On this date in 1951, William Watkins hanged for drowning his eleventh child.
An execution that was barely noticed in its time and would be nigh-forgotten today, it’s revived in all its messy humanity in a book titled Execution: One Man’s Life and Death. John Mervy Pugh, the son of one of Watkins’s prosecuting barristers, watched Watkins’s two-day trial as a young man and was still so troubled by it many years later that once “it all came tumbling back into my mind” he decided that he “could not let it rest.” Pugh’s empathetic book plumbs the trial and police records, supplemented by interviews with Watkins’s surviving family and even Watkins’s executioner, the ubiquitous Albert Pierrepoint.
“This was one case I never expected would have taken place,” Pierrepoint told Pugh. “In my opinion many men have been reprieved for a lot worse crime than this.” According to Pugh, many others involved the case, from prison warders to court officials, were equally shaken by the unexpected denial of clemency. Watkins’s guards, who had a good feel for how these things played out, had confidently reassured the convict that he would surely never hang.
Forty-nine years old at his death, which was barely ten weeks after the death of the infant for which he was condemned, Watkins was a factory worker who scrabbled an honest if impecunious living with his second family. Once he was charming and gregarious, but an advancing congenital deafness and the strains of Britain’s hard years through Depression and war had left him taciturn and “prematurely old; his once black hair was now steel grey and his face permanently looked as though he needed a shave.” (His vanishing hearing also robbed him of his longtime driving profession.) He’d had nine children with his first wife but had left her for their former boarder whom Pugh anonymizes as “Maisie”. Though never married, the two lived as man and wife in a run-down home at the back of 79 Clifford Lane in Birmingham. They had a four-year-old son together. Then Maisie got pregnant again.
By both parents’ own admissions it was a child that they did not want and could not afford. (Bill still continued dutiful maintenance payments to the family he had deserted; the last one arrived after his arrest.) Maisie gave birth at home — she’d had no medical attention at all during her pregnancy — on the night of January 20, 1951. Minutes after she delivered, the baby was drowned, and Watkins’s fate was sealed.
Bill and Maisie lived cheek by jowl with their neighbors and Maisie’s condition had been obvious; it was no more than a couple of days before their observable comings and goings (specifically, Maisie’s not coming and going) had generated the inference of a birth … and Bill’s evasiveness generated rumors that demanded investigation.
When men arrived bearing papers and sharp questions, Bill’s answers were not very coherent or consistent. His excuses for that — panic in the moment, and the weariness of repeated police questioning later on — did not quite seem equal to the gravity of a dead infant, which he made no effort to hide when pressed. Minutes after the birth, the father said, he was washing the bloody newborn off and “it fell in the bowl.” So … scoop it out? He didn’t, and even said he couldn’t, for no satisfactory reason: alternately because his wife was shouting or, as he once allowed, “I suppose I panicked and we did not want the child.” It’s a disordered story for what in that moment seems for all the world a disordered soul. Quite disturbingly, the child was also found stuffed head-first in a pillow slip; was this because Bill had socked away the corpse in a vain attempt at concealment, or was it because he had callously stuffed the still-living creature inside the sack before “bathing,” intending all along to asphyxiate it?
This last interpretation surely carries an outrage beyond “mere” infanticide, perhaps the very margin by which Watkins swung. In notes before he recommended Home Secretary Chuter Ede against a reprieve (in effect, this recommendation was the decision) Permanent Under-Secretary of State Frank Newsam recorded the view that “this is a shocking case of the massacre of an unwanted infant by drowning as if the infant were a kitten.”
To Pugh’s eye, it seemed Watkins barely helped his own attorneys at all; he remarks that in revisiting the transcripts years later it is obvious how fragmentary was Watkins’s understanding of events, so hard of hearing was he. His near-deafness led others to take him for vacant and stupid; he’s repeatedly referred to as simple-minded by figures who encounter him, even his own barrister, although he was nothing of the sort. Yet Pugh also wonders whether the “prematurely old” Watkins had not indeed simply given up, somewhere along the line. The hangman Pierrepoint shared the same impression when he first spied the prisoner, as he later told Pugh: “he looked so dejected and slightly stooped, as though he couldn’t care less; suddenly I felt sorry seeing a man looking so sad and just waiting to die.”
At 8.00 a.m. the Chaplain arrived and gave Bill communion. Together they said the Lord’s Prayer and in the name of the Christ he served, the Chaplain forgave Bill for what he had done. The two prison officers found themselves affected by the scene and wished that time would not linger; the last hour always seemed the longest.
At 8.40 a.m. Mr Blenkinsop (the Undersheriff) arrived, and was quickly taken to the Governor’s office. Dr John Humphrey (the Prison Doctor) was already there. At 8.55 a.m., Pierrepoint and his assistant stood outside the door of the condemned cell and were joined within a minute by the Governor, the doctor and the Chief Prison Officer.
Within the cell Watkins was now seated with his back to the door, and seconds before the door opened, looked up, sobbing, and said to the Chaplain, “I have never met so many kind people in my life as I have met since I have been here. Why did I have to come to prison before people are so kind?” The Chaplain had to turn away for fear of showing his own emotion. Already the Under-Sheriff had given the signal: it was 30 seconds past 8.59 a.m. The door opened; Pierrepoint was behind Watkins: “Come on, old fellow,” he said in his soft northern voice. He pinioned his arms, and with an officer either side, Bill was escorted through the now opened doors to the scaffold and Pierrepoint remembers that he walked steadily into the chamber. The assistant was down on his knees pinioning his legs, Pierrepoint put a hand under his drooping chin, placed a white hood over his head and then the noose, stepped back and pulled the lever. Since Pierrepoint had entered the room, twelve seconds had passed: William Arthur Watkins was dead.