1865: Edward William Pritchard, MD

5 comments July 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, tens of thousands crowded Glasgow Green to send off the murderous Dr. Edward William Pritchard … and with him, the era of public hangings in that city.

Pritchard died for poisoning his wife and his mother-in-law earlier that same year, but he might have first killed in 1863. That’s when his 25-year-old servant suspiciously burned to death in a home fire she suspiciously didn’t try to escape. Despite how it looked, Pritchard’s insurance paid up for the incident.

Murder or no, that used up all his escaping-justice karma: there’d be scant deniability next time.

After knocking up another servant in 1864, Pritchard performed an illegal abortion to dispose of the unwanted progeny with the understanding that he’d marry the girl.

Pritchard then found that his increasingly inconvenient wife had taken suddenly and strangely ill. When her mother came to care for her, mom caught the exact same symptoms — vomiting, dizziness. They checked out within three weeks of each other in early 1865, having suffered months of patient, systematic dosing by the medical man of the house.

An anonymous letter, conceivably supplied by an attending physician who naturally had suspicions about these incredibly suspicious deaths, led to the bodies’ exhumation and the ready discovery therein of antimony in lethal quantities. Servants’ testimony affirming the proclivity of others in the household to get sick when they tasted the victims’ food easily nailed down the conviction.

Asked if he had any last remarks on his way to the scaffold, Pritchard replied, “in a firm and clear, but sepulchral, tone of voice, ‘Simply to acknowledge the justice of my sentence.'” (London Times, July 29, 1865)

His posthumous notoriety in Victorian crime pulp is attested by Sherlock Holmes’ tribute in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, published full 27 years after our man’s death: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland

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1818: Matthew Clydesdale, galvanic subject

3 comments November 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1818, murderer Matthew Clydesdale was publicly hanged at Glasgow’s High Court building, along with a habitual burglar named Simon Ross.*

This was the city’s first hanging in a decade and accordingly drew a throng of gawkers.

But they weren’t there only to mete out justice to the killer of elderly Alexander Love: there as another attraction, too. Ross, the small-timer, was done for after his hanging and buried away unceremoniously.

But Clydesdale’s body “was put into a coffin, and was forthwith conveyed, for the purpose of dissection, to the Professor of Anatomy. The cart was followed by a large portion of the crowd.” (London Times, Nov. 11, 1818)

Before a mob of rubbernecking — sometimes fainting — onlookers, the flesh that had lately belonged to Matthew Clydesdale was subjected to the fashionable and creepy science of galvanism.

Andrew Ure and James Jeffray hooked up a galvanic battery and for an hour excited the corpse with various electrically-charged proddings. Ure, at least, dreamt of the hypothesis that the right jolt to the right spot might in principle achieve a Frankenstein-like reanimation.

We are almost willing to imagine, that if, without cutting into and wounding the spinal marrow and blood-vessels in the neck, the pulmonary organs had been set a-playing at first … life might have been restored. This event, however little desirable with a murderer, and perhaps contrary to law, would yet have been pardonable in one instance, as it would have been highly honourable and useful to science.

I mean, you’d have to think it would at least be good enough for tenure.

Regrettably failing in this honourable endeavor, the gentlemen of science did make such grisly sport with their subject as to strike awe and terror into the astonished crowd.

every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements … the leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in vain attempted to prevent its extension …

Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage, horror, despair, anguish,and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face …

When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.

* Two others condemned for the same date’s harvest of souls — James Boyd (housebreaking) and Margaret Kennedy (passing forged notes) — were reprieved.

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1683: James Smith and John Wharry, Covenanter bystanders

3 comments June 13th, 2010 Headsman

Inscription on a marker on the road from Kirkintilloch to Kilsyth* in Scotland:

In this field lies the corpse of John Wharry and James Smith, who suffered in Glasgow, 13 June 1683, for their adherence to the Word of God, and Scotland’s Covenanted Work of Reformation: ‘And they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death'” (Rev. xii. 11)

Halt, courteous passenger, and look on
Our bodies dead, & lying under this stone.
Altho’ we did commit no deed,** nor fact
That was against the Bridegroom’s contract,
Yet we to Glasgow were as prisoners brought,
And against us false witness they sought.
Their sentence cruel and unjust they past,
And then our corps on scaffold they did cast.
There we our lives and right hands also lost.
From Glasgow we were brought unto this place
In chains of iron hung up for certain space.
Then taken down interred here we ly–
From ‘neath this stone our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks, or Mahometans,
Had Scythians, Tartars, Arabian Caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s blood seed,
Commenced the same, less strange had been the deed;
But Protestants, profest our Covenants to,
Our countrymen, this bloody deed could do.
Yet notwithstanding of their hellish rage
The noble Wharry stepping on the stage
With courage bold and with a heart not faint,
Exclaims, This blood now seals our covenant–
Ending, They who would follow Christ should take
Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.


Image (c) Maria ‘Mia’ Gaellman | http://www.mariaphoto.co.uk/

The epitaph above is from this Victorian text, which further observes:

The probability is, that what is called on the new stone “the old tombstone” is not much older than this [the 19th] century, and that it is the successor of an older one on which may have been inscribed the following epitaph:

Halt, passenger, read here upon this stone
A tragedy, our bodies done upon.
At Glasgow Cross we lost both our right hands,
To fright beholders, th’ enemy so commands;
Then put to death, and that most cruelly.
Yet where we’re slain, even there we must not lie,
From Glasgow town we’re brought unto this place,
On Gallow tree hung up for certain space.
Yet thence ta’en down, interred here we lie
Beneath this stone; our blood to heaven doth cry.
Had foreign foes, Turks or Mahometans,
Had Scythian Tartars, Arabian caravans,
Had cruel Spaniards, the Pope’s bloody seed,
Commenc’d the same, had been less strange their deed.
But Protestants, once Covenanters too,
Our countrymen, this cruel deed could do:
Yet, notwithstanding this, their hellish rage,
The noble Wharrie leapt upon the stage.
With courage bold, he said, and heart not faint,
‘This blood shall now seal up our covenant,’
Ending, ‘they who would follow Christ, should take
‘Their cross upon their back, the world forsake.'”

* Kilsyth lays claim to be the birthplace of curling.

** Smith and Wharrie, apparently uninvolved civilians, were seized as the nearest available guys to punish after a Covenanter guerrilla attack near Inchbelly Bridge.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1723: Margaret Fleck, with a fresh dempster

1 comment June 5th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Margaret Fleck was hanged in Glasgow for murdering her infant child.

According to “The Last Speech and Confession of Margaret fleck who was Executed at the Howgate-Head of Glasgow on the 5th of June for the Murdering of her Own Child”* (it does what it says on the tin):

I am brought this day, and that justly, to suffer for the murder of my own child, and I doubt not but that it will be expected, and I think it most proper and my indispensable duty, that as I have sinned so heinously against God, so I should glorify him by repenting my unnatural, atrocious and bloody fact — the murder of mine own child … For which crime, and all my other sins I desire heartily to mourn, and to fly to the fountain that is opened to the House of David and the Inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness; and I desire to take shame and confusion of face to my self for my sins and iniquities, especially for the bad entertainment I gave to the gospel of Christ.

At the time, death sentences in Scotland had to be pronounced not only by the judges but by the dempster, a juridical office responsible for the actual execution.

Major League Baseball pitcher Ryan Dempster: would he hang Margaret Fleck?

In this case, dempster Thomas Cochran refused to join the sentence, evidently partaking in a popular discomfort with Fleck’s hanging. Nothing daunted,

their Lordships having desired the Sheriff Depute to provide another Dempster instantly, or else to do it himself, he craved their lordships might delay the same till the next day, against which time he should have one provided. Which being condescended to by their Lordships, they continued pronouncing of sentence against the said Margaret Fleck till to-morrow at nyne o’clock; with certification that if the Sheriff Depute did not provide a Dempster against that time, they would oblige him to do it himself …

The Sheriff Depute wriggled off the hook when a guy named Robert Yeats stepped up and did the Dempstering.

* As cited by Anne-Marie Kilday in “‘Monsters of the Vilest Kind': Infanticidal Women and Attitudes to their Criminality in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,” Family & Community History, Nov. 2008.

Kilday observes that “pamphlet material relating to deviant behaviour … became popular sooner [in Scotland than in England], with publications beginning in earnest in and around 1702, nearly three quarters of a century ahead of publishers south of the Tweed. In addition, it was unquestionably infanticide (and latterly child killing in general), more than any other crime, which became the focus for the pamphlet literature produced.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1923: Susan Newell, the last woman hanged in Scotland

3 comments October 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Susan Newell achieved footnote status by hanging for the murder of her 13-year-old paperboy … the last Scottish woman to die on the gallows, and the only one in the 20th century.

Newell was nabbed by nosy neighbors who noticed her dumping John Johnson’s body a few blocks away from prison* where she would ultimately expiate the crime.

Newell pointed the finger at her husband (she never admitted guilt), but John Newell produced a fistful of alibi witnesses to the effect that he was staying with relatives after a couple of nasty domestic fights.

Susan — so the jury believed — had worked off the stress solo by throttling the newsboy when he’d had the temerity to ask her to pay him. Paid content: the hidden killer.

Well, sometimes, you can only take so much.

Despite the guilty verdict, the jury entertained her insanity defense and plumped for mercy when it convicted her. But the crown was having none of it, in part because the murderess wouldn’t admit her crime in her clemency petitions, and perhaps also because “the application of the law in Scotland had to be seen to be in line with that in England where Edith Thompson had been hanged for what most of us would regard as a much less serious crime only 10 months earlier.”

Thompson’s same executioner, John Ellis, unhappily handled the Newell job just 20 days after her conviction. The condemned woman managed to wriggle her hands out of their bonds while her legs were being pinioned, and she ripped the hood off her face with the words “don’t put that thing over me!”

Wanting to get the distasteful procedure over with, Ellis obligingly dropped her barefaced.

* She was also the only woman ever executed at Glasgow’s Duke Street Prison.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Who Kill.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Scotland,Women

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1615: St. John Ogilvie

1 comment March 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1615, Scotland’s only post-Reformation Catholic martyr was hanged at Glasgow Cross.

The Protestant-born Ogilvie had been educated in Europe and there fallen under the sway of the Catholic faith forbidden in his homeland. He converted, trained as a Jesuit, and at his own request returned to minister to the secret Catholic population in Glasgow.

Within a year he was in irons, awaiting a death sentence he refused to spurn with a timely submission to King James‘ spiritual supremacy. Ogilvie greeted his conviction for treason — and like most Catholic martyrs in the British Isles, he protested his loyalty in vain — with the words,

God have mercie upon mee! … if there bee heere anie hidden catholikes, let them pray for me, but the Prayers of Heretickes I will not have.


John Ogilvie? (See Update below)

There’s a multilingual Jesuit text celebrating Ogilvie available free from Google books.

Glaswegians can watch for more demonstrative tribute at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which is poised to produce a monumental mural by Peter Howson.

Part of the Themed Set: The Church confronts its competition.


Update: Friend of the blog Louise Yeoman, whose guest post on a witchcraft execution remains one of the best pieces in this humble space, has an interesting correction to offer on Saint J.O. According to Yeoman, disemboweling “was not part of Scots law until 1708, when the British government wanted to hang draw and quarter some of those involved in the abortive Jacobite uprising of that year and were shocked to find that Scotland had no such penalty.” She’s backed by this contemporaneous account of Ogilvie’s death, which observes that even the “quartering” part of the sentence was not carried out.

So, what gives with the image, if Ogilvie’s corpse wasn’t carved up?

It’s from this (U.S.) Library of Congress page which marks it as a representation of Ogilvie in a late 17th-century text of Bohemian Jesuit propagandist Matthias Tanner. That provenance, of course, would be consistent with a bit of sanguinary exaggeration. It’s also possible that it’s mislabeled on the Library of Congress page, whose identification of it seems a bit oblique.

Working as I am from secondary sources, I tread cautiously here and welcome further clarification or correction.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mature Content,Milestones,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland,Torture,Treason

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