It is my birthday on Saturday and it’s a big one. I’m turning 30. This is a very sobering fact in itself, but there is additional weight added when you’re studying what I am. It hasn’t escaped my attention that a fair number of the cases I am studying are of people executed before they reached my age. Indeed, thirty is an age that has evaded many great people, the existence of the 27 club being proof in itself.
So, I thought, rather than dwell on my own increasing decrepitude, I would dedicate this blog to some of the people who lost their lives so young.
One such person was 19-year-old Owen MacDonald, a recruit soldier in “general Guise’s Regiment of Highlanders.”¹ executed for the Murder of Mr Robert Parker in 1752, in what appears to be a bizarre case of mistaken identity,
On the night of the 23rd March, 1752, Owen MacDonald was drinking at “Mr Pinkney’s in the Big-market (sic)” in Newcastle, his regiment “then quartered in that town”.¹ At roughly 10 o’clock, “some company” entered the pub and a quarrel broke out between MacDonald and the group. “From words they came to blows”, which caused some of the company to vacate the premises. MacDonald followed them out and “laid hold on one Mr. Robert Parker…in the entry of the above house, and wickedly stabbed him in the neck with a knife, in so desperate a manner that he died immediately.”² MacDonald was clearly in a frenzied rage as, on his return to the inn, he “abused several, and broke another man’s arm.” Indeed, so serious was the attack that a “file of musqueeters (sic)” were sent for, who conducted MacDonald to a “guard-house where he was confined, till next day, when he was committed to Newgate.”²
Reports on MacDonald’s subsequent behaviour, in the lead up to his execution, largely concur that he was “deeply affected with a true sense of his guilt”.² In what appears to be a very odd set of circumstances, MacDonald’s guilt is predominantly centred around the fact that the Mr Parker whom he killed was not the Mr Parker that he had originally quarrelled with. MacDonald declared that the man he murdered took, “no part in the quarrel between him and another man named Parker, and who was also a cooper (barrel/cask maker)”². The appearance of two Mr Parkers, both Coopers at the same pub would seem to imply that they were perhaps related although none of the reports appear to have ascertained any further information relating to the mix up.
On the morning of thursday, September 28th, 1752, Owen MacDonald was executed on Newcastle’s Town Moor. His limited years did not go unmentioned, the Newcastle Courant highlighting that this, “most unfortunate youth was only 19 years of age.”¹ However, It was his behaviour in his last moments that was the subject of most interest to the newspaper. Having, in his time of incarceration, shown “a true sense of his guilt” MacDonald’s final actions were deemed “unbecoming one just on the brink of eternity.” This is a reference to MacDonald’s manhandling of the executioner, whom he threw “from the ladder.” In spite of this behaviour the execution is reported to have been “conducted with the greatest decency and in front of a “very extraordinary concourse of people.” Most interestingly it appears that the newspaper and the attendant public were in joint agreement that “his unhappy end was pitied by everyone” owing to the fact that “it was generally believed that he had been grossly irritated to the perpetration of the crime for which he suffered.”¹ This is indicative of the way that the intended lesson of the scaffold could often be subverted in completely unpredictable ways. Various nuances like age, perceived guilt and behaviour could all sway the attendant public’s opinion on the relative justness of the punishment.
The year of MacDonald’s execution was a seminal one in the history of public execution as it saw the introduction of the Murder Act, owing amongst other things to the demobilisation of the troops and a resultant perceived crime wave and huge upsurge in prosecutions – particularly in London.
In the build up to, and in the years following, the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which formally ended the War of Austrian Succession in October 1748, London witnessed a crime/prosecution wave of epic proportions, as fear about crime and rates of prosecution increased significantly. Lamentations over the perceived state of crime and social degeneration poured forth in various genres of print. In the wake of this anxiety, several important changes took place in metropolitan policing, prosecution, and punishment practices.
One of the remedies to this perceived crime wave, was the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752, for “better preventing the horrid crime of murder.” The act added dissection (the subject of previous blogs) to the punishment of execution as an “additional terror.”³ Owen MacDonald therefore received the ignominious accolade of being the first person executed in the North East to be subjected to the surgeon’s knife.
The Newcastle Courant reported that following his execution MacDonald’s body was “carried to the Surgeons Hall, and there dissected and anatomised according to his sentence.”¹ However, in his Local Record’s, published in 1833, John Sykes reports a very different tale, that earned MacDonald the further ignominy of the epithet “half-hung” Macdonald.
Though undoubtedly a terrifying prospect, the legend of “half-hung” MacDonald is probably more indicative of popular myths and fears surrounding dissection than of an actual occurrence. Some historians labelling it an “inventive nineteenth century story.”* Indeed Sykes’ introduction of the anecdote with “it was said” and the subsequent manner in which he has “thrown this note together from the report, current some years ago, but which is now fast dying away,” make it of debatable validity at best. Whether it is true or not, its plausibility to the contemporary mind is a great illustration of the fear of science at the time and the abject horror of dissection itself.
One example of the enduring and pervasive nature of this legend can be found in the following report entitled ‘Not Hung Enough’ from a Californian newspaper, The Golden Era, more than one hundred years after MacDonald’s execution.
In 1762 (sic), Ewen MacDonald (sic) was hanged for murder. After the body was cut down it was taken to Surgeon’s Hall and placed ready for dissection. The operating surgeon having to leave the room for a short time, was surprised on his return to see the man sitting up. Possessing more professional zeal than humanity, the surgeon took a mallet and killed MacDonald outright, in order not to be disappointed of an opportunity for dissection. This atrocious case gave rise to much indignant comment at the time.”
The inaccurate date (10 years after MacDonald’s actual execution) should be a clue to the articles’ preference for intrigue over incisive reporting, but it is indicative of the pervasiveness of myths around execution and their ability to travel far and wide.
In a bizarre coincidence, while studying for this blog I came across a case this very year with remarkable similarities to Owen MacDonald’s, that of Sean Skillet. 20 years of age at the time of the crime, Skillet was drinking in a pub on the Bigg Market when he got into an altercation with a group of men, drinking in the pub following a friends funeral. Skillet punched one, Mr Brough, and in the resultant fall Brough tragically cracked his head and died. Skillet was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to five years and three months imprisonment . If Skillet had been born in a different century, I suspect he may perhaps have met a very different fate.
Well, not wanting to completely ruin my impending birthday with too much morbidity, I will leave it at that. Although surely I should impart some wisdom from my twenty-nine years on this earth. It’s a cliché, but I’m going to go with the horribly American follow your heart. I did last year when I applied for a PhD scholarship and it’s been the best decision I ever made (ask me again in the final year!).
For actual wisdom, I’ll turn to Bob Dylan** (my workstation mascot – see picture below). He never fails when you need to say something profound on the big moment’s in your life and in looking for a summation of this year and the next, he’s come up trumps again.
Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
Too noble to neglect
Deceived me into thinking
I had something to protect
Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.
Bob Dylan – My Back Pages
I’m off to try and be 30. Here’s to those who never made it.
Distraction 1: Johnny Cash and Joe Bean
I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan and my favourite album is his Live recorded session at Folsom Prison. It is an astonishing work for several reasons, not least the charged atmosphere of the crowd and Cash’s playful chastising of the guards. This particular song seemed the most fitting for this weeks blog, given the subject is the hanging of a young man, Joe Bean, on his 20th birthday.
In searching for this video I stumbled upon a criminological study of Johnny Cash, so I couldn’t resist putting it in.
While not versed in criminological theory, Cash…sang eloquently of a rational choice model of crime in which offenders accepted responsibility for their acts, punishment was justified, and yet incarceration should be humane and rehabilitative.
Distraction 2: Going Viral!
Given this blog was a bit bleak for a birthday, here’s some mirth for you. This week, my comedy group went viral! Having previously done Christmas sketches that have achieved audiences of 300 odd in a year, we were astonished when our latest effort wracked up 415,000 views and counting. It all started a few weeks ago with an idea of parodying Sainsbury’s Christmas advert and just grew from there. Next thing we knew, we were all over the internet and featured in national papers, including the Huffington Post who described it as a “tongue in cheek gem.” That’s a good enough birthday present for me. Enjoy.