1868: Thomas Wells, the first private hanging in England

4 comments August 13th, 2009 Headsman

The hanging this date at Kent’s Maidstone Prison of Thomas Wells for the murder of the Dover postmaster stamped the understated debut of England’s era of private executions.

It was a shift almost a century in the making; in 1783, Albion had eliminated London’s traditional, disorderly procession to Tyburn in favor of public hangings just outside the walls of the prison — to the chagrin of traditionalists like Samuel Johnson.

As the 19th century unfolded, this even this throwback spectacle attracted increasing criticism, noticeably from literary types who decried the aesthetics, effectiveness, and/or morality of public execution.

Eventually, on May 29, 1868,* Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, also known as the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act. The public hanging was no more.

Our day’s otherwise mundane murderer became the first to answer for his crime in this brave new behind-prison-walls world. And if the objective was to banish the the spectacle and theater of the scaffold — well, the report in next day’s London Times of Thomas Wells’ hanging would suggest the measure achieved its purpose.

Yesterday morning Thomas Wells, aged 18, who was found guilty at the last Kent Assizes of the wilful murder of Mr. Walsh, the master of the Priory Station on the London, Chatham, and Dover Railway, by shooting him in revenge for a reprimand which that gentleman, under whom he served as a porter, had given him for some misconduct, suffered the extreme penalty of the law. This was the first execution under the new Act requiring executions in future to be inflicted within the prison walls.

It was, of course, generally known that the execution would be conducted in private, and that the only sign would be the hoisting of a black flag outside the prison wall. At the moment of the falling of the drop there were very few, if any, strangers in the vicinity of the prison, and the town presented quite its ordinary appearance, presenting a marked and extraordinary contrast to that which it has hitherto exhibited on the occasion of a public execution. The scaffold was erected in a small yard adjoining the debtors’ portion of the gaol, which had at one time been used as an exercise yard for the prisoners. It is enclosed by four high walls. The apparatus is the same that was formerly used, with some slight alterations. The drop is on a level with the stone paving of the yard, and the executioner has to descend several steps to remove the bolt which supports the platform, and the latter then drops into a recess prepared for it. No one was present at the execution but the undersheriff, governor, sergeant, chaplain, and the representatives of the Press.

After his trial the culprit seemed to have been fully aware that there was no hope for him, but he expressed remorse for the act he had committed, and wrote a very penitent letter to Mrs. Walsh, the widow of the deceased, entreating her forgiveness. No efforts appear to have been made in any quarter to obtain a remission of the capital sentence.

The culprit prayed fervently with the Rev. Mr. Frazer, the chaplain, for a few seconds, and as the drop fell he was singing with a loud clear voice the 486th hymn. He appeared to die after two or three convulsive struggles.

Of course, not everything old can be new overnight; this hanging was carried out by longtime public hangman William Calcraft, who’d had his start in the trade back in 1829 and was renowned for unpleasantly strangling his charges with his itty-bitty drops. Though the Times report downplays the climax, other press attendees agreed that Wells died hard.

This day’s milestone, nevertheless, was a way station en route to further innovations, the decisive transition from an ancient form of public corporal discipline to the rational, calculated, mechanistic procedure meet for an industrial empire.

Behind prison walls, Calcraft would yield his own place to William Marwood’s precisely measured drops, and then to the 20th century’s coolly efficient Albert Pierrepoint. The changes may have been incremental, but by the end, little save the rope remained of England’s storied hanging era.

The natural end of that evolution, some would have us believe, is disposing the rope altogether. If Wells’s private hanging held the seed of capital punishment’s eventual abolition, it sprouted quite neatly indeed: it was this same date in 1964 that England conducted its last private hangings — or executions of any kind.

* The act was passed only three days after the last public hanging in England.

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1777: William Dodd, mind wonderfully concentrated

3 comments June 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1777, they hanged the macaroni parson at Tyburn.

High-living, Cambridge-educated vicar William Dodd achieved this emasculating nickname for his frippery — macaroni (or maccaroni) being 18th century slang for a sort of outrageous continental metrosexual.*

He came particularly in for public ridicule when he was caught trying to bribe his way to a lucrative ecclesiastical position, financial hardship from his lifestyle having driven him to the desperate need for a pay hike. (In sorer straits later, he would sum up his life: “my greatest evil was expense. To supply it, I fell into the dreadful and ruinous mode of raising money by simonies. The annuities devoured me.”

Playwright Samuel Foote skewered the recently-humiliated Dodd on the stage in The Cozeners as “Dr. Simony,” described in the scrambled boast of “Mrs. Simony”:

not a more populous preacher within the sound of Bow-bells: I don’t mean for the mobility only … with a cambric handkerchief in one hand, and a diamond ring on the other: and then he waves this way and that way; and he curtsies, and he bows, and he bounces, that all the people are ready to — but then his wig, madam! I am sure you must admire his dear wig … short, rounded off at the ear, to show his plump cherry cheeks, white as a curd, feather-topped, and the curls as close as a cauliflower…

Then, my doctor is none of your schismatics, madam; believes in the whole thirty-nine! and so he would if there were nine times as many.

Three years after Foote’s cruel pen gave Dodd’s name immortality, the divine himself was (so he should think) ushered into eternity, after he got caught passing a forged bond against the revenues of his onetime student Lord Chesterfield.

Condemned to die for the offense,** a longer-than-usual lag from sentence to execution gave Dr. Simony leave to follow that classic Calvary of errant clerics with a mien of pious self-flagellation that helped his case raised a public outcry for clemency.

Samuel Johnson was among thousands of Britons who petitioned for mercy, and in Johnson’s case, went a bit further to ghost-write a piece in Dodd’s name, “The convict’s address to his unhappy brethren”. It was when the litterateur’s hand was suspected behind this prose† that Johnson made his quotable, tweetable remark,

“Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Dr. Johnson, nevertheless, was the true author, and the old scribbler used it to express some of his particular opinions on the proper staging of gallows-theater.

It is the duty of a penitent to repair, so far as he has the power, the injury which he has done. What we can do, is commonly nothing more than to leave the world an example of contrition. On the dreadful day, when the sentence of the law has its full force, some will be found to have affected a shameless bravery, or negligent intrepidity. Such is not the proper behaviour of a convicted criminal. To rejoice in tortures is the privilege of a martyr; to meet death with intrepidity is the right only of innocence, if in any human being innocence could be found. Of him, whose life is shortened by his crimes, the last duties are humility and self-abasement. We owe to God sincere repentance; we owe to man the appearance of repentance.—-We ought not to propagate an opinion, that he who lived in wickedness can die with courage.‡

William Dodd (together with another criminal, John Harris) had occasion to do just that this day in 1777. Dodd became the last person hanged for forgery at Tyburn.

Updated: According to Wendy Moore, there was an posthumous attempt at resuscitation, which was known to work sometimes.

Dodd, himself a big death penalty opponent from his former public perch, gave a sermon the very year of his eventual death titled The Frequency of Capital Punishments Inconsistent with Justice, Sound Policy and Religion, critiquing “voluntary destruction” of human life and its inconsistency with “the humane and benevolent spirit which characterizes the present times.”

He was also — which helps explain the revival attempt — a big supporter of the Humane Society, which sought to apply the developing science of the Enlightenment to the problem of resuscitating the (near-)drowned. (The Royal Humane Society’s motto today is lateat scintillula forsan, “a small spark may perhaps lie hid.”)

Dodd preached an enthusiastic sermon to this body in 1776, expansively anticipating its work for analogous “various other kinds of sudden and accidental death” such as “malefactors executed at the gallows, [which] would afford opportunities of discovering how far this method might be successful in relieving such as may have unhappily become their own executioners by hanging themselves.” Dodd’s own engagement with both the medical and the theological questions at stake in resuscitation surely conditioned his own anticipation under the noose that, if revived, he might live on as a “renovated being.”

(Dodd’s involvement with the Humane Society is detailed in Kelly McGuire’s “Raising the Dead: Sermons, Suicide, and Transnational Exchange in the Eighteenth Century,” Literature and Medicine, Spring 2009.)

It was, surely, an astounding time to live; no less so, to die. And the mysterious border between the two might be re-engineered by human ingenuity.

As Lord Byron (a man with his own fascination for the scaffold) wrote in Don Juan,

What opposite discoveries we have seen!
(Signs of true genius, and of empty pockets.)
One makes new noses, one a guillotine,
One breaks your bones, one sets them in their sockets;

Bread has been made (indifferent) from potatoes;
And galvanism has set some corpses grinning,
But has not answer’d like the apparatus
Of the Humane Society’s beginning
By which men are unsuffocated gratis:
What wondrous new machines have late been spinning!

* The lyrics of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (“stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni”) may be the most recognizable modern-day relic of this lexicon.

** Dodd made a groveling plea to the jury in the face of overwhelming evidence against him, at one point bold enough to appeal to injury his death would inflict upon those who lent him money: “I have creditors, honest men, who will lose much by my death. I hope, for the sake of justice towards them, some mercy will be shown to me. ”

† Dodd could write a little himself; he had a theological tract and a commentary on Shakespeare already to his name, and at Newgate cranked out Thoughts in Prison, a collection of sub-Villon poetry.

‡ In an addendum that would have warmed the cockles of the Roberts court, Johnson-as-Dodd also opined,

Every man reposes upon the tribunals of his country the stability of possession, and the serenity of life. He therefore who unjustly exposes the courts of judicature to suspicion, either of partiality or error, not only does an injury to those who dispense the laws, but diminishes the public confidence in the laws themselves, and shakes the foundation of public tranquility.

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1783: The first hangings at Newgate Prison

8 comments December 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1783, London’s colorful penal history moved across town.

For centuries, public executions had been carried out at the storied Tyburn gallows, a ribald, rambunctious affair that involved carting the doomed from Newgate Prison through teeming city streets, by way of ale house pit stops.

The Tyburn era drew to a close late in the 18th century. Five weeks before, its last victim swung there.


The former hanging grounds of Tyburn, sketched by William Capon in 1785. The gallery still standing was privately erected, to sell tickets to spectators eager for a view.

Little more than a month later, the curtain raised and the trap fell on a new chapter for the London hanged.

Henceforth, the processional would be dispensed with, and the condemned simply walked across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a public gallows just outside the prison.

These were still public executions, and hardly eliminated the carnival atmosphere as this c. 1789 sketch will attest:

But it marked a move towards, if not altogether to, a version of the death penalty more familiar to modern eyes. For one thing, the prison itself became the site of punishment, absent the elaborate and occasionally dangerous theater of the trip to Tyburn; at Newgate, they were regularized, an extension of the frightful dungeon, and as the crowd itself was controlled and separated from the elevated platform, the natural next step would be at last to withdraw inside the prison’s walls.

At the same time, there is a technological advance towards “scientific” hangings geared to minimize suffering: the ‘New Drop’.

This system, whereby a trap sprung beneath the prisoner’s feet suspended him on the gallows, was not strictly new — a form of it had been used at Tyburn as early as 1760, though not repeated.* But the new drop (still just a variety of short drop, where strangulation is likely) marks a distinct shift towards a mechanistic punishment, clearly removed from the sometimes fraught physical confrontation between a prisoner and a hangman attempting to force him or her from the cart, and an antechamber into the grim 19th century science of reckoning hangman’s drops for the precise effect of snapping (without severing) the neck.

Of course, progress always has its detractors.

74-year-old Samuel Johnson groused at the “innovation” of leaving Tyburn:

[T]hey object that the old method drew together too many spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators; If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public were gratified by a procession and the criminal was supported by it.

Approaching the matter from a very different perspective, Lord Byron found the Italian beheadings of Mastro Titta “altogether more impressive than the vulgar and ungentlemanly dirty ‘new drop’, and dog-like agony of infliction upon the sufferers of the English sentence.”

* In the correspondence of an early 19th century Secretary of the Admiralty, we have confirmation of this in a letter of Sir Peter Laurie, available from Google Books here and here. Laurie reports that “something like a drop in hanging criminals”

was not adopted as the general mode of execution till 1783, when ten felons were executed on the 9th of December in that year for the first time in front of Newgate, on a new drop or scaffold hung with black … The gallows used at Tyburn was purchased by a carpenter who, having no sentiment in his composition, converted it into stands for beer butts in the cellars of a public house called the “Carpenter’s Arms” in Adam Street.

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