1752: Thomas Wilford, the first hanged under the Murder Act of 1751

Add comment July 2nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1752,* Thomas Wilford hanged at Tyburn — the first person executed under the Murder Act of 1751.

Approved the previous year but just come into effect on the first of June of 1752, the Murder Act proposed “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment of death” for homicides.**

Since even shoplifting could get you hanged at this period, actually killing someone required an extra twist on the punishment. Parliament killed two birds with one stone here by also addressing the country’s need for anatomical corpses, requiring that the bodies of hanged murderers be delivered “to the hall of the Surgeons Company” where it “shall be dissected and anatomized by the said Surgeons.”†

Wilford presented the surgeons a one-armed specimen with questionable impulse control. As a teenager, he met a prostitute named Sarah Williams in their shared workhouse, and married her, but the honeymoon did not last long. Four days later, his bride stayed out late and to his queries admitted having gone “to the Park” — whereupon Wilford grabbed a knife and slashed her neck so deep as to nearly decapitate her.

“He had no sooner committed the horrid deed than he threw down the knife, opened the chamber door, and was going downstairs when a woman, who lodged in an adjacent room, asked who was there; to which Wilford replied: ‘It is me. I have murdered my poor wife, whom I loved as dearly as my own life,'” quoth the Newgate calendar.

A simple and pathetic crime with an easy disposition for the judiciary. The Newgate Ordinary’s account has a few more details. As specified, his remains were indeed turned over for anatomization.

Another provision of the Murder Act: a death sentence for murder is to “be executed according to law, on the day next but one after sentence passed, unless the same shall happen to be the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday.” Wilford was condemned on a Tuesday and hanged on Thursday morning; however, the predominant practice moving forward would be to issue such sentences on Fridays in order to give the doomed an extra day to prepare themselves.‡

* Thursday, July 2 was the Julian calendar date of Wilford’s hanging. Our norm has been to prefer the local date (Gregorian or Julian, depending on the country) prior to England’s changeover in 1752 — and then generally to prefer the Gregorian date thereafter. (We’ve made a few exceptions.)

England spent the first eight months of 1752 on the Julian calendar, then transitioned to the Gregorian calendar in September of that year, so in this particular instance we’re hewing it close to the bone.

I infer that the calendar switch is probably also the reason why the Newgate Calendar incorrectly attributes Wilford’s hanging to June 22: the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at this point was 11 days, so a later interlocutor might have supposed that July 2 was a Gregorian date that wanted subtraction. It was a confusing, 355-day leap year for Old Blighty, complete with a new New Year’s Day, so if that’s the explanation I’m inclined to give the author a mulligan for making an unnecessary date adjustment and then miscounting the number of days to adjust.

** The Act’s preamble claims that the “horrid crime of murder has of late been more frequently perpetrated than formerly, and particularly in and near the metropolis of this kingdom, contrary to the known humanity and natural genius of the British nation.” We lack dependable crime statistics for this period to verify this sense of parliamentarians.

† The Murder Act also empowered judges, at their discretion, to order a criminal hung in chains, like these blokes.

‡ The eleven other people — non-murderers — condemned at the same assize were not executed until July 13.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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