1945: Andrew Brown, Leading Aircraftsman

Add comment January 30th, 2019 Headsman

26-year-old Leading Aircraftsman Andrew Brown, Prisoner No. 11421, was hanged at Wandsworth prison on Tuesday the 30th of January 1945, by Albert Pierrepoint and Steve Wade. The LPC4 form records that he weighed 145 lbs and was given a drop of 7′ 7″, which caused fracture/dislocation of the vertebrae and severance of the spinal cord from the medulla oblongata.

-From the January 30, 2019 Facebook post of the Capital Punishment UK Facebook page. Click through to find out why neighbors failed to help the elderly victim even though she cried out “murder” as he assailed her…

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1928: William Charles Benson

Add comment November 20th, 2018 Headsman

William Charles Benson hanged at Wandsworth prison on this date in 1928, the murderer of his ice cream factory co-worker’s wife.

Benson in 1925 had moved in with his mate Sidney Harbor in Kentish Town where the quarters were so close that everybody shared the same bedroom.

The savings in rent were drawn from the heart’s account, once Sidney’s wife Charlotte — the couple had two children together — took a shine to the boarder in the other bed. Benson in 1927 lost job and side piece alike when he was fired from Wall’s and also kicked out of the house by the suspicious Sidney; Charlotte, however, continued the affair and eventually even took an apartment nearby Benson’s new place to facilitate assignations.

Early on the morning of September 6, 1928, Benson hailed a constable with the words, “I want an ambulance, I have just killed my girl.” Apparently, she had proposed putting the adultery to an end and returning to Sidney.

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1961: Henryk Niemasz, the last hanged at Wandsworth

Add comment September 8th, 2018 Headsman

Wandsworth Prison hosted its 135th and final hanging on this date in 1961.

The star of the show was Henryk Niemasz, who became infatuated with a married woman and shot her dead when she refused to break up her marriage for him. Niemasz was also married himself, to a wife who surely deserved better given that Grypa Niemasz was willing to give her husband a fake alibi for the time he was off shotgunning his paramour.

The death penalty departed English shores in the 1960s, but the Wandsworth gallows was kept in working order until 1993, just in case. (It would have been in case of treason, which was the only remaining capital statute by then.)

The prison itself, which dates to 1851, remains in operation to this day. According to friend of the blog Another Nickel in the Machine, Wandsworth’s former condemned cell “is now used as a television room for prison officers.”

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1941: George Johnson Armstrong, under the Treachery Act

Add comment July 10th, 2018 Headsman

Marine engineer George Johnson Armstrong on this date in 1941 was hanged at Wandsworth Prison … attaining an unenviable distinction as the first of five Britons executed under the Treachery Act of 1940.

One of the very first laws enacted by the incoming wartime government of Winston Churchill as the Wehrmacht overran France, the Treachery Act anticipated two potential difficulties in punishing various forms of aid that folk might thereafter attempt to extend to the Third Reich.

We’ll let all about those difficulties:

if we rely upon the Treason Act — the main Act, as I have said, is an Act of great antiquity — and other Acts which establish special procedure and special formalities, we shall have a much more complicated and cumbrous procedure than may, in existing circumstances, be justified.

There is also this further point. The law of treason in this country applies, of course, to every British subject wherever that British subject is living, because every British subject owes allegiance to the King. The law of treason also applies to aliens in so far as they owe to the King local allegiance — that is to say, as long as they are resident in this country and enjoying the protection of its laws. It is a very doubtful question indeed whether under the existing law of treason you could proceed against an alien who has come here suddenly, surreptitiously by air or otherwise, for the purposes of wreaking clandestine destruction or doing other acts against the safety of the real. In as much as treason is a crime committed by someone who owes allegiance, it might be well argued that such a person does not owe allegiance to the British Crown.

This act was handy indeed against enemy spies like Josef Jakobs, but it was also employed against five British citizens during and immediately following the war. (We’ve previously met a couple of them in these very pages: Theodore Schurch and Duncan Scott-Ford.) Johnson’s particular offense was to communicate an offer to a German consulate in the United States to help keep the then-still-neutral U.S. out of the war.

A full list of those executed for wartime treachery can be found at CapitalPunishmehtUK.org.

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1901: George Parker, drunk marine

Add comment March 19th, 2018 Headsman

From John Sadden’s Portsmouth Book of Days (via):

Elizabeth Rowland, of Prince Albert Street, Eastney, Portsmouth, received this letter [on January 19, 1901] from 22-year-old George Hill [George Parker], whom she had been seeing while her soldier husband was serving in India.

Hill was a marine at Eastney Barracks until he was convicted of stealing there.

He was later arrested for murdering a man on a train during an armed robbery.

Dearest Lizzie,

It makes my heart bleed, as I am writing these few lines, to think I shall never see you again, and that you will be alone and miserable now … I always loved you dearly … I am truly sorry and penitent for having, in an evil moment, allowed myself to be carried away into committing murder.

I went and purchased a revolver so that when I came down to Portsmouth I could end both our lives if I had not been successful in obtaining money from my father.

I know you were not happy at home, nor I either, for I have been very unhappy of late, mostly on account of the false charges brought against me at the barracks.

I shall get hung now. I believe I was mad; I know I was drunk.

God help me!

My days are numbered, but I will bear it unflinchingly.

Your broken-hearted sweetheart,

Geo H Hill

Hill was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on March 19, 1901

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1938: George Brain, Wimbledon murderer

Add comment November 1st, 2014 Headsman

The headline story from Wimbledon in July of 1938 ought to have been the conquest of its renowned tennis championship by Don Budge. The American great didn’t drop a set in seven rounds romping to a men’s title that left him on the cusp of sweeping the Grand Slam tourneys that year. Weeks later, Budge did indeed complete the Slam by taking the U.S. Open — the first player to accomplish that feat in a single year.

But on the morning of July 14, two weeks after Budge raised the silverware, Somerset Road opposite Centre Court yielded up to a passing motorist the body of a 30-year-old woman.

The badly mangled body suggested a hit-and-run, but examination soon revealed that Rose Muriel Atkins had come to her grievous end via the trauma of a small, sharp instrument and not a large, blunt one: the tire marks over Irish Rose’s legs merely a post-mortem red herring.

By no coincidence, a local driver that morning skipped his shift and disappeared, leaving his van in a buddy’s garage. Once police caught wind of this circumstance and found in the van extensive bloodstains that the fugitive deliveryman had unsuccessfully scrubbed, the nationwide manhunt for George Brain was on.

Brain managed to stay on the lam for more than a week, which caused him to miss his intended July 21 wedding date, but this futile flight was really the strongest defense he could offer.

Irish Rose was a well-known prostitute and Brain a well-known satyr; once arrested, he acknowledged having picked her up in the company van with a professional assignation in mind. At that point, he was already in the soup with his employer for stealing 37 quid to squander on hedonism — money he was past due to return to them. (The firm’s reporting him for theft when he skipped work is what brought his creepy van right to police attention.)

Per Brain, the courtesan tried to extract more money from him by threatening to tattle on the naughty use of his work vehicle, at which point “I said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ I struck her with my hand. She started screaming. Then everything seemed to go blank and I hit her with a starting handle which I keep in the van. When I came to there was her body lying in the van.” (London Times, September 20, 1938)

The old “blacked out during this person’s inexplicable murder” defense. Too bad for that story that he actually killed her with a knife; the judge incredulously instructed the jury that “one who takes a chisel or a knife, such as has been produced — a cobbler’s knife — and tears up the throat of a woman, cannot be heard to say that he never expected her to die and never intended to kill her.” Though Brain meted out the wounds with (per the coroner’s characterization) “savage determination” he had still not gone so ravingly feral that he couldn’t be arsed to stage the hit and run or rummage the moll’s purse for her last four shillings. The jury needed only 15 minutes to convict.

Brain’s convivial reputation around Wimbledon earned him 16,500 subscribers to a petition to save his neck despite what he’d done to Atkins’s, but the Home Secretary turned him down flat. Brain was executed at Wandsworth Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint.

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1879: Kate Webster, of the Barnes Mystery

1 comment July 29th, 2013 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site. (I’ve added some links and done a bit of minor reformatting.) The images accompanying this post are also provided by Mr. Clark. -ed.)

Kate Webster was a rather incompetent career criminal who had served several prison terms for various thefts and offences of dishonesty, both in her native Ireland and in England. These included a period of 12 months in 1877 in London’s Wandsworth prison, where she would ultimately die.

She was born Catherine Lawler in 1849 in Killane, Co. Wexford in what is now the Irish Republic and started her criminal career at an early age. She claimed to have a married a sea captain called Webster by whom, according to her, she had had four children. Whether this is true is doubtful, however.

She moved to Liverpool (stealing money for the ferry fare) and continued stealing once she arrived there. This was to earn her a four-year prison sentence at the age of 18. On release, she went to London and took work as a cleaner — often “cleaning out” her employer’s possessions before moving on.

In 1873, she settled at Rose Gardens in London’s Hammersmith area. Her next door neighbours were Henry and Ann Porter whom she got on well with and were to feature later in her story. She moved to Notting Hill to a new job as a cook/housekeeper to Captain Woolbest and whilst in his employ, met a man named Strong with whom she went to live and became pregnant by. She duly gave birth to a son on the 19th of April 1874 and was promptly abandoned by Mr. Strong. Without any means of support (there was no Social Security then), Kate resorted to her usual dishonest practices and served several prison sentences as a result.

On release from Wandsworth in 1877, she again sought domestic work — firstly with the Mitchell family in Teddington, of whom she was to say that they didn’t have anything worth stealing. She was constantly on the move at this time and used several aliases including Webster and Lawler.

Sarah Crease, another domestic servant, became friends with Kate somewhere around this period, and it was Sarah who found herself looking after Kate’s son during his mother’s spells in prison.

The murder.

On the 13th of January 1879, Kate entered the service of Mrs Julia Martha Thomas at No. 2 Vine Cottages, Park Road, Richmond. To begin with, the two women got on well and Kate recorded that she felt she could be happy working for Mrs. Thomas, who was comfortably off, although a rather eccentric woman in her mid 50’s.

Soon, however, the poor quality of Kate’s work and her frequent visits to local pubs began to irritate Mrs. Thomas and after various reprimands, she gave Kate notice with Kate’s dismissal to take effect on Friday, the 28th of February. This period of notice was a fatal mistake on the part of Mrs. Thomas and she became increasingly frightened of her employee during its period, so much so that she asked friends from her church and relatives to stay in the house with her.

Friday the 28th arrived and as Kate had not managed to find a new job or any accommodation, she pleaded with Mrs. Thomas to be allowed to remain in her house over the weekend. Sadly, Mrs. Thomas agreed to this — a decision that was to cost both women their lives.

On the Sunday morning (the 2nd of March 1879), Mrs. Thomas went off to church as usual. Kate was allowed Sunday afternoons off work but had to be back in time for Mrs. Thomas to go to the evening service. This Sunday afternoon Kate went to visit her son, who was as usual in the care of Sarah Crease, and then went to a pub on the way back to Vine Cottages. Thus she got back late which inconvenienced Mrs. Thomas, who again reprimanded her before rushing off so as not be late for the service. Fellow members of the congregation noticed that she seemed agitated, whether this was because she suspected Kate’s dishonesty and feared her home was being robbed, is quite possible.

Whatever the reason, Mrs. Thomas left church before the end of the service and went home, sadly without asking anyone to accompany her. Precisely what happened next is unclear. In her confession prior to her execution, Kate described the events as follows:

We had an argument which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall. I felt that she was seriously injured and I became agitated at what had happened, lost all control of myself and to prevent her screaming or getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat and in the struggle choked her.

At her trial, the prosecution painted a rather different picture. Mrs. Thomas’ next door neighbour, Mrs. Ives, heard the noise of the fall followed by silence and at the time thought no more of it. Little was she to suspect what was to happen next.

Kate, of course, had the problem of what to do with the body but instead of just leaving it and escaping, she decided to dismember it and then dispose of the parts in the river.

She set about this grim task with a will, firstly cutting off the dead woman’s head with a razor and meat saw and then hacking off her limbs. She par-boiled the limbs and torso in a copper on the stove and burned Mrs. Thomas’ organs and intestines.

Even Kate was revolted by all this and the enormous amount of blood everywhere. But she stuck to the job and systematically burnt or boiled all of the body parts and then packed the remains into a wooden box, except for the head and one foot for which she could not find room. It has been said that Kate even tried to sell the fatty remains from boiling the body as dripping.

Mrs. Ives was later to report a strange smell from next door (which was caused by the burning).

Kate disposed of the spare foot on a manure heap but was left with the problem of the head, which she decided to place into a black bag.

She continued to clean up the cottage on the Monday and Tuesday and then “borrowing” one of Mrs. Thomas’ silk dresses went to visit the Porter family on the Tuesday afternoon, taking the black bag containing the head with her.

She told the Porters that she had benefited under the will of an aunt who had left her a house in Richmond which she wanted to dispose of, together with its contents, as she had decided to return to Ireland. She asked Henry Porter if he knew a property broker (estate agent) who might be able to assist her.

Later in the evening Kate excused herself and went off, ostensibly to visit another friend, returning later without the black bag which was never found. Both Henry Porter and his son Robert had carried the bag for Kate at various stages of their walk to the railway station and two pubs along the way and both noticed how heavy it was.

This still left Kate with the rest of the human remains in the box to dispose of and she sought the services of young Robert Porter to help her in this, taking the lad back home with her for the purpose. She and Robert carried the box between them to Richmond Bridge, where Kate said she was meeting someone who was taking the box and told Robert to go on without her. Robert was to hear a splash of something heavy hitting the water below a few moments before Kate caught up with him again.

The box was discovered the next morning by a coal man who must have had a horrible shock when he opened it. He reported his discovery to Inspector Harber at Barnes police station and the police had the various body parts examined by a local doctor who declared that they were from a human female and noticed that the skin showed signs of having been boiled. Without the head, however, it was not possible to identify the body.

Kate meanwhile was calling herself Mrs. Thomas and wearing the dead woman’s clothes and jewellery. She kept up pressure on Henry Porter to help her dispose of the property and he introduced her to a Mr. John Church, who was a publican and general dealer, who she persuaded to buy the contents of the house. Kate and Church seemed to rapidly become friends and went drinking together several times. The real Mrs. Thomas had not been reported missing at this stage and the papers referred to the human remains in the box as “the Barnes Mystery,” a fact known to Kate as she could read, as could the Porter family. Robert told his father about the box he had helped Kate carry which was like the one described in the papers.

Kate agreed a price for the furniture and some of Mrs. Thomas’ clothes with John Church and he arranged for their removal. Unsurprisingly, this was to arouse the suspicion of Mrs. Ives next door who questioned Kate as to what was going on. Mrs. Church was later to find a purse and diary belonging to Mrs. Thomas in one of the dresses. There was also a letter from a Mr. Menhennick to whom Henry Porter and John Church paid a visit.

Menhennick knew the real Mrs. Thomas and it became clear from the discussion that it could well be her body in the box. The three men, together with Menhennick’s solicitor, went to the Richmond police station and reported their suspicions. The next day a search was made of No. 2 Vine Cottages and an axe, razor and some charred bones were recovered, together with the missing handle from the box found in the river. Thus on the 23rd of March, a full description of Kate Webster was circulated by the police in connection with the murder of Mrs. Thomas and the theft of her effects.

Kate had decided to flee to Ireland taking her son with her — which was to be the first place the police looked for her. She was arrested on the 28th of March and kept in custody awaiting collection by two detectives from Scotland Yard. She was brought back to England and taken to Richmond police station where she made a statement on March 30th and was formally charged with the murder.

The statement accused John Church of being responsible for Mrs. Thomas’ death and he was subsequently arrested and charged with the murder too. Fortunately, he had a strong alibi and had also assisted the police in discovering the crimes. At the committal hearing, the charges against him were dropped while Kate was remanded in custody. She was transferred to Newgate prison to save the journey by horse drawn prison van across London each day for her trial.

Trial.

Kate Webster’s trial opened on the 2nd of July 1879 before Mr. Justice Denman at the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) next door to Newgate. In view of the seriousness of the crime, the Crown was led by the Solicitor General, Sir Hardinge Giffard, and Kate was defended by Mr. Warner Sleigh.

A hat maker named Mary Durden gave evidence for the prosecution telling the court that on the 25th of February, Kate had told her she was going to Birmingham to take control of the property, jewellery, etc. that had been left her by a recently deceased aunt. This, the prosecution claimed, was clear evidence of premeditation, as the conversation had occurred 6 days before the murder.

One of the problems of the prosecution case, however, was proving that the human remains the police had found were actually those of Mrs. Thomas. It was a weakness that her defence sought to capitalise on, especially as without the head there was no means of positively identifying them at that time. Medical evidence was given to show that all the body parts had belonged to the same person and that they were from a woman in her fifties.

The defence tried to suggest that Mrs. Thomas could have died of natural causes, in view of her agitated state, when she was last seen alive leaving church on the Sunday afternoon. Both Henry Porter and John Church gave evidence against Kate describing the events of which they had been involved, and her defence again tried to point the finger of suspicion at them. In his summing up, the judge, however, pointed to the actions and previously known good characters of both of them. Two of Kate’s friends, Sarah Crease and Lucy Loder, gave evidence of her good nature.

Late on the afternoon of Tuesday, the 8th of July, the jury retired to consider their verdict, returning just over an hour later to pronounce her guilty. Before she was sentenced, Kate yet again made a complete denial of the charge but cleared Church and Porter of any involvement in the crime. As was normal, she was asked if she had anything to say before she was sentenced and claimed to be pregnant. She was examined by a panel of matrons drawn from some of the women present in the court and this claim was dismissed as just another of her lies. She went back to Newgate and was transferred the next day to Wandsworth to await execution. It has been suggested that Wandsworth did not have a condemned cell at this time although it would seem unlikely. In any event, Kate was guarded round the clock by teams of female prison officers.

Kate was to make two further “confessions” in Wandsworth, the first implicating Strong, who was the father of her child. These allegations were also found to be baseless.

Kate was informed by her solicitor that no reprieve was to be granted to her, despite a small amount of public agitation for commutation. So on the eve of her hanging, Kate made another confession to the solicitor in the presence of the Catholic priest attending her, Father McEnrey, which seemed somewhat nearer the truth. She stated that she was resigned to her fate and that she would almost rather be executed than return to a life of misery and deception.

Execution.

The actual execution of the sentence of death had changed a great deal over the 11 years between the ending of public hangings and Kate’s death, even though the words of the sentence had not.

No longer was it a public spectacle with the prisoner being given a short drop and allowed to die in agony. William Marwood had made great improvements to the process and had introduced the “long drop” method, designed to break the person’s neck and cause instant unconsciousness.

The execution was, as usual, to take place three clear Sundays after sentence and was set for the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of July at Wandsworth prison. Wandsworth was originally the Surrey House of Correction and had been built in 1851. It took over the responsibility for housing Surrey’s condemned prisoners on the closure of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in 1878.

Kate was to be only the second person and the sole woman to be hanged there.

At 8.45 a.m., the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell.

Inside, Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female wardresses. She would have typically been offered a stiff tot of brandy before the execution commenced. The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed which was nicknamed the “Cold Meat Shed.” (See photo)

Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling, and made it easier too for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. As Kate entered the shed, she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trapdoors. The idea of coiling up the rope to bring the noose to chest level came later, as did the brass eyelet in the noose. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trapdoors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while one of the warders strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later.

She was supported on the trap by the two warders standing on planks, (one is just visible in the bottom left hand corner of the photo) set across it. This had been the normal practice for some years in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were, “Lord, have mercy upon me.”

He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick-lined pit below. Marwood used significantly longer drops than later were found to be necessary. Kate’s body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. The whole process would have taken around two minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft’s executions.

The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered for her execution. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition.

As the criminal was female no newspaper reporters were been allowed to attend the execution but the Illustrated Police News did one of their famous drawings of the scene as they imagined it, with Marwood putting the hood over a pinioned Kate’s head.*

The Sheriff’s Cravings show that William Marwood received £11 for hanging Kate, presumably £10 plus £1 expenses.

Later in the day, her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards at Wandsworth.** She is listed in the handwritten prison records as Catherine Webster, interred 29/07/1879. Although she was the second person to be executed at Wandsworth, she was buried in grave no. 3 as the graves were numbered 1, 3, 5, etc. on one side of the path, while on the other side they were numbered 2, 4, 6, etc. and it was decided to use those on one side first.

In all, 134 men and Kate were to be hanged at Wandsworth up till the 8th of September, 1961, when Henryk Niemasz became the last to suffer for the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Buxton.

Comment.

If the events of that Sunday evening were exactly as Kate described them, it is strange that Mrs. Ives did not hear the quarrel or any other noises from next door. Again why were there bloodstains at the top of the stairs if Mrs. Thomas’ injuries had occurred at the bottom?

It is generally held that Kate lay in wait for Mrs. Thomas and hit her on the head with an axe causing her to fall down the stairs, where she then strangled her to prevent any further noise. This would, of course, make the crime one of premeditated murder and is much more in line with the forensic evidence.

Whether Kate decided to kill Mrs. Thomas in revenge for her earlier telling off or whether it was because she saw a great opportunity to steal from Vine Cottage, or both, is unclear. It is not unknown for previously non-violent criminals to turn to violent murder. John Martin Scripps became, to date, the last British man to be hanged for murder when he was executed in Singapore in April 1996. He too had convictions for dishonesty.

But what turned Kate to such appalling violence? Did she just snap or had she spent two hours or so thinking about it? We will never know the answer to these questions because there was no psychiatric assessment carried out on murderers back then.

Postscript.

It was reported in October 2010 that Julia Martha Thomas’s skull has finally been discovered in the grounds of Sir David Attenborough‘s property in Park Road, Richmond by workmen excavating for an extension. He had purchased a former pub called “The Hole in the Wall” which was adjacent to his property and has had demolished the rear of the pub. It is highly likely that Kate Webster frequented “The Hole in the Wall”.

The coroners report stated that the skull had fractures consistent with falling down stairs and also had depleted collagen which suggested it had been boiled.

* Interesting sidelight on the popular circulation of crime news here, using a comparison of this case and that of another noteworthy 1879 hanging, Charles Peace. -ed.

** After the 90th Wandsworth execution, the authorities started to re-use some graves of previously hanged male prisoners. Nobody else was ever buried in Kate’s grave, however.

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

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1928: Frederick Browne and Pat Kennedy, hanged by a microscope

4 comments May 31st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Frederick Browne and William Henry “Pat” Kennedy hanged simultaneously (but at different prisons: Pentonville and Wandsworth, respectively) for murdering an Essex policeman.

Police constable George Gutteridge was found dead in September 1927 on a byway near Howe Green, dressed in his full police regalia, shot four times in the face while apparently in the process of writing up a miscreant motorist.


Frederick Browne (top) and Pat Kennedy.

Two of the shots had been through each of Gutteridge’s eyes, conceivably in deference to the ancient superstition that dead men’s eyes preserve the last image they beheld in life. If that was the reasoning, Frederick Browne, the triggerman, was living in the wrong century.

The “Gutteridge murder” investigation — a national sensation from the time the constable’s mutilated body was discovered — took several months to hone in on suspects Browne and Kennedy, known car thieves with some history of violence. But the real break in the case was, well, a case: a cartridge case from a .455 Webley recovered at the crime scene. It would be the most eloquent witness against Browne and Kennedy.

The now-familiar science of forensic ballistics was, though not quite brand new, still an occult art in Anglo courts of law. Just days before Gutteridge’s murder, Sacco and Vanzetti had been executed in the United States based in part on ballistics studies. That gun-barrel research had been continued in the post-conviction appeals and clemency investigation, and provided one of the clinching pieces of evidence against the anarchists, but it was also ferociously contested.

In Great Britain, it was the Gutteridge case that put this field on the map for the general public — courtesy of professional gunsmith and ballistics investigator Robert Churchill.

Churchill used microscope analysis of the recovered casing to match the bullet not only to a .455 Webley, but to the .455 Webley recovered from Browne’s car: to that gun, and no other.

Post-Browne and Kennedy, murderers given to gunplay became very well advised to dispose of weapons once they’d been used: this case served notice that individual handguns left a sort of fingerprint on the rounds they discharged, and could thereby incriminate their owners months or years after the fact.

This conclusion was not universally embraced, perhaps owing in part to the role of ballistics in the controversial Sacco and Vanzetti affair: according to Basil Thomson, George Bernard Shaw wrote to Browne’s family during the trial to express his skepticism, complaining of the crown’s “manufactured evidence.” In 1932, the renowned barrister Patrick Hastings successfully repelled Robert Churchill’s firearms evidence at the high-profile murder trial of Elvira Barney.

But the reason Churchill was on the stand on that occasion was because his damning testimony in 1928, explaining where a small fault in the Webley’s breech block had scarred the bullet as it launched, not only sufficed to hang Browne and Kennedy* — “hanged by a microscope”, in the words of The Sunday Dispatch — but also launched a star career for Churchill personally, and made the bones of firearm ballistics for modern criminal trials.

* More precisely, the forensic testimony hanged Browne — who stuck with a flat denial, which the ballistics associated with his own gun refuted. Kennedy lacked the wit to shut his mouth and in the course of trying to spin his story to throw all the blame onto Browne also just by the by confessed to his own involvement.

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1935: Del Fontaine, punch drunk boxer

1 comment October 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Canadian pugilist Del Fontaine was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, “the bravest fellow we ever saw go to the scaffold.”

Winnipeg-born as Raymond Henry Bousquet, Fontaine twice won the Canadian middleweight belt.

But a grueling, 98-fight career took its toll on the man.

By the end — when he had crossed the pond for a couple years traversing the English rings — Del Fontaine was visibly punch-drunk. The onetime champion lost 12 of his last 14 fights.

Punch drunk — scientific name dementia pugilistica — is just the classic diagnosis for “concussed all to hell,” afflicted by traumatic brain injury and its mind-altering long-term effects: Depression, violence, mood swings, loss of judgment and impulse control. Those are the kinds of behavior patterns that tend to brush up against the criminal justice system.

The syndrome’s popular name suggests its most visible injury, to motor skills — a symptom Fontaine’s colleagues in the business could readily diagnose.

Del shouldn’t have been in the ring at all for his last fight. He wasn’t in a fit state,” fellow prizefighter Ted Lewis testified at Fontaine’s trial, recalling a Newcastle bout that ended in a flash on three first-round knockdowns. “As a boxer, he has received more punishment than anyone I have ever seen.” The house doctor at a Blackfriars venue Fontaine had appeared at earlier in 1935 said the fighter complained of double vision and sleeplessness, and couldn’t walk straight. (London Times, Sep. 17, 1935)

If 1935 was a few decades’ shy of our present-day understanding of concussions, it was still well-enough known to those who had experience of the punch-drunk that psychological changes accompanied the physical impairments. Those who knew Del Fontaine knew he wasn’t right in the head.

The reason this tribunal had to sit for the humiliating public probe of Fontaine’s mental crevasses was that Fontaine had left his wife and kids behind when he crossed the Atlantic. Once he got to the Isles, he took up with an English sweetheart in Bristol.

This Hilda Meek, a West End waitress a decade the junior of her lover, became the object of an obsessive infatuation. In a fit of jealous rage, Fontaine gunned her down (and her mother too, although mom survived) when he caught Meek making a date with another man.

Fontaine was captured, unresisting, dolorously on the scene, and openly admitted his actions. Acquittal on the facts would be a nonstarter; diminished responsibility because of dementia pugilistica was the best defense gambit available.

The highly restrictive legal bar against an insanity defense aced out the legal maneuver: however impulsive and moody a lifetime of concussions had left him, they couldn’t be said to have prevented him “knowing right from wrong.” Still, his case attracted a fair bit of public sympathy, and when a petition for clemency went nowhere, hundreds of people, including a number of other boxers, turned up at Wandsworth to protest on the morning the punch-drunk Del Fontaine hanged for murder.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Canada,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,England,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex

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1882: George Henry Lamson, aconitine poisoner

1 comment April 28th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, George Henry Lamson was hanged at England’s Wandsworth Prison for poisoning his brother-in-law in pursuit of an inheritance.

Once decorated for his volunteer medical practicioning in the benighted lands of eastern Europe, Dr. Lamson fell prey upon his return to England to morphine addiction which cleaned out his assets.

Desperate to resolve his debts, he administered a lethal aconitine dose to the paraplegic 18-year-old Percy John.

Apparently, the good doctor had learned all about this efficacious chemical at the knee of Queen Victoria’s own physician, Robert Christison.

Unfortunately, Lamson hadn’t been keeping up with his technical journals in the meantime: Christison had taught him that aconitine poisoning was undetectable, but a forensic technique to identify it had subsequently been developed.

(Minor-league milestone: Lamson’s was the first recorded criminal defense that attempted to blame ptomaine poisoning, a now-discredited theory that death can be induced by alkaloid toxins from decomposing food. But the lawyer making that defense would later write that he not only believed his client guilty, he also thought Lamson had iced his wife’s older brother, Herbert.)

The particulars of Lamson’s trial are recounted at length in this free book, from which we excerpt the interesting description of executioner William Marwood’s craft in arranging the scene.

Lamson was a more powerfully built man than he appeared, weighing upwards of 11 stone 12 Ibs., and the executioner, evidently fearing that hie strength would operate somewhat against a sharp and quick fall, fastened back his shoulders in a manner which precluded all possibility of the culprit resisting the action of the drop …

When the convict was pinioned the procession moved on, the clergyman the meanwhile reading the service of the Church appointed for the burial of the dead, the doomed man respondnig almost inaudibly to the words as they were uttered by the chaplain. It was with great difficulty now that he could walk at all; indeed, it is certain that had he not been supported by the two warders who stood on either side of him, he would have fallen to the earth. Suddenly he came in sight of the gallows, a black structure, about 30 yards distant. The grave, newly dug, was close at hand. The new and terrible spectacle here acted once more with painful effect upon the condemned man, for again he almost halted and fell. But the warders, never leaving hold of him, moved on, while Marwood came behind. At last the gallows was reached, and here the clergyman bade farewell to the prisoner, while Marwood began his preparations with the rope and the beam overhead. With a view to meet any accretion of fear which might now befall the culprit, a wise provision had been made. The drop was so arranged as to part in the middle, after the fashion of two folding doors ; but, lest the doomed man might not be able to stand upon the scaffold without assistance, two planks of deal had been placed over the drop, one on either side of the rope, so that up to the latest moment the two warders supporting the convict might stand securely and hold him up, without danger to themselves or inconvenience to the machinery of the gallows. In this way Lamson was now kept erect while Marwood fastened his legs and put the cap over his eyes. He must have fallen had the arrangement been otherwise, for his effort to appear composed had by this time failed. Indeed, from what now occurred it is evident that the convict yet hoped for a few moments more of life, for, as Marwood proceeded to pull the cap down over his face he pitifully begged that one more prayer might be recited by the chaplain. Willing as the executioner possibly might have been to listen to this request, he had, of course, no power to alter the progress of the service, and was obliged to disregard this last demand of the dying man. Signalling to the warders to withdraw their arms, he drew the lever, which released the bolt under the drop, and so launched the prisoner into eternity, [the] clergyman finished the Lord’s Prayer, in the midst of which he found himself when the lever had been pulled, and then, pronouncing the benediction, moved slowly back to the prison.

Though aconitine poisoning dates back to antiquity (the Greeks figured that the original dog from hell, Cerberus, drooled aconitine) and has been used as a literary device by Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, and J.K. Rowling, Dr. Lamson’s was long the last known case of criminal homicide by aconitine — until the 2009 conviction of a west London woman for slipping this illustrious mickey to her paramour in his chicken curry.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,Drugs,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Ripped from the Headlines

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