I am 7 days into a Sisyphean task.
While filled with the joys of academic freedom and the renewed vigour of a man who has escaped the drudgery of the 9-5, I thought I would use this new-found energy to great effect and collate all the available regional and national press reports on the 108 North East executions between 1750-1880 (the North East counting as Berwick, Durham, Morpeth and Newcastle). Not only that, I promised to save PDFs of each report, make a full listing of it and attach a screenshot of the report to each listing, so that I had a completely definitive ‘bible’ of execution reports – by the end of the week. Well, that was ambitious!
I am now 7 days in (given my Sisyphean analogy – I rested on Sunday so as not to anger any Gods further) and have reached the execution of Ralph Joicey in 1846. When I began, I was pulling up maybe two or three reports per trial, but as i have gone on the numbers, along with the press, have grown exponentially. With Ralph Joicey I am so far up to 38 articles and I think i’m about half way. The one redeeming feature is that they’re all fascinating to read, so I am as sure as I can be that I have picked a topic that i’ll not bore of over the next three years.
I want to say a personal thanks to Barry Redfern, a former Police Chief Superintendent in Northumbria and expert in all things criminal who, incredibly kindly, let me access all his research on the subject – following one polite introductory email. It has been my head torch in this mine of information. I have listed his books on my suggested reading/How page, which are a very accessible way into the history of crime and punishment in the North East region in the Eighteenth Century.
Now, self-pitying over, one thing all this analysis has brought up is a wealth of stories and interesting points to put on the blog (over the last week alone I have skeletally drafted 19 different posts so, given my once a week ratio, that should see me through to September). The subject I have settled for this week though is hanging itself.
What struck me in the many reports I came across was how poorly people were executed. By this I mean that in many cases there was considerable suffering following the ‘drop’. In many cases people would be struggling for considerable lengths of time – a sight that was no doubt horrific to the onlookers. There’s a strange Britishness to the reports of the crowd at these events that seem to suggest gameness to attend and watch a spectacle, but a horror at any sustained suffering.The prevalence of poor practice should not surprise me really, given the well documented nature of the inefficiency of hangmen in the period.
Until the very end of public hanging in 1868, and thereafter in prisons, hangmen were unreliable executioners…In nearly every year the grim chronicle of bungled executions and lackadaisical hangmen was extended.”
V.Gatrell: The Hanging Tree p.50
In the North East, many people suffered the further indignity and stress of being badly hung. The first I came across was Peter Patterson, a rioter, whose rope broke as he was hung and had to wait while another one was found. It is worth noting that this man was 74 years of age at the time of his execution.
Similarly, Mary Nicholson, who was hung for poisoning her mistress, had to wait up to an hour according to reports while a new rope was procured, after the first snapped when she was initially hung. During this time she is reported to have ‘prayed fervently’ and in some reports ‘conversed with her family and friends’. We can only imagine the horror of a failed hanging and it is a disservice to the dead to imagine their thoughts, but after an hour a new rope was found and Mary Nicholson was ‘launched into eternity.’
In the case of William Jobling, a miner, controversially executed in Durham in 1832 in front of the County Court for the murder of Judge Nicholas Fairles – of which more in a later blog, he turned his head to see a person near the scaffold who had shouted “farewell Jobling” just as the drop went. This unfortunate timing caused the displacement of the cord and “protracted sufferings which continued for some minutes.”¹
In one extraordinary tale I came across, from the Sussex Assizes, John Carpenter, was executed by a Shoemaker who was only an occasional hangmen, ‘the common hangman having got purposefully out of the way’. He made a terrible job of the hanging and caused poor John Carpenter great suffering, so much so that the crowd ‘loaded him with curses and prayed that he might break his neck’.² The newspaper reporting goes on to say that the hangman might bear in mind the fantastic Latin phrase
‘Ne Sutor ultra crepidam’ roughly translated as shoemaker not above the sandal
Reading Mercury – Monday 15 August 1785
It is perhaps for this amongst other reasons, that the public attitude towards hanging and the hangman in general appears to take a turn for the worse as we get closer to the end of the period I am studying. Indeed, in the reports I am up to on Ralph Joicey’s execution at Morpeth in 1846 for Parricide (look it up when your dads not around) we see the following reports.
The hangman has arrived, polluting the atmosphere with his horrid presence, and shocking the feelings of the more thoughtful inhabitants.”
Bradford Observer – Thursday 19 March 1846 p.7
There is something all the more tragic about a botched hanging. The ultimate indignity for the ultimate punishment. It is in situations like those final moments where ironically Sisyphus, with his ability to put death in chains so that no human should die, would have been truly welcome.
Now, if anyone needs me, I’m off to carry on pushing my rock.
1: Sussex Advertiser – Monday 13th August 1832 p.4
2. Reading Mercury – Monday 15 August 1785 p.2
Great Distractions 1: – Continuing my theme of pleasant distraction, I came across this. Someone beat me too it is the only downside of this link. I have always been so infuriated by adverts that have great songs that I can’t place. Now there’s a website for it http://www.tvadmusic.co.uk and it put me on to this new track used on an Ikea advert. Apologies if this makes you unconsciously buy an unpronounceable wardrobe.
Great Distraction 2: Museum of 4am. If you can get past the cloying American sentimentality of the presentational style, this is a fascinating concept. I thought it would bring about a 4am example in my study, given the point being made – but so far not, keeping my eyes peeled though.