On the 29th of May 1868 Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Within Prisons Bill – ending the hanging of convicted criminals in public view…. The last public execution in Britain was that of Michael Barrett at Newgate on the 26th of May 1868.
The previous month saw the last public hanging of a woman, one Frances Kidder, aged 25 years old, at Maidstone Prison on the 2nd of April….
It was a case that divided the British public – the Mayor of Hythe and others petitioned to have her sentence commuted…. Some newspapers reported her story with sympathy – whereas, there were others who saw her as an evil woman who got her just desserts….
Frances was born in 1843 to John Turner, an agricultural labourer and his wife, Frances (nee Drury), in New Romney, Kent. In 1861 the young Frances went to work as a house servant for John English (a bookmaker and newsagent) and his family, in Folkestone. In 1865 she met and married William Kidder, a green grocer….maybe it was a marriage of necessity rather than for love, as Frances had his child before the wedding took place – she gave birth to a daughter, Emma…. William also had two other illegitimate children from a previous relationship (a detail it appears he may have neglected to inform Frances of) with an Eliza Staple, a house servant. Eliza died in 1863; the younger of the two children was sent to live with relatives but the elder sibling, Louisa, aged around 10 went to live with her father and his new wife in Hythe, Kent. By all accounts Louisa was quite a lively child and things were on a rocky footing from the onset of the relationship between the little girl and her step-mother…. Frances was very cruel to the child – she beat her frequently with what ever implement came to hand; she forced her to wear rags, often starved her and even made her sleep in the cellar on a pile of old sacks no matter what the weather…. Children being mistreated in Victorian times was a common occurrence – but in this instance the treatment was so bad that next door neighbour, William Henniker, reported the abuse. As a result the police charged Frances with cruelty and she received a fine. Louisa was sent to live with a guardian – unfortunately her father did not keep up with the maintenance payments for her and the child was returned to William and Frances – and the cruelty began again….
William had a business, dealing in potatoes – Frances helped her husband with his work. In July 1867 there was an accident; a horse bolted and Frances was thrown from a cart….possibly sustaining brain damage. In the words of her husband “she was in a fit for about four hours and she has been strange in the head ever since”….
The following month, on August the 24th Frances went to visit her parents for a few days, in New Romney, taking her own daughter Emma and Louisa with her. It was whilst passing the time of day with her parents’ next door neighbour, a Mrs. Evans, that she apparently revealed how much she detested Louisa and that she had no intention of returning home with her ~ “I mean to get rid of that bitch Kidder’s child. I hate the sight of her as she always making mischief. I do not like other people’s bastards”. Frances often referred to her husband’s daughter as ‘his bastard’….
On the Sunday morning of their visit Frances claimed she was feeling unwell and was not up to the planned walk with her parents…. She told them she would rather stay at home with the children. As soon as her mother and father had departed she suggested to the girls that they visit a fair in nearby New Romney….and so the trio set off – on foot. It was when they came to a point known as Cobb’s Bridge – a passing over a small stream of water – that the event happened. Frances forced Louisa into the water, she held her face downwards, drowning her in less than a foot of water…..
Meanwhile, Frances’ parents had arrived home to an empty house – at the same time William arrived to collect his wife and daughters…. Concerned William and his father-in-law decided to go and look for them. Frances returned whilst they were out and took the opportunity to rush to her room to change her clothes….
Returning to the house William and Frances’ father immediately realised something was wrong and that Louisa was missing. Her father then discovered the wet muddy clothes that Frances had discarded; she refused to say what had happened…. Due to the previous history of cruelty and Frances’ current state of mind her husband and father decided it was necessary to go to the police…. They returned with a Constable Aspinall, who arrested Frances on suspicion of murder….
When questioned Frances claimed Louisa had fallen into the stream after being frightened by some horses near to the bridge. A search was organised – by now it was dark; Constable Aspinall reported: “It was a clear star lit night and we were furnished with lamps. There was a heavy dew on the grass. Someone noticed something white in the ditch. I threw my light in that direction, it was the body. She was lying on her back, her head was under the water”….
Louisa’s body was taken to the ‘Ship Inn’ to await an inquest. Frances was charged with her murder and taken before the magistrates where she was remanded in custody; the following day she was taken to Maidstone Prison. During the journey she suffered several fits and they had to stop at Ashford Police Station until the seizures had subsided….
Once at Maidstone Prison Frances remained on remand for six months; William did not visit his wife at all in that time – rumours began to circulate that he had begun a new relationship – with Frances’ younger sister….
Frances came to trial on the 12th of March 1868; it was presided over by Mr. Justice Byles – and Court appointed barrister, Mr. Channell acted as her defence. The prosecution raised the cases of her former abuse and cruelty towards Louisa and her previous threats to kill the child…. Among the witnesses against were her own mother, father and sisters. Another witness claimed to have heard a muffled sound at the time but was unable to determine whether it was laughing or crying – but it sounded like a child…. The doctor who had examined Louisa’s body confirmed sh had drowned but saw no signs of violence having occurred. The barrister made little reference to the fact Frances had received head injuries during her work accident the month before Louisa’s death – injuries that could have affected her personality. He did however, suggest that the witness statements had been exaggerated….
Frances herself maintained her story that Louisa had fallen into the water throughout the trial…. “Some horses came along and frightened us. We panicked and my little Louisa fell into the river and drowned”….
On summing up Mr. Justice Byles instructed the jury that if they had any misgivings as to the circumstantial evidence provided to them, they must give Frances the benefit of the doubt. The jury had no such doubts – the trial had taken 6 hours – a guilty verdict came back within 12 minutes…. As the death sentence was passed Frances remained calm and was able to walk from the dock unaided….
Frances was returned to Maidstone Prison to await her execution. It was in the condemned cell that she confessed to a Reverend Fraser (who had been teaching her in religion during her time on remand). William visited his wife twice during this period; on both occasions they argued about his relationship with her sister, which he had finally admitted to. She was also visited by her parents and her daughter, Emma. As the day of the execution drew nearer, Frances became more and more hysterical….
On Thursday the 2nd of April 1868, at just before 12 noon, the appointed hangman – William Calcraft – the under sheriff of the county, the prison chaplain and a number of prison officers came to the cell.
Calcraft pinioned Frances with a strap pinning her arms to her body at elbow level; her hands were tied at the wrists. She was led out across the prison courtyard to the main gate….the doors swung open to reveal the gallows that had been erected just outside – in County Road….
Frances had to be helped up the steps to the platform; she then had to be held on the trap doors by two prison officers whilst Calcraft made the final preparations. The whole time Frances prayed intently – her last words were “Lord Jesus forgive me”…. Calcraft released the trap and Frances dropped approximately 18 inches; she then struggled for 2 or 3 minutes in the agony of strangulation. Only her top half was visible to the well-behaved crowd of some 2,000 people who had gathered to watch – a large number of them women. Frances’ body was left hanging for an hour before being removed and buried in an unmarked prison grave….
There were those in the crowd who came to witness the execution of what was in their eyes an evil stepmother who had murdered an innocent child in cold blood. There were others who thought she had been misrepresented – and the injuries she had sustained in her accident should have been taken into consideration…. Then there were the ones who were angry about the way William had treated his wife – fathering illegitimate children and replacing her with her sister so quickly…. (reports say an effigy of him was burned in Hythe after the execution)…. But for whatever reason they chose to attend all of them must have been united in sadness over the death of little Louisa….
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You may also enjoy The Man they could not hang….