On this date in 1928, Edward Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll hanged in Cardiff for murdering a man whose last words exculpated Rowlands and Driscoll.
That victim, Dai Lewis, was a former prizefighter who was pivoting his career to dabble in the bookmaking side of the sport.
Lewis was trying his hand at a bit of the old protection racket, strongarming bookies into kicking back shillings by “buying his chalk” to mark their boards in exchange for being their muscle. But in so doing he was intruding on the turf of Cardiff’s established mobsters — specifically the Rowland brothers, Edward and John.
On September evening after a day at the races, the upstart entrepreneur Lewis was accosted by a small group of men as he left a pub. The assailants battered him to the ground, and then one of them slashed his throat.
The wound was mortal but not immediately so; streetwalkers in the vicinity rushed to the felled man as his attackers fled, and were able to stanch the bleeding well, and Lewis was rushed to the Royal Infirmary.
As Lewis bled fatally into his lungs, the doctors helpless to save him, a series of suspicious hangup phone calls to the Infirmary asking after his condition led police to another pub where the Rowland boys were relaxing with three of their cronies: Daniel Driscoll, John Hughes, and William “Hong Kong” Price. But when the five were brought to Dai Lewis’s bed, the dying pugilist refused to break the underworld’s code of silence by implicating them.
Lewis’s explicit denial that the Rowlands and Daniel Driscoll had been among his attackers didn’t cut very much ice, especially when John Rowland cracked and confessed to wielding the blade that took Lewis’s life.
In a muddled trial with a good deal of contradictory and fleeting eyewitness testimony, both Rowlands and Driscoll — who unwisely floated a phony alibi — were convicted. (Price was acquitted, and Hughes was released uncharged; our story takes its leave of them here.)
The circumstances of the homicide have never in the years since become entirely clear; one common hypothesis is that the bookies were “merely” trying to give their rival a warning slash on the cheek to scare him away from their customers, and in the struggle the knife went astray. Another is that the murder gave police a pretext to target some gangland figures they were keen to get rid of.
But from the moment of their conviction the boys, and especially the plausibly-innocent Driscoll, were the subjects of intense public support. Reports say at least 200,000 Britons (some say as many as 500,000) signed petitions for Driscoll’s pardon, and Liverpool dock hands threatened a national strike. Edward Rowlands too continued to maintain his own innocence.
No fewer than eight members of the jury who convicted Driscoll were so troubled at the sentence that they petitioned the Home Secretary to extend mercy. (Two of the jurors traveled personally to London to present their petition.)
The Crown was not interested:
It is a fixed and necessary rule that the individual views of jurymen must not be allowed to inluence the exercise of the Royal prerogative of mercy. Jurymen may support an appeal for mercy like the rest of the public, but once a unanimous verdict is given the individual jurors cannot qualify it.
Ironically, only the admitted killer, John Rowland, would be spared the noose: he went mad under the pressures of incarceration and was sent to Broadmoor. John’s brother Edward and their chum Daniel Driscoll both besought the Royal prerogative of mercy in vain.
Driscoll took the bad beat with a gambler’s sang-froid, playing cards over port on the eve of his hanging — as thousands gathered outside the doors of the prison to weep and pray as the morning hanging approached.
“Well, I’m going down for something I never done,” were his last words (source). “But you don’t have to pay twice.”
At the Cathedral that day, the Catholic priest — Driscoll’s confessor — announced what his parishioners already believed: “they hanged an innocent man at Cardiff jail this morning.” Efforts to obtain a posthumous exoneration have surfaced several times in recent years but never yet achieved the trick.
Actor Chris Driscoll is Daniel Driscoll’s nephew.
On this day..
- 1872: George "Charcoal" Botts - 2020
- 1597: Jaakko Ilkka, Cudgel War victim - 2019
- 1725: James Casady, aged beggar - 2018
- 1697: George Seager, deserter and burglar - 2017
- 1591: Arnold Cosbie, writing his own elegy - 2016
- 1868: Three Italian bandits - 2014
- 1565: Benedetto Accolti, would-be papal assassin - 2013
- 1961: Wasyl Gnypiuk, sleep-killer - 2012
- 1550: The leaders of the Prayer Book Rebellion - 2011
- 1940: Isaak Babel - 2010
- 1781: Mutinous ringleaders of the New Jersey line - 2009
- 1142: Yue Fei, paragon of loyalty - 2008