1868: Michael Barrett, the last public hanging in England

4 comments May 26th, 2015 Headsman

England held its last-ever public execution on this date in 1868, and made it big game indeed: Fenian Michael Barrett, whose Clerkenwell Prison bombing long remained one of the most infamous atrocities of the Irish nationalist cause.

The bill certifying the end of that distinctive institution, the public hanging, would be finalized three days hence, so the occasion’s milestone was anticipated in advance. Elites increasingly disdained the boorish carnivals that unfolded under the gallows, like Dickens who complained that “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes” redeemed the 1840 hanging of Courvoisier.


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s view of the notoriously rowdy mob at Frederick and Marie Manning execution.

“The crowd was most unusually orderly,” ran the Times‘ report of Barrett’s death — a sort of dual eulogy — “but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust.”

It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield — a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

Michael Barrett’s ticket to this last assembly was punched by a different execution six months previous — the hanging of the Manchester Martyrs. This trio of Irish patriots were part of a mob who liberated some comrades from a police van, shooting a policeman in the process — though it was far from certain that any of these three actually fired shots.

Of importance for our purposes today was the crackdown on other Fenians occasioned by the Manchester affair. In November of 1867, a Fenian agent named Richard O’Sullivan Burke was arrested with his companion Joseph Casey in London purchasing weapons for the movement. They were clapped in Clerkenwell Prison pending trial.

The bombing that brought Michael Barrett to the gallows was a bid to liberate these men … and it did not pause for subtlety. The conspirators simply wheeled a barrel of gunpowder up to the wall of the facility when they expected the inmates to be at exercise in the adjacent yard. The explosion blasted a 60-foot gap in the wall; the inward-collapsing rubble might easily have been the death rather than the salvation of the prospective beneficiaries, except that they weren’t actually in the yard at all — nobody was there, and nobody escaped Clerkenwell.

But numerous working-class families lived in little tenements opposite the prison and were there, and in fact Clerkenwell had a reputation for political radicalism and Fenian sympathy. This monstrous new “infernal machine” tore through Clerkenwell homes, leaving 12 people dead and numerous buildings near to collapse, while windows and chimneys shivered to pieces all up and down the block.


Improvised struts shore up damaged buildings opposite the wall of Clerkenwell Prison reduced to rubble by the December 13, 1867 Fenian bombing.

Karl Marx, a strong supporter of the Irish cause, despaired this counterproductive turn towards terrorism: “The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries.”

English reformer Charles Bradlaugh agreed. “The worst enemy of the Irish people could not have devised a scheme better calculated to destroy all sympathy,” he wrote.


Punch magazine depicts the Clerkenwell bomber(s) as the “Fenian Guy Fawkes“.

Considering the magnitude of the crime, someone would have to pay for it. That Barrett was that someone did not sit well for many.

Five men and a woman stood trial at the Old Bailey in April for the Clerkenwell outrage, but Barrett was the only one of them convicted, a terribly inadequate investigation/prosecution outcome given the infamy of the crime.

That conviction stood on the basis of disputed eyewitness identifications: Barrett produced witnesses who said he was in Glasgow when the bomb went off, while the crown found others who would swear he was actually in London. (The length of Barrett’s whiskers on specific dates in late November and early December forms a running subplot of the dueling testimonies.)

The reliability and even the good faith of all such winesses might well be impugned. A highly questionable stool pigeon named Patrick Mullany who ducked prosecution by turning crown’s evidence, charged that Barrett personally set off the ordnance.

Despite his certain doom, Barrett eloquently vindicated himself at his sentencing

To give me credit for such an undertaking is utterly absurd; being, as I am, a total stranger to acts of daring, and without any experience which would in any way fit me for engaging in such an enterprise. Is it not ridiculous to suppose that in the City of London, where … there are ten thousand armed Fenians, they would have sent to Glasgow for a party to do this work, and then select a person of no higher standing and no greater abilities than the humble individual who now stands convicted before you? To suppose such a thing is a stretch of imagination that the disordered minds of the frightened officials of this country could alone be capable of entertaining.

If it is murder to love Ireland more dearly than life, then indeed I am a murderer. If I could in any way remove the miseries or redress the grievances of that land by the sacrifice of my own life I would willingly, nay, gladly, do so. if it should please the God of Justice to turn to some account, for the benefit of my suffering country, the sacrifice of my poor, worthless life, I could, by the grace of God, ascend the scaffold with firmness, strengthened by the consoling reflection that the stain of murder did not rest upon me, and mingling my prayers for the salvation of my immortal soul with those for the regeneration of my native land.

Benjamin Disraeli’s government could not in the end realistically entertain the agitation from liberal and radical circles for sparing Barrett, because that would mean that nobody would hang for Clerkenwell. But as the next day’s edition of Reynold’s News noted, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”

Three months after Barrett made that expiation, England officially began its era of fully private hangings behind prison walls.

* James Joyce hung out with a (much-older) Joseph Casey in Paris in the early 20th century. Yes, that’s in Ulysses too: “He prowled with Colonel Richard Burk, tanist of his sept, under the walls of Clerkenwell and crouching saw a flame of vengeance hurl them upward in the fog. Shattered glass and toppling masonry. In gay Paree he hides, Egan of Paris, unsought by any save by me.”

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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1867: The Manchester Martyrs

Add comment November 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1867, three Fenians hanged for the murder of a Manchester policeman.

They were the Manchester Martyrs — Michael O’Brien, William Philip Allen and Michael Larkin.

“Who were they?” an admiring James Connolly later asked, rhetorically.*

Two members of the Fenian organisation -– Kelly and Deasy –- were trapped in Manchester, and lay awaiting trial in an English prison. The Fenians in that city resolved to rescue them. [Manchester was a hotbed of Irish radicalism -ed.] This they did by stopping the prison van upon the road between Manchester and Salford, breaking open the van, shooting a policeman in the act, and carrying off their comrades under the very eyes of the English authorities.


Marker on the spot of the ambush that started all the trouble. (cc) image from Tom Jeffs.

Out of a number of men arrested for complicity in the deed, three were hanged. These three were ALLEN, LARKIN and O’BRIEN –- the three Manchester Martyrs whose memory we honour today.

There were actually five in all selected to stand trial for their lives for what the British dubbed the “Manchester Outrage”; although all five were condemned to swing, one received clemency and a second was pardoned outright since the evidence against him was soon proven to have been entirely perjured.

Indeed, all five of the men asserted their innocence in the shooting even when they acknowledged joining the crowd attempting to free their brethren.

But they, and especially their partisans, were still more energetic asserting the Fenian cause from the platform afforded by the legal antechambers to the scaffold. “God save Ireland!” they cried at several dramatic points in the trial — and these words titled a beloved patriotic tune in the martyrs’ honor.

The British, basically, freaked at the effrontery of an Irish mob hijacking a police wagon, making Fenian as dirty a word among the Anglo respectable as terrorist is today, and stampeded the case to judgment without dithering overmuch about fine points like meticulous investigation. While respectable liberals could (and did) make the clemency case on grounds of actual innocence, the right-thinking were scandalized by Irish marches in overt support of Fenianism.

“These Irish are really shocking, abominable people,” Queen Victoria wrote privately to one of the government’s Tory cabinet members. “Not like any other civilized nation.”

So it was a bloodthirsty rabble, baying and not a little drunk, that gathered outside the walls of Manchester’s New Bailey Prison to see Allen, Larkin, and O’Brien hang** for their abominableness. This lot also happened to witness the last public hanging in Manchester; England shifted to private executions the next year.

But these by no means represented everyone in Manchester.

The very week of the Fenian ambush, a philosopher had dropped in to Manchester to visit a local industrialist. These were, granted, not Englishmen but Germans. Still, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were keenly interested in the Fenian cause.

Marx exhorted English workers, now and over the years ahead, to make common cause with Fenianism; he apparently authored this clemency appeal for the Manchester Martyrs sent by the First International. The very day after the execution, Engels — our Manchester industrialist — compared the martyrs to John Brown and prophesied that the hangings “accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland.” (See Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies)

These martyrs have stood the test of time, in part because Engels’ prediction (more or less) came to pass. But we think it’s their countryman Connolly whose epitaph rings truest — the summons three men in Manchester issued posterity to stand against monstrous edifices as “unyielding foes even to the dungeon and the scaffold.”

We honour them because of their heroic souls. Let us remember that by every test by which parties in Ireland to-day measure political wisdom, or personal prudence, the act of these men ought to be condemned. They were in a hostile city, surrounded by a hostile population; they were playing into the hands of the Government by bringing all the Fenians out in broad daylight to be spotted and remembered; they were discouraging the Irish people by giving them another failure to record; they had no hopes of foreign help even if their brothers in Ireland took the field spurred by their action; at the most their action would only be an Irish riot in an English city; and finally, they were imperilling the whole organisation for the sake of two men. These were all the sound sensible arguments of the prudent, practical politicians and theoretical revolutionists. But “how beggarly appear words before a defiant deed!”

* Connolly was observing the anniversary of the men’s death in 1915, which was the same anniversary a 13-year-old Kevin Barry began his own path to future martyrdom by attending a Manchester Martyrs memorial.

** Hanged badly. Notoriously erratic hangman William Calcraft only killed Allen on the drop; descended the gallows to help Larkin along; and was denied access by O’Brien’s confessor, who said he held that strangling man’s hand full 45 minutes until he finally succumbed.

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1883: Patrick O’Donnell, avenger

1 comment December 17th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Fenian Patrick O’Donnell was hanged at Newgate for the murder of James Carey.

O’Donnell — or Padraig O Domhnaill, more Gaelically — was a casualty of the Irish nationalist struggle; his path to the gallows began on May 6, 1882, when an Irish republican group known as the Invincibles stabbed to death two prominent officials of the British crown as they walked through Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

The Invincibles were ultimately collared — and then hemp-collared — with the assistance of one of their own number who turned queen’s evidence and put five of his former confederates in the noose.

Now in peril of life and limb himself, the turncoat James Carey got a new identity and a ticket on a passenger ship from his recent British enemies. But Carey either got sloppy and blew his cover — provoking O’Donnell to take the opportunity to kill him — or was found out by the Fenians before he left — and O’Donnell sent to stalk him.

The matter is still disputed, and it was disputed at O’Donnell’s trial (further to the question of motive and premeditation; the defense claimed that O’Donnell killed in self-defense during an affray).

That defense didn’t fly. Even advancing it, O’Donnell’s defenders would rather celebrate the intrepidity of his action than plead its extenuating circumstances; riotous celebrations with Carey burned in effigy were reported in Ireland when the news of Carey’s murder broke.

Lyrics.

O’Donnell was apparently an American citizen, and his case generated a considerable groundswell from the ample Irish immigrant community stateside.*; he had lived in the anthracite mining regions of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania O’Donnells were big players in the shadowy Irish labor-terrorist-revolutionary Molly Maguires.

Now he’s dead, he’s laid to rest,
Let honour be his name,
Let no one look upon him
With scorn or disdain;
His impulse it is human,
Which no one can deny,
I hope he’ll be forgiven
By the infinite Lord on high.

If every son in Erin’s Isle
Had such a heart as he,
Soon they’d set their native land
Once more at liberty;
They’d unfurl their flag unto the British,
Their rights they would redeem
In unity and friendship,
In the lands far over the sea.

-Source

O’Donnell was one of the very few hanged by the great English executioner William Marwood‘s subpar successor Bartholemew Binns. Binns and his assistant were arrested in the process, having attempted to skip the fare for the train to London.

* For instance, the Dec. 10, 1883 Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser in Dublin reported that President Chester A. Arthur received a deputation urging him to press for clemency consisting of congressmen “Cox and Robinson, New York; Mirrosn, Springer, and Sinertz, Illinois; Lefevre and Foran, Ohio; Murphy, Iowa; Mabury, William Lamb, Indiana; M’Adoo, New Jersey; Collins, Massachusetts, and O’Neill and Burns, Missouri.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries

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1868: Henry James O’Farrell, would-be assassin

Add comment April 21st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1868, the first Australian known to have attempted a political assassination received the short drop and sudden stop that often constitutes the wages of that distinguished profession.

It was March 12 — less than six weeks before — that Henry James O’Farrell, Dublin-born alcoholic vegetable merchant fresh from the asylum, had shot the visiting Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh at a picnic in the Sydney suburb of Clontarf.

Someone was smiling down on Alfred that day, because the shot was deflected by a metal buckle and inflicted only a flesh wound. Onlookers tackled the assailant before he could finish the job.

O’Farrell claimed affiliation with the Irish nationalist Fenian brotherhood, which inflamed anti-Irish passions (some cynically whipped up by New South Wales Prime Minister Henry Parkes). Paranoia redoubled when a Fenian assassin killed a Canadian politician a few weeks later.*

Under the circumstances, it was a hopeless struggle for O’Farrell’s attorney, who strove to demonstrate (probably accurately) that his charge was not so much a terrorist as a madman. Even the Duke of Edinburgh’s own intercession for clemency did not secure it, eager as the populace was to make an offering of its loyalty.**

* Irish convicts transported to Australia, especially after the 1798 uprising, formed a significant demographic among early New South Wales settlers. (Source)

** Another offering was a still-extant hospital in Sydney named for Prince Alfred.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Australia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,Treason

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