1811: Five at Shrewsbury, “but a ten minutes job”

Add comment August 24th, 2017 William Allen

(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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Public Executions,Theft

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Themed Set: More like Drop-shire

Add comment March 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.

A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

In English crime as in culture and commerce, the capital city can’t help but throw its shadow over the rest, and small wonder. Who could deny London her laurels as one of the world’s great hives of true crime: haunt of gallant highwaymen and underworld kingpins, skulking servants and reprobate lords, fantastical escape artists and the mysterious Whitechapel murderer. So it is for executions, too, although a site like ours might attribute London’s primacy as much to the convenient digitization of Old Bailey records as to the notoriety of the Tyburn tree or the Dickensian ribaldry under Newgate’s gallows or the legend of Jack Ketch.

Suffice to say that, wherever one lays the reasons, London’s gravitational force drags the eyeballs.

For this week’s series, it’s time to do justice to the everyday criminals who plied their trades outside the Great Wen. Specifically, we’ll be off to the Welsh frontier to meet some Shropshire malefactors whose long-ago crimes waft the moldy bouquet of that West Midlands county’s distinctive cheese.


(cc) image from Ulterior Epicure.

The sequence of March execution dates upon which this post series hangs (ahem) is more than coincidence, for the pattern of executions in Shropshire — as is generally true outside of London — tracks sittings of the intermittent assizes.

This juridical innovation predated the Magna Carta and somehow persisted until disco: traveling judges commissioned by the state to hold courts of oyer and terminer in six different regional circuits. Shropshire was part of the Oxford circuit with Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herfordshire, Monmouthshire, and Gloucestershire; typically, Shropshire’s assizes were held in its centrally located county town, Shrewsbury, twice per year — once during Lent, and again in the summer. At these assizes the mobile barristers would plop down, straighten their wigs, and in the course of a few weeks try all the pending felony cases that had stacked up since their last visit. Then they would pick up and move to the next county in the circuit.

When there were many capital cases in the queue, assizes could turn downright bloody — but in more normal times, their product was predictability. Thanks to the assize schedule, 18th and 19th century Shropshire hangings almost all take place in either March-April, or July-August. Head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org and browse their logs of historical executions: see what I mean?

With due appreciation to the court’s metronomic regularity, the next few days will be dedicated to a selection of Salopean March noosings … common crimes, to be sure, and maybe a bit out of the way — but for those who touched them every bit as rich with malice and majesty and madness as ever a London footpad could design.

* Keeping sheep by moonlight: a euphemism for hanging in chains.

** This fate befalls the titular tortured scientist in Frankenstein: he wastes three months in prison on suspicion of murdering his friend awaiting “the season of the assizes”, at which point “I was obliged to travel nearly a hundred miles to the county-town, where the court was held.”

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Entry Filed under: Themed Sets

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