Helping the poor wretches through their ordeals….

Before the death penalty was abolished in Britain the job of hangman was surprisingly quite a sought after position… Obviously a successful applicant had to meet a strict criteria; as well as having a strong sense of discretion he had to work well under pressure, be psychologically sound and have a cast-iron stomach. Whilst every effort was made to recruit the right candidates occasionally situations arose that were beyond the tolerances of even those most qualified…. One such instance was that of the execution of Edith Thompson, it affected everyone present who witnessed it – not least the hangman John Ellis – the whole episode had a profound affect on him….

John Ellis was born on the 4th of October 1874 in Balderstone, Rochdale in Lancashire. As a young man he had several casual jobs, labouring around the Manchester area, working in mills and even trying his father’s trade of barber and hairdresser…. Later, after getting married he was to open a newsagents, which he ran with his wife and children…. But it was whilst working in a textile factory, when during a break he and some colleagues were discussing a recent hanging case, he announced “that’s the kind of job I’d like”…. His work mates laughed and pooh-poohed the idea. Ellis on a previous occasion had been heard to say “I couldn’t kill a chicken, and once when I tried to drown a kitten I was so upset for the rest of the day that my mother said I was never to be given a similar job again”….

It was at the age of 22 that Ellis applied to the Home Office to become an executioner – he passed the initial background checks and attended training at Newgate Prison. His wife was shocked – she asked “why on Earth do you want to be an executioner?” – his mother was equally outraged….

Ellis had a 23 year career as an executioner, from 1901 until 1924. The first hanging he attended was in the role of assistant to William Billington in December 1901; from 1907 he then served as chief executioner and was involved in 203 executions. He was committed to ending the condemned person’s life with humanity and with as little fuss and pain as possible – but at the same time he was a strong believer in capital punishment and would often attend trials in the capacity of observer….

img_1301
John Ellis – Source: own work author Loubreezer via Wikimedia

Ellis performed many high-profile executions in his time, including several members of the IRA in the 1920s. He hanged George Smith on the 13th of August 1915 at Maidstone Prison. Better known as the ‘Brides in the Bath’ case, Smith married then drowned Alice Burnham, Beatrice Constance, Annie Mindy and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty in succession, for financial gain on account of their wills and insurance policies…. Ellis also hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 23rd of November 1910 the infamous Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Dubbed the ‘Crime of the Century’ Crippen was caught by the use of the new wireless telegraph system, whilst he was making his escape to Quebec, Canada aboard S.S.Montrose – with his new lover Ethel Le Neve, after he had murdered his wife, Cora Crippen….

For all his conscientiousness there were times when Ellis’s colleagues claimed to have found him difficult to work with. One altercation he had led to a very prominent executioner of the time, Henry Pierrepoint, being struck off the Home Office list of executioners. Pierrepoint had arrived at Chelmsford Prison to perform a hanging on the 13th of July 1910 slightly worse for wear and picked an argument with his acting assistant, John Ellis. Things escalated and others present had to intervene to prevent Pierrepoint from beating Ellis up. As a consequence the Home Secretary of the time, Winston Churchill, had Pierrepoint removed from the list. Pierrepoint’s brother, Thomas, also an executioner (and father of Albert – Britain’s longest ever serving executioner) stated that it was impossible to work with Ellis….

John Ellis may have been cool and collected within his role as executioner but once in a while a case would come along that would ‘rattle’ him…. One such was that of 18-year-old Henry Jacobs, who was convicted for the murder of Lady Alice White in a robbery in 1922. Ellis had watched young Jacobs playing cricket with warders in the prison…. Another case that ‘got’ to him was the execution of Edith Thompson….

Born Edith Jessie Graydon on the 25th of December 1893 in Dalston, London, Edith was the eldest of five children. Her father, William Eustace Graydon was a clerk with the Imperial Tobacco Company and his wife, Ethel Jesse Liles, the daughter of a police constable. Edith had a happy childhood, she showed a talent for acting and dancing and excelled at arithmetic in school. She left education in 1909 and joined a firm of clothing manufacturers. In 1911 she started working for Carlton and Prior, a milliners then based in the Barbican – and she did very well for herself. She was promoted to become chief buyer for the company and regularly made trips to Paris….

It was in 1909, when she was just 15-years-old, that Edith met Percy Thompson, who was three years older than her. After a six-year engagement they married in 1916 at St. Barnabas in Manor Park. At first the couple lived in Westcliff, Southend-on-Sea, Essex but then bought 41, Kensington Crescent, a fashionable address in Ilford – they were doing OK….

Edith’s brother had a school friend, Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters, he was nine years Edith’s junior. Upon leaving school Freddy joined the merchant navy and was soon full of tales of his exotic travels – Edith found him exciting – he wasn’t a bit like her boring 29-year-old husband….

img_1297
Left to right: Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, Percy Thompson Courtesy of Associated Newspapers Public Domain

Freddy was to accompany the Thompsons and other members of Edith’s family on a holiday to the Isle of Wight. Percy took a shine to him and invited him to lodge with them at their Ilford home; it did not take long for Edith and Freddy to become lovers…. Percy discovered their affair and naturally was angry…. Freddy demanded that Percy divorce his wife – Percy’s response was to throw Freddy out and then give his wife a thorough beating – actually throwing her across the room….

img_1298
In the garden at 41, Kensington Crescent, Ilford  Author: Uclerew via Wikimedia

Freddy returned to sea and was away for a year, from September 1921 to September 1922. He and Edith exchanged frequent letters and upon his return they met….

It was on the 3rd of October 1922 that the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London. Afterwards they returned to Ilford by train and then as they were walking home from the station they were attacked by a man. Edith was knocked to the ground and in the struggle that followed Percy was fatally stabbed….and the attacker fled….

When the police arrived Edith was hysterical. She told them she knew who had done it and named Frederick Bywaters; she told them of her history with him – believing herself a witness and that she was doing the right thing…. Freddy was arrested; from the onset he co-operated well with the police, even leading them to where he had hidden the murder weapon. They also found amongst his possessions the letters Edith had written to him….she was duly arrested as an accomplice. Freddy insisted that Edith was not involved and continued to do so throughout the duration of the trial that was to follow….

The trial began on the 6th of December 1922 at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Shearman; Freddy continued to co-operate…. “I waited for Mrs Thompson and her husband. I pushed her to one side, also pushing him into the street. We struggled. I took my knife from my pocket and we fought and he got the worst of it”…. When questioned as to why he had done it…. “The reason I fought with Mr Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake. I loved her and I could not go on to see her leading that life. I did not intend to kill him. I only meant to injure him. I gave him the opportunity of standing up to me like a man but he wouldn’t”….

The letters were used as evidence at the trial as to Edith’s involvement. Edith had written over 60 intimate letters to Freddy, in them she used endearing terms, such as ‘darlingest’ and ‘darlint’. She referred to times she had tried to murder her husband by attempting to poison him and adding ground glass to his food. She had also sent press cuttings about murders committed through poisoning. Freddy told the Court he did not believe that Edith had really tried to kill her husband – he thought she was fantasising…. Another admission Edith made in her letters was that she had performed an abortion upon herself….

img_1299
Edith and Freddy Public Domain

On summing up Mr. Justice Shearman described the letters as “full of outpourings of a silly but at the same time, a wicked affection”…. Obviously being a man of high Victorian morals he emphasised the adultery. In concluding he instructed the Jury…. “You will not convict her unless you are satisfied that she and he agreed that this man should be murdered when he could be, and that she knew that he was going to do it, and directed him to do it, and by arrangement between them he was doing it”…. The law of the time stated that if two people wished the death of another person and one carried out the deed, they were both guilty….

The Jury retired to consider….two hours later they returned a guilty verdict on both of them. Even after the verdict had been read out Freddy noisily defended Edith; the death sentence was passed….

Edith was returned to Holloway Prison and Freddy to Pentonville; both lodged appeals – both were refused. Although Edith was an adulteress, had undergone an abortion and had supposedly attempted to poison her husband, the public and press (who had up until now been totally against her) changed their opinion. A campaign for a reprieve was launched and a petition with a vast amount of signatures was presented to the Government – but still the Home Secretary refused to reprieve her…. All the while Freddy continued to protest that he alone had killed Thompson….

At 9am on the 9th of January 1923 Edith and Frederick were hanged in their respective prisons. Freddy faced his execution with bravery; his hangman was William Willis – until his last moments he still proclaimed Edith’s innocence. Meanwhile, Edith was a hysterical mess — she had lost all control of herself – she screamed and sobbed….

Edith had been convinced that she would get a reprieve – as had most of those around her. On the morning of her execution she had to be heavily sedated; when John Ellis arrived to pinion her arms she was only semi-conscious. He too had thought that she would be granted a reprieve….

Edith had to be carried to the gallows by four warders, she then had to be supported on the trapdoor whilst Ellis made his final preparations. The procedure of the execution was carried out…. The after report stated that the cause of death was fracture/dislocation of the neck and mentions some bruising. In this respect there was nothing untoward with regards to the execution procedure itself – but it was what else that happened that had such an adverse affect on all of those present….

The method of hanging used was the ‘long drop’ – as her body fell it was if though her innards came away from within her…. Blood poured down her legs…. Depending on which account of the events you read there are various reasons suggested as to why this happened. Some say she was pregnant – she had in fact gained weight whilst in prison, despite having hardly eaten…. Others think it is possible she suffered an inversion of the uterus – she had admitted to having an abortion, perhaps damage had occurred then…. If she had been pregnant she would undoubtedly have known as she would have been at least 3 months gone by then and used the pregnancy to her advantage in getting a stay of execution – and increase the likelihood of a reprieve…. Later research, carried out on condemned women in Germany just before WW2 showed that the stress these women were under often stopped them from menstruating and then the shock of the actual hanging could bring on an excessively heavy bleed. Maybe this is what happened to Edith…. Whatever the reason it is why all future condemned women in British prisons were required to wear heavily padded underwear at the time of their execution to prevent another similar occurrence….

Edith was buried in the precincts of the prison but in 1970 when Holloway was rebuilt her remains were moved to Brookwood Cemetery, in Surrey….

img_1300
Grave of Edith Thompson Public Domain Source: own work by original uploader Jack1956 via Wikimedia

Several of the prison officers who were present at that fateful hanging took early retirement. Ellis himself resigned from the post of hangman the following year, blaming ill-health – some believe it was because of Edith Thompson’s execution. However, despite this he carried out a further eleven executions before finally tending his resignation in March 1924. The last execution he carried out was that of John Eastwood at Armley Prison, Leeds on the 28th of December 1923, for the murder of his wife….

Ellis started to drink heavily and became depressed; later in 1924 he attempted to take his own life for the first time by shooting himself in the jaw. As suicide was a crime at the time he was convicted for 12 months and the Judge asked for and received an undertaking that he would never attempt such a thing again….

John Ellis went on to write his memoirs – “Diary of a Hangman”….and even attempted at an acting career, playing the part of William Marwood (the executioner) in a play entitled “The Life and Adventures of Charles Peace” which featured a mock hanging. The play was ill-received being regarded as being in bad taste and closed after just a few days…. Ellis had put his own money into the production and so took his ‘gallows’ out on the road – putting on performances at venues such a seaside resorts and charging sixpence a view…. This particular public may have loved it – but the Government did less so as it made a mockery of the justice system…. Ellis claimed there was “no pension for the hangman” and he had to earn a living….

Ellis continued to have financial problems, still suffered from depression and all the while carried on drinking. It was on the 20th of September 1932 after one particularly heavy bout of drinking that he threatened to behead his wife and daughter with a razor…. He proceeded to turn the razor on himself, slashed his own throat, almost decapitating himself….

During his role as executioner Ellis felt it was his duty to ‘help’ the poor wretches through their ordeals…. It seems there was nobody there to help him through his own wretched ordeal. After he had given 23 years of service nobody from the Home Office even attended his funeral….

Please…. If you have read this through to the end then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

You may also enjoy Martha Brown….the woman who inspired Thomas Hardy….

Martha Brown….the woman who inspired Thomas Hardy….

Many of us would have read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles at some point – if not we’ve probably seen a film adaptation – be it the one directed by Roman Polanski or another version…. There is little doubt that we have all heard of Thomas Hardy and his story of a complicated love triangle between Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare and Alec d’Urberville….which ends in murder, for which Tess takes the consequences…. A story of a beautiful young woman who kills the man who ruined her life….

img_1238-1
Scene from Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a 1913 American silent drama film – Public Domain
img_1239-1
Thomas Hardy between 1910 & 1915 – Public Domain

Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was published in 1891, 35 years after a 16 year old Thomas Hardy witnessed the hanging of convicted murderess Martha Brown, at Dorchester Prison in 1856….

Elizabeth Martha Brown (nee Clark) was born in 1811, to a dairyman, John Clark and mother, Martha…. There is little information available on her early life but she married Bernard Bearn of Powerstock and had two sons who died in infancy….she became a widow in 1851…. Martha met John Brown, some 20 years her junior when they were both working as servants together…. They married – she was an attractive older woman, with beautiful curly hair, looking younger than her years – and she had some money put by – which is perhaps why he married her. They lived in Birdsmoorgate, in the Marshwood Vale, near to Beaminster in Dorset. From the onset it was a turbulent marriage, she was to express regret at marrying him…. Before long she was to suspect him of having an affair with a neighbour, a married woman named Mary Davies….some sources say she actually caught them in bed together…. Understandably they had a row – he stormed out and later came home drunk ~ another arguement ensued…. He lost control and hit her with his whip – this was just too much for Martha, she retaliated and hit him over the head with an axe that they used for chopping coal….

Upon her arrest Martha claimed that a horse had kicked her husband in the head; her story was not believed and a murder charge was brought against her. She came to trial at Dorchester Assizes; a guilty verdict was returned and she was then taken to Dorchester Prison to await execution, which was set for 9 am, Saturday the 9th of August 1856 – just 13 days after the death of her husband….

There was much public sympathy for Martha; the case caused sensationalism in newspapers of the time, sparking debates as to the validity of capital punishment and the treatment of women within the justice system. She was a victim of abuse who had been pushed to the edge….but was caught up in her own lie – that a horse had kicked Brown in the head — meaning that the Home Secretary was to refuse a reprieve; diminished responsibility as a defence did not come into English law until a century later…. Martha admitted her guilt whilst in her prison cell – in her confession she said ~ “I was much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion, on being so abused and struck, I directly seized a hatchet which was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been using to break coal with to keep up the fire and keep his supper warm, and with it I struck him several violent blows on the head. I could not say how many”…. Martha would have been attended by two matrons (female warders) in her prison cell and would have been looked after well; she was also frequently visited by a chaplain, the Reverend D. Clemenston….

Martha’s executioner was to be our old friend William Calcraft ~ Calcraft and his assistant travelled to Dorchester by train the day before to make their preparations. The gallows were erected over the gates of Dorchester Prison the night before….in the place that is today the car park in North Square, Dorchester….img_1240-1

It was a grey drizzling start to the day on Saturday the 9th of August but still a crowd of between three and four thousand gathered to witness the execution; it was quite rare for a woman to hang by this time…. Martha chose to wear a long, close fitting black silk dress ~ she shook hands with the officials at the prison gates and then climbed the first set of steps to the scaffold….a total of 11 steps. Here she was met by Calcraft; he pinioned her arms in front of her and then led her up the remaining 19 steps to the gallows and finally on to the trapdoor. Next he placed a white hood over her head and the noose around her neck…. Calcraft turned and started back down the steps to withdraw the bolts of the trapdoor (this was a time prior to there being a lever) – it was at this point he had to be reminded that he had forgotten to pinion her legs ~ decency always being of the utmost importance in Victorian times…. Calcraft returned and secured her legs ~ she all the while stood poised and with dignity on the trapdoor, with a male warder on either side….

Rain had made the hood covering Martha’s head damp – it clung to her face accentuating her features….and no doubt would have made breathing difficult for her. Her dress would have been moulded to her body – causing her to resemble a statue….

Calcraft descended the steps and pulled the bolts; Martha dropped a foot or two ~ there was a ‘thud’ and for a few seconds she struggled ~ and then lost consciousness. At least she was spared the agonising and humiliating 10 to 20 minutes ordeal that accompanied some of the executions conducted by Calcraft – which he engineered to entertain his audience…. In fact Calcraft was later quoted as saying that he “never saw a criminal die so easily”…. Martha Brown was the last woman to be publicly hanged at Dorchester Prison….

To the 16 year old Thomas Hardy the hanging of Martha was a mesmerising sight. He later wrote “what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back”…. Of the hood that covered her head he said “I saw – they had put a cloth over her face – how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary”…. Hardy’s experience of the day was to haunt him all of his life, he was still writing about it in his eighties. He was morbidly fascinated with executions; just two years after the hanging of Martha he was to witness another….that of 19 year old James Seale. He was executed for the murder of Sara Guppy, aged 23, on the 10th of August 1858. Fire had been discovered billowing from Sara’s cottage and she was found inside with her throat slit – the suspicion fell on Seale….

Thomas Hardy wrote some 70 years later after witnessing Martha’s death that he was ashamed to have been at the hanging. In a letter to his friend, Lady Hester Pinney, he stated “my only excuse being that I was but a youth, and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons”….

In his book Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy does not describe Tess’s death in detail – instead he describes how onlookers watched as a black flag was raised…. “A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag. ‘Justice’ was done”….

Martha Brown would have been buried close to the point of her execution, at the outside walls of the prison precincts. She would have been 1 of 47 buried at Dorchester Prison. The prison closed in 2013, ready to be redeveloped for housing; it was whilst work was being undertaken that human remains were found. The developers wanted to build houses over where the remains lay – but it was actor Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey fame and President of the Hardy Society) who intervened. He wrote to the Bishop of Salisbury urging the Church to take care of the remains buried at the prison. In March 2018 it was ruled that the bodies would be interred in a common grave at nearby Poundbury Cemetery, with a service of Christian committal….

Fellowes actually went as far to say that he would like to see DNA testing carried out to determine Martha Brown’s remains, so that she could be buried in the village churchyard where Thomas Hardy’s heart is interred….

 

Hardy’s wish was to be buried in his hometown of Stinsford, Dorset….but he was actually laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise his heart was buried at Stinsford….but this is another story….

img_1246-2
Image: Signed sketch of Thomas Hardy – The British Library via flickr.com

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you have enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook, a little ‘like’ for Cottage Capers would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX

You may also enjoy William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….

William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….

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….

img_0886
William Calcraft

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….

img_1188
Via Wikimedia – public domain

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….

img_1189
Via Wikimedia – public domain

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….img_0887

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….

img_1187
Image credit: Alan Denney via flickr.com

You may also enjoy Time to meet the Hangman….

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you have enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook, a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers’ page would be very much appreciated & will ensure you see future posts…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I am simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

 

Time to meet the Hangman….

Although there are some amongst us who find the subject of the death penalty distasteful – equally there are many of us who are morbidly fascinated by it…. I’m sure all of us can name some of the condemned men and women who went to the gallows, especially those from the more notorious and controversial cases….but what of the men who carried out such executions? Who were they, what was it that attracted them to the profession and what qualifications were required to fulfil such a position…?

Hanging as a method of execution in Britain is thought to date from the Anglo-Saxon period; the first recorded official hangman was Thomas de Warblynton, during the 1360s. There was once a time when many ‘perks’ accompanied the job, often a house went with the position – and the hangman may have had other lucrative sidelines attached to his trade. He may have had an agreement with the local surgeon to supply the occasional corpse for ‘medical research’ – or perhaps he would sell pieces of the rope used to hang a well-known notorious criminal as souvenirs…. In the early days he was even entitled to keep any property the convicted person had upon them at the time of execution, including clothing….

img_1094
Hanging outside Newgate Prison – Public Domain

As time went by and the profession became more regulated, many of the perks disappeared. The post of ‘official’ hangman was not really a recognised position; executions were the responsibility of the under-sheriff of a county and it was he who usually got someone in to do the deed…. A good hangman would be in demand and would travel to wherever he was needed…. The post of hangman was much sought after from the mid 1800s and remained so until the abolishment of capital punishment in 1964. Each vacancy would attract many applications, even including some from women….

To be a hangman a candidate had to be able to work under pressure, have a strong stomach and be psychologically sound. After the application had been received police checks would have been made, not only for the obvious possible criminal record but also into the general background of the applicant. For example – one candidate, Arthur Gill (a butcher from Harrogate) was refused after police checks revealed he was known for his loose morals…. Another, a police officer named Henry Kirk, was passed over because he had a morbid interest in the job….

Once the checks had been carried out an applicant may have been called for an interview at the prison and undergone a medical examination. One of the main qualities sought in a successful candidate was a strong sense of discretion; one such hopeful, a Daniel Clifford from Fulham, showed off his interview letter to the blokes in the pub and got himself black-listed before even making it as far as the interview….

If accepted, the successful applicant would then attend a 6 day training course; initially this week of induction would have taken place at Newgate Prison, London – but after its closure in 1903 the training was conducted at Pentonville Prison. Only at this stage would governors determine whether a candidate was competent enough to be added to the ‘list’ of approved hangmen. In 1938 there were just seven men on the list who were judged “competent to carry out duties”…. Nearly always the men had settled home lives with stable run of the mill jobs; they were usually married, often with children….

Once approved, the hangman had to sign the Official Secrets Act; he had to adhere to a strict code of conduct at all times, discretion being of the utmost importance. He was expected to avoid attracting attention to himself whilst travelling to and from the prison and both the Prison Governor and Medical Officer would have kept a record of his conduct…. Talking in public or speaking to the press would not have been tolerated…. Equally, offering to carry out a specific execution would have resulted in being struck off the list – the potential hangman had to wait to be contacted if his services were required….

img_1095
1874 Triple Hanging at H.M. Prison Gloucester Paul Townsend brizzle born and bred on Flickr.com

By 1874 executions in Britain were becoming less commonplace and the job of hangman changed from being that of a salaried position to becoming a fee paid per job…. For example, the typical fee in the early 1930s would equate to approximately £100 in today’s terms – one and a half guineas paid at the time of the execution and then a further guinea and a half a fortnight later, once the authorities were satisfied with the conduct of the hangman in the time that followed….

One of Britain’s last executioners was Harry Allen, known as ‘Hangman Harry’, who officiated between 1941 and 1964. He was the chief executioner at 41 executions and acted as assistant at a further 53, including the controversial hanging of Derek Bentley in 1953. Harry applied for employment in the prison service in the 1930s but was rejected – however, he was successful in his application to be added to the Home Office’s list of executioners. He witnessed his first hanging in 1940 (that of William Cooper at Bedford Prison) when he was 29 years of age…. During his role of executioner he pursued a career as a publican, running a couple of pubs during the 1940s and 50s….

Harry performed one of the two final executions in England, that of Gwynne Owen Evans on August 13th 1964, who was hanged at Strangeways Prison (Manchester), for the murder of John Alan West. At the same time the simultaneous hanging of Peter Anthony Allen was taking place at Walton Gaol (Liverpool), performed by Robert Leslie Stewart…. Harry also conducted the last hanging in Scotland, of Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison and that of Robert McGladdery at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He always wore a bow tie when performing an execution, as a sign of respect to the person who’s life he was about to take ~ perhaps a respect ingrained into him by his mentor, Tom Pierrepoint, to whom he was assistant to at the beginning of his career….

The Pierrepoint family – probably the most famous of names in the history of British executioners – a dynasty….

img_1091
Thomas Pierrepoint (left) and nephew, Albert Pierrepoint (right) – 1st January 1947 – Public Domain via Wikipedia
img_1092
Henry Pierrepoint – photo taken 1909 Source: Daily Mail – Public Domain via Wikimedia

“As long as I can give in the last moments of these people, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, if I can give them the respect and dignity at the last moment.That’s my job and I can come away satisfied”…. – Albert Pierrepoint

All three men connected to this ‘dynasty’ had a common agenda – pride and the wanting to be humane and respectful. Henry Pierrepoint carried out 105 executions during his time as assistant and then chief executioner; his brother Thomas, succeeding him in his role, performed a further 294. Henry’s son, Albert – born 30th March 1905 – was to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle and was to become recognised by the Home Office as the most efficient executioner in British history. Albert hanged over 400 convicted criminals, possibly even as many as 600…. Among the executions performed by Albert were those of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and also Timothy Evans, who was wrongly hanged for a crime committed by John Christie – who Albert was to later hang…. He also travelled to Germany and Austria some 25 times in order to carry out approximately 200 executions of those convicted of war crimes after WW2….

After his father had retired as executioner the young Albert became close to his Uncle Tom – he was allowed to read the diaries his uncle kept, recording the details of the executions he had carried out. At the age of 11 years Albert wrote an essay for school saying that when he grew up he wanted to become the Official Executioner…. On leaving school Albert became a drayman, delivering for a wholesale grocer. In 1930 he learned to drive, not only a car but a lorry too – enabling him to earn £2 and 5 shillings a week….

On April 19th 1931 Albert wrote to the prison service and offered his services as an assistant executioner to his Uncle Tom; he received a letter back saying there were currently no vacancies. Later that same year the current assistant, Lionel Mann, resigned and Albert was called for an interview at Strangeways Prison. He succeeded in making it to the next stage of the selection process and attended a training course at Pentonville Prison, London; he was added to the list of assistant executioners on the 26th September 1932. Albert was on his way to fulfilling his ambition – something his mother was apparently none too happy about – she did not wish her son to become assistant executioner, she had a stomach full with the past career of her husband….

The first hanging Albert attended was that of Patrick McDermott on the 29th December 1932 – a young farmer who had murdered his brother. The Chief Executioner was his Uncle Tom. Albert’s first execution that he performed himself was that of gangster and nightclub owner Antonio “Babe” Mancini on October 17th 1941 at Pentonville Prison….

On August 29th 1943 Albert married Annie Fletcher; he had continued working at a grocers and Annie ran a sweetshop/tobacconist in the same street…. At some point in their relationship she learned of his ‘other career’ – but she said nothing – waiting for him to tell her in his own time; as always discretion was key…. Albert finally told his wife of his other life at the beginning of 1944. It was during his travels to Germany and Austria that the Press learned of his identity and he became regarded as a bit of a ‘war hero’ – giving the convicted Nazis what they deserved…. It was the rise in income from these extra executions that enabled Albert and Annie to become landlord and lady of a public house near Manchester, aptly named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’….

In 1956 Albert had a dispute with the Home Office over his fees as executioner. In the January he had travelled to Strangeways to perform the execution of Thomas Bancroft. The preparations had been made – but less than 12 hours before the appointed time Bancroft was reprieved. Albert put in a claim for the full fee (£15) – but the Home Office would not pay as the execution had not taken place – a cheque for £4 was offered to cover his expenses. Some say he had actually already made up his mind to resign by this point anyway, as he had received a lucrative offer from a popular weekly publication to reveal his story and the last moments of those convicted criminals he had executed…. The Home Office wrote to him asking him to reconsider his resignation – they were fully aware of his worth…

“A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman who, the Church says, still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain”…. Albert Pierrepoint

It was at this point I intended to continue with a look at one of the Pierrepoints’ predecessors from the previous century, another well-known hangman in British history – one William Calcraft. However, on reflection Calcraft does not have a place here amongst the ‘gentlemen’ of executioners (if one is permitted to describe them as that)…. The Pierrepoints displayed respect and discretion – Calcraft was obviously cut from a different cloth…. He perhaps deserves a blog post all of his very own – but I may not be quite so respectful due to the way he went about things…. I’m now off to see if I can find out a little more about him….

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you have found this via Facebook a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

You may also enjoy Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged….

 

June’s Jewels….

If you are born in the month of June, then you are lucky enough to have not one but three main birthstones….

Perhaps the most well-known is the pearl. Unlike most gems – (which are found within the Earth) – pearls are formed in the shells of oysters, clams or mussels and are organic in origin….

A particle of rock, a grain of sand or a parasite may find its way into the mollusk’s shell…. As it becomes an irritant the creature then encases the foreign body with layer upon layer of the material that forms its shell. This material is actually a relatively soft form of a carbonate mineral called ‘aragonite’ – and when pearls are formed inside the shell they are often very irregular in shape and have little commercial value. The pearls that are sought after are the ones that form within the tissue of the mollusk; these are spherical or teardrop in shape and are perfect for jewellery making…. Today oyster farms produce a steady supply of ‘cultured pearls’….

A newly-opened freshwater oyster, showing the rows of cultured pearls inside. Photographed in Shanghai, China. Author: Istara via Wikimedia Commons

Kokichi Mikimoto was the creator of cultivated pearls and Japan is famous for its cultured pearls; Australia and the Pacific Islands are also well-known for them. Oysters that are two or three years old have an irritant, such as a fragment of mother of pearl, inserted into their fleshy part – they are then submerged into water in mesh bags and fed for up to 7-9 years – then they are harvested for their pearls….

img_0963-1
Image: Mikimoto Kokichi inserts nucleus in a pearl shell via Wikimedia Commons (between 1945 & 1954 – Public domain)

Some of the most exquisite pearls are found in Sri Lankan waters and the Persian Gulf; with their soft cream colour they are known as Orientals. Pearls can be found in fresh water too, (known as freshwater pearls), for example – in mussels in the forest streams of Bavaria, Germany and the Mississippi River….

Generally we think of a pearl as being white or a soft cream; however, depending on the environment and the species of mollusk colours can vary – green, lavender, yellow, blue, grey – even black pearls (found in the Gulf of Mexico and the waters of certain Pacific Ocean islands)….

Akoya Pearls black & white. Author Mauro Cateb via Wikimedia Commons

The most beautiful pearl ever (considered by experts) is ‘La Peregrina’ – or ‘The Wanderer’ and was once given by the actor Richard Burton to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor; but the gem has a much longer provenance than that…. Originally it was found in the waters of the Panama by a slave in the 1500s ~ who used it to buy his freedom…. In 1570 the pearl was given to King Phillip II of Spain; the pearl was mounted in platinum, its one and a half-inch length adorned with diamonds. It then came into the hands of England’s Queen Mary I and then into those of Prince Louis Napoleon of France. He sold it to Britain’s Marquis of Abercorn, where it remained in the family until 1969 – when they put it up for sale at Sotheby’s; which is where Richard Burton acquired it….

Queen Mary I wearing ‘La Peregrina” – Public domain

The largest pearl ever is believed to be the ‘Pearl of Asia’, weighing over 5oz and measuring about 3 inches long and 2 inches wide…. The Shah Jahan of India gave it to his favourite wife, ‘Mumtaz” – he must have adored her as it was also she he built the Taj Mahal for….

Pearls were thought to have medicinal properties and were used in Europe until the 1600s to treat various diseases, including insanity. Even today medicine in Asia uses ground-up low-grade pearls….

Pearls are believed to bring longevity, wealth and power…. And – we all know that saying “Pearls of wisdom”…. a biblical term – “that to waste wisdom on fools is like casting pearls before swine”….

The second birthstone associated with June is Alexandrite – an extremely rare gem which is highly desirable. It is named after Czar Alexander II, when he was still Prince Alexander of Russia, as the stone was first discovered in an emerald mine in Russia’s Ural Mountains during 1839 and on the Prince’s birthday….

Alexandrite is unusual in that it changes colour according to the light…. In day light it is green, occasionally with a blue tint. However, in artificial light it becomes violet, or a reddish-purple…. Sri Lanka is the main source of Alexandrite but has also been found in Brazil, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Burma….

Chrysoberyl var. alexandrite under UV light long waves. Image: Geri Parent via flickr.com

Because the gem is only a relatively recent discovery there has been little time for myths and legends to surround it….but in Russia particularly it is believed to being luck….

The third birthstone for June is the Moonstone; so named as silvery rays appear within the gem as it is moved around, resembling moonbeams. ‘Pliny’ – an ancient Roman historian, believed the moonstone changed in colour with the different phases of the Moon; this belief remained widespread amongst people until the 1500s. Ancient Romans also thought the image of the goddess of the Moon, Diana, was captured within the gem….

Credit: Amelia ISA via flickr.com

Moonstones belong to a family of minerals called feldspars – roughly 50% of the Earth’s crust is made up of feldspar. The best moonstones are found in Sri Lanka but they are also found in the Alps, Madagascar, India and Burma. A common variety of the gem is labradorite which is a popular choice for jewellery. Those who wear moonstones are thought to be brought the power of wisdom, victory and health…. In India moonstones are often displayed upon yellow cloth – the colour being sacred…. It is believed a spirit lives within the gem that is meant to bring good fortune….