a dark but handsome and very muscular man” of 35, dismayed the chaplain with his indifference to his spiritual salvation — for “all he cared about hanging was the pain it would give him, for he knew nothing about a hereafter.”

England in the early 1830s abolished the death penalty for a number of property crimes, including (in 1833) housebreaking.

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1460: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury

Add comment December 31st, 2014 Headsman

On the 31st of December in 1460, the Earl of Salisbury was beheaded the day after the Lancastrians routed the Yorkists at the Battle of Wakefield.

Salisbury — Richard Neville by name — was brother-in-law to the Yorkist claimant (and namesake) Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, so you can guess which side Neville backed during these Wars of the Roses.

Actually, although your guess is spot on for the instance at hand, overlapping kin networks and cutthroat politicking made for an indistinct border between Lancastrians and Yorkists that some actors willingly crisscrossed. Richard Neville’s cousin Thomas Neville, for example, was a Lancastrian, who switched to the Yorkists, and then switched back to the Lancastrians. All this goes to show the treacherous environment for nobles who could go from the orbit of royal power themselves straight to the headsman’s block with each new battlefield reversal. And Salisbury, he was Team White Rose* right on down the line.

(The Neville family’s running feud with their fellow northern magnates, the Percys, helped to catalyze the York-Lancaster rivalry into open warfare.)

Salisbury led the Yorkist side to a notable early victory at the September 1459 Battle of Blore Heath, cunningly baiting the Lancastrians into a disadvantageous charge across a brook by feigning retreat. Then, runs Hall’s chronicle, “the Earl of Salisbury, which knew the sleights, strategies and policies of warlike affairs, suddenly returned, and shortly encountered with the Lord Audley and his chief captains, ere the residue of his army could pass the water … [and] so eagerly fought, that they slew the [Lancastrian commander] Lord Audley, and all his captains, and discomfited all the remnant of his people.”

The Yorkists didn’t do as well at the Battle of Ludford Bridge three weeks later and their leaders (Salisbury included) had to flee England to regroup.

This 1459-1461 period has especially rapid reversals of fortune for the contending parties in the Wars of the Roses, who seemed to alternate between them the results of the latest battle and with it the leadership of England.

As the most recent losers, Salisbury and his son, the Earl of Warwick — known as the “kingmaker”, this younger Richard Neville was one of the pivotal figures of the dynastic wars — had to flee England with many of the Yorkist leaders. But they mounted a re-invasion from Calais where Warwick was constable and the Nevilles pere and fils led separate columns that overran London, and captured the Lancastrian King Henry VI. Suddenly, the ex-fugitive York was the Lord Protector, England’s de facto ruler, and its de jure successor.

But as had been the case one year before, fickle Fortune abandoned the House of York almost immediately after raising it up. Two months later, their forces ventured battle with a much larger army of the regrouping Lancastrians; as night fell on December 30, 1460, York himself lay dead in his armor while his kinsman Salisbury was a prisoner with just hours left to live.

This was, of course, very far from the end for the Yorkist party, for both men left their causes to capable heirs. York’s 18-year-old son Edward inherited his father’s claims to the throne of England; together with Warwick, they counterattacked and crushed the Lancastrians at Towton on March 29, 1461** — finally deposing Henry VI and enthroning York’s eldest son as King Edward IV.

And they all lived happily ever after.

* The competing Rose devices used by the Yorkists, the Lancastrians, and the eventual Tudors, are one of the four suit markers we’ve used in our unique Executed Today playing card set. Pick up a pack or eight today why don’t you?

** The undercard fight to Towton was February’s Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, which also featured a crushing defeat of the Lancastrians — led on that occasion by a commander whom the Yorkists subsequently put to death, Owen Tudor.

Against any odds one could care to name, it was this Owen Tudor’s descendant who would eventually emerge from the Wars of the Roses as England’s legitimate-ish king, Henry VII — founder of the Tudor dynasty so very fruitful for this here execution blog.

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1774: William Ferguson, redcoat

Add comment December 24th, 2014 Headsman

On the morning of December 24, 1774, the British 10th Regiment encamped on Boston Common shot a 28-year-old soldier named William Ferguson for desertion.

The notable thing about Ferguson, obviously, is that he was in Boston in 1774 — his regiment of redcoats a most unwelcome interloper lately brought from Quebec where it had alit after being shipped overseas years before to fight in the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War.

Back in December of 1773, a year before our action, American patriots had escalated the colonies’ running tax dispute with the mother country by dumping 45 tons of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.

Over the ensuing twelvemonth, London and the colonies escalated unpleasantries to the point where King George III remarked that “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”

The immediate British response to the Boston Tea Party, and the reason that William Ferguson and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot made their obnoxious camp on Boston Common, was that Parliament responded to the Tea Party with a series of punitive enactments directed at the colonies in general and Boston in particular: the Coercive Acts. (Or “Intolerable Acts”, as called by the colonists.)

Among other things, these measures:

  1. Closed the port of Boston;
  2. Exempted British officials in the colony from trials before colonial juries for any excesses they might commit against American insurgents, instead removing administration of justice safely to Britain; and,
  3. Put Massachusetts under a military governor: General Thomas Gage

Gage’s first order of business was to garrison truculent Boston (already occupied since 1768) with enough soldiery to enforce Parliament’s will. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1774, British troops arriving from elsewhere in the colonies — or from Canada (as with the 10th) — or mustered in Great Britain — poured into Boston. By the end of 1774, eleven regiments made camp on the Common. “Boston,” Gage wrote to the Secretary of War, “will keep quiet as long as the troops are there.”

But to dominate Boston was not to bring the colonies to heel.

General Gage soon realized that he had a tricky assignment: even while implementing laws designed specifically to antagonize Massachusetts, he simultaneously had to try to pre-empt the gestating American Revolution. Egregiously underestimating the vigor of colonial resistance and the resources required to quell it, London brushed off Gage’s entreaties for thousands of additional troops while counterproductively pressuring him to take more confrontational action against disloyal colonists.

Gage’s attempt to reconcile all these contradictory demands was to use his regiments in Boston in a series of targeted sorties into the Massachusetts countryside, in an effort to deprive colonial militias (and, now, a rebel shadow government that held sway outside of Boston) of the arms they would need in the event of open rebellion. Gage hoped he could pick off tactical objectives one by one, and ideally do so without firing any shots that might further inflame a tense situation. Some of his own subalterns sneeringly nicknamed him the “Old Woman” for insufficient bellicosity.

Gage’s plan was probably always doomed to failure. Massachusetts militiamen had already demonstrated a considerable propensity to redcoat inflammation; some one of these expeditions was bound sooner or later to send musket balls flying.

In April of 1775, that’s exactly what happened: a column of British soldiers, some from the 10th Regiment, marched out to seize a militia arms depot in the town of Concord. About sunrise of April 19, 1775 that column entered the village of Lexington on the approach to Concord and there exchanged with a colonial militia the first shots of the American Revolution.

The only British casualty of the “shot heard round the world” was a minor leg wound suffered by a private of the 10th named Johnson. (The subsequent Battle of Concord was a different story.)

Present for Lexington and Concord and presumably also in attendance at William Ferguson’s execution by musketry was yet another brother Tenther: Ensign Jeremy Lister. Lister’s diary of events is one of our firsthand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

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1875: Henry Wainwright, Whitechapel murderer

Add comment December 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1875, Whitechapel’s most notorious murderer ere Jack the Ripper arrived on the scene paid for his double life on the gallows of Newgate.

Henry Wainwright, brushmaker and philanderer, came to his mortal ruin by way of a financial one.

The expansive Wainwright could not confine his adventures to actresses at the theater adjacent his Whitechapel Road shop* but in 1872 installed a mistress, one Harriet Lane, in a flat of her own with a liberal £5-a-week stipend. “Mrs. King”, as she styled herself with a better ear for the forgettable name than Wainwright would evidence (we’ll come to that part), bore her lover two children.

But by the next year, Wainwright’s prodigalities and a worldwide economic crisis had sunk him in debt. As his creditors circled, Wainwright pinched farthings where he could, putting predictable strain on his lover’s allowance — and with it, her affection, her sobriety, and her discretion.

As Wainwright succumbed to bankruptcy, Harriet Lane’s demands for money and occasional drunken forays into his very place of business had Wainwright scrambling for some way to fob the mistress off on some other man. His efforts thereto were frustrated, so he contrived the next best thing: prevailing on his brother Thomas** to write his mistress mash notes under the ungainly pseudonym of “Edward Frieake”, Wainwright spun a plausible scenario for her elopement.

Unfortunately for Mrs. King, the honeymoon would be a chloride of lime pit under the floorboards of Wainwright’s warehouse.

On September 11, 1874, the lady sallied out of her apartment, and was never heard from again.

Laborers working near Wainwright’s warehouse that night would report hearing three gunshots, but being unable to pinpoint their source they let the matter drop — just as did police with Harriett Lane’s disappearance. With the help of a chaser letter or two from his brother, Wainwright represented that she had run off to Paris with her correspondent. Why, she might never be heard from again!

According to Jonathan Goodman, the 1844 Thomas Hood poem “The Bridge of Sighs” was a Wainwright favorite, one he often recited to entertain his family(s):

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Wainwright himself qualified for verse not long after poor Harriet Cole’s remains tumbled into plain view on that London street, like the “Awful Murder and Mutilation of a Female At the East-end of London”, whose composition mirrors its expository title:

Her head was severed from her body,
Her arms as well — how sad to tell

The above fragment (I have not located the entire original) is from this informative post about murder ballads

Another year on, Wainwright had good cause to believe he’d gotten away with the whole thing.† But his finances having finally collapsed, the warehouse that doubled has Harriet Lane’s tomb had been foreclosed upon in July of 1875, and it would soon be sold to new and potentially nosy owners. Wainwright had a body to move. And when the hole was opened up on September 10, 1875, it uncovered not a few scraps of a satisfyingly dissolved corpse — but the body entire, preserved rather than eroded by its chemical bath.

And the corpse stank disgustingly.

Showing the extraordinary judgment that had got him into this mess in the first place, Wainwright bought a spade and a cleaver to dismember the foul limbs he had once made love to, and then engaged a colleague to help him schlep the resulting packages out to the street. Arthur Stokes would later attribute his decision to peek to a divine command that struck him from the firmament, but nothing more remarkable than below-average curiosity will be required of a man encumbered by a heavy, fetid parcel to wonder what they might contain. A more impressive explanation will be required to justify Henry Wainwright’s decision to leave Stokes alone with the horrors while Wainwright jogged off to hail a cab.

Thinking fast for a man come face to face with a severed head, Stokes rewrapped the horrendous bundle and casually helped his homicidal friend pack it all onto the cab. When Wainwright drove off, Stokes trailed him, looking for constables to summon. And when he found them, and they approached the cab asking to inspect his cargo, all Henry Wainwright’s nauseating hypocrisy spilled out on the street in a lurid pile. He lamely tried to bribe the constables two hundred quid to ignore the putrid sackful of human remains.

A distinct scar and the dress Harriet Lane had worn on the day of her “elopement” identified the body to everyone’s satisfaction, and the circumstances of the body’s discovery did not admit much hope for Wainwright’s defense team.‡

So notorious was Wainwright’s crime that a vast concourse of gawkers mobbed the exterior of Newgate on the morning of his hanging, just like in the bad old days — even though, all executions by this late date being private affairs, these masses had no opportunity to glimpse anything save the black flag hoisted over Newgate to signal that the sentence of the law had been carried into effect.

Sources:

* Wainwright’s old shop apparently still stands, in relatively good condition. There are some 21st century photos of it and some interesting discussion of the case on casebook.org.

** Exactly when Thomas Wainwright became aware of what his brother had been up to with this “Edward Frieake” stuff is not certain. He did help his brother open Harriet Lane’s lime grave prior to its catastrophic attempted move.

Tried for his life alongside his brother, Thomas was acquitted of capital murder but caught a seven-year prison sentence as an accessory after the fact.

† The illegitimate children were in the care of a dressmaker, Ellen Wilmore, who still had them by the time of Wainwright’s trial. (Wilmore was called to testify.) It is not known what became of them thereafter.

‡ We are indebted to Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in London’s East End for this outstanding detail: librettist W.S. Gilbert appears as a part of Wainwright’s defense. Gilbert, a barrister by training who had just made his big breakthrough by writing the 1875 musical theater hit Trial by Jury, was in the process of launching the collaborative career that puts Gilbert and Sullivan productions on community playhouse stages down to the present day.

Late in 1875, W.S. Gilbert received a jury summons highly inconvenient to his burgeoning artistic career. Consequently, he managed to finagle for himself a nominal assignment on the Wainwright defense team as a means of re-establishing “practicing attorney” bona fides that would exempt him from any jury boxes.

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1694: James Whitney, highwayman

2 comments December 19th, 2014 Headsman

Dapper highwayman James Whitney was hanged at Smithfield on this date in 1694.

A monument to the allures and the perils of a midlife career change, Whitney threw over a tiresome life as the proprietor of an inn in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire,* purchased with his liquidation the accoutrements of the gentleman thief, and took to the road.

“Captain” Whitney — he had no right to the rank he appropriated for himself — was one of those stickup men who greatly esteemed the pose of honor associated with his new calling. On one occasion, he relieved a gentleman traveler of a large sack of silver on Newmarket Heath, but when his victim pleaded the length of his journey Whitney opened the bag to its former owner with an invitation to take what he would need.

The man plunged his hands in and hauled out as much as they would carry, leading Whitney to remark with a smile, “I thought you would have had more conscience, sir.”

In another fine caper (there are more of them assembled here) Whitney told a man to stand and deliver, only to have the traveler reply that he was about to say the same back to him. The two robbers laughed at their encounter and went their separate ways, but Whitney later chanced to turn up at the same inn as his so-called brother plunderer and overhear him regaling his fellows with the tale of having outwitted a highwayman by pretending to be one of the same profession.

Whitney stalked the man and a companion out of the hostel the next morning and this time robbed them successfully: “You should have kept your secret a little longer, and not have boasted so soon of having outwitted a thief. There is now nothing for you but to deliver or die!” Nobody likes your stories anyway, you blowhard.

True, James Whitney ended his adventure at the gallows: death is the fate of us all. From his day to ours, folk toiling away the ceaseless lonesome days between ashes and ashes have understood the soul’s stirring to exalt their scant mortal hours with deeds of valor and romance and derring-do. And as Whitney himself is said to have remarked to a miser whose lucre he was seizing, “Is it not more generous to take a man’s money from him bravely, than to grind him to death by exacting eight or ten per cent, under cover of serving him?”**

Nobody knows any of James Whitney’s peers in the publican guild, but as Captain Whitney he joined England’s most legendary gentleman outlaw in verse.

When Claude du Val was in Newgate thrown,
He carved his name on the dungeon stone;
Quoth a dubsman, who gazed on the shattered wall,
“You have carved your epitaph, Claude du Val,

Du Val was hanged, and the next who came
On the selfsame stone inscribed his name;
“Aha!” quoth the dubsman, with devilish glee,
Tom Waters, your doom is the triple tree!”

Within that dungeon lay Captain Bew,
Rumbold and Whitney — a jolly crew!
All carved their names on the stone, and all
Share the fate of the brave Du Val!

Full twenty highwaymen blithe and bold,
Rattled their chains in that dungeon old:
Of all that number there ‘scaped not one
Who carved his name on the Newgate Stone.

* The George Inn. A map search does yield a The George in Cheshunt; whether this is actually the same facility where our famous highwayman once earned a lawful keep, I have not been able to establish.

** Parables from this golden age of highwaymen often place in the mouths of outlaws sharp critiques of their targets, who despite putative respectability turn out upon examination to be far more deeply corrupt than the dashing adventurer. See for example Old Mobb.

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1949: John Wilson and Benjamin Roberts, Syd Dernley’s first(s)

2 comments December 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1949, two young miners from northern England were hanged together at Durham prison for unrelated crimes of passion: one had ravaged and strangled another man’s wife when his attempts to seduce her were met with a demand for money; the other had murdered a local girl (and then botched his suicide) when he found himself on the third point of a love triangle.

Both crimes happened on the same weekend, just a few miles apart — so they were tried at the same assizes and advanced through the process from murder to hanging-date together. Double executions were already quite rare at this point: this date’s affair was among the last such events in UK history.*

However, it was the very first execution in which Syd Dernley participated.

Dernley was an assistant executioner for 20-odd hangings, and while he’s far from the most noteworthy man to tread the scaffold, his 1989-90 The Hangman’s Tale: Memoirs of a Public Executioner might interest the person who takes up the pen for a labor history of the modern death penalty.

Dernley, a Nottinghamshire pit welder by day, gives an inside look at the recruitment process and on-the-job operations for a minor-league hangman. Bored with his job, he wrote the Prison Commission cold in January 1947 offering his services (“I feel sure that I could do the job”), got a generic polite dismissal, and then was one of several rookie volunteers summoned in October 1948 for a training course — a rationalization of the qualification process to go with the rationalization of hangings themselves.

Dernley had to wait a full year and then some to actually get into the act.** The basic hanging protocol featured a lead executioner and an assistant who would together escort their man to the gallows platform and perform the hanging; since this was a double execution, there are two such pairs involved. Dernley here is the assistant of veteran hangman Steve Wade. The other pair has Henry Kirk as the lead hangman, assisted by Harry Allen.†

Britain didn’t have the volume of executions for anyone to be a full-time hangman, although some hangmen, like Kirk, were also prison officers.

Jobs were farmed out by the Prison Commission among its small roster of active executioners, and would begin for the hangman with the receipt of a package from the Commission with two copies of a Memorandum of Conditions for executioners’ employment — one for the executioner’s records, and one to return to the Commission when formally accepting the assignment.

The day before the hanging, the executioners traveled to the prison where the sentence was to be carried out. The hanging team would not leave the prison’s walls until the execution was complete: after their prep work on execution’s eve, they slept in the jail.

Although prisoners rarely realized this until the last moment, the gallows platform stood just steps outside the condemned cells, the better for the instant performance of the actual hanging. They waited until Wilson and Roberts were safely out of earshot at chapel or in the exercise yard to set up the ropes.

The lead executioner Wade “controlled and double-checked everything from the moment he opened the execution boxes and took out the three ropes. He examined each of them minutely before rejecting one of them which was immediately coiled up and returned to the box. He measured the drop along the rope and marked it with chalk. I was allowed to shackle the rope to one of the chains hanging down from the beam and I had to go up the steps to adjust the chain as we got the chalk mark to the height of the man’s head, but [Wade] went up the steps to check both the shackling and the chain when I had finished.”

Once both ropes had been prepped, they noosed two sandbags approximating the respective weights of the prisoners, summoned the prison governor, and performed an actual test hanging. Everything went off without a hitch.

They dined that night, and breakfasted the next morning, on prison mash — it was invariably eggs and bacon for breakfast, Dernley remembered later in his career. After stealing silently back into the execution chamber, practically in the shadow of the last devotions of their unwitting prey, they repositioned the ropes which had been (intentionally) stretched out by half an inch from being left dangling their sandbags overnight. The ropes, and their supporting chains, needed to be positioned such that the noose dangled at convenient head height — again, the efficiency of the actual hanging was paramount — and so that, when the trap was released, the rope provided a drop of the precise length necessary to break the neck.

The next forty-five minutes as we waited in our quarters for the call were about the worst of my life. Everything that needed to be said had been said and it was clearly no time for social chit-chat, so we sat there and waited. There was fear afoot in the prison; you could almost smell it. The whole place was silent, waiting.

The butterflies in my stomach, which had disappeared when we went to the execution chamber and had something to do, were back with a vengeance. A jumble of thoughts flitted through my mind. Questions: Would we do a good job? Would I put up a good showing? Would we be quick? There were fears too: Will he fight? How will I handle it if he does?

The door opened and a warder took a step into the room. Wade got to his feet. “It’s time,” he said simply. “Are you ready?” I nodded. I don’t think I could have said anything. Kirky looked across at me and smiled. “Make it a good job, young ‘un,” he said quietly.

In those last few moments I was most conscious of faces, faces turned towards us … screws standing quite still at strategic points, all staring at us … the people standing near the doors of the condemned cells watching us approach … the faces of the official party as they glanced over their shoulders … but above all the face of the clock hanging on the wall at the end of the wing. It was a gigantic thing, about three feet across, and the minute hand was now just a fraction away from nine o’clock.

We were halfway to the condemned cells when the silence was broken and my blood froze. The sound was faint to begin with but it rapidly swelled — singing!

I could not believe my ears. “Jesu … lover … of my soul,” croaked the quavering voice.

Another stronger voice joined in: “Let me to thy bosom fly.”

“Who the hell is that?” I asked one of the screws who was walking along beside me.

He looked shattered but he was not going to admit it. “It’s one of them you’re going to top in a minute,” he replied, trying to sound cool.

With that eerie sound ringing round the wing, we arrived outside the condemned cells. The singing was coming from number two cell, and for the next thirty seconds we stood listening to the doomed man and his priest singing in harmony. In other circumstances it might have been lovely. Here, now, it was weird and unreal.

Everyone was in position as the hands of the huge clock moved the last fraction of an inch to nine o’clock: Wade and I outside the number one cell; Harry and Kirky a few steps away across the landing outside the number two cell …

From the instant the cell door cracked open, the prisoner should have just a few seconds left to live — although the prisoner wouldn’t realize that fact since his guards were under strict orders to brush off the doomed fellow’s inevitable questions about procedure. The two executioners would walk to the center of the cell, stand the prisoner up, and each taking an arm, efficiently pinion them behind his back. Then they whisked him out a secondary door which opened directly to the execution chamber, where they’d glide right into the waiting head-height noose. The name of the game for the hangmen was calm and firmness: don’t scare the man unnecessarily, just enter with professional inevitability and have the man on his noose in less time than it would take him to find the wit for panic or swoon or fight.

The double job complicated matters, but only slightly. The plan was for Wade and Dernley to enter cell number one only moments before Kirky and Allen entered cell number two. That way, both Wilson and Roberts would enter the scaffold singly and the respective hanging teams wouldn’t be in one another’s way — but it would only entail an extra second or two on the traps for the dead men as they were positioned in rapid sequence. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Wade moved straight through the door and I followed him into the cell. It seemed quite crowded with the two warders backing clear and the white-faced priest sitting on the other side of the table looking up at us. The condemned man was positioned as per the book, sitting at the table with his back to the door.

By the time I got to him, he was on his feet and Wade was bringing his left arm behind his back. There was no resistance as I caught hold of his right arm. He just let me bring it behind his back and Wade was waiting for it.

Things were moving incredibly quickly, there was hardly time to take anything in. Wade was walking through the yellow doors. Our man had turned to watch him but had not moved so I just put my hand on his shoulder and, with only the gentlest of pressure, he started to follow. A warder either side of him, we walked through and on to the trap. Wade stopped him and I slipped the legstrap out of my pocket, bobbed down and fastened it round his ankles.‡ I doubt I had ever done it so quickly but by the time I stood up and took a pace off the trap, Wade had finished and the man was standing with his head hidden under the bag and the noose round his neck.

Just the way they drew it up … except the Kirky-Allen team was nowhere to be found.

They should have been on the trap by now and there was no sign of them!

They were having some sort of trouble, but what? As the seconds ticked away, I strained to hear what was going on, but there was not a sound coming from the other side of the landing. That at least was reassuring because whatever was going wrong it was not some massive fight. We would have heard that.

I looked around the cell. Wade was staring through the open door, brow creased in a frown, with wide, worried eyes. By God, he looked worried. The governor and the under-sheriff looked as white as a pair of sheets.

In the centre of all this, the hooded and noosed figure of our man — who should have been dead by now — stood waiting patiently without a sound.

I looked back through the door. Still nothing. I felt so helpless; I wanted to run through and help or do something, but I knew I had to stand just where I was.

A double hanging should take around fifteen seconds from start to finish; we had now been standing with our man ready to go for at least forty-five seconds, although it felt like hours.

A sound to my right brought my eyes back from the door into the execution chamber. One of the screws seemed about to take a pace towards our man, a look almost of horror on his face. The hooded figure was starting to sway. He was going to faint!

At that moment Kirky rushed through the door followed by the lover and Harry. Kirky, looking red-faced and flustered, immediately peeled off to the left and Wade in a blur of motion was stopping the man on the chalk T. In what seemed almost one motion, he whipped the white hood over the man’s head and flicked the noose on. I didn’t even see Harry get the legstrap on before Wade was hurling himself off the trap. The lever went over and away the whole lot went with that massive boom.

Allen later told Dernley that their man, the singing one, “just wasn’t ready” and while he didn’t fight the executioners he also didn’t comply with them as they tried to get his arms into their straps. “In the end we just had to force him.”

His nerves none the worse for the off-script debut, Dernley would remain an assistant executioner — he was never the head man — until another one of his hobbies came embarrassingly to light.


From the April 28, 1954 London Times.

Dernley published his book in 1989, by which time the British hangman was almost as archaic as the smut bust. (The poor lech died in 1994, just short of the Internet revolution.) But Dernley, unlike Pierrepoint, never evinced any second thoughts about his career on the gallows and had an unabashed pro-capital punishment position.§

“I have no regrets about what I did and I sleep pretty soundly in my bed,” he sums up. “I do not believe that my career as a hangman has had any ill-effect on me. Not that you ever get away from it so far as people are concerned — once a hangman always a hangman, it seems. Even after all these years I am still pointed out to people and I have a little chuckle to myself when I find somebody in a pub staring at me in that familiar way and I wonder who has been talking to them.” The inference from his lines, and the photos of Dernley jovially showing off his private model gallows, is that the old hangman made it a point to keep the talk going.

* Per the extremely useful Capital Punishment UK page, there was a double execution in 1950, another in 1951, another in 1952, and the last in 1954.

** Dernley did avail himself of an opportunity to witness personally the March 29, 1949, hanging of James Farrell.

† A man named Harry Allen, from Manchester, would one day be dignified Britain’s Last Executioner. In the 1960s, Allen literally did conduct one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland and the last in Northern Ireland. However, Dernley’s counterpart in this execution is a different Harry Allen, from Birmingham.

‡ “As assistant your job will be to strap [the prisoner’s] ankles and get yourself off the trap; the number one will do everything else,” Dernley had been told at his training the year before. “If you’re still mucking about when he’s ready, the number one will tap you on the shoulder and then you don’t bugger about … you get off or go down — and it’s a nasty drop even if you haven’t got a rope round your neck.”

§ Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant for the hanging of Timothy Evans, for a murder that, three years later, would be imputed to a serial killer living in his building. Dernley’s autobiography backs the government’s whitewash conclusion that Evans was probably guilty too on the weak grounds that Evans didn’t declared his innocence at his hanging.

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1900: Joseph Holden, killer of his own grandson

Add comment December 4th, 2014 Headsman

This morning in 1900, Bury ironturner Joseph Holden was executed at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison for the murder of his grandson.

“The convict’s sanity had been in some doubt,” in the bloodless words of the next day’s London Times. To read it a century later is to see a man deeply in need of help.

It was his married daughter Mary Dawes who tried to give it to him by taking him in under her own roof after Holden was reduced to living in a workhouse.

In August of 1900 he took another of his grandchildren — not by Mary Dawes — to a quarry to cut tobacco, then hurled a stone that hit the child in the head. George Eldred was badly injured, but survived.

The mental deterioration betokened by such behavior must have put Mary Dawes or any other kin with an interest in the patriarch’s well-being into a terrible bind. What resources of state or charity could they have called upon, short of consigning him to the miasma of some gaol? At 57 years of age, Holden was already 10 years past the male life expectancy for the time and looked still older thanks to the ravages of alcoholism. Maybe Mary thought that having him at her hearth would stabilize him well enough to dignify whatever little measure of life remained to her father.

That is nothing but a speculative assessment of these bare and tragic facts: Mary Dawes took her father in; days later, on September 5, Mary’s father took Mary’s son John to a quarry and drowned him.


Hampshire Advertiser, September 12, 1900.

Holden’s only defense — practically the only one really available to him — was insanity. But Holden wasn’t starkers; his mind perambulated that foggy wilderness between lucidity and dementia and this was simply insufficient disturbance for the then-prevailing legal standard of madness, the M’Naghten Test. Basically, if he could understand what he’d done, he was sane enough to hang. Still to this day the basis of competency assessments in much of the English-speaking world, M’Naghten offers only a narrow ground for avoiding the full measure of criminal responsibility. And Holden was clearly competent enough by that test; indeed, he had complained of his treatment in Mary’s house, hinting at a real motive.

Although Holden’s death sentence was automatic upon the unhelpful sanity assessment of the doctors,* he was thought a prime candidate for a reprieve from the Home Secretary. This too did not materialize; Holden’s own contrition and resignation to his fate in the days leading up to the execution might have contributed to the judgment that he was in fact sane enough to die. That’s some catch: the best there is.

A murderer named Oscar Mattson — a Russian sailor who had slain a young English prostitute named Mary Ann Macguire in a rage over stolen money and rebuffed advances — did win a Home Secretary reprieve on the same day that Holden hanged.

* It was only necessary for doctors to find him competent enough to make his own plea. When they did so, he simply pleaded guilty.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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1802: Captain William Codlin, maritime insurance scammer

Add comment November 27th, 2014 Headsman

From A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, with Glances at the Present, by John George Bishop:

In 1802 an event, at which “all the world wondered,” took place off Hove. This was the supposed foundering of the good ship Adventure, Captain William Codlin, commander.

The morning of Sunday, August 8th, 1802, was bright and beautiful; towards noon, however, there was a dense fog, which lasted the whole afternoon. There was little or no wind; the sea was calm; and in the evening, as the fog cleared, a brig, evidently abandoned by her crew, was seen coming heavily, as if water-laden, westward.

Just as she reached opposite the bottom of Hove-street, the water was up to her bulwarks, when down she sank, and was wholly lost to view.

Strong suspicion of foul play was excited, as there appeared to be nothing to account for such a disaster. This suspicion proved to be true — the object of the Captain evidently being to obtain the insurance money. All was apparently well-planned; but

The best laid schemes o’ mice and men,
Gang aft a gley.

As the tide receded, the top of one of the brig’s masts appeared above water, indicating her whereabouts; and Mr. S. Stepney, of Brighton, was employed to raise her.

A day or two after the occurrence Dr. Hargraves was on “the Bank,” at the bottom of West-street, Brighton, and Captain Codlin happened to be standing near him. The Doctor said, “Don’t you think, Captain, they’ll get her up?”

“I’ll swallow hell fire, if they do,” replied Codlin.

The four fishing-boats engaged by Mr. Stepney, however, did their work successfully; and when the Adventure was towed ashore, a hole was discovered in the ship’s bottom; and the auger with which it was bored was lying near it!

Codlin, anticipating this discovery, had previously taken the coach to London, going thence to Dover, where he got on board a vessel, with the vie of getting across the Channel.

But justice was on his track. Another vessel was dispatched, which overtook the former, and he was brought back to London — a prisoner.

Codlin was subsequently tried for the offence, found guilty, and, as was then the custom, hung for his crime at Execution Dock, Woolwich. The raising of the Adventure cost Mr. Stepney £30, for which he was never reimbursed one farthing! His sole memento of the transaction was a dirk, found on board the ship; and this is still in the possession of a member of his family.


From the Morning Post and Gazetteer (London, England), November 29, 1802.

As early as six o’clock on Saturday morning [Saturday, November 27, 1802], a croud began to assemble opposite Newgate, to see Codlin go into the cart, and proceed to the place of execution, pursuant to his sentence for sinking the brig Adventure.

About eight, the spectators had increased prodigiously, so much so, that the multitude extended from Ludgate hill to Newgate-street. All the windows were crouded, and the tops of the houses were covered with people.

At ten minutes before nine, the unhappy man was brought out at the felons’ door. When he appeared, he was perfectly composed, and indeed cheerful.

He was a very personable man, as it is called, of the age of 36, and a ruddy complexion; and was well dressed in a blue coat, white waistcoat, mixture small clothes, and white stocking.

He ascended into the cart, which was covered with black, with a firm step and steady countenance, attended by the two executioners, Jack Ketch and his deputy, and another person appointed to read prayers to him on the road.

His arms were tied back with ropes, and the rope was round his neck. The cart went towards Newgate-street, preceded by the City Marshal on horseback, and the whole phalanx of peace officers, mustering nearly 100.

The Under Sheriffs, as usual, attended in their carriages, in one of which went the Chaplain.

In this order the procession proceeded slowly through Newgate-street, Cheapside, Cornhill, Leadenhall street, to Whitechapel.

During the journey, the prisoner looked up only once, and that was when the cavalcade got to the Royal Exchange. At Whitechapel they turned down the New Road, and arrived at Execution Dock soon after ten o’clock; the procession, preceded by the Deputy Marshal of the Admiralty on horseback, with his silver car.

At the sight of the gibbet (which had been previously erected at low water mark), the unhappy man started back with an apparent horror in his countenance at the vie of his approaching fate; that was the only symptom of fear which he betrayed on the occasion.

The obstructions by the different turnings in the way, and by the concourse of people filling every passage, did not seem to disturb the settled firmness of his mind.

As the procession drew near to the scene of execution, the difficulties of the passage became continually greater, so that it was hardly possible for the peace officers to clear the way.

At the entrance towards the dock, it became necessary that the criminal should be removed out of the cart, to walk to the scaffold, which was yet at some distance. He descended from the cart with the assistance of those who were beside him. After coming down, he stood as erect as the confinement of his shoulders and arms would allow. His looks wore still an air of unchanged firmness. He walked on with a steady step, and was even observed, by some gentlemen, to chuse the least dirty paths, so as to avoid bemiring his legs, while he went on.

He ascended the ladder to the scaffold, without betraying any new emotions of terror.

On the scaffold he joined in prayers with the clergyman, who was there in attendance, for two or three minutes. He shook the clergyman’s hand in taking farewell, with somewhat of a convulsive grasp.

He turned up his eyes and looked for a moment earnestly at the shipping opposite. A cap was put on his head; he drew it with his own hand, over his eyes. The board, upon a signal from the Sheriff, who sat in an opposite window, was soon after dropped from under his feet. In to or three minutes he appeared to expire without a struggle.

After hanging the usual time, the body was cut down and put into a coffin, covered with a cloth, then into a boat, and attended by the executioners, Mr. Gale, the undertaker, and two peace officers, the boat, a four-oared one, proceeded up the river, nearly to Blackfriars-bridge, where the coffin was landed. The body was conveyed to the house of Mr. Gale, in the Old bailey, here it remained yesterday for interment.

The concourse of people was as great as ever remembered. Many seafaring men were of course present. An immense concourse of people attended his progress from the gaol to the place of execution; it continually augmented while he proceeded.

When he reached the scaffold, the whole neighbourhood, to a considerable distance, was filled with one throng; all the decks of the ships round the dock, and a multitude of boats on the river, were equally crowded with spectators. The solemnity of the occasion seemed to make a due impression on the mob.

It was not until the night of Thursday that the unhappy man ceased to entertain hopes of a reprieve; he was very cheerful until his brother visited him on that evening, and bade him prepare for death, for that every hope was lost.

The prisoner as then much affected; but his brother, by his repeated assurances that he would be a friend to his wife, and a father to his child, made him more easy and collected. His wife was with him until twelve o’clock on the night preceding his execution.

Codlin was a native of Scarborough. We are assured by those who knew him, that a better seaman was not in the North coast trade, in which he had long sailed between Sunderland and London.

He had two or three years since begun to drink occasionally too much. He was not in employment, and his wife and children were in distress, at the time he entered into the fatal engagement.

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