Dying in Private: Execution in the North East 1868-1878 part 2

Illustrated Police News Botched execution 1883 Durham
Illustrated Police News Botched execution 1883 Durham

So, last week we covered the build up to the 1868 Capital Punishment Act and covered a brief history of changes in the application and administration of execution nationally and in the North East. This week we will turn to the experience of execution behind the prison walls (post 1868) in the North East of England. Just before we do though, here’s something a bit more cheery. I often forget with my study just how depressing and shocking the subject can be to an outsider. I am not claiming to have become desensitised to it, but when I give a talk I realise after about ten minutes that some people in the room are going green. Luckily, I have passed that stage. So, by way of light relief here’s a brilliant sketch that relates loosely to the subject. In between the last blog and this one my comedy group performed at the Glasgow Comedy Festival’s fringe (Chunkstival) and so I’ve been in a comic frame of mind this week and I suddenly remembered this fantastic by a group called Cowards, I think long since disbanded, comprised of, amongst others, the excellent Tim Key and Tom Basden.

Firstly, in order to assess the impact of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act, we must look at the figures and breakdown of those executed. In the ten years sampled, between 1868 and 78, 17 people were executed, of whom 2 (c11%) were female. Whilst the gender split here is largely inline with the rest of my period (1752-1878), there is a marked increase in the number of executions.[1]

CNCS Discipline Talk.012Tracking back from 1868, one would have to return 45 years to encompass a similar amount. The decade, therefore, bucks the trend of a steadily declining execution rate since the widely acknowledged national peak decades of 1780/90. Not only this, but the figures for the North East even exceed London and Middlesex, where in the same decade only 13 people were executed. This compares to Ward and King’s recent findings that “The rate of executions per 100,000 population per year in London, the area with the highest rate, was over fifty times higher (at 3.85) than the average (0.07) for the ten counties with the lowest rates [amongst them] Northumberland and Durham.”[2]

Deeper analysis of the figures shows an even more remarkable resurgence, that of the double or triple execution. Indeed, 10 of the 17 people executed in the decade were executed in double or triple executions. In short, the Act had an immediate and dramatic effect on the application and incidence of capital punishment. But what of it’s application in practice?

In the North East, the first test of the 1868 Act came in March 1869 in what was to be a double execution at Durham Jail. The press were granted admission with the seemingly innocuous caveat that they “were not allowed to see the convicts pinioned”[3] (straps placed around their arms) – a restriction that the Newcastle Courant said was “very quietly submitted to.”[4] This ostensibly pragmatic restriction on the press (the procedure often taking place in a small side room) was to become a feature of all but one execution in the region. One report on executions sheds light on an alternative reason for why this decision may have been taken. Reporting on the 1873 execution of Mary Ann Cotton, the Northern Echo stated of the pinioning room that,

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?[5]

In restricting access to the room, the authorities were at once removing any chance of a convict legitimising or indeed challenging their sentence. Indeed, at the one time the press were admitted into the room, at the 1873 double execution of Hayes and Slane, at Durham, The Northern Echo reported that Hayes, on seeing the press, professed his innocence and seemingly buoyed by Hayes, Slane then “poured out rapidly a statement of his innocence.”[6] The Northern Echo printed the refutations of guilt under the capitalised strapline “STATEMENT BY HAYES IN THE PINIONING ROOM.”[7] It was to be the first and last time that the press gained access to the room.

Aside from the pinioning room, the press were granted access to witness all other aspects of the execution of Dolan and McConville; A decision the authorities would come to regret. At first, the execution appeared to have gone perfectly to plan, The Times reporting that both had died swiftly after acknowledging the justness of their sentence.[8] However, after appearing “dead for some minutes” a shout came out from someone attendant “Good God the man’s alive.”[9] Owing to the shortness of the drop, by executioner William Calcraft, the body of McConville had “swung round facing the spectators writhing with convulsions from head to foot.”[10] The Newcastle Courant reported that “anything more frightful to witness it would be impossible to conceive.”[11]

In the case of John Hayes and Hugh Slane’s execution in 1873, it was the build up to as much as the execution itself, that was to become the major talking point. Since McConville and Dolan’s death, four years had passed in the region with no further executions. As if to compensate, a quadruple hanging was planned at Durham in 1873, the first of its kind in Durham since 1785 and as such, became the subject of much speculation and press coverage. The Newcastle Courant lent its support to the event, believing that crime in the region was so prevalent that Durham, “required such an example as a quadruple execution to cow its lawless spirits into subjection.”[12] However, they were to be deprived of such a grim spectacle as a last minute appeal,[13] successfully achieved a late commutation of the sentences of Rice and Beesley. The eleventh-hour nature of the decision[14] caused great confusion and surprise in the papers, the Courant believing the reprieves would induce “a belief that murder is a lottery.” This was further exacerbated by a communication break down between the Under-Sheriff and executioner William Calcraft, which meant that the execution of the remaining two men was temporarily postponed, owing to Calcraft being double booked for an execution in Liverpool.[15] The result of the confusion was an angry response by the regional press, particularly relating to the administering officials, the Courant avowing that they could not “withhold our censure…for the misunderstanding which has prolonged the agony of the former two to another week.”[16] The paper further reporting that this “disgraceful” prolongment had turned the “meager (sic) support in this district”[17] for the pair into a widespread public sympathy.

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
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

In the first two instances of private execution in the region, the papers were left reporting the stories of men dying professing their innocence, farcical judicial processes and a brutally botched executions. In both cases, despite the best efforts of the authorities, the executions bore all the hallmarks and abject failings of their public predecessors.

Just two months after the failings of Hayes and Slane’s execution, the Durham authorities were to repeat their mistakes, for a final time.

CNCS Discipline Talk.013

On the 24th March 1873, Mary Ann Cotton became the first woman to be executed in Durham since 1799, and the first woman in the North-East since 1829.[18] If the idea of a woman being executed had been troubling in the c18th it was deeply shocking by the 1870’s. The Courant’s editorial, which accompanied Cotton’s execution report, said that, “To take a man’s life away on the gallows is revolting enough, but humanity shudders at the very thought of a woman having thus to end her days.”[19]Her case garnered remarkable interest in the region, as one newspaper put it, it had, “occupied the public mind almost undividedly for the last six months.”[20] The combination of this widespread regional fascination and the rarity of the event, made admission to the execution a must have for any newspaper worth its salt. Unprecedented precautions were put in place to moderate access, The Northen Echo reporting that the arrangements were of “an unusually strict character” and that “great care had been exercised to prevent any newspaper obtaining more than one order of admission.”[21] Despite this, at 7:30am on the morning of March 24th, 1873, “members of the press, numbering twenty in all” were admitted into Durham Gaol, by the “wicket gate.”[22] A press pack of this size was substantially larger than any other recorded in the region. Slightly ahead of the attendant press pack was Calcraft, the executioner, and as they all processed to the prison, he took umbrage at the presence of the press in such great numbers and “suddenly turned round…and in a crabbed tone of voice which sounded like the snarl of a dog, spit out the words ‘Shut the door, and keep them out.’”[23] A request that was not heeded.

The large numbers admitted to the execution may well have caused Calcraft to panic as Mary Ann Cotton’s execution was to be arguably one of the most botched of any previously seen in the North East since the enactment of the 1868 Act. Calcraft was assisted by his intermittent assistant, Welshman Robert Evans and it was Evans that was to draw the bolt on the trapdoors. One paper reported that at the crucial moment, the Sheriff was so overcome with grief that he was unable to give the signal to draw the bolt, a signal he had given “on all previous occasions” by dropping a handkerchief. Perhaps owing to this confusion, Cotton’s sufferings were long and protracted, various reports mentioning how she “commenced to struggle rather violently” and there was a noticeable “heaving of the chest and twitching of the hands”[24] caused by a slip of the rope.[25] Calcraft had to reach down and hold her by the shoulder placing pressure to enact her demise. The sight was clearly deeply affecting, “all present were deeply moved” and in several reports the Sheriff was recorded to have “fainted and fell into the arms of the two warders who had observed his condition.”[26]

Another execution had passed in which, despite the authorities attempts, the event was marked by the abject failure of its delivery. It was to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Following Mary Ann Cotton’s execution, the press and representatives of the public did not gain full access again for the next nine executions that were to take place in the North East – with the exception of the one and only execution in Newcastle in the period.

From henceforth, executions like Robert Vests in 1878, which opened this paper, became the norm. An execution in which death was administered in private and reported to the press and not by them. A sanitised account in which the voice of the condemned and the efficacy of the hanging were both deemed surplus to requirement.

In attempting to control the presentation of the spectacle of execution to a wider public, the authorities increasingly sort to hide two key elements; the condemned’s final words and the relative success of the hideous act itself. This move towards tighter control of the administration of capital punishment and the dissemination of its message can be seen in the 1878 act that nationalised the prisons, an act of which historian Sean McConville has argued made “the efficiency and decorum with which executions were conducted… an ever pressing concern for central government.”[27]

To conclude then, If the experience of the North East is indicative of a wider national practice, a notion that further research will hopefully test, then far from being the first small step towards the giant leap of abolition, the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act could be seen instead as a legislative Act that set the way for execution to continue unseen, unabated and unreported. A punishment both out of sight and out of mind.

There is a certain tragic irony that the most memorably botched execution in the North East, occurred in 1883 just 5 years after the transfer to national control. James Burton’s gruesome demise, at Durham, when the rope slipped under his elbow and required him to be “hauled up and hanged all over again,”[28] became the subject of questions in the House of Commons that would ultimately lead to the retirement of executioner William Marwood and a recommendation by the Aberdare Committee, three years later for executioners to coil up any free hanging rope.[29]

Illustrated Police News Botched execution 1883 Durham
Illustrated Police News Botched execution 1883 Durham


[1] The same of number people (17) were executed in the 42 years between 1823 (Grace Griffin) and 1865 (Matthew Atkinson)

[2] Peter King and Richard Ward, “Rethinking the Bloody Code in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Capital Punishment at the Centre and on the Periphery,” Past & Present 228, no. 1 (August 1, 2015): 166

[3] Newcastle Courant 26th March 1869

[4] Ibid.,

[5] Northern Echo 25th March 1873 p.3

[6] Newcastle Courant 17th January 1873

[7] Northern Echo 14th January 1873 p.4

[8] The Times 23rd March 1869 p.11 “The prisoners admitted the justice of the sentence that had been passed on them.”

[9] Newcastle Courant 26th March 1869 p.2

[10] Ibid.,

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Newcastle Courant 10th January 1873 p.5

[13] Mounted by, amongst others, The Howard Association

[14] Arriving to the Under-Sheriff on the Friday prior to the execution,

[15] The saga continued as reports showed that Calcraft’s execution in Liverpool, that of Richard Spencer, which had clashed with Hayes and Slane thus delaying it, was also delayed following a similar mix-up; testament to the poor lines of communication between the authorities. See Newcastle Courant 10th January p.5

[16] Newcastle Courant 10th January 1873 p.5

[17] Northern Echo 10th January 1873 p.4

[18] Mary Nicholson was executed in Durham on the 22nd July 1799 and Jane Jamieson at Newcastle’s Town Moor 7th March, 1829

[19] Newcastle Courant 28th March 1873 p.2

[20] Shields Daily Gazette 25th March 1873 p.2

[21] Northern Echo 25th March 1873 p.3

[22] Newcastle Courant 28th March 1873 p.2

[23] Northern Echo 25th March 1873 p.3

[24] Ibid.,

[25] Newcastle Courant 28th March 1873 p.2

[26] Morpeth Herald – Saturday 29 March 1873

[27] McConville, English Local Prisons, 1860-1900, 1995, 409.

[28] Gatrell, The Hanging Tree, 590.

[29] “The Aberdare Committee,” accessed April 17, 2015, http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/aberdare.html.

Distraction 1: Robert Mapplethorpe @ The Bowes Museum

The astonishing Bowes Museum.
The astonishing Bowes Museum. To give you a sense of perspective my girlfriend (pictured) is just under 6ft, so the building is about 15ft high!

I very rarely regret having chosen to not live in London, but on the extremely rare occasions that I do, it is invariably because of a great exhibition going on at one of the capital’s myriad galleries and museums. The North East has some remarkable venues, but I am often disappointed at their lack of ambition. Two places though that are consistently excellent and easily up there with anywhere in the country, are the Side Gallery (of which I’ve blogged about numerous times before – currently closed due to a very exciting upgrade) and the astonishing Bowes Museum. The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, is about an hours drive from Newcastle, but it’s worth the trip for the building alone. Driving through the little market town, you get no sense that it would be home to such a remarkable building. However, it is the sheer range and wealth of its exhibitions that is the most remarkable thing about it. In the last year, I have seen a retrospective of Gerald Scarfe Cartoons, the first ever Yves Saint Lauren exhibition in the UK and, last week, I caught the Robert Mapplethorpe show. If you get a chance then go, I only wish Newcastle’s institutions had the same ambition.


Distraction 2: Librarians

Librarians are both a bane and a blessing for a researcher, a good one is a vital support link and a bad one can be a huge block. Luckily, Sunderland Universities’ library team are fantastic. I have mentioned people before, but this week I am going to mention Laura Wilkinson. She sent me a great link to an iplayer episode on Capital Punishment. Laura has been helpful to my study on numerous occasions in locating legal documents or other important resources and a PhD would be ten times harder without knowing people like her are on your side at the Uni.  Anyway, in the spirit of sharing here is the documentary, it’s a good overview of the topic without being too heavy. If you don’t like it, blame Laura!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s