Public Executions – Summary from 1864.

PUBLIC EXECUTIONS. January 7th 1864 Impartial Reporter.

The punishment of death has long been a subject of controversy and much has been written to show that, so far as a deterring influence may be concerned, it has ever been a total failure. When the late Sir Robert Peel brought in his measure for a reform in the criminal code, a leading Judge of the day give it as his opinion that if the system of capital punishment were in any degree narrowed neither life nor property would be safe. We have seen how well the milder mode of dealing with offenders has worked for the last forty years, and how comparatively few cases there have been where in days of old the common hangman would have finished the work and wreaked the final vengeance on the law of the offender. During the thirty-eight years’ reign of Henry the Eighth  there were seventy-two thousand criminals executed; and in, very recent times—viz. the ten years’ reign of George the Fourth—nearly eight hundred executions took place in England. Sam Rogers tells of the days when fourteen criminals were hanged at Tyburn on a single morning, one of the sufferers, being a young woman, mother of an infant only three months old. One sad feature of that case was that the husband of the poor girl had been seized and carried off by the press-gang, and she was left penniless. In her poverty and despair she stole a shawl and sold it to buy food and for that crime she was lodged in the Old Bailey and, after proof of the fact, condemned to death. The banker poet, in commenting on the harshness of that case, said the Government first stole the woman’s natural protector, add the law ordered her execution for committing an act not one tenth so flagrant as that perpetrated against herself under the sanction of the same law. With the advent of a more merciful system, of punishment there has come a lessened disposition to commit the higher order of offences.

Forgery is not at all so prevalent now, as it was when a man would be hanged—as was the case at Carrickfergus about half a century ago—for offering to past a bank-note which afterwards turned out to be a forgery: the poor fellow was unable to read, but the plea availed him not, and he paid the penalty of the act with the forfeit of his life. Occasionally a highly finished criminal such as Roupell turns up, and tells a tale of systematic plunder that savours far more of the dreamings of a romance writer than the actual workings of wickedness in real life. Still, when we consider that in a single year, before the reform of the law, there were one hundred and twenty persons prosecuted for forgery the moral improvement that has been going on since 1832, when the crime ceased to be considered a capital one in the eye of the law must be looked upon as marvellous.

The revolting scenes that take place at public executions cannot fail to have the worst effects on the habits and passions of those who, with the morbid curiosity of a depraved taste, have a sort of mania for such exhibitions, it is not unusual for persons who delight in these sights to sit up all night in the neighbourhood of the gallows for the purpose of securing good places on the morning of the execution. Windows within view of the drop at the Old Bailey have frequently been let at ten to fifteen pounds. When Bellingham, who murdered Mr Percival in the lobby of the House of Commons was hanged for that act, the late George. Selwyn, famed for his desire to witness executions paid twenty pounds for a single window.

One of the most revolting of public executions took place at Chester on Monday last It may perhaps, be recollected that, some time ago a woman named Alice Hewitt was given in charge for the murdering of her mother by the administering of poison to the poor woman. It appeared that early in the year Hewitt had induced a woman of her acquaintance to go to an insurance office and personate her (Hewitt’s) mother, and for a small premium, the office issued a policy on the life for five and twenty pounds. In a short time the old woman died and after the usual proof  of the decease of the insured, the insurers  paid over the sum to the daughter. By some means the truth came out as to the mode by which the old woman met her death, and on inquiry, being made the daughter was taken prisoner, tried, and sentenced to death. The day appointed was Monday last, at eight o’clock and although the weather was very severe with occasional drifts of snow falling, between three and four thousand persons had assembled to witness the execution. On the culprit appearing on the platform of the drop a death-like hush prevailed for a moment, but above the heads of the multitude there presently rose a wail of piercing intensity from the lips of the culprit; and as the cry deepened the very stillness of silence, prevailed over the crowd. The report, as given in the Daily New goes on to say that on the cap and rope being adjusted, the culprit fell upon her knees and prayed that her infant child might be spared a similar fate, and that her death


Impartial Reporter, March 24 1864.

Sir George Grey’s recent speech in the House of Commons in defence of public executions recalls the arguments in vogue at no very remote date when the hempen remedy was vigorously applied to a vast number of offences no longer punishable with death. Yet the following brief extracts from the London papers published during the latter part of the last century appear now almost incredible now that the expediency of retaining Capital punishment even for the heinous, crime of murder is more than questioned by the most intelligent minds in the community.

A D 1774. During this year sixty-eight persons were executed in London and forty-eight convicts branded.” [This operation was performed on the back of the patient. “Burning in the hand” was a more common and less painful infliction..]

July 27th Rev. Dr.  William Dodd and another convict were executed at Tyburn. The spectacle on this occasion was anything but solemn. Two dogs having quarrelled near the gallows foot, were incited by fellows nearby to fight it out; the Religious exercises intended to be entered into were suddenly stopped, and either never renewed or slurred over. The heat of the day was great, the dust raised thick, and great confusion prevailed. The Doctor’s face looked flushed and every appearance of resignation he had been able to give to his countenance was quite put out by the rout. The white night provided to cover his face was found on trial to be far too small, but it was rudely forced on so as to cover part only of the visage. The sheriffs, who were seated in their carriages, viewed the scene at a distance signalled the driver of the gallows cart to, whip his horses, at once, and this done the culprits swung in mid-air.

1779 October 27th —“At seven o’clock this morning four convicts were taken from Newgate to Tyburn to die. Three were hanged; but one, Isabella Condon, who had coined some shillings and sixpences, was fastened to a stake, the faggots about it lighted, and her body consumed to ashes. She cried bitterly, and declared that the last part she had to undergo afflicted her beyond every other consideration.

In several London papers for August, 1782, we find the following paragraph: –

“This day (St. Bartholomew’s) David Tyrie, lately convicted of high treason at Winchester Assizes, as having corresponded with our enemies the French, was hung at Portsmouth. Having been up twenty-two and a half minutes he was taken down, disembowelled, and his heart taken out and presented to the mob. The latter had then the liberty of cutting and hacking any parts of the body they could; so fingers, ribs, toes, & were flying about on all sides. The gaoler of Gosport however, took away the head and made a show of it for money,” [The exhibition of this ghastly relic had been found too profitable by an honest Boniface to be lightly given up. Thus in the London papers published in mid-summer  1783 we find the following supplementary notification on the same subject under date June 26] “The head of the late David Tyrie is still in course of exhibition at a charge of one shilling by a publican who purchased it. A few weeks before a fine young woman lost her reason from her sweetheart having playfully on a sudden thrust the head upon her.

1785, Feb.22 – This morning twenty men were hung from the platform before Newgate. These were, &c. [The names and reported crimes of the parties we omit but there was not one murderer amongst them.] “Before going out the unhappy criminals kissed each other in the Quadrangle then marched on; solemnly, two-and-two singing a funeral hymn.”

1785April 19—Nineteen malefactors were executed this morning in front of Newgate prison.

1785. Nov. 10 – “Sixteen persons were executed this day in front of Newgate prison, one of them being a mere lad, aged 15.

1786, June 22. —“Six men and one woman were this morning executed before Newgate—namely, four for robbery, one man for counting and counterfeiting a half penny; the woman, named Harris for assisting in counterfeiting some shilling pieces. Soon after the unhappy men were dead twelve persons went upon the Scaffold and had the hands of; the deceased repeatedly rubbed by the executioner upon their faces and necks as a supposed cure for the protuberances called wens. About a quarter of an hour after the platform had dropped the female convict was led by two officers of justice from Newgate to a stake fixed in the ground about midway between the scaffold and the pump.  The stake was about eleven feet high, and on the top of it was inserted a curved piece of iron to which the halter was tied. The prisoner stood on a low stool, which, after the ordinary had prayed with her a short time being taken away she was suspended by the neck, her feet being scarcely more than twelve or thirteen inches from the pavement. Soon after the signs of life had ceased two cart loads of faggots were placed around her and set on fire. The flames presently burning the halter and  the convict fell a few Inches, and was then sustained by an iron chain passed over her chest, and affixed to the stake. Some scattered remains of the body were perceptible in the fire at half past ten o’clock. The fire had not quite burnt out at twelve, Phoebe Harris was a well-made little woman, something more than thirty years of age, of pale complexion, and not disagreeable in features. When she went out of prison she appeared both languid and terrified and trembled greatly as she advanced to the stake, where the apparatus for her punishment she was about to experience seemed to strike her mind with horror and consternation, to the exclusion of all power of collectedness in preparation for the awful approaching moment.

1787, Jan l. — “The executions last year in London have amounted to forty-four. There are now in Newgate fifty-two, capital convicts, the greater part of whom will, no doubt, suffer in the course of a few months.”

1787. | Jan 9—“This morning were executed before the debtors’ door in Newgate, pursuant to their sentences, eighteen malefactors, condemned for highway robbery, housebreaking and horse stealing. They behaved suitably to their unhappy situation.”

1787, Jan 4 — At this morning thirteen convicts suffered death at the Old Bailey. [This year nearly one hundred hangings took place in London and Middlesex together]

1788, June 25. – “Margaret Sullivan was burnt at a stake set up in the Old Bailey for having aided others in coining base money. As soon as she came to the stake she was placed on the stool, which, after, some time, was taken from under, when the faggots were placed around her, and, being set fire to, she was consumed to ashes. [This woman was, we believe, the last victim of the old English treason laws, which punished as “ petty treason” in a female the murder of a husband, or that of a master or mistress, &c. In Midsummer, 1790, a law passed transferring such crimes, also coining base money (formerly punished as an act of high treason) to the category of capital felonies.]

1788, Dec. 12—“The number of persons executed in Middlesex between the present time and Dec. 1783, shows a total of 324, or nearly 65 annually!”

1790. Dec.— “Two Custom-house officers were executed in the Old Bailey for misappropriating a small parcel of coffee beans, which petty abstraction, as they protested to the last, they thought they had a right to make as a usual perquisite.”

The following describes the infliction of the brutal punishment of branding in the hand.

1799. Dec. 22- “James Ottean, a French prisoner of war, was convicted of man-slaughter in the Admiralty Court, London. He was sentenced to be burned in the hand, which was carried into effect before he left the court, and in presence of the judge, who tried him (Sir Wm. Scott). The apparatus—viz., the chafing-dish, the brand, and irons for keeping the hand steady – being adjusted, the brand was applied. The patient uttered in involuntary convulsive scream on feeling the iron, but instantly regained his apparent composure.

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