Christmas and Capital Punishment

Double executions. John William Anderson, of Newcastle, and Richard Charlton, at Morpeth, both for murdering their wives Ballad - Roud Number: V945. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library's Ballads Online Collection
Executions at Christmas.  “Double executions. John William Anderson, of Newcastle, and Richard Charlton, at Morpeth, both for murdering their wives”
Ballad – Round Number: V945. Courtesy of the Bodleian Library’s Ballads Online Collection

One of the many strange things about studying capital punishment is the number of executions that took place around the festive period. There is a jarring disconnect between the high spirits of yuletide and the grim brutality of the scaffold. I cannot imagine a more sombre scene than an execution at Christmas.

In the North East, between 1750-1880 there were 8 executions in total in December (that’s roughly 7% of the total, 111).

People executed in December in the North East, 1750-1880

There are commonalities in gender and crime, as all were male and sentenced for murder.  The first such fellow was Charles Smith, hung on Newcastle’s Town Moor, on the third of December, 1817. A Macabre relic survives of Smith and it can be found in Newcastle Central Libraries’ special collections. It is a book entitled Trial and Execution of Charles Smith 1817 and it purports to be bound with a piece of his skin inside. I have used it for my study and it is a very disturbing thing to handle.

One of the interesting things about these December executions is how little mention is made of the Christmas season and the incongruity of a hanging at that time. Perhaps, I am being sentimental given the time of year, but it strikes me as an odd omission.

Of all the December executions, none are more sombre and solitary than the concurrent private executions of John William Anderson and Richard Charlton, the former at Newcastle and the latter, the following day, at Morpeth Gaol.

On the 22nd and 23rd December, 1875, William Anderson and Richard Charlton respectively,  were to be the first people executed in private in Morpeth and Newcastle. The last executions in Morpeth were nearly 30 years previous – that of James Welch and George Matthews in 1847 – and in Newcastle twelve years previous (George Vass, 1863). The gap did not go unremarked.

It is…close upon twenty nine years since an execution took place at Morpeth, and that of Charlton is the first private one.

Morpeth Herald – Saturday 25th December 1875 p.4

Both executions had been the subject of much debate and appeals were lodged, to the Home Office, for the commutation of the sentences, by the townspeople of Morpeth, Newcastle and the surrounding areas.

In the case of Richard Charlton, even The Times reported the strength of feeling in the community, Anderson’s execution was not covered.

Great efforts have been made among the farming and trading classes in South Northumberland to procure a respite, but the law was allowed to take its course.

The Times, 25th Dec, 1875  p.6

Indeed, so strong was the good will towards Charlton that it extended even to the prison officials.

There was not an official in the prison but who deeply sympathised with the unhappy culprit; in fact, every one appeared more distressed than the culprit himself.

Alnwick Mercury 25th Decemeber, 1875 p.4

Sadly for Charlton and Anderson, both requests for reprieve were succinctly denied.

Home Office refusal to commute the death sentence for John William Anderson - printed in the Morpeth Herald 25th Dec, 1875. Courtesy of www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Home Office refusal to commute the death sentence for John William Anderson – printed in the Morpeth Herald 25th Dec, 1875. Courtesy of http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Home Office refusal to commute the death sentence for Richard Charlton - printed in the Morpeth Herald 25th Dec, 1875. Courtesy of www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Home Office refusal to commute the death sentence for Richard Charlton – printed in the Morpeth Herald 25th Dec, 1875. Courtesy of http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

In the case of Richard Charlton, the failure to obtain a reprieve was the cause of deep upset in the town

The failure of all attempts made to procure reprieve, was received in this town and district, with profounded feelings of sorrow, so deep was the sympathy with the unhappy man.

Morpeth Herald 25th December, 1875 p.4

Anderson’s execution was set for 22nd December at Newcastle Gaol, in Carliol Street and Charlton’s for the following day at Morpeth Prison. In their report of Richard Charlton’s execution, the Morpeth Herald opened the piece with a novelseque, description of the weather to set the scene – characteristic of some execution reports in the mid-late eighteenth century.

the morning of the execution broke clear, with a waning moon shedding a faint light over the earth, and a high wind blowing.

Morpeth HeraldSaturday 25 December 1875 p.4

Similarly, the weather was the opening feature of John William Anderson’s execution report.

The early morning preceding the executon broke raw and gray, with a cold gusty damp atmosphere…in the semi-gloom could be faintly distinguished the ponderous facade of the prison portals.

Morpeth HeraldSaturday 25 December 1875 p.4

The descriptions and behaviour of the crowd attendant at both are remarkably similar too. In both cases the immediate surroundings are deathly quiet, peopled only by a few stragglers, right up until the point of execution when the crowd grows considerably in size.

(Anderson report) Save a policeman patrolling…there was no living object within visible sight…The few who were present…never consolidated themselves into any united crowd, but hung about in scattered groups of from three to half-a-dozen each…As the hour of execution approached, however, the number very rapidly increased, and at eight o’clock there was a fringe of about ten deep.

(Charlton Report): As the time drew near for the carrying out of the sentence of the law, people began to arrive near the gaol, many of them standing on the footpath opposite that part of the building, where the scaffold was known to be erected, in the hope of catching some sound of the dreadful scene which was being enacted not far from them.

Morpeth herald – Saturday 25 December 1875 p.4

Interestingly, as the crowds grew at both executions, people tried to find better vantage points from which to see over the walls of the prison. In Newcastle,

(Anderson) Seven men and boys had got on to the top of Mr Mastaglio’s house, opposite to the prison and by dint of standing on the coping at the very apex of the building endeavoured to peer into the privacy of the gaol. There were two or three on the roof of the house adjoining, and one or two on the top of a workshop in Railway bank.

Morpeth herald – Saturday 25 December 1875 p.4

While in Morpeth,

(Charlton) Some youths made their way up a plantation, situate a little above the gaol, and passed from thence upon a hill on the other side, whence some of them alleged they could see the top of the scaffold…On the opposite side of the road, too, a party could be observed standing on the high ground belonging to the castle.

Morpeth herald – Saturday 25 December 1875 p.4

It is highly unlikely at both locations, particularly Newcastle, that anything could have been seen, but the desire of some to witness the spectacle was marked. So much so, that strenuous efforts were made to avoid this in the case of Morpeth.

Some difficulty was experienced in finding a suitable part of the interior of the gaol where the scaffold and execution would not be visible from the hills which surround three sides of the building. A spot near the chapel of the prison was ascertained to be hidden from outward view, except from the tree tops, and the pit was sunk a little way.

Morpeth herald – Saturday 25 December 1875 p.4

As was customary in the build up to a private execution, the prison bell tolled 15 minutes prior to the execution of John William Anderson. However, no bell tolled for Charlton’s execution, owing to a request from the Mayor, John Dixon, given to the Prison Governor, Mr Wookey, the night prior to the execution and printed in the Morpeth Herald.

Letter from the Mayor of Morpeth to the Governor of Morpeth Priosn, requesting the bell not be tolled prior and following Richard Charlton's execution for fear of shocking the populace. Morpeth Herald 25th December 1875 - Morpeth Herald. Courtesy of www.britishnewspaperarchive.com
Letter from the Mayor of Morpeth to the Governor of Morpeth Prison, requesting the bell not be tolled prior and following Richard Charlton’s execution for fear of shocking the populace. Morpeth Herald 25th December 1875 – Morpeth Herald. Courtesy of http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.com

The decision appears to have been a popular one, as the postscript to the letter stated that the mayor “has taken a step which met with the approval of the townspeople generally.”

A few minutes after the clock struck eight at Newcastle Gaol some of the ‘listeners imagined they heard the fall of the bolt’, however the paper reported that the black flag ‘had already been unfurled’, which declared that Anderson had ‘surrendered his life in expiation of his crime.’ In both cases, a notice was posted on the exterior of the gaol and a copy of Richard Charlton’s Charlton’s was printed in the Morpeth Herald.

Official copy of the execution  of Richard Charlton: County Prisons, Morpeth printed in the Morpeth Herald 25th Dec 1875.
Official copy of the execution of Richard Charlton: County Prisons, Morpeth printed in the Morpeth Herald 25th Dec 1875.

Following the reports of their deaths, the newspaper detailed the burial plans. In the case of Anderson’s,

The body of the deceased was buried in a grave situated at the north-east corner of the gaol.

Morpeth HeraldSaturday 25 December 1875 p.4

Similarly, Charlton’s body was reported to be

“buried within the prison, in a grave close to that of Ralph Joicey, who was executed in 1846.”

Morpeth HeraldSaturday 25 December 1875 p.4

Indeed, so close was Charlton to be buried to Joicey that the newspaper reported that,

The side of Joicey’s coffin was brought to view, and, although it is nearly thirty years since he was buried, it is in a good state of preservation.

Morpeth HeraldSaturday 25 December 1875 p.4

The similarity in both these reports is interesting as they happened in completely different locations, but the behaviour appears almost identical. Perhaps more interesting though, is the fact that in the same edition of the Alnwick Mercury, quoted earlier in this article, despite the extreme rarity of an execution in nearby Morpeth, let alone one happening simultaneously in Newcastle – the two execution reports are dwarfed by a report on the execution of Henry Wainwright, the Whitechapel Murderer, at Newgate.

The Execution by Hanging of Henry Wainwright at Newgate Gaol on 21st December 1875, published in 'Police News', 1875 by English School
The Execution by Hanging of Henry Wainwright at Newgate Gaol on 21st December 1875, published in ‘Police News’, 1875 by English School

Interestingly Wainwright’s execution is also mentioned in the Morpeth Herald, but in relation to the rope that executioner, William Marwood, used. Immediately following Richard Charlton’s execution,

The governor of the gaol brought in the rope, for the inspection of the jury. It was a new hempen one, fully as thick as a man’s thumb, with a ring of brass and leather, to keep the rope in its position. Wainwright, Anderson and Charlton had all been hung with it.

Morpeth Herald 25th Dec, 1875 p.4

If you ever think you’re having a bleak Christmas, imagine being William Marwood, having to hang three men on consecutive days immediately prior to Christmas.

The final note on this sorry tale of execution is a report that can be found in the Morpeth Herald that relates to a a previous interest of mine, as regular readers will know, phrenology. Following his execution, it appears an application was made by a ‘medical gentleman’ to ‘examine the skull’ of Richard Charlton following his execution. A request, much like the calls for reprieve, that the Home Office succinctly denied.

Application to Home Office requesting information on rumours that a medical practitioner had requested his head, following execution. Taken from Morpeth Hearld 25th Dec, 1875. Courtesy of wwww.britishnewspaperarchive.com
Application to Home Office requesting information on rumours that a medical practitioner had requested to examine Charlton’s skull, following execution. Taken from Morpeth Hearld 25th Dec, 1875. Courtesy of wwww.britishnewspaperarchive.com

Happy Christmas everyone!

Distraction 1: No distractions this week – Christmas is distraction enough.

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