On this day in history….5th May 1760

On this day in history : 5th May 1760 – The public hanging at Tyburn, London, by the new ‘drop’ method, of Earl Ferrers….who is executed for the murder of his servant…. He is the last Peer to be hanged….

4th Earl Ferrers – Public domain

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers was born on the 18th of August 1720 into a family of long-established nobility…. At the age of 20 he left his Oxford education to live a life of debauchery in Paris….

When 25 he inherited his title from an insane uncle along with estates in Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire…. He returned to England to take up residence at Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire….

He married Mary in 1752….it was to be far from a happy marriage. Although he could be reasonably normal when sober he was a heavy drinker and became violent…. He was also a womaniser and had a long-term mistress, Margaret Clifford, with whom he had 4 illegitimate daughters…. This relationship continued after he was married….

In 1758 Mary had endured enough and obtained a separation by Act of Parliament on the grounds of his cruelty…. She must have had a strong case as this was almost unheard of at the time…. As part of the separation agreement Mary was granted a proportion of the rents from the Estate….An old family steward, John Johnson, was appointed to collect the rents on her behalf…. Not surprisingly Ferrers dislike Johnson and hated the fact that he had authority over the Estate….

It is thought the tipping point came when Johnson paid Mary £50 without Ferrers’s consent….he asked to see Johnson at the Hall….Prior to the appointed meeting time on the 18th of January 1760 Ferrers sent Margaret and their daughters (who had moved in after Mary left) out, along with all the male servants of the household…. When Johnson arrived he was shown to the study where Ferrers awaited him…. Before long an argument broke out over the £50 and at around 3pm Ferrers shot the steward…. Johnson did not die immediately and a doctor was sent for and he was treated at the Hall…. Also sent for was Sarah, Johnson’s daughter….

Lord Laurence Earl Ferrers shooting his steward, Mr Johnson. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Ferrers had been sober at the time of the shooting but afterwards turned to the bottle. As the day wore into evening he continued to shout and rant at Johnson, before finally falling into a drunken stupor…. Dr. Kirkland and Sarah were then able to take Johnson back to his own home, where he died the next morning….

Ferrers was arrested; being a Peer he could not be dealt with at the Leicester Assizes and so was taken to the Tower of London to await trial….

On the 16th of April 1760 Ferrers was brought before Lord High Steward, Lord Henley at Westminster Hall; the trial lasted two days…. Ferrers ran his own defence, as was normal practice in those days, he tried to plead insanity…. Witnesses for the prosecution included Dr. Kirkland, Sarah Johnson and three female servants who had been at the Hall at the time…. Ferrers seemed incapable of understanding that it was not acceptable, even for a man of his position, to shoot a servant….

On being found guilty there was only one sentence applicable in accordance with the Murder Act 1752 – death by hanging…. A date was set for the 5th of May…. Ferrers was utterly appalled by the thought of public hanging at Tyburn – this was the death of a common criminal…. He pleaded with the King to be beheaded instead – the death of a nobleman…. But the sentence was upheld….

Ferrers was held at the Tower of London whilst awaiting execution….and would have been treated well and enjoyed relative luxury…. He wrote his Will, leaving £16,000 to his daughters and £200 to Sarah Johnson….

New gallows were constructed; instead of the barbaric cart, ladder and three-cornered gibbet – known as the ‘Tyburn Tree’ – a scaffold, covered with black material and reached by stairs, was built…. On the platform was a box, designed to sink into the structure, leaving the condemned suspended….

The ‘Tyburn Tree’ – Public domain

At 9am, on the morning of the 5th of May, the call was sent to the Tower for Ferrers to be brought to his place of execution…. An enormous crowd had gathered….the execution of a nobleman was a rarity…. Ferrers arrived in a carriage drawn by six horses….he wore his wedding suit of light coloured satin embroidered with silver thread…. He was accompanied by the Tower’s chaplain – also in the procession was a mourning coach carrying six of his friends and a hearse….

He was led to the scaffold and up the steps….the Lord’s Prayer was said and he mounted the drop…. His arms were tied with a black silk sash and the rope placed around his neck…. A white nightcap, which he had supplied himself, was pulled down over his head…. Around noon, having declined to give the signal himself, the Sheriff gave the command and the platform sank…. The mechanism didn’t quite work correctly – Ferrers’s feet were almost touching the platform; he was left writhing and took about 4 minutes to die….

His body was left for an hour, as was the custom before being taken down and put into the coffin…. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection – and then his body was put on display until the evening of the 8th of May…. His remains were then returned to his family for burial at St. Pancras Church – and in 1782 he was reinterred at the family vault in Staunton Harold….

The body of Earl Ferrers, displayed upright in his coffin. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

On this day in history….27th February 1907

On this day in history : 27th February 1907 – The Old Bailey, London’s main criminal court, is officially opened – having been built on the site of the old Newgate Prison….


The original medieval court-house, next door to Newgate Prison, was destroyed in the Great Fire of London….it was rebuilt in 1674. Originally, the court was intended for the prosecution of crimes committed in the City of London and Middlesex…. However, it was in 1856 that concerns were raised in the case of William Palmer – a doctor accused of being a poisoner and murderer…. Such was public revulsion that it was feared he would not get a fair trial in Staffordshire, his home county…. Allowing his trial to take place at the Old Bailey set a precedent for future serious crimes….

An Old Bailey trial circa 1808. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin – Public domain

Up until May 1868 the death penalty would be carried out in public…. Hangings took place in the street outside of the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison…. Huge crowds would gather to watch; stones, rotten fruit and vegetables would often be hurled at the condemned…. In 1807 the crowd was so unruly that a pie-seller’s stall over-turned, crushing 28 people to death…. As a result a covered tunnel was built between the prison and St. Sepulchre’s Church, opposite….it was known as ‘Dead Man’s Walk’. The condemned prisoner could be taken to be attended by the chaplain before the death sentence was carried out without facing the crowds….

Dead Man’s Walk – Old Bailey. Image credit: Matt Brown via Flickr

Towards the late 1800s more and more trials were being held at the Old Bailey and there were many people who wanted to watch….the building had become inadequate. Newgate Prison next door had become dilapidated as since the 1860s it no longer held long-term prisoners…. So, in 1877 it was decided to demolish both buildings to make room for a larger court….

Newgate Prison – pulled down in 1902 to make way for the Old Bailey. Image credit: Victor Keegan via Flickr

There were many delays but finally a new building, designed by E.W. Mountford in the neo-Baroque style – at a cost of £392,277 – was built and officially opened by King Edward VII…

Lady Justice statue – Old Bailey. Image credit: Lonpicman via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

On this day in history….12th February 1932

On this day in history : 12th February 1932 – Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald introduces a bill to improve Youth Courts, raising the age of juveniles and banning whipping of under 14s….

Under the reform which came into power in 1933 the age of criminal responsibility was raised to the age of 8 years and the death penalty abolished below the age of 18….

The Children & Young Persons Act also introduced approved schools, for criminal and beyond parental control minors – replacing reformatories, industrial and training schools…. With no locked cells or bars at the windows approved schools were meant to be more like boarding schools…. In 1948 a law was passed that prevented under 17s from being sent to adult prisons….

Discipline in approved schools was strict…. Each establishment was required to keep a punishment book and these were checked by Home Office inspectors on a regular basis…. Punishment books of approved boys’ schools in the 1930s, 40s and 50s show an average of several canings per week…. Corporal punishment was used less in girls’ schools and when it was only the under 15s and across the hands…. Punishment in approved schools did not differ all that much to the discipline meted out in ordinary schools…. However, before the Children & Young Persons Act it was a very different story….

published in The Comic Almanack for 1839 – George Cruickshank – Public domain

From 1847 onwards birching could be ordered by ordinary local magistrates for a variety of offences – but was nearly always for stealing…. By 1879 it had become more regulated….and the punishment was often carried out immediately after sentencing…. The young offender (boys up to the age of 14 – and 16 in Scotland) would be taken to a nearby police station – or sometimes it would be carried out in the court itself – and the beating would be administered by a policeman…. The birch used would be smaller and lighter than those used in prisons….

Committal for birching – A magistrate’s committal for birching two children dated 4 December 1899 – displayed in West Midlands Police Museum, Sparkhill, Birmingham Credit: Oosoom at English Wikipedia

The birch was a bundle of twigs, bound at one end to form a handle – and came in three sizes…. For boys under 10-years-old the birch measured 34 inches long and weighed 6 ounces…. For 10-16 year-olds it was 40 inches long, weighing 9 ounces…. The adult version was 48 inches long with a weight of 12 ounces…. It would be administered to the unclothed buttocks…. In Scotland the tawse would be used instead of the birch – a leather strap with two or three tails….and boys could receive up to 36 strokes….

Museum specimens of the tawse. Kim Traynor CC BY-SA 3.0

Corporal punishment for juvenile crime was seen as a better alternative to prison – once the punishment had been carried out the recipient was free to go home having learned a very painful lesson….

From the 1860s only higher courts could order corporal punishment for males over 14-years-old….and had to specify the instrument to be used…. The birch was for offenders of any age but the cat-o’-nine-tails could only be used on those over 16-years of age….and the punishment had to be administered in prison….

The cat-o’-nine-tails had a total weight of 9 ounces and each of the 9 tails was a fine whipcord, each measuring 33 inches long….and the tip bound with silk (not knotted at the end – this is a common myth)…. The tails were attached to a 19″ handle….

Both the birch and cat were issued to prisons by the Home Office and were distributed from Wandsworth Prison….

The cat was applied to the bare upper back…. The birch was rarely used on adults to start with but eventually became more common place than the cat…. Some adults would have preferred the cat given the choice (but doubt if they were) as they felt it less humiliating than having to expose their buttocks….

Cat-o’-nine-tails United Kingdom 1700-1850 Credit: Science Museum London CC BY via Wellcome Collection

The birch and cat-o’-nine-tails were abolished in the UK in 1948 (but were still used in prisons for violent assaults on prison staff until 1967)…. One of the last cases was that of a 23-year-old man who was sentenced at the Old Bailey in 1947 to 6 strokes of the cat and 7 years imprisonment for an armed raid on a public house in South London….

The birch was last used as a punishment for an assault on a prison officer in 1962…. Before that during the 1950s there had been an average of 3 or 4 such punishments per year for similar offences….

The Channel Islands finally banned the birch in the 1960s, with the last case on Jersey being in 1966 and Guernsey in 1968…. It took the Isle of Man until 1976 to abolish it – the last case being that of a 13-year-old boy who stole 10p from another child….

It took state schools until 1986 to ban caning and 1998 in private schools…. Scotland’s schools followed in 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2003….

Digitised by State Library of Queensland – Public domain

On this day in history….31st January 1910

On this day in history : 31st January 1910 – Dr. Crippen poisons his wife, dismembers her body and buries her boneless torso in the cellar of their London home….

Hawley Harvey Crippen c.1910

Hawley Harvey Crippen was an American homeopath living in London, with his wife Cora….a ‘would-be’ music hall star with little talent…. Cora was flamboyant and openly unfaithful – flaunting a string of younger lovers…. Crippen retaliated by taking a mistress, Ethel Le Neve, a typist who worked for him….

Cora Crippen (stage name Belle Elmore) Public domain – Bain News Service, publisher

It was after a dinner party held at Crippen’s home on the 31st of January that Cora disappeared…. Crippen told friends and neighbours that she had returned to America – as time went on he elaborated on the story, adding that she was ill – and then that she had died….

Crippen moved his girlfriend in;  and it wasn’t long before Le Neve started wearing Cora’s clothes and jewellery…. this aroused the suspicions of neighbours – but it was Cora’s friend, Kate Williams – better known as ‘Vulcana’, a strong woman and fellow performer – who alerted the police…. Crippen was interviewed by Chief Inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard – and the house was searched…. Crippen told Dew that he had fabricated Cora’s illness and she had in fact run off with one of her young lovers, a Bruce Miller….

Chief Inspector Walter Dew c.1920

Dew was satisfied with Crippen’s story and nothing had been found untoward at the house…. That should have been that….but Crippen panicked and he and Le Neve fled to Brussels….

The disappearance of Crippen and his mistress led to a more detailed search of the house…. It was eventually on the fourth such search that the grisly discovery in the cellar was made…. Buried beneath the floor they found a headless and boneless torso, wrapped inside a pyjama jacket…. The head, skeleton, sexual organs and limbs were never found….

Crippen and Le Neve attempted to abscond to Canada onboard SS Montrose….they were disguised as father and son…. The ship’s captain, George Kendall, was aware of Scotland Yard’s manhunt and realised who the pair were…. On board his ship was a brand new, state of the art, Marconi wireless telegraph radio set…. Captain Kendall was able to alert the authorities….

“Have strong suspicion that Crippen London cellar murderer and accomplice are among saloon passengers. Moustache taken off growing beard. Accomplice dressed as boy. Manner and build undoubtedly a girl”….

Inspector Dew was able to get on a faster ship than that of SS Montrose and was waiting in Quebec with the Canadian police when Crippen and Le Neve arrived….

“Good morning, Dr. Crippen. Do you know me? I’m Chief Inspector Dew from Scotland Yard”…. To which, after a pause Crippen replied…. “Thank God it’s over. The suspense has been too great. I couldn’t stand it any more”….

A disguised Crippen after his arrest. Public domain

The trial was held at the Old Bailey and Crippen’s defence was led by Alfred Tobin…. Crippen still insisted Cora had gone to America with her lover…. He claimed the body parts found in the cellar must have been there since before they had moved into the house…. However, a label reading “Jones Bros”- found in the pyjama top within which the remains had been wrapped – meant the investigation team were able to confirm with the manufacturer that the fabric used was from a more recent time…. The odds were stacked against Crippen – as the matching pyjama trousers were found in his bedroom….

Dr. Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on trial – image: United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division

A piece of intact skin from the torso bore a scar that matched one that Cora had received from an operation….the defence argued that it was a fold of skin and had hair follicles, which scar tissue would not have…. Traces of the drug hyoscine were found in the flesh of the torso – Crippen had purchased a quantity shortly before Cora’s disappearance….

Alledged scar tissue used in evidence at the trial, claimed to be that of Cora Crippen. Jack1956 at English Wikipedia. Public domain

The court case relied heavily on the new forensic science techniques available – and it did not take long for the jury to find him guilty….just 27 minutes of deliberation…. Crippen was sentenced to death…. He showed no remorse and little emotion throughout the trial – his main concern seeming to be the protection of Le Neve’s reputation….

Sketches from the trial of Dr. Crippen. ‘The Sketch’ magazine. Public domain

Crippen was hanged by John Ellis, assisted by William Willis, at 9am on the 23rd of November 1910 – in Pentonville Prison, London…. He was buried, at his request, with a photograph of Ethel Le Neve in his coffin….

Le Neve was charged with being an accessory – but acquitted…. On the morning of Crippen’s execution she emigrated to America….

In recent years there have been doubts raised as to whether Crippen really was guilty of the murder of his wife…. Controversial new evidence implies the remains in the cellar were not those of Cora….

On this day in history….28th January 1829

On this day in history : 28th January 1829 – William Burke is publicly hanged in Edinburgh…. Burke and his accomplice William Hare had sold the corpses of their 16 victims to Dr Robert Knox for dissection….

Hare and Burke

Edinburgh was a leading centre for anatomical study and Dr Robert Knox was one of several pioneering anatomy teachers of the time…. The law in Scotland stated that only bodies of executed criminals could be used for dissection…. the Judgement of Death Act 1823 meant there were fewer crimes punishable by death – and at a time when medical science was on the rise there became a shortage of cadavers…. This in turn led to an epidemic of ‘body snatching’….

Disturbing a grave was deemed a criminal offence – as was stealing property from a deceased person. However, actually stealing a body was not illegal – as it did not legally belong to anyone…. The price of a corpse depended on the time of year….during the warmer summer months bodies were quicker to decompose…. A corpse could fetch up to £10 in the winter, as it could be stored for a longer period and be used for more dissections….


Body snatching became so rife that measures had to be taken in graveyards for its prevention; watchtowers were built, guards hired – and sometimes families would rent huge slabs of stone to place over a new grave – just long enough for a body to decompose sufficiently enough to be of no use….

Burke and Hare both originated from the Province of Ulster, in the north of Ireland – and had moved to Scotland to work on the Union Canal. Burke had deserted a wife and two children in Ireland and was living in lodgings in Tanner’s Close, in the West Port area of Edinburgh, with his mistress Helen McDougal…. Also living in the same street was Hare, with his common-law wife Margaret Laird – with whom he ran a boarding house…. The two men became firm friends….

Burke and Hare were to embark on a killing spree that lasted for a period of about 10 months. It all started on the 29th of November 1827; a tenant of Hare’s, named Donald, died of natural causes…. He owed back rent of £4 to Hare, who complained of this to Burke….and the pair cooked up a plan…. Donald’s burial was to be arranged and paid for by the Parish; a carpenter was employed and a coffin made…. Once the carpenter had left Burke and Hare removed the body and hid it and refilled the coffin with bark from the local tanners…. Once the coffin had been collected for burial Burke and Hare took the body to Edinburgh University to find a buyer – and were directed to Dr Robert Knox….

Dr. Robert Knox – Public domain

Burke and Hare received £7 10S for Donald’s body, which was a considerable amount of money to them…. A couple of months later another opportunity arose, when another of Hare’s tenants, a miller named Old Joseph, fell ill…. He was delirious with fever and Hare worried that other lodgers would be put off from staying there…. Rather than wait for natural causes to happen Burke and Hare decided to help him on his way….after being plied with whisky Joseph was suffocated and his body sold to Knox….

Having run out of conveniently sick tenants Burke and Hare began to entice victims back to the lodging house – preying on those least likely to be missed in society. They murdered at least 16, possibly even more….and it is highly likely that their partners McDougal and Laird were in on it….

Their downfall came with the murder of their last victim, Marjory Docherty…. Burke and Hare had argued; Burke suspected Hare and Laird had been doing deals with Knox, cutting himself and McDougal out…. So Burke and McDougal started taking in lodgers themselves….

Image: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Marjory Campbell Docherty was invited to stay at Burke’s and the couple lodging there already, a James and Ann Gray, were told she was a distant relative – and they were asked to stay at Hare’s lodging house for the duration of her visit…. It was when the Grays returned to Burke’s to retrieve some belongings that suspicions were aroused…. They were told that Marjory had been asked to leave as she had made amorous advances on Burke – but they thought it strange when they were denied access to the room where their possessions were…. Seizing an opportunity when they found themselves alone in the house the couple gained access to the room and discovered Marjory’s body concealed beneath the bed…. They went to the police – but Burke must have got wind – because when the police arrived to search the body had gone….Burke had already delivered it to Knox….

William Burke murdering Margery Campbell – Robert Seymour (1798-1836) Public domain

Burke, McDougal, Hare and Laird were all arrested….and all blamed each other when questioned…. The investigation quickly led to Knox and James Gray identified the body of Marjory Docherty there…. However, the police had no real evidence of murder to bring charges…. It was at this point that an offer was made to Hare, granting him immunity from prosecution if he admitted guilt and acted as a witness for the State against Burke…. Hare confessed to all 16 deaths and gave details of Marjory Docherty’s murder….Burke and McDougal were arrested and charged with a total of three murders….

William Hare and Margaret Laird

The trial began on Christmas Eve 1828 at 10am and was heard by Lord Justice-Clerk David Boyle. The court was full and a large crowd gathered outside….the hearing lasted all day, through the night and well into the following day…. Burke was eventually found guilty of one murder and sentenced to death….McDougal was acquitted as there was no proof against her – this did not however prove her innocence….

William Burke and Helen McDougal at their trial

Burke was hanged on the morning of the 28th of January; a crowd of some 25,000 came to watch….views from windows overlooking the gallows were charged at up to 20 shillings per person….

Execution of Burke in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh – Public domain

On February the 1st Burke was publicly dissected by Professor Munro in th anatomy theatre of Edinburgh University’s Old College. A minor riot broke out when students without tickets tried to get in to the theatre…. Burke’s skeleton was given to the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School and can still be seen there today…. His death mask and a book said to be made from his tanned skin can be seen at Surgeon’s Hall Museum….


Hare was released in 1829 and fled across the border to England; although there are rumours nobody really knows what became of him…. McDougal and Laird both fled Edinburgh…. The murders raised awareness of the need for bodies for medical research and prompted the Anatomy Act 1832….