(Thanks to Quaker humanitarian William Allen for the guest post, originally published in Allen’s early 19th century periodical The Philanthropist — a journal intended “to stimlate to virtue and active benevolence, by pointing out to those who have the disposition and the power the means of gratifying the best feelings of the heart.” We dated the quintuple hanging referred to via CapitalPunishmentUK.org. -ed.)
Remarks on a late Execution at Shrewsbury
As one object of THE PHILANTHROPIST is to diffuse knowledge respecting capital punishment, it may, perhaps, afford a place for the following particulars.
At the last Shrewsbury assizes, George Taylor, aged 43, William Turner, aged 53, Abraham Whitehouse, aged 23, James Baker, aged 19, and Isaac Hickman, aged 19, were, convicted of burglariously breaking into a dwelling-house, and stealing some bank notes and other articles of value. They were all left for death. The three first were considered as old offenders. The two others, however, were understood to have borne a good character; their parents were said to be respectable; the offence, as far as appeared, was the first they had committed; and they were only nineteen.
A general persuasion therefore prevailed, that these unfortunate youths would be permitted to live. Under this impression, it seems, some kind-hearted person, a stranger to them, climbed to the top of the wall overlooking the press yard behind the Shire-hall, where the prisoners were waiting on the day of their condemnation, and cried out, “You are all condemned, but only three of you will suffer.”
The poor young fellows eagerly embraced the assurance. They knew how often mercy was extended to persons under sentence of death, and could not suppose they should be selected as fit objects of peculiar severity.
While they were comforting themselves in confinement with the daily hope of a reprieve, the time appointed for the execution drew near. Two days before that time, one of them received a message from his mother, intended to console him under the expectation of a miserable death, that she would send to fetch away his body! Not till then, had they given themselves up for lost. But from that moment all hope was over. From that moment they had but two days — two days of consternation and despair, to fit themselves for death and eternity. Those two days, the shortest they had ever known, were but too soon gone. The morning of execution came. On that day, the five prisoners, even the two lads of nineteen, were all hanged! The two poor fellows who were executed together, immediately as the drop fell from under them, caught hold of each other’s hands, and expired in a mutual embrace! What a feeling has pervaded the county, among all who could feel, hardly need be described.
The extraordinary circumstance of five men being executed at once, for one offence, attracted vast multitudes of people, of the lower order, from all parts of the country. To see five of their fellow creatures hanged, was as good as a horse-race, a boxing-match, or a bull-baiting. If nothing was intended but to amuse the rabble, at a great loss of their time and a considerable expense, the design was undoubtedly effected. If a public entertainment was not the object, it may be asked, What benefit has a single individual derived from beholding the destruction of these miserable victims? Perhaps that question may be answered by stating, that many of the spectators immediately afterwards got intoxicated, and some cried out to their companions, with a significant gesture in allusion to the mode of punishment, “It is but a ten minutes job!” If such is the sentiment excited on the very spot, it cannot be supposed to be more salutary at a distance; and notwithstanding the sacrifice of these five men, the people of Shropshire must still fasten their doors.
But if, on the other hand, in time to come, a compassionate Shropshire jury should rather acquit some unhappy young culprit, when charged with a capital felony, and suffer hm to go unpunished, rather than consign him to the executioner, — if house-breakers should learn to think lightly of human life, and adopt the precaution of committing a murder the next time they commit a robbery, since the danger of detection would be less, and the punishment no greater, — what will the inhabitants of the county have to thank for it, but this very spectacle! — a spectacle which cannot soften one heart, but may harden many; which confounds moral distinctions, and draws away public indignation from the guilt of the offender, to turn it against the severity of the law.