Punishment, the Press and Private Execution part 2

One of the sites of the gallows at Durham Prison, after execution was moved inside the prison walls in 1868 courtesy of capitalpunishmentuk.org
One of the sites of the gallows at Durham Prison, after execution was moved inside the prison walls in 1868 courtesy of capitalpunishmentuk.org

This is the second part of a blog post, see part 1 here.

The first execution to take place in the North East, following the implementation of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act took place at Durham Gaol on March 22nd 1869. It was to be a double execution and both men, as with all of the people executed after 1822 had been sentenced for murder. One point of interest is that the two men were both Roman Catholics, Dolan originally from Ireland. I say interestingly as the last public execution to take place in England was that of Michael Barrett for his alleged part in the plot of Irish Fenians to blow up a wall of Clerkenwell Prison to allow fellow Fenian prisoners to escape. This was a time of growing friction between the Irish and English, a tension that previous studies of the North-East have claimed was strangely absent here,

the scarcity of 19th-century material on the Irish in the north east and, hence, their historical neglect is attributable to the minimal amount of hostility they provoked among the indigenous population.”

Roger Cooter, “The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle c.1840-1880.” (Doctoral, Durham University, 1972), abstract, http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/1907/. An extended version of this thesis was published as a book in 2005 by none other than Sunderland University. It’s entitled When Paddy Met Geordie: The Irish in County Durham and Newcastle 1840-1880

However, if the post 1868 execution statistics are anything to go by, the apparent “minimal hostility” towards the Irish in this period, may be called into question. Indeed, following his execution, rumours spread and were given credence in the paper that McConville was a fenian and had

suffered imprisonment for his Fenian proclivities and sympathies.

The Times 23rd March 1869 p.11

Dolan and McConville’s execution was set for Monday 22nd March 1869 and was open to representatives of the press but not to any members of the wider public. However, the access the press got was subject to one caveat

The representatives of the press were not allowed to see the convicts pinioned

Newcastle Courant 26th March 1869

Pinioning was a practice undertaken by the executioner, whereby the convicts hands and ankles were strapped. This procedure often took place in a separate room of the prison to the execution chamber. The decision to restrict access to the pinioning room, was to become the rule not the exception in later executions. A report on the execution of Mary Ann Cotton in 1873 gives us an insight into why this may have been.

(of the pinioning room) it should not be forgotten that this is the very time when a resolute culprit, faced by the immediate preliminaries of death, will almost involuntarily yield to the dreadful feelings of the moment, and being at last convinced of the certain approach of death, will make a confession. Now, should this ever occur, how can the public, deprived of their representation by the exclusion of the press, be assured of the accuracy of any report?

Northern Echo 25th March 1873 p.3

All in all, there was reported to be between twenty and thirty people present (including the Sheriff, a Coroner, prison warders and other officials). Great pains had been taken to exclude further prying eyes, indeed earlier in the week prisoners had smashed the glass windows of their cells to get a better view and had been put in “solitary confinement…to preclude the possibility of any obtaining a view of what was transpiring.”* Up until the point of the execution itself, it appeared all was going to plan, both men were reported to have admitted to the “justice of their sentence”* and gone calmly and stoically to the scaffold. What followed though caused deep shock and concern amongst the assembled officials. Standing on the scaffold with their backs to the officials, both attached by a rope to the same beam, the men fell sharply and appeared to have instantaneously died,

when suddenly some one said “Good God, the man’s alive.” Attention was then directed to the body of McConville, which quite still and apparently a dead mass the previous moment, was now heaving violently at the chest, just as if an intense effort to get a breath of air, anything more frightful to witness it would be impossible to conceive, the muscular effort being repeated five or six times with gradually weakening force and longer intervals between, until in a couple of minutes it subsided, and the body was again still…such terrible manifestations of it in the human organism are frightful to witness

Newcastle Courant 26th March 1869 p.2

As if to exacerbate the horror of the spectacle, McConville’s body, owing to the shortness of the drop provided by the executioner, had swung round violently to face the officials. The executioner was William Calcraft, a man approaching his seventies and described in various reports by his characteristic white flowing beard.

Executioner William Calcraft from a broadside entitled The Life of Calcraft. Courtesy of www.blackcountrymuse.com
Executioner William Calcraft from a broadside entitled The Life of Calcraft. Courtesy of http://www.blackcountrymuse.com

Ironically Calcraft had not been the first choice executioner, that grim privilege had gone to Thomas Askern, but owing to his last trip to Durham where he botched the execution of Matthew Atkinson one paper reported that

Askern had, it seems, been applied to, but he refused the engagement, in consequence, it is said, of some intimidation arising out of the last execution at Durham, on which occasion the rope broke.

Newcastle Guardian 27th March 1869

Calcraft’s successor William Marwood, who was to invent the “long drop” system whereby the condemned would fall at least 5 or 6ft, as opposed to Calcraft’s 1-2ft, but he too fell foul at Durham. His final execution was that of James Burton in 1883 at Durham, which was so badly botched that it became the subject of questions to the Home Secretary at the House of Commons.

So, despite their best attempts to control the first private execution, the executioners bungling had put paid to any sense that private executions would be a silent and seamless enactment of death. As before in the era of public executions, it appears that executioners were prone to the same errors and thus the intended spectacle of justice was undermined by a focus on the ineptitude of its protagonists.

The next execution in the region was to cause a new issue for the authorities, one which was to lay the groundwork for the complete removal of the press from the execution spectacle. Of which, more next week.


*. Newcastle Courant 26th March 1869 p.2

Distraction 1: Geordie Jodie

Geordie Jodie

I’m not one for reality TV, but one show that has been the perfect break from study is Channel 4’s First Dates. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching other peoples squirming awkwardness, must be schadenfreude or just the great relief that I no longer have to suffer the hideous, creeping fear of a first date (or at least I hope not). Anyway, this week there was a girl from Newcastle on and even more excitingly she was a friend of my girlfriends. Unlike most people on TV she came across as a very lovely, funny and just all round nice person, which is pretty hard to achieve on TV. As a result she’s now all over the internet, she’s even made that bastion of overnight celebrity sensations, Buzzfeed. Good on you Geordie Jodie.

Distraction 2: Joni Mitchell

Joni has featured in this section before, but my girlfriend wrote a great blog about her love for Joni, following the news that she’s been taken ill and so I thought it was a pertinent time to feature her again. There’s too many songs to choose from, but sitting in my study at home looking at the beautiful weather outside that I cannot enjoy, I’ll go with California and just imagine i’m in the sun.

One thought on “Punishment, the Press and Private Execution part 2

  1. Pingback: Punishment, the Press and Private Execution part 3 | lastdyingwords

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