Firstly, let me apologise for my unexplained absence. I left you a few weeks ago with the promise of a second part to my blog on Newcastle Jail, but owing to a host of other commitments I have failed you. Even worse, I am not even writing that follow up blog this week (I’m afraid it will have to wait). The simple truth is that my comedy group commitments have temporarily sidelined my blogging. We were lucky enough to get our TV debut on Sky Tv’s Little Crackers, showing on Christmas Day, and have also just done a Christmas Live Show at the Stand Comedy Club in Newcastle, of which the video above was our opening piece. Anyway, enough comedy, this is a blog about execution after all.
Last week I attended the Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies’ (CNCS) Christmas party at Durham University and as part of a pre party Post-Grad meeting, we were asked to bring something Christmas related to do with our PhD topics. As you can imagine, execution doesn’t feature highly on anyone’s lists of ‘things that remind me of Christmas’ so I struggled a bit. However, inspiration caught me when I was out walking the dog and I suddenly remembered the tragic case of George Hunter. As it happened, the CNCS meeting overran so I didn’t get a chance to tell the tale, so you have it here firsthand.
The case of George Hunter falls right at the end of my period, 1876, and his is the penultimate hanging that my study will cover. It is interesting for several reasons, not least because it took place in Morpeth, and prior to 1875 the last hanging to take place there had been nearly 30 years previous. It was the second and last execution to take place in the prison itself, following the 1868 execution act and indeed the prison itself was closed, soon after, in 1881.
The circumstances of the case take us to a cold winters night in Dinnington, Northumberland on Dec 9th, 1875 to be precise. George Hunter, a 23 year old miner, was out as part of a shooting party with three other miners, from different collieries.¹ The Morpeth Herald reported that Wood was the only member of the party without a gun and that the group of four had been in,
each others company all the afternoon, and no angry or unpleasant word was uttered by any of them, all apparently being on the most friendly terms.
Morpeth Herald, 1st April, 1876.
Finished for the day the group headed to the Carr Gate public house in Dinnington and were joined by two more friend, both local residents. They were clearly there for a while as Mrs Bell, the Landlady, testified at the trial that she had supplied “seven or eight pints of beer to the men.” She went on to state that when they left “she considered them “quite sober ‘as far as she could judge'” – indeed one of the party was a teetotaler. It was further reported that “not one angry word was spoken in the pub” and that the men engaged in nothing more harmless than “drawing puzzles.” The party left just after 10 o’clock and walked out to a scene of thick snow on the roads, a picture postcard Christmas vista. Embracing the spirit of Christmas, William Wood picked up a snowball and threw it at a man named Thomas Thorn. Now, at this point the story took a bizarre and tragic turn.
The snowball fight was interrupted by a local Schoolmaster, George Stoker, who was getting signatures for a petition to the Home Secretary asking for a reprieve for a man named William Charlton. Charlton was in Morpeth Prison awaiting the death sentence for the murder of his wife, in Dinnington, a few months prior. All of the members of the company obliged Mr Stoker and signed his petition and he left them, believing them to be all “joking and snowballing in a good tempered manner.” Shortly after this encounter the scene turned very ugly. Two of the party made their way home leaving the original four. In his testimony one of the party, Thomas Arnott, explained that when they reached the local school he heard Hunter say,
If you don’t stop heaving or clotting I’ll fire
to which the reply came
you would not fire, Geordie?
About thirty seconds later he heard a gun shot, the following is Arnott’s version of what followed,
Scouler and I stopped, and Hunter came up to us, and asked me for my powder flask. I gave him my flask. I said, ‘what have you fired at Geordie?’ and he said, ‘I’ve fired at Willie.’ I said, ‘You don’t mean to say you’ve fired at Willie, George?’ He said, ‘I have Tom.’ I said ‘have you hit him?’ and he said ‘yes’.
Morpeth Herald, 1st April, 1876.
With that, Wood was dead and Hunter was swiftly apprehended by a Policeman who found him lying close to the deceased, obviously gripped by paroxysms of guilt and remorse as he was “lifted up and assisted to the Policeman’s house.” It must surely be the only case of a man hung because of a snowball fight.
What I find remarkable about this case is the interaction moments earlier with a man collecting signatures for a the reprieve of William Charlton, sentenc´d to death for a remarkably similar crime (shooting). I tend not to take sides on the debate over capital punishment’s justification, but if ever there was a case for its inability to act as a warning and preventer of future violence, this is surely it.
The failure of Hunter to heed the lesson of William Charlton did not go unnoticed in the newspapers. In a rare move, the Newcastle Courant ran an editorial lamenting the circumstances of the case and the tendency for murders to happen within quick succession of each other in the same geographic areas.
Murders, like certain diseases, are contagious. They break out in unexpected places, and they run their ordinary course. Then the epidemic springs up elsewhere, and in due time re-appears where it is least anticipated. The history of capital crimes, like history in general, simply repeats itself. When a murder is committed, it is almost invariably followed by another murder in the same town or village.
Newcastle Courant, March 31st, 1876
The Editorial concluded leaving the readers in no doubt of the Courant’s opinion on the matter.
George Hunter should have remembered the fate of Charlton, who was hanged only a month or two ago, for using fire-arms at Dinnington with fatal effect. It is a pity that quiet country villages should be thus disturbed by men bent on shooting somebody; but, if they will shoot, they are now warned, by two terrible examples, that they must go to the drop.
Ironically a reprieve was got up for Hunter himself, but as with Charlton’s, failed to receive Home Office support.
Some time ago, a petition for a reprieve for Hunter, lies in Morpeth Gaol awaiting his execution for the murder of George Wood, at Dinnington, was numerously signed at Burradon, where his parents reside, and forwarded to the Home Office by Mr Joel, Newcastle, the solicitor for his defence.
Newcastle Courant, 24th March, 1876.
Three and a half months after the tragic incident, Hunter was executed at Morpeth Gaol by William Marwood. As with all executions after 1868 this was a private one undertaken inside the prison walls. Despite the high prison walls, it was very common for onlookers to go to extreme lengths to try to get a view of the execution. The efforts of the authorities, as described below, were not uncommon as they were frequently trying to avoid outsiders getting any glimpse of the execution. Their efforts extended to fellow prisoners, where windows overlooking the execution yard were frequently boarded up or prisoners temporarily moved to another part of the prison.
The pit which was sunk in the floor of the gaol yard, in order to secure a sufficient length of fall, was filled up immediately after the execution of Charlton. It will require to be re-excavated, and the same scaffold re-erected over it, for it·has been determined to: use the same site that was chosen for Charlton’s execution, it having been found that it secured such perfect privacy that no glimpse of what was going on could be obtained even from the Castle Hill
Newcastle Courant, 24th March, 1876.
This map of Morpeth, from 1826, gives an idea of the position of Castle Hill in relation to the prison.
So, there it is, the tragic tale of a man capitally punished for some high jinx at Christmas that went disastrously wrong. Let this be a lesson to all of you to stay inside and shun any opportunities of ‘fun having’ that may present themselves. Merry Christmas.
- Morpeth Herald, 1st April, 1876
Distraction 1: With Scott to the Pole – Durham Palace Green Library Exhibition
As part of the CNCS night that I mentioned earlier, we were allowed exclusive access into a fascinating exhibition at Durham Palace Green Library. I only had twenty minutes, so only scratched the surface, but in the first room I entered there are remarkable photos, diaries and ephemera from Scott’s tragically doomed trip to the South Pole. It is a fascinating and deeply moving exhibition and some of the extracts from the diaries, when the men know that they are certain to die, are heart wrenching. I highly recommend a visit as this is a beautiful retelling of a classic story of human endeavour and tragedy.
Distraction 2: A Wondergulp Life
So, surely this Christmas blog can’t all be doom and gloom I hear you cry. Well, alright then, here’s a little light relief courtesy of my comedy group. This and the video at the top of this blog bookended our live Xmas show at the Stand Comedy Club, 22nd December. Unlike the above, this one needs a little explaining – it came at the end of a show in which we had started as colossally arrogant men who believed they were deservedly on the cusp of fame and over the course of the evening had been torn to shreds and eventually torn apart, by three ghosts (I think someone else has done a similar story before, by I forget their name!). Anyway, that should make more sense of it. Enjoy and see you next year.