1870: John Gregson, drunk and disorderly

Add comment January 10th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1870, the very first private execution took place at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool.

Steven Horton’s book Liverpool Hangings: Kirkdale Hangings, 1870-1891 notes that between 1831 and 1867, executions at Kirkdale Gaol had been public, observed by crowds ranging in size from 500 to 100,000 people, but the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 put an end to them.

However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”

Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,

were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …

The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.

Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.

On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.

John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.

Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.

The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.

Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”

“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.

Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.

By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.

At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.

The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.

As Martin J. Wiener’s book Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England noted, by the 1860s, fatal domestic violence was being punished more severely than it used to be:

Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.

As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.

In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.

In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.

The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:

The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.

At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices

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1716: Four Jacobite rebels at Liverpool

1 comment February 25th, 2011 Headsman

We doubt this entry can stack up to the one preceding for melodrama, but not every rebel on the gallows can be a peer of the realm or a guardian of the chalice of Christ. Big names get the big headlines, but other folk make up their smaller fame by their greater volume.

From the interesting Lancashire Memorials of the Rebellion, we learn of the unhappy fate of several dozen Jacobite rebels in a chapter titled, “The Prisoners Tried at Liverpool, and Their Sentences.”

At the beginning of January 1716, the Government sent down a commission of Oyer and Terminer, to try the prisoners who had been distributed in the various prisons of Lancaster, Chester, and Liverpool. As Liverpool had the reputation of being in the Whig interest [i.e., the Hanoverian, anti-Jacobite party], having sent to Parliament two Members of this party, it was conceived expedient, that the trials of so many rebels, which, under the most favourable circumstances, could not fail to have caused much factious excitement and sensation, should take place in a town, more devoted to the Whig cause than any other in Lancashire.

The judges appointed for the trial were Mr. Baron Burry, Mr. Justice Eyre, and Mr. Baron Montague, who, on the 4th of January, set out, with all their attendants, from London. For the sake of making an impression upon the country, they travelled leisurely through all the towns upon the route, so as to occupy seven days on the journey. On the 11th of the same month, they arrived at Liverpool.

Upon the day following, January 12th, the judges opened their commission; the Grand Jury were summoned, and the court sat. There had been Commissioners previously appointed to take precognitions of such as were made witnesses in reference to the fact of rebellion at Preston; which, having been laid before the Grand Jury, bills of indictment were found against 48 of the prisoners.

Copies of the Indictments were then given to the persons against whom the bills were found, and the court was adjourned for eight days, in order to afford the prisoners legal time to prepare their defense …

n the 20th of January the Court again sat, between which date and that of the 9th of February following, it is said that 74 persons were tried.

Thirty-four of these wretches drew death sentences, which were meted out in a sort of traveling road show in the realm’s northern reaches to make sure everybody got the message.

That show’s closing performance was on this date.

Liverpool, Feb. 25th. — The circuit of the Hangmen here ended.On this day suffered Mr. Burnett of Carlops, a most active gentleman in the Rebellion, along with Alexander Drummond, and two Northumberland gentlemen, viz., George Collingwood and John Hunter.

In the High Sheriff’s account is the following item: “Feb. 25. Charge of executing Bennet” [Burnet] “and three more at Leverpoole, £10, 3s.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1964: Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen, England’s last hangings

6 comments August 13th, 2008 Headsman

At 8 o’clock in the morning this date in 1964, two gallows traps 50 kilometers apart opened simultaneously — dropping the last two men England ever hanged.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen couldn’t have been much smaller fare for a milestone as momentous as the last entry in England’s copious annals of execution.


Evans (left) and Allen.

The two twentysomethings had dropped by Evans’s former coworker’s place in the aptly-named port Workington to borrow money. Since the call was at 3 a.m. and the petitioners were armed, it might appear that they had in mind an offer that John Alan West couldn’t refuse. The reader is invited to fill in the rest: a quarrel, a murder, a stolen watch, a medallion dropped at the crime scene with one of the perps’ own names on it …

Three months later, they were on trial for their lives; a month after that, hanged by the neck until dead. If there is tragedy in these hapless thugs, it may be that either could possibly have saved the other by claiming sole responsibility for the murder; since each blamed the other, the jury ended up finding them equally culpable.

While the last hangings in Canada featured two unconnected men hanged together, the last in England had partners in crime hanged separately. Allen died at Liverpool’s Walton Prison; Evans was dropped at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison.*

And unlike the Canadian case, Evans and Allen didn’t die knowing they were likely the last.

Although hangings had slowed to a crawl in Britain — there were just two in 1963, and none in 1964 before this day — death sentences continued to be handed down. But the trend was toward abolition: the British Parliament suspended the death penalty for ordinary crimes late in 1965, and made the suspension permanent in 1969. The handful of exceptional crimes for which the gallows remained nominally available — treason, piracy, espionage — were never enforced as such before those statutes too were removed from the hangman’s jurisdiction by 1998.

* Evans’ executioner, Harry Allen — no relation to Peter Anthony Allen — also conducted the last hanging in Scotland.

Part of the Themed Set: At the End of the Rope.

On this day..

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

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