William Calcraft was the longest-serving hangman in British history; there is no firm actual figure of how many executions he conducted over his 45 year career but it was somewhere between 430 and 450. At least 388 of those hangings took place in public and about a further 41 are recorded as having been carried out in private; some 34 of the overall total were of women….
To his family and friends Calcraft was known as either Will or Bill. Apparently he was of a kindly disposition; he loved his wife Louisa, his children and grandchildren ~ he was fond of animals, keeping pets such as rabbits and pigeons…. It is perhaps a little difficult to conjure up an image of such a gentle soul – as it seems far detached from that of his professional life….
Calcraft was born in Baddow, near Chelmsford in Essex on the 11th of October 1800. As a young man he had a few casual jobs, including work as a night watchman for a brewery in Clerkenwell and also as a butler to a gentleman in Greenwich – but his real trade was that of a cobbler, a skill learned from his father. Upon his father’s death Calcraft took over the family business which included a shop premises…. The shop was no longer doing particularly well, times were changing; progress meant machines were being used more and more – not having the capital to invest in such machinery meant the business was unable to compete….until finally it was forced to close. Calcraft was actually quite relieved – as in his own words he ‘detested the drudgery’. During the final months before the closure of the business he had started to sell meat pies in the streets around Newgate Prison to supplement his income. This was something he actually enjoyed, especially the meeting and chatting with people; one particular friendship he struck up was with a John Foxton who happened to be chief hangman at Newgate Prison. Calcraft asked Foxton if he knew of any job vacancies at the prison and was informed that there was one available, a position that had been unfilled for a while due to the fact most people found it of an unpalatable nature as it involved the flogging of juveniles…. However, this certainly did not put Calcraft off, again in his own words he – ‘undertook it with relish’ – and earned a wage of 10 shillings a week for doing so….
Crime amongst children increased sharply at the beginning of the 19th Century due to a rise in urban poverty. People poured in to the cities looking for work, the poverty rose and slums established, causing more squalor. Many children suffered violence in the home, crime was often a way of life…. No schooling meant gangs of youngsters roamed the streets, thieving and pickpocketing….
The whipping and flogging of children was a frequent occurrence until the end of the 1800s. It was often carried out swiftly after sentencing or may have been part of a custodial sentence. By the mid 1800s people were becoming more and more uncomfortable with the punishment; 1862 saw the last public flogging and it was during the 1860s that the whipping of boys at Bow Street Magistrates ceased as their screams upset the public so…. The last hanging of a child took place in 1833 and in 1838 Parkhurst opened as the first juvenile prison….
Foxton died on the 14th of February 1829 and Calcraft was to become chief executioner in his place. He was sworn in as Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex on the 4th of April 1829. However, his first official hangings took place before this date; on the 27th March he was called to an emergency case – the double execution of Thomas Lister and George Wingfield. Calcraft’s wage at this time was set at a guinea a week with a further guinea for every hanging and half a crown per flogging…. He also had an allowance to purchase equipment, such as rope and whips….
It didn’t take Calcraft much time to realise the longer a condemned prisoner took to die the more the watching crowd enjoyed it…. He began to make each execution a performance to entertain his audience…. The gallows method in use when he first took over meant the condemned died typically in 2 or 3 minutes – but by reintroducing the short drop method death could take between 10 to 20 minutes ~ death by slow, agonising strangulation…. To add to the entertainment Calcraft would sometimes swing from the prisoner’s legs or even climb on to their shoulders….
Calcraft’s first year as chief executioner was a very busy one; assisted by Thomas Cheshire he performed some 31 executions. He continued to be busy throughout his long career; so many hangings ~ the details of some stand out more than others….
On April 20th 1849 Calcraft publicly hanged 17-year-old Sarah Thomas in Bristol, after she had been convicted of the murder of her mistress, who had cruelly mistreated her. Calcraft was emotionally disturbed by this case due to her youth and good looks….
Later that same year on the 13th of November a rare and unusual case was seen – the double execution of a husband and wife ~ Frederick and Maria Manning ~ for the murder of Maria’s lover Patrick O’Connor, for financial gain; they then buried him under the kitchen floor…. The couple were hanged side by side on the rooftop of Horsemonger Lane Gaol (Surrey’s main prison and place of execution up until its closure in 1878); a crowd of approximately 50,000 turned out to watch the spectacle – amongst them one Charles Dickens….
The last woman to be hanged publicly at Newgate Prison was Catherine Wilson, on the 20th of October 1862. Convicted of being a serial poisoner, Wilson protested her innocence until the end…. She died with no struggle and with great dignity in front of a crowd of nearly 20,000…. An execution that brought an even greater audience was that of a Doctor Edward William Pritchard on the 28th of July 1865. He was hanged in Jail Square, Glasgow for the murder of his wife and mother-in-law – his execution witnessed by an estimated 100,000….
By the 1860s Victorian society was beginning to find public executions distasteful – public opinion was changing. At one time all classes would attend a hanging but the hordes of drunken, jeering onlookers were becoming less tolerable. Crime amongst the spectating crowds was a problem with theft and pickpocketing rife – policing the masses effectively was an impossible task…. Instances of people being crushed by those wanting a better view were not unheard of….and then there was the danger that public executions would make martyrs of those condemned of crimes of a more political nature….
The 23rd of November 1867 saw the triple hanging of the Manchester Martyrs – three fenians (early IRA) had murdered a policeman in Manchester. William O’Mara Allen, Micheal Larkin and Micheal O’Brien (alias Gould) were all publicly hanged together outside Salford Prison (Calcraft received £30 for his work) ~ a monument to the three still stands in Ireland today….
Public execution was abolished by a Tory government with the passing in Parliament of the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act 29th May 1868. Calcraft was to perform the last public execution of a woman, Francis Kidder, Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged…. at Maidstone Prison in April 1868; he also conducted the last ever public execution – that of Michael Barrett, a fenian, on the 26th of May 1868 at Newgate – after his conviction of causing an explosion in Clerkenwell, killing seven people….
The first private execution took place on the 13th of August 1868 – that of 18-year-old Thomas Wells at Maidstone Prison, for the murder of a Mr. Walsh, who was the station master at Dover’s Priory Station where Wells worked as a porter. His execution would have been a different experience to those who had gone before him…. He was spared the public circus – only the necessary officials would have been in attendance; the governor, under sheriffs, chaplain, a few prison officers, the executioner (Calcraft) and a representative of the Press. The only somber indication that an execution had just taken place being a black flag raised outside of the prison…. By making executions private a whole new regulated system came about, Calcraft had to adjust to a more humane procedure ~ gone were his antics and the use of the short drop method he had favoured….
During Calcraft’s 45 year role as executioner there were times when his competence was called into question…. Perhaps one of the lowest points in his career came around midway, in 1856 – with the bungled public hanging of William Bousfield….
Opposition to the death penalty was beginning to cause unrest amongst certain groups – Calcraft himself became a target when he received a death threat before Bousfield’s execution; a letter advised him to buy a helmet to wear whilst carrying out the hanging – as the intention was to shoot him….
It appears that William Bousfield was a bit of a ‘no hoper’, weak and unable to hold down a permanent job. In an attempt to provide him with steady employment Bousfield’s father-in-law gave his daughter Sarah and her new husband a shop as a wedding gift, a way to provide them with a regular income…. However, it soon came to be that Sarah was doing all the work; with the pressure of her being the main bread-winner, money being tight and three small children to look after it was inevitable that home life was going to become intolerably stressful…. Exasperated Sarah’s father offered Bousfield money to leave the family for good, by emigrating to America….something his son-in-law declined to do….
On the night of the 3rd of February 1856 matters obviously came to a head… Bousfield stabbed his 28-year-old wife in the neck with a chisel at their home – 4, Portland Street, St. James, Westminster. He also stabbed his children to death; Anne (6 years old), Eliza (4 years old) and John William (just 8 months)…. It was some considerable time later, just after 7am the following day, that he walked into Bow Street Police Station and confessed to what he had done. It was PC Alfred Fudge who attended the scene and discovered the true horror of the crime – the walls were sprayed with blood….the bodies of Bousfield’s family lay where he had butchered them….
Bousfield’s trial was held at the Old Bailey on March the 6th 1856, presided over by Mr. Justice Wightman – a plea of ‘not guilty’ was entered on the grounds of insanity. However, the jury were not swayed and took just a few minutes to return a guilty verdict; as the death sentence was passed Bousfield nearly collapsed and had to be assisted from the dock….
During the time in Newgate Prison leading up to his execution, which was set for Monday 31st March, Bousfield portrayed a pathetic figure, claiming to have no recollection of the events of that terrible night – declaring it all a bad dream…. On the Saturday prior to his execution he attempted suicide in his cell by throwing himself on to the fire; his neckerchief caught light and as a result his face and neck were severely burned….
On the morning of the 31st a 7.30am Sheriffs Messrs Kennedy and Rose, along with the undersheriffs arrived at the prison. At 7.45am, accompanied by the governor and Reverend Davis, they went to the condemned cell – Bousfield was sitting in a chair, being supported by a prison officer at either side…. Calcraft arrived a few minutes before 8am and pinioned the prisoner’s arms…. It soon became obvious that Bousfield was unable to stand – the only option was for him to be carried. So, one man took his legs, another lifted him under the armpits and he was dragged off, his burns swathed in bandages, to the gallows – where some 5,000 had gathered to watch the execution. However, upon reaching the steps of the scaffold another problem arose – how to get him up there…. It was at this point that a high-backed chair was fetched from the governor’s office ~ Bousfield was restrained upon it and then four prison officers carried him up and placed the chair on to the trap door….
Throughout the whole proceedings Calcraft appeared nervous and on edge – no doubt worried due to the death threat he had earlier received. As soon as the chair was in place he quickly placed the cap on the prisoner’s head, adjusted the noose, secured the rope to the chain and without giving any warning or signal ran down the steps of the scaffold releasing the bolt of the trap door on his way…. The chair dropped through the hole – but as it did so, Bousfield – who had been unable to even stand up to this point – suddenly found the strength to throw his arms and legs wide and managed to find a position to stop himself from falling through…. Prison officers climbed back on to the scaffold and attempted to push the man’s legs down; meanwhile, whilst all this was going on, Calcraft was still running away….insisting that Bousfield was already dead. Somehow the prisoner managed to maintain his position – all the while the crowd was jeering and yelling; the sheriffs and officials were horrified as to what they were witnessing….
It was Reverend Davis who finally managed to locate and persuade Calcraft to return and finish the job; which he obliged in doing by going beneath the scaffold and pulling on Bousfield’s legs….only for once again the prisoner to succeed in getting a foothold on the edge of the trap door opening….
Finally, after a fourth attempt they managed to successfully get Bousfield’s legs down…. In a severe struggle lasting for nearly 10 minutes Bousfield eventually died…. This was probably Calcraft’s most botched execution….
Calcraft retired in 1874 on a pension of 25 shillings per week from the City of London. Towards the end of his life he questioned himself as to whether he was ‘truly a bad lot’…. Although he knew he brought pain and suffering to those about to die at his hands he justified it by the entertainment he had brought to others, who in his opinion had little joy and pleasure in their own lives….
Calcraft died five years after his retirement, in December 1879. His final resting place is now in an overgrown cemetery in North London. I will leave you to make up your own mind as to whether this is indeed a fitting memorial to the man….
You may also enjoy Time to meet the Hangman….
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4 thoughts on “William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….”
Really enjoyed this, you have a new follower, thank you.
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Thank you Suzanne – I really enjoy writing these posts, morbid lot aren’t we…?! It’s a fascinating subject though isn’t it….
A great read……I’m sure I read someplace that books on the subject of True Crime (Murders!) sell more than any other topic! I have a small library which is getting bigger by the month…..so many books and yet so little time to read them all…..very best wishes, Ray
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Thank you Ray – it’s always so lovely to get positive feedback