Posts filed under 'Wales'

1827: Sarah Jones, firm infanticide

Add comment April 11th, 2019 Headsman

From the Bristol Mercury of April 16, 1827:

EXECUTION OF SARAH JONES.

This unfortunate victim to seduction was 26 years of age, and lived with her father and mother, Thomas and Mary Jones, who resided in a small cottage, forming one of a row of houses, situated on the side of the Sirhowy tram-road, called Pye-corner, in the parish of Bassalleg, in the county of Monmouth.

On Tuesday morning she took a farewell leave of her wretched parents, which she bore with considerable firmness, being the least affected of the three. — A neighbor, who spoke to her character, was, at her desire, permitted to see her the same morning, and speak to her in the Welsh language. She was particularly communicative; detailing the circumstances most minutely, which led to her present situation. She said it was not her intention to have destroyed the hapless infant, until three months before her confinement, when she discovered her seducer, Flook, had married another woman; she then formed the diabolical plan of having her revenge in the murder of his infant.

On Monday, the 23d of October, at breakfast, she found herself ill, and went up stairs; about ten or eleven her mother came up, disturbed by her voice; she sent her down for some fresh linen; and whilst the mother was going down stairs, the child was born: — she immediately seized one of two pen-knives which were in her pocket by her bedside, and in a minute or two after the birth, gave it two gashes in the throat; the mother coming up with the linen, she hid the body between the sacking and the bed, on some straw lying between, and lay on it until the Friday night. On that night Flook came to see her, — she was then down stairs in the chair (her father asleep) — he immediately noticed the alteration in her size, on which she told him of the horrid deed she had committed, and entreated him to assist her, by burying the body; — he consented; and, having sewed it up in some spare sacking, she gave it him through the window.

She positively declares her father knew nothing of the transaction, till Potter, the game-keeper, brought the body to the house; that she had concealed her situation from her mother, denying her pregnancy, even the Sunday evening before her confinement; and that the mother believed the child to have been still-born, up to the time of the coroner’s inquisition.

Sarah Burley, a fellow prisoner, under sentence of imprisonment, for stealing money, at Newport, slept with her during the night; — she slept remarkably sound, being only disturbed by supposing she saw her coffin lying by her bedside: she asserts, she has felt ever since her sentence, the sensation of having a rope round her neck, and that she often lifted her hand to remove it. She spoke in the most flattering manner of the attentions of the keeper, Mr. T. Phillips, to whose humanity and instructions she was indebted for her firmness of mind; — she took a prison farewell of the friend to whom she revealed her mind, without tears, and viewed the prospect of the near approach of her death with the greatest resignation.

Additional Particulars. — This unfortunate woman was of short stature, stout made, with nothing in her countenance indicative of ferociousness, she stood during her trial without any perceptible emotion, but on receiving sentence was obliged to be supported by one of the officers in attendance, and was carried from the bar to the chaise which conducted her to the gaol; she has asserted that even then, she was as collected as she ever was in her life, and was only exhausted from the joy she felt that her mother was acquitted. She had made up her mind for the worst on first entering the gaol, and her whole anxiety was, lest her poor mother should be found guilty, and she should be thus accessory to another death.

She slept soundly the last night, awaking about 6 o’clock, and on viewing the fatal spot observed that every thing was ready and she was so herself. After divine service she received the sacrament with several other criminals, and was from thence ushered to the drop, walking with a steady step, on arriving at the lodge she took a last farewell of several around her, expressing her confidence of being in a few minutes happy, she then ascended the place where the executioner awaited her, in the performance of his painful duty, the only observation she made, was not to draw the rope too tight, and having kissed those around her, begged the cap might be then pulled over her face, she then stept on the platform with firmness, on the rope being adjusted, she begged the executioner to draw her clothes tight around her, which he did by tying a handkerchief, having retired, the drop fell, and in about a minute vitality ceased.

After hanging an hour her body was delivered to her friends, for interment in Bassalleg churchyard; on its being made known that the part of her sentence relating to her dissection was remitted, she felt much gratified and hoped they would let her body remain one night at her father’s house. Thus died this unhappy woman in her 26th year, her fate has excited much commiseration and miserable must be the recollections of her seducer; her resignation was praiseworthy, her repentance contrite, and her conduct firm and decided beyond precedent under such circumstances; endued with great strength and presence of mind, she only wanted the advantages of education, and to have been under the moral restrictions of the Christian code to have been an useful character in society, may her end be (in the impressive language of the Learned Judge who tried her) a warning to the unguarded of her age, and to those wretches unworthy the name of men who have, or who may seduce females to a similar state of degradation; throughout the trial the humanity of the Learned Sergeant was apparent, and the feeling manner in which he pronounced the dreadful fiat of the law drew tears from the eyes of a majority of the largest assemblage of spectators within that court. The crowd assembled at her execution was unusually large, and, as is customary, but no ways creditable to them, two thirds were females.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Wales,Women

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1531: Rhys ap Gruffydd

Add comment December 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1531, a Welsh nobleman whose grandfather had been instrumental in raising the Tudor dynasty up caught the downswing of the Tudor dynasty’s axe.

Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Thomas (“son of Rhys, son of Thomas”) was the Welsh patriarch of an illustrious house who had taken the Lancastrian side during the English Wars of the Roses.

When the Lancastrians lost, he took the necessary oaths to the likes of Richard III but his reputed promise to defend Wales for his king with such ferocity that an invader must needs “make his entrance and irruption over my belly” was discharged in a ceremony equally literary and lawyerly — when he stood under a bridge while his invading ally, the Welsh-descended Henry Tudor, marched over it.


There’s always a loophole when one fails to insist on direct language.

Together the two would win the crown for Henry — and in a sense very much win it for Wales — at Bosworth Field, where Gruffydd is sometimes credited personally with the blow that felled King Richard.

He lived on to 1525, a loyal supporter of Henry VII and his son Henry VIII. But the reciprocal gratitude of the kings did not outlive Gruffydd’s passing, for the Welsh offices that he designed to pass to his grandson Rhys ap Gruffydd were instead foisted on Water Devereux, Baron Ferrers.*

The consequent hostility would set Rhys on his way to the block. In 1529, our man drew a blade on Devereux, and their respective bands of retainers skirmished violently with each other over succeeding months.

Attempting to elevate his frustrated political claim by assuming the name “Fitz Urien” — in reference to a half-legendary ancient Welsh king — finally got him clapped in the Tower. His subsequent trial on a fanciful charge of conspiring with Scotland to form a Celtic league against the English asserted the central royal authority against a noble loose cannon who also happened to be part of the Catholic, anti-Anne Boleyn faction; at a stretch it could arguably** be read to make him one of the earliest victims of the still-nascent English Reformation. Be that as it may, his countrymen did not much mourn the fall of a vaunting and greedy line, however spurious the grounds.

And indeed many men regarded his [Rhys’s] death as Divine retribution for the falsehoods of his ancestors, his grandfather, and great-grandfather, and for their oppressions and wrongs. They had many a deep curse from the poor people who were their neighbours, for depriving them of their homes, lands and riches. For I heard the conversations of folk from that part of the country that no common people owned land within twenty miles from the dwelling of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, that if he desired such lands, he would appropriate them without payment or thanks, and the disinherited doubtless cursed him, his children and his grandchildren, which curses in the opinion of many men fell on the family, according to the old proverb which says — the children of Lies are uprooted, and after oppression comes a long death to the oppressors. (Source)

* An ancestor of Elizabethan loverboy Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

** That argument is made by Ralph Griffiths in Sir Rhys ap Thomas and his Family: A Study in the Wars of the Roses and Early Tudor Politics.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Treason,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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388: Magnus Maximus, minimized

Add comment August 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 388, Magnus Maximus, partially successful usurper of the western Roman Empire, was put to death by Emperor Theodosius.

The late centuries of Rome witness many a rebellious general but the smart money in a civil war rarely fancied the guy whose power base was distant Britannia. With his bombastic name and balls to back it, Magnus bigly bucked those odds, defeating and murdering the western Augustus Gratian in Gaul in 383. From there he bossed Africa, Britain, and his native Spain for several years.

The departure from Britain of this local chancer made good would prove to correspond approximately with the empire’s crumbling foothold on on the island, with the sandal-shorn Roman feet in ancient times last walking upon England’s mountains green in 410. As the last, most scintillating representative of Roman Britain, Magnus Maximus has survived into legend — extolled for example by Geoffrey of Monmouth as the title hero of “The Dream of Macsen Wledig”. In it, “Macsen”/Maximus weds a Welsh princess and sires a native dynasty, granting Brittany to the Britons in gratitude for their aid as he conquers Rome.

But forget living in legend. The real Magnus Maximus, like every aspirant to the dangerous purple, mostly just worried about living out the next campaign season.

He had a spell of tense peace with his eastern opposite number, during which time Maximus — a staunch Nicene Christian — had the distinction in 385 of decreeing the trial on trumped-up sorcery charges of the dissident bishop Priscillian. It’s widely, if loosely, accounted the very first intra-Christian heresy execution. (Saint Ambrose of Milan and St. Martin of Tours both intervened strongly to oppose this precedent which has spawned so very many imitations.)

Meanwhile Maximus and Theodosius maneuvered toward inevitable civil war and it is obvious from his presence on this here blog that Maximus on this occasion did not rise to his nomens. As Zosimus describes,

Theodosius, having passed through Pannonia [routing Maximus in the process -ed.] and the defiles of the Appennines, attacked unawares the forces of Maximus before they were prepared for him. A part of his army, having pursued them with the utmost speed, forced their way through the gates of Aquileia, the guards being too few to resist them. Maximus was torn from his imperial throne while in the act of distributing money to his soldiers, and being stripped of his imperial robes, was brought to Theodosius, who, having in reproach enumerated some of his crimes against the commonwealth, delivered him to the common executioner to receive due punishment.

Such was the end of Maximus and of his usurpation.*

The poet Pacatus thereafter paid the conquering Theodosius homage for this victory in one of antiquity’s great panegyrics. (Enjoy it in the original Latin here.) Sure he lost the war, but how many figures are both magnus and maximus in fields as disparate as Celtic mythology and classical rhetoric?

Audiophiles might enjoy history podcasters’ take on Magnus Maximus: he’s been covered by both the British History Podcast (episode 31) and the History of Rome Podcast (episodes 156 and 157).

* After the post-Maximus arrangements Theodosius made in the west also went pear-shaped, necessitating yet another conquest and execution, Theodosius established himself as the emperor of both the eastern and western halves of the Roman world in 392. He was last man ever destined to enjoy that distinction.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Italy,Myths,Power,Put to the Sword,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Treason,Wales,Wartime Executions

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1723: Thomas Athoe the Elder, and Thomas Athoe the Younger

Add comment July 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1723, the 58-year-old former mayor of the Pembrokeshire town of Tenby was hanged along with his quarrelsome 23-year-old son.

This classic from the Select Trials annals finds Thomas Athoes Elder and Younger out at market-day when the young hothead picked a fight with, and got his ass kicked by, George Merchant. Merchant was Athoe the Younger’s own cousin, for his mother was Athoe the Elder’s sister; not only this, but in explaining their conduct to the chaplain endeavoring to save their souls, the Athoes would allege that Merchant had also swiped young Athoe’s girl.

The Athoes bided their time for the rest of that day, November 23 of 1722, and “advised by some Pettifogger, to bring an Action against the Deceased .. .answered, No, no, we won’t take the Law, but we’ll pay them in their own Coin.” And so when night fell, they followed Merchant and his brother Thomas (that’s the third Thomas on the pitch here, for those keeping count) to Holloway’s Water, the estuary of the river Ritec that in the 18th century swelled so high when the tide came in that the river became navigable four miles inland. The road that traversed it could only be crossed at low tide.

So it was in this muddy coastal defile, on a nigh-moonless night,* that father and son rounded on brother and brother as the latter watered their mounts.

The evidence in the case was given by Thomas Merchant, who survived the attack so narrowly that “at the Time of the Trial, tho’ it was four Months afterwards, he was in so weak a Condition that he could not stand, and therefore the Court permitted him to give his Evidence sitting.” Squeamish readers might wish to do likewise before proceeding to the rending of flesh he developed for the court.

The Prisoners coming up with great Sticks, I owe thee a Pass, and now thou shalt have it, said young Athoe to the Deceased, and knock’d him off his Horse. Thomas Merchant was serv’d in the like Manner by old Athoe, who, at the same Time cry’d out, Kill the Dogs! Kill the Dogs!

The Brothers begg’d ’em for God’s Sake to spare their Lives; but the Prisoners had no Regard to their Cries. Old Athoe fell upon Thomas Merchant, beating him in a terrible Manner, and taking fast hold of his Privities, pulled and squeezed him to such a violent Degree, that, had he continued so doing a few Minutes longer, it had been impossible for the poor Man to have survived it. The Pain he suffered, is past Expression, and yet it fell short of what his Brother endured.

Young Athoe, when he had tired himself with beating him, seized him by the Privy Members, and his Yard being extended, he broke the Muscles of it, and tore out one of his Testicles; and calling to his Father, said, Now I have done George Merchant’s Business! This horrible Action occasioned a vast Effusion of Blood: But young Athoe’s Revenge was not yet glutted, — for catching hold of the Deceased’s Nose with his Teeth, he bit it quite off, and afterwards tied a Handkerchief so tight about his Neck, that the Flesh almost covered it.

The last Words the Deceased was heard to say were, Don’t bite my Nose off. He lived a few Hours in the most grievous Agony imaginable, and then expired.

Although the younger Athoe briefly took refuge in Ireland, father and son were remanded to London for trial, convicted with ease, and doomed to hang at St. Thomas’s Watering on Old Kent Road in Surrey.

When they came to the fatal Tree, they behaved themselves in a very decent Manner, embracing each other in the most tender and affectionate Manner; and indeed the Son’s hiding his Face, bedewed with Tears, in his Father’s Bosom, was, notwithstanding the barbarous Action they had committed, a very moving Spectacle.

* November 23 maps as a full moon … but recall that England at this time was still on the Julian calendar, so the local date corresponds instead to December 4, at nearly the opposite end of the lunar cycle.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Politicians,Public Executions,Wales

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1805: Mary Morgan, anomalously

1 comment April 13th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1805, servant Mary Morgan, age 17, was hanged at Presteigne for murdering her bastard child.

An undercook in M.P. Walter Wilkins‘s Maesllwch Castle, Morgan had that achingly typical infanticide story: an unwed youth down the servants’ quarters desperately concealing the pregnancy until her coworkers sniffed her out, barged into the room where she had locked herself up to surreptitiously give birth, and discovered the newborn, “cutt open, deep sunk in the Feathers with the Child’s head nearly divided from the Body” by the efficient hand of a young under-cook who had often used that same pen-knife to slaughter chickens.

“I determined, therefore, to kill it, poor thing!” she would later confess of the (unnamed) father’s refusing her any aid. “Out of the way, being perfectly sure that I could not provide for it myself.”

That was in September of 1804. She would remain imprisoned until she could be tried at the Radnorshire assizes the following April.

Morgan expected lenient treatment — more on that in a moment — and must have been shocked to have the death sentence pronounced on April 11, with no more than two days to prepare herself for the ordeal. She was reportedly in a state of near-collapse when hanged at Gallows Lane.


Mary Morgan’s grave marker in St. Andrew’s parish church. A much longer and more sanctimonious stone, erected by a friend of the judge, also stands in the same cemetery.

We have seen elsewhere in these pages that executing women for infanticide was becoming distinctly uncomfortable for Europeans at this period, and Great Britain was no exception.

The most recent executions for infanticide at this point in London appears to be those of Jane Cornforth in 1774 and Sarah Reynolds in 1775. According to Anne-Marie Kilday’s A History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present, hanging Welsh infanticides was practically ancient history at this point: the last such execution ordered by the Court of Great Sessions in Wales had been way back in 1739 — and the court would not order another one before its 1830 abolition.

During those many decades, close to 200 infanticide cases came to its bar. Hardly any of the accused women were even convicted, never mind condemned.* All the more surprising, then, that the one and only prisoner to merit a death sentence was a 17-year-old. Why did Mary Morgan hang when other Welsh infanticides walked?

The (presumably unobtainable) answer has occasioned a good deal of modern-day speculation.

One possible reason was a cruel judgment on Mary’s unbecoming nonchalance in the court. The presiding judge, George Hardinge,** wrote in private correspondence to the Bishop of St. Asaph that young Miss Morgan “took it for granted that she would be acquitted; had ordered gay apparel to attest the event of her deliverance; and supposed the young gentleman (who I well knew) would save her by a letter to me.” Judges like to see a little cowering.

The young gentleman Hardinge alludes to is another person of interest with respect to Mary Morgan’s surprising fate: Walter Wilkins, Jr. — the heir in the household where Mary served. This man seduced Mary but was not — so said both Mary and Walter — the father of the unfortunate child. In an egregious conflict of interest, Wilkins served on the grand jury that found his lover guilty. Was he playing a double game, posing as a potential intercessor even while keen to eliminate the evidence of his misdeeds?

Kilday suspects that in the end it was nothing but the calculated caprice of Judge Hardinge — who, although he often acquitted accused infanticides, was also alarmed by the prevalence of the practice and wanted to stake out at least one deterrent instance of truly exemplary punishment. As he said in his sentencing address to Mary Morgan, “many other girls (thoughtless and light as you have been) would have been encouraged by your escape to commit your crime, with hopes of impunity; the merciful turn of your example will save them.”

Hardinge himself might not have been fully at home with this rationale. He’s reported to have visited the grave of his “thoughtless and light” defendant several times, even composing a verse “On Seeing the Tomb of Mary Morgan”:

Flow the tear that Pity loves,
Upon Mary’s hapless fate:
It’s a tear that God approves;
He can strike, but cannot hate.
Read in time, oh beauteous Maid!
Shun the Lover’s poisoning art!
Mary was by Love betray’d,
And a viper stung the heart.
Love the constant and the good!
Wed the Husband of your choice,
Blest is then your Children’s food,
Sweet the little Cherub’s voice.
Had Religion glanc’d its beam
On the Mourner’s frantic bed,
Mute had been the tablet’s theme,
Nor would Mary’s child have bled.
She for an example fell,
But is Man from censure free?
Thine Seducer, is the knell,
It’s a Messenger to thee.

* Kilday makes it 149 indictments from 1730 to 1804, with seven convictions and two executions — Jane Humphries in 1734 and Elinor Hadley in 1739; and, after Mary Morgan, another 46 indictments up until 1830 without a single conviction.

** Look for Judge Hardinge in Lord Byron’s Don Juan:

There was the waggish Welsh Judge, Jefferies Hardsman,
In his grave office so completely skill’d,
That when a culprit came for condemnation,
He had his judge’s joke for consolation.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Children,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Wales,Women

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1555: Robert Ferrar, Bishop of St. David’s

Add comment March 30th, 2015 Headsman

The Martyrdom of Bishop Farrar [sic]

by Ted Hughes

Burned by Bloody Mary‘s Men at Caermarthen

“If I flinch from the pain of the burning, believe not the doctrine that I have preached.
 — His words on being chained to the stake.

Bloody Mary’s venomous flames can curl;
They can shrivel sinew and char bone
Of foot, ankle, knee and thigh, and boil
Bowels, and drop his heart a cinder down;
And her soldiers can cry, as they hurl
Logs in the red rush: “This is her sermon.”

The sullen-jowled watching Welsh townspeople
Hear him crack in the fire’s mouth: they see what
Black oozing twist of stuff bubbles the smell
That tars and retches their lungs: no pulpit
Of his ever held their eyes so still,
Never, as now his agony, his wit.

An ignorant means to establish ownership
Of his flock! Thus their shepherd she seized
And knotted him into this blazing shape
In their eyes, as if such could have cauterized
The trust they turned towards him, and branded on
Its stump her claim, to outlaw question.

So it might have been: seeing their exemplar
And teacher burned for his lessons to black bits,
Their silence might have disowned him to her,
And hung up what he had taught with their Welsh hats:
Who sees his blasphemous father struck by fire
From heaven, might well be heard to speak no oaths.

But the fire that struck here, come from Hell even,
Kindled little heavens in his words
As he fed his body to the flame alive.
Words which, before they will be dumbly spared,
Will burn their body and be tongued with fire
Make paltry folly of flesh and this world’s air.

When they saw what annuities of hours
And comfortable blood he burned to get
His words a bare honouring in their ears,
The shrewd townsfolk pocketed them hot:
Stamp was not current but they rang and shone
As good gold as any queen’s crown.

Gave all he had, and yet the bargain struck
To a merest farthing his whole agony,
His body’s cold-kept miserdom on shrieks
He gave uncounted, while out of his eyes,
Out of his mouth, fire like a glory broke,
And smoke burned his sermon into the skies.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Wales

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1928: Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll

1 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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Organized Crime,Wales,Wrongful Executions

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1958: Vivian Teed, a first and a last

2 comments May 6th, 2013 Headsman

The last person hanged in Wales was Vivian Teed on this date in 1958; he was also the first hanged (in Wales or anywhere) under the new Homicide Act of 1957.

Teed went to rob a Fforestfach post office and was surprised to find 73-year-old postmaster William Williams not only present but in a mood to resist him. The thief had brought along a hammer in case he needed to force a door or something, so he grabbed it and hammered Mr. Williams … over and over and over. Twenty-seven times. Then he rifled the station as planned while the mortally wounded old man moaned and twisted, unable to come to his feet because the floor was so slick with his own blood.

“The defence is not that this man did not kill the unfortunate postmaster,” his attorney told the jury. “That tragic fact is true. The defence is that when the accused did it he was suffering from abnormality of the mind which impaired substantially his mental responsibility for what he did when he killed the postmaster.”

After many decades when hanging was the mandatory sentence for the crime of murder (even though in practice not every murder resulted in an execution), public consternation at certain sensitive cases like those of Ruth Ellis and Derek Bentley had driven a legal reform whose intended upshot was confining the death sentence to the proverbial worst of the worst.

The Homicide Act created a new subcategory “capital murder” — especially heinous murders, such as killing a policeman or committing murder in the course of a theft. Vivian Teed went to the gallows under the latter statute.

But the Homicide Act also removed certain types of homicide from the murder category altogether — notably for Teed’s purposes, a new defense of “diminished responsibility” was explicitly authorized and defined. This defense would have saved the mentally impaired Bentley. Now Teed tried to claim that an “abnormality of the mind which impaired his mental responsibility” was what really hammered William Williams’s skull.

Only one holdout member of the jury bought this, but after a number of hours and a couple of separate attempts by the panel to declare itself deadlocked, she or he finally came around and voted to convict. Teed hanged at Swansea Prison seven weeks later.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,Wales

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1886: David Roberts, dutiful son

Add comment March 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1886, David Roberts was hanged at Cardiff for a murder-robbery the October previous.

Both Roberts and his father, Edward Roberts, were arraigned for the murder. The Robertses, father and son, had both been playing cards with the late David Thomas on the night of the crime, and left together with him (as well as another man).

The next day, David Thomas was found in a field bludgeoned and stabbed to death, with David Roberts’ pipe nearby. A search of the Roberts home revealed £66 stashed away in a bloody handkerchief, the approximate amount Thomas as known to have made at market on the day before he died.

David Roberts made a voluntary written confession specifically claiming sole responsibility for the murder. He even pleaded guilty in court, shouting out, “I swear my dad had nothing to do with this murder!”

Apparently he was persuasive: prosecutors decided to present no evidence against Edward Thomas and allowed him to be acquitted.

So Roberts stood alone on the trap this day, having at least the comfort of having done right by his family duty. Unfortunately the hangman did not quite do right by Roberts fils as he appeared to survive the drop. Witnesses were hastily conducted away while Roberts dangled, still twitching and strangling. The error was ascribed to the condemned man’s “muscular neck,” but this alleged physiognomy only mattered because at this late date British hangmen still designed the parameters of the drop impressionistically.

All that was changing to follow the professional example of the scientific William Marwood, however. Later in 1886, a commission was formed under former Liberal Home Secretary Baron Aberdare to examine the issue. This commission ultimately produced the first official table of drops specifying the fall that should be allotted to prisoners based on their weight, with a view to reliably breaking the neck.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Theft,Wales

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1136: Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior woman

1 comment February 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On an uncertain date perhaps around February 1136, the Welsh princess Gwenllian (or Gwenlhian, or Gwenliana) lost a battle to a Norman lord, who had her summarily beheaded.

This execution occurred in the aftermath of the Norman conquest. Having taken England, those invaders had made inroads into its western neighbor, even temporarily occupying much of the country.

But Welsh lords pushed the Normans back, and we find those Normans at this moment in disarray over an internal succession crisis — a period known as “The Anarchy”.

Map of medieval Wales.

Seeing the opportunity, Wales’s constituent principalities rose in a “Great Revolt”.

Gwenllian, that hottie from history, was daughter of the ruler of Gwynedd, married in a political match to the ruler of Deheubarth.

While these two men in Gwenllian’s life met up with one another to plot their next moves, Norman raids on Deheubarth forced Gwenllian to lead a force into the field to fight them.

It was a sight “like the queen of the Amazons, and a second Penthesilea,” writes the chronicler. “Morgan, one of her sons, whom she had arrogantly brought with her in that expedition, was slain, and the other, Malgo, taken prisoner; and she, with many of her followers, was put to death.”

That was a bummer for Gwenllian — doomed to haunt the castle under whose walls she fought her fatal battle — but not only her, as her bereaved proceeded to mount a furious counterattackwith a vast destruction of churches, towns, growing crops, and cattle, the burning of castles and other fortified places, and the slaughter, dispersion, and sale into foreign parts, of innumerable men, both rich and poor.”

For centuries afterwards, Welsh armies took the field crying “Revenge for Gwenllian!” The field where the battle was fought is named in her honor, as is a spring there that’s reputed to have welled up at the spot where her head fell. She’s even been speculatively — maybe a bit hopefully — identified as a possible author of the Mabinogion, a Welsh literary classic, but she’s definitely the subject of a bardic lullaby

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight
Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,
An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;
Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,
Thy heart as happy day and night!
Mid all our woe, O vision rare!
Sweet little princess cradled there,
Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.
Thy brethren battle with the foe,
Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,
Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep
All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!
What are the angels whispering low
Of thy father now
Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,
How many a Queen of high degree
Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

There’s obvious, as-yet-unrealized commercial potential here in this sacrificial princess (though she’s not to be confused with Gwenllian of Wales). Word is that a silver screen treatment of the Gwenllian legend is circulating in Hollywood studios looking to duplicate the success of Braveheart.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Wales,Wartime Executions,Women

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