Punishment, the Press and Private Execution part 3

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 blog is part 3 of a continuing series. See part 1 here and part 2 here

Following the limited success of the first private execution in the North East, the authorities were not called upon to the enact the dread sentence for another four years. But, as if to compensate for the gap, four men were to meet this grisly fate on the same day. The four were Hugh Slane, John Hayes, George Beesley and Terence Rice and they were all indicted for the murder of Spennymoor resident Joseph Waine; Consequently, gaining them the ignominious sobriquet of the Spennymoor Murderers. One of the characteristics I have noticed of crime reporting, particularly capital crimes in the region, is how often, from about the 1820’s onwards, the crimes are linked and referred to by the region as if the stain of the crime resides in the community.

Tried at the Durham Winter Assizes of 1872, the four men were eventually sentenced, by Justice Denman, to hang on the 6th January 1873. In a piece in late December, 1875, by the end of which year (not including the Spennymoor Murderers) another 10 people had been executed, the Newcastle Courant passed comment on Justice Denman’s record. Referring to his latest sentencing they stated,

Justice Denman has caused quite a sensation in legal and other circles by the severe sentences he passed at the Durham Gaol Delivery last week. The hon. judge has, ever since he came to occupy a seat on the bench distinguished himself by severe sentences.

Newcastle Courant on Justice Denman 17th December 1875.

This reputation was not unwarranted, in the two years that followed the Spennymoor Murderers execution, more people were executed in the North East than in the previous twenty eight. The Newcastle Courant questioned his methods,

We cannot help thinking that Mr Justice Denman is too severe in his severest moods, and, too lenient in his lenient moods.


However, despite this caveat and their increasing aversion to capital punishment, they gave what reads like a tacit justification for his decision,

Deeds of violence are confessedly far too frequent in the county of Durham, and the learned judge no doubt considered he was in duty bound to read the district a lesson, and visit what he thought to be the worst cases with the utmost vigour of the law. He is evidently a believer in the theory that nothing has so deterrent an influence on the criminal classes as the certainty that heavy punishment will be meted out to heavy crimes


Ironically, it was a lack of ‘certainty’ in sentencing that was to cloud the execution of the Spennymoor Murderers. Following the sentences, appeals from locals and the Howard Association were launched to the Home Office for a commutation to life imprisonment, particularly for Rice and Beesley. This was not an exceptional case, appeals to death sentences were de rigueur by the mid-nineteenth century,

every conviction for murder was accompanied by at least one petition for the death sentence to be commuted to imprisonment – often featuring members of the jury that had convicted.

Lizzie Seal., Capital Punishment in Twentieth Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory (Routledge, 2014) Series Editors Introduction p.xii

In the case of the Spennymoor murderers, even the condemned supported each others claims of innocence.

Hayes, Slane and Rice, from their prison cells, made statements that Beesley had not been one of the men involved and a huge effort was made by the family and friends to exonerate both Beesley and Rice from the murder. There was a great deal of sympathy for Rice because of his youth

M. Anderson., Durham Executions from 1700 to 1900 (wharncliffe, 2007) p.85

With the execution date of Monday 6th looming, A Whitehall Official delivered news on the 4th January that the Home Secretary, H.Austin Bruce, had seen fit to commute the capital sentences for Rice and Beesley to penal servitude for life. Slane and Hayes were not to be so lucky. The reprieve  met with approbation from the Newcastle Courant.

Durham, which has been the scene of so many outrages, just required such an example as a quadruple execution would have been to cow its lawless spirits into subjection

The paper feared that the reprieve would undermine the might of the law and as a result the execution itself would carry little weight.

Hugh Slane and John Hayes will probably be hanged, but we very much doubt whether the people of Durham will receive a tithe of the benefit from the terrible example which they would have done if the administration of the law instead of inducing a belief that murder is a lottery, in which it is quite as likely that one may not be hanged for murder as that one may, had impressed the treacherous savages who have blackened the name of the county with the conviction that there is no evading the arm of the law, and that every penalty incurred will be rigorously exacted without regard to the position or numbers of the offenders.

Newcastle Courant 10th January 1873 p.5

To further complicate the situation, a mix up between the Under-Sheriff and the executioner, Calcraft, meant that at the same time the reprieve came through, a rushed announcement was made that the execution itself had been delayed. Unclear on details the newspapers speculated as to why and whether a reprieve had been obtained for all four men. Reporting on the matter the Newcastle Courant stated,

we know not as yet at whose door the blame should lie, but somebody must be responsible. First we were told that the execution could not be held at Durham on Monday because Calcraft was engaged to hang the Kirkdale Murderer at Liverpool on that day, though how nothing had been known of this at Durham up till Saturday there was no explanation. Then came the intellignece that the Liverpool execution had been postponed on account of the supposed intention of the hangman to be at Durham on the day fixed, the perplexity caused by which was not abated by the information that Calcraft himself, unaware of the alteration of date, had arrived at Liverpool to fulfill his engagement there.

Newcastle Courant 10th January 1873

The unexpected delay from the postponement had the adverse effect of arousing sympathy for the two condemned men who had been denied clemency. Having previously only been shown “meager (sic) support in this district”¹ their prolonged suffering caused by the extension of the execution date was the subject of much sympathy. The delay greatly angered an already frustrated Newcastle Courant who believed that the unnecessary prolonging of Hayes and Slane’s agony was lamentable.

Blundering like this might be considered ludicrous did it only entail the loss of a few pounds, but where it not only lengthens by seven more weary days the terrible fortune so vividly depicted by Victor Hugo, which racks the frames of those condemned to die, but once more awakes in their breasts the spark of hope only to be once more remorselessly extinguished, no other adjective can adequately describe it than disgraceful.


Indeed, even the Under-Sheriff himself was deeply affected by the mix up and was quoted in one regional paper as saying,

I never dreamt for a moment-nay, I was horror-struck when the execution had to be postponed, and that the poor wretches had to suffer a week’s misery both in body and mind.

Northern Echo 14th January p.4

In light of these late reprieves and administrative blunders, the execution of John Hayes and Hugh Slane was arguably a failure for the authorities before it had even begun. Commenting, the week before the execution on the debacle one paper stated that, whatever happened at the forthcoming execution,

From the beginning of the tragedy at Spennymoor on November 16th to its anticipated close on January 13th, England has nothing to be proud of.

Newcastle Courant 10th January 1873

Given the negative coverage in the build up to the execution, the event itself would’ve had to have been a seamless enactment of justice to avoid further approbation and derision in the press. Sadly, it was not.

Despite the furore in the regional papers surrounding the late reprieves and administrative handling of the build up to the execution, the representatives of the press were granted admission to the execution. In fact, with the exception of the one execution held in Newcastle in this period, that of John Williams in 1876, the access they were granted was to be unprecedented, allowed as they were to attend the pinioning room; A decision the authorities would come to rue. Seemingly in acknowledgement of this rare access, The Northern Echo’s report of the execution carried several straplines advertising the content of the report, the most prominent of which was the capitalized “STATEMENT BY HAYES IN THE PINIONING ROOM.”²

Shortly before 7:30am on the Monday morning of the execution, a small group of reporters and officials were congregated outside the prison. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given previous events, the talk amongst them included the possibility “of any extraordinary incident attending the dreadful scene.”² On the stroke of 7:30am they were all admitted into the prison and led to the office of the Prison Governor, Lieut Colonel. Armstrong until an adjournment was made to the schoolroom, where the pinioning was to take place. Hayes submitted to the pinioning quietly, but whilst Slane was being pinioned Hayes began to address the assembled reporters. The Newcastle Courant reported him as saying he was “very glad to see the reporters present, and he was happy to die. He stood there innocent of the murder of Joseph Waine.” Thanking the attendant Catholic Minister and all the presiding officials for their kindness he continued to express his innocence and said he would be “very glad for reporters to see the paper he had left” being, as he was, “not qualified to speak it.” His Chaplain, Canon Consitt, said he would see to it that the press received it and when Slane pushed for it to be read then and there the Canon stated, “not at present my dear fellow, but I will take care that it is done.” Hayes proceeded to continue exhorting his innocence and seemingly buoyed by Hayes, Slane then “poured out rapidly a statement of his innocence.”³ These recitations of innocence flew in the face of the contrite and quiet submission to the sentence by the condemned that was expected of a seamless execution.

As with the rest of the sorry affair, the execution itself did not run smoothly. Administered by Calcraft, the architect of many a botched send off, the two men were hanged on the same cross beam, Hayes had been allowed a drop of about two feet and initially both appeared to have “died almost without movement.” However, it appears that Slane’s drop was slightly shorter, “the effect of which was to spin his body round and round” Calcraft was forced to step in to steady the body which seemed to settle it, but no sooner had he achieved this, a “slight tremor” gripped the body of Hayes and then “a quivering motion extended over all his body.” Although it only lasted for a matter of seconds, the Courant said that those “four seconds…seemed like minutes to the horror-stricken spectators.”³ With that the bodies were left to hang for the requisite hour and an inquest put an end to the tragedy.

The combination of a last-minute double reprieve, administrative errors in the setting of the date leading to an extension of the suffering of the remaining two condemned and Hayes’ rank refusal to accept guilt all conspired to present a shambolic spectacle of justice. All the central elements of the public executions of old, so abhorred by the architects of the 1868 Act, had been laid bare by a regional press given unprecedented and seemingly unfettered access. The fatal combination of the undermining of the majesty of the law and its representatives through a confused last-minute appeal and delay, to the refusal to accept guilt or the justice of their sentence by the condemned and the horror of a botched execution meant that this was to be the last execution in Durham to which full access was granted in the period and the penultimate execution to which any admittance was allowed at all.

Inquest document for Hugh Slane's execution. These documents were placed on the doors of the prison for the public to witness once the sentence had passed. Document courtesy of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society
Post execution inquest document  for Hugh Slane. These documents were placed on the doors of the prison for the public once the sentence had passed. Document courtesy of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society


1). Northern Echo 10th January 1873 p.4

2). Northern Echo 14th January 1873 p.4

3). Newcastle Courant 17th January 1873

* Newcastle Courant 10th January 1873

Distraction 1: Montage of Heck

As a teenager I was a big fan of Nirvana. I started to learn the drums at the age of 16 and Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins were the first bands i tried to learn the parts for – the songs escape me (Smells Like Teen Spirit and Bullet with Butterfly Wings, respectively, would be my guess). I think those song choices alone may conjure an innaccurate image of the sort of teenager i was, being as I was just as at home with Simon and Garfunkel and John Martyn (they’re just not as fun to drum too!). Anyway, the point i’m getting to is that I saw a documentary at the Tyneside Cinema this week about Kurt Cobain entitled Montage of Heck. I believe it is the only film about his life fully authorised by his remaining family. As such it had exclusive access to reams of home movies, demo tapes and unseen clips. It’s a very difficult film to claim you enjoyed as it is deeply affecting and the knowledge of his tragic end hangs like Banquo’s ghost over the whole two hours. As such, the most accurate thing I can say is that it’s an exhausting but worthwhile watch. I think the best way to remember such a tragic figure is through their work and, speaking as a drummer – a very average one mind, this is one of my favourite tracks.


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