VICTORIAN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: WHEN A HANGING WAS A DAY OUT

The weather on the morning of Saturday 14 June 1856 was wet with persistent drizzle, but it did not deter the crowds gathering in Stafford. From the early hours, thousands of people had been arriving on foot and by train, and an air of eager anticipation was building. Was Queen Victoria or another famous dignitary visiting? Or was a travelling fair or circus due in town? In fact, none of these explanations were correct; the crowds were waiting to witness justice meted out to convicted murderer, Dr William Palmer, dubbed by the press the ‘Prince of Poisoners’. In an age before cinema, the Victorians loved a spectacle and the drama of a hanging was certainly that.

Until the 1820s, there were some four hundred criminal offences which carried the death penalty including picking someone’s pocket of anything worth one shilling (5p) or more and stealing anything worth £2. The number of capital offences was gradually reduced by successive governments until 1861 when the Offences Against the Persons Act specified that only wilful murder and treason were punishable by death. 

From the mid-nineteenth century, even when the death sentence was passed on a convicted murderer, there was still a chance that he or she could be reprieved and instead spend the rest of his or her life in penal servitude. In such cases, the prisoner might have to wait several weeks to know whether he or she was to live or die. 

For Dr William Palmer, there was to be no reprieve. On 27 May 1856, he was convicted of murdering his friend, John Parsons Cook by administering strychnine in November 1855 in Rugeley, Staffordshire. Palmer was constantly in debt and regularly gambled on the horses. On 13 November at the Shrewsbury Races, Cook had won about £3,000 but the following day, Palmer lost heavily on another horse. Cook became ill after having a meal with Palmer that evening at the Raven Inn, Shrewsbury. The next day, Cook was slightly better so he and Palmer returned to Rugeley where Cook took a room at the Talbot Arms opposite Palmer’s house.

The Shrew Pub, Rugeley, originally the Talbot Arms, where John Parsons Cook died (Credit: canalandriversidepubs.co.uk)

Over the following days, Cook continued to be sick and Palmer regularly visited his friend to check up on him. On 19 November, Palmer took Cook’s betting books to obtain the various winnings on his behalf. Two days later, Palmer prescribed what he called ‘ammonia pills’ for Cook after which a ‘terrible scene’ ensued:

‘Wildly shrieking, the patient tossed about in fearful convulsions; his limbs were so rigid that it was impossible to raise him, though he entreated that they would do so, as he felt that he was suffocating. Every muscle was convulsed; his body bent upwards like a bow; they turned him over on his left side; the action of the heart gradually ceased; and he was dead.’

The Illustrated Times (2 February 1856)

A coroner’s inquest followed and a botched post-mortem was held in which Palmer himself interfered with the examination; the resulting samples were of such poor quality that the toxicologist, Dr Alfred Swaine Taylor, could not make use of them. A second post-mortem was ordered and although no traces of poison were found, Dr Taylor still believed Cook had been poisoned. On 15 December, the jury at the inquest stated that the deceased had ‘died of poison wilfully administered to him by William Palmer’. Palmer was duly arrested and charged with Cook’s murder.

In the weeks and months after Cook’s death, the newspapers printed various rumours and allegations about Palmer and other possible victims he may have poisoned, including his wife, brother, mother-in-law and four infant children. This trial by the press effectively found him guilty before he had even stepped inside a court. It was felt that local prejudice against him was very strong in the community in which the crime was committed and it was highly unlikely that a jury could be unbiased. As a result, Palmer’s twelve-day-trial in May 1856 took place at the Central Criminal Court (the ‘Old Bailey’) in London, where he was found guilty.

William Palmer (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Palmer’s execution was scheduled to take place at 8am on Saturday 14 June outside Stafford Prison. As the trial had attracted so much public interest, huge crowds were expected that rainy morning to witness the hanging. The Times reported that ‘Balconies and platforms were erected on several of the housetops and in almost every imaginable place commanding a view of the spectacle and the windows of the houses in the front and near the scaffold had their full complement of eager spectators. The express train and others from London on Friday night brought down a great number of well-dressed persons…the crowds…kept constantly arriving during the night by railway and other means of conveyance from the adjacent towns for 50 miles around, including the Pottery districts, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall, Tipton and the rest of what is called “the black country”. The great bulk of the people were young men and lads, labourers and artisans, thousands of whom had left their ordinary occupations and travelled many miles to witness the spectacle…’

Interestingly, the Staffordshire Advertiser, the local newspaper best placed to report on the execution, was at pains to point out the incorrect descriptions of the crowd’s behaviour that appeared in other publications, believing that ‘some of the reports were written by anticipation, which is the only excuse we can find for their strange inaccuracy’. One account had claimed that ‘as soon as Palmer appeared on the scaffold, there was a universal shout of execration. From every part of the dense multitude there issued shrieks, groans and curses, mingled with cries expressing indignant abhorrence.’ Another described the crowd as ‘extremely indecorous and blasphemous’ while yet another said that ‘deep sympathy and pity’ was the predominant feeling of the spectators. The Staffordshire Advertiser was adamant that none of these descriptions were accurate. It did, however, approve of the report in The Times, which was ‘given with much care and correctness’ although special constables were not deployed as had been stated.

According to the Staffordshire Advertiser, on the morning of the execution, ‘people were gradually admitted within the barriers, and the rain helped to keep the crowd thinner than otherwise would have been the case… Precautions were taken by having ladders within the lower walls outside the gaol to remove any who might faint, and the necessity for this was soon evident, as instances of fainting presented themselves at an early hour.’ The newspaper went on to state there were between 30,000 and 35,000 people in the crowd but no more than one in twelve were females ‘none being admitted within the barriers’. The spectators appeared to be ‘chiefly respectable working people and tradesmen, and not to any large extent “swells” and low blackguards. Their demeanour was highly decorous, and the patience with which they awaited the period fixed for the execution was really remarkable. So far as our observation went, no oath was uttered, and the hoarse murmur of voices never rose above the accumulated hum of multitudes speaking in an ordinary tone.’

At seven minutes to eight, the minute bell gave the first toll, announcing to the crowd the departure of the melancholy procession from the cell of the condemned convict. At once

‘the hoarse murmur of the crowd arose into a loud buzz of excited expectation, which the multitude of voices swelled into a roar. A cry of “hats off” was raised…the noise subsided and a respectful, if not solemn, silence succeeded. Every face was eagerly upturned to catch the first glimpse of the wretched culprit. Here and there there was a laugh, but popular feeling was against it, and at the rebukes of the more serious it ceased. The condemned man ascended the steps with a quick, firm step, and placed himself on the centre of the drop, with his face towards the Gaol-square…He never flinched or shuddered as the executioner placed the rope around his neck and drew the white cap over his face. That done, the bolt was immediately withdrawn, and the drop fell. Being a stout heavy man he never struggled at all; a few convulsive twitchings of his arms and legs alone ensued, and after a few seconds his limbs hung motionless in death. The crowd did not shout or yell as do often such gatherings at the Old Bailey, but behaved with the utmost decorum, and in a few minutes after the drop fell began quietly to disperse. The body, after hanging an hour, as prescribed by law, was cut down and removed.’

The death mask of William Palmer (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Reports of reactions after previous hangings tend to suggest that the crowd would have been disappointed by Palmer’s lack of struggle and relatively quick death. Yet the Staffordshire Advertiser makes no mention of this. It also appears that the well-organised policing of the event prevented any deaths from suffocation among the spectators, as had happened at Newgate in 1807 when 27 people died and 70 needed hospital treatment. At William Palmer’s execution, it seems that the crowd was unusually well-behaved. Such events had a reputation for drunknenness and crime such as pickpocketing, but the Staffordshire Advertiser had not heard ‘of a single case in which the police have had to make an arrest, or a complaint of any theft having been committed, and no accident whatever occurred’.

Public executions were originally designed to act as a deterrent to would-be criminals and a moral lesson, and they were always well-attended. By the 1860s, for the upper- and middle-classes, it became distasteful to witness executions and legislation was introduced to ban public hangings. The last public execution in England took place in 1868. After this date, executions were carried out in private behind closed doors in prison. Crowds still gathered in large numbers outside to see the black flag hoisted above the prison, a sign that the sentence had successfully taken place.

To read more Victorian newspaper reports about criminal cases in the UK, visit the British Newspaper Archive (affiliate link). For further information about the history of capital punishment in the UK, see Richard Clark’s excellent Capital Punishment website. To find out more about the William Palmer case, visit Dave Lewis’s meticulously researched William Palmer the infamous Rugeley poisoner website.

HARD LABOUR IN VICTORIAN PRISONS

Read any Victorian newspaper and you’ll come across regular reports of criminal trials that had taken place at the assizes, quarter sessions or petty sessions. The accused is named, the case is described and the verdict is given. Where someone was found guilty of an offence such as theft, the punishment was usually hard labour for a specified number of days or months, unless there was a previous conviction that had to be taken into account.

Take the case of William Anderson, a labourer from Lancashire born in 1837. He committed his first criminal offence in 1852 when he was aged just fifteen. With another boy, he was convicted at the Manchester Petty Sessions of stealing brass fittings from an empty house in Francis Street, Strangeways and was sentenced to three calendar months’ hard labour. 

But what did ‘hard labour’ consist of, and what was in store for William at the New Bailey Prison in Salford where he would have served his sentence? (Strangeways Prison was not built until 1868).

Under prison regulations, if a male prisoner over the age of sixteen was sentenced to hard labour, this was to be of the first class ‘during the whole of his sentence, where it does not exceed three months, and during the first three months of his sentence where it exceeds three months’. He was to work for not more than ten or less than six hours (exclusive of meals), subject to the medical officer’s approval. After three months, the justices could prescribe second class labour, which was less severe than labour of the first class. By 1877, the maximum period in which a prisoner was to undertake first class hard labour was reduced from three months to one.

If the medical officer deemed any prisoner to be unfit for hard labour of the first class, he could order he be kept at hard labour of the second class. The surgeon could also certify that a prisoner was unfit to be kept at either class of labour. Prisoners sentenced to hard labour for periods not exceeding fourteen days could be kept in separate confinement at hard labour of the second class. Those who were not fit enough for hard labour of either class were to be employed in a trade. There was no hard labour on Sundays, Christmas Day, Good Friday or on days appointed for public fasts or thanksgivings.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Under the Prisons Act of 1865, prisons were to be a deterrent providing ‘hard labour, hard fare and hard board’. It was decreed that ‘the treadwheel, crank, capstan, shot-drill and stone-breaking were listed as acceptable types of first class hard labour, and such others as the justices wished to provide had to be approved by the Secretary of State’. However, before 1877, local prisons like the New Bailey were run by county justices and they all had a different interpretation of hard labour. As late as 1879, it was discovered that ‘mat-making, coir-plaiting, oakum-picking, weaving, rope beating, net-making, twine-spinning, sugar chopping and blacksmithing were all variously used and represented as first class labour’.

The treadwheel was undisputably the most feared and hated of all hard labour. Invented by William Cubitt in 1818, there was no ambiguity about whether or not it was appropriate for hard labour of the first class. When working the treadwheel, the prisoner had to lift ‘his body up three feet at each step’. Until 1880, the task was not standardised and the height the prisoners were required to climb varied from prison to prison. The Prison Discipline Society advised that each male individual should complete ‘12,000 feet of ascent per diem’ which was akin to climbing the Matterhorn. However, at York prisoners climbed 6,000 feet, at Stafford it was 16,630 feet while at Salford’s New Bailey where William Anderson served his sentence, it was 19,400 in summer and 14,450 in winter. Treadwheels were usually unproductive and part of the Victorian prison’s aim to deter criminals, rather than rehabilitate them.

The intense physical effort required by prisoners working the treadwheel raised concerns about their state of health and whether the quantity of diet allowed to them was sufficient.  In June 1868 at Worcester Prison, it was recommended by the medical officer George Edwin Hyde that ‘no prisoner be worked on the treadwheel before breakfast, and that a corresponding period of hard labour in the cell be substituted…’ By June 1872, he recommended that the class 1 prisoners working on the treadwheel ‘be allowed one pint of gruel for breakfast and supper daily, in addition to the ordinary diet of that class’.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that:

‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.

Prisoners would do almost anything to avoid working on the treadwheel. In 1850, the surgeon at the House of Correction at Kirton-in-Lindsay reported that: ‘They frequently swallow soap, which has the effect of purging them and bringing on a low fever, during the continuance of which it is impossible to put a man on the wheel. They formerly ate large quantities of salt, in order to bring on fever, and to prevent this they were deprived of their salt bags… I think it very desirable as a matter of health, as well as in a moral point of view, that some other employment should be substituted for the treadwheel labour; and as an immediate measure, I would recommend that, during the last quarter of an hour before breakfast, and the last half-hour before dinner and supper, the prisoners should leave the wheel and walk about to cool themselves gradually, instead of going straight into the cold passages to get their meals’.

Working the treadwheel could be extremely dangerous for those new to the task, or those who were simply exhausted. At Stafford, ‘one man fell off the wheel from sheer exhaustion. The cry “a man down” was soon raised, and the mill at once stopped, but not until he had been terribly crushed by it…one of his legs was broken’.

By 1880, a standardised six hour treadwheel task was introduced which prisoners worked in two equal shifts. Prisoners were allowed five minutes’ rest between each fifteen minute session on the wheel and the speed of the wheel was regulated to allow an ascent of thirty-two feet a minute. However, the high cost of replacing treadwheels with standardised versions meant that many prisons used the crank, capstan and stone-breaking instead. By 1890, there were still cranks connected to pumps, mills operated by prisoners in separate compartments, water-pumping capstans and unproductive fixed-resistance cranks in cells. The treadwheel was finally abolished in 1895.

From Mayhew & Binny’s The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life (1862)

If you ever get the opportunity, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. It still has an original treadwheel, which is believed to be the last one in Britain. Unusually, it was productive and was designed so that water could be pumped to the roof tanks, and from there to the cells.

William Anderson appears to be have been undeterred by the years of hard labour he undertook as part of his numerous prison sentences, including five separate periods of penal servitude in convict prisons. His criminal career spanned over fifty years and he used multiple aliases including Thomas Johnson, James McGuinness, William Pearson, William Edwards, William Robson and William Evans. His offences ranged from stealing clothing and umbrellas through to attempted theft and receiving stolen property. Old hands like William clearly got used to the work and the routine in prisons, and appreciated the guarantee of three meals a day.

VICTORIAN PRISON BABIES

Back in 2006, when I did the research for my book Prison Life in Victorian England, I remember being struck with sadness and pity for the babies of female prisoners who were born in prison and incarcerated with their mothers. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences.

In the 1860s, when Henry Mayhew visited Brixton Prison, the chaplain explained the rules about infants in the prison: ‘If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother but if born in jail before the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison.  We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat’.

‘A Baby’s Cot’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The first crèche for prison babies was at Holloway Castle prison where babies born in jail and those under three months old at the time of their mothers’ conviction were cared for. Under this system, a baby slept in a cot in its mother’s cell and was taken to the day-nursery at 8.30 a.m. The wardresses bathed and fed each baby before putting it to bed again. If the mother’s conduct had been satisfactory, she might be allowed to see her baby at lunchtime or to take it with her when exercising in the prison yard. In fine weather, after lunch the baby spent most of the day with a prison nurse in a special tent in the garden.

Concerns were raised about children in convict prison nurseries, especially those who were there for long periods. It was feared that the contaminating influence of the criminal mothers on their offspring would mean the children themselves would be tempted into a life of crime. By 1900, all babies had to leave the prison at nine months. After this age, if a criminal mother had no family to look after her baby, it was sent to the workhouse and became an inmate for the duration of the prison sentence.

How wonderful, then, to read of a more positive view of prison babies at the end of the 19th century. I recently discovered an article in Living London (1901) about Wormwood Scrubs Prison which argued that “in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born – more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town.”

‘Baby Parade’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The journalist added:

“Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time. 

High officials, visitors, matron, warders, are all glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother’s arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche.” 

‘In the Women’s Work Room’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London , 1901)

If you ever get the chance, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. In the prison, there is a nursery in which you can see a Victorian baby’s cradle. On one end of the cradle was a rope which hung down into the room below. This was the female prisoners’ workroom and they could rock their infants’ cradles from below the nursery without stopping their work. At Beaumaris, you can also explore all the corridors and cells, including the condemned cell and the punishment cell. There’s also the original treadwheel used to provide work for the prisoners – this is the only place I’ve ever seen a surviving one of these.

VICTORIAN PRISONERS: LIFE IN HOLLOWAY PRISON

As a big fan of BBC’s Ripper Street, I love seeing all the wonderful Victorian details and the programme’s portrayal of how Victorian crime detection actually worked. But have you ever wondered what would have happened next to the people they arrest? Chances are they would have ended up in Holloway Prison while awaiting trial.

By the late nineteenth century, Holloway Prison was a ‘trial’ prison for men suspected of having committed a criminal offence. It also held convicted female prisoners and women awaiting trial. As a result, the male and female sections of the prison were very different. For the men, there was no hard labour and they wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms.

If they were wealthy, these men could even take advantage of the ‘superior accommodation’ highlighted by Living London (1901): ‘A certain number of cells are fitted up, not luxuriously, but with bedstead, and table, and chest of drawers, for which the occupant is charged a shilling or two per week.’

They could also enjoy better food: ‘While the poorer prisoners must be satisfied with the prison diet, those who can pay – and so the world wags always! – may “supply themselves”. There are eating houses just outside the gates ready to contract on the official scale for breakfast, dinner, and tea, or the prisoners depend on their friends to bring in their meals. A large amount of work is thrown upon the prison officials in this matter of food. It is brought in tins, and basins, and bundles, tied up in towels or red handkerchiefs – great slices of meat, cold vegetables, cold bacon, eggs, and loaves of every variety, and the utmost care must be observed to give each his own proper allowance. The regulations, too, allow a small quantity of stimulant, a pint of beer, or half-a-pint of wine, and here, again, there is endless troubles among the bottles, and tankards, and cans.’

Each week, there was a similar pattern of activities in Holloway with certain hours set aside for interviews with legal advisors: ‘Lawyer and client sit alone in the room specially provided, quite private as regards sound, but with a glazed side so that the warder on duty may keep his eye on all that does on. Solicitors seldom work without fees, and the penniless prisoner – once more it is money that rules – must work unaided by advice. He may have as much paper as he pleases, and can draw up any number of statements.’

It was the session days when trials were heard in court which were the busiest in Holloway:

‘… the great vans are loaded for the journey down to the courts, and escort duty falls heavily upon the officers. …there is much business in connection with papers, and especially the personal property of the accused, which must go down for immediate restoration on acquittal. No one can be detained after a favourable verdict is given, and all effects – money, watches, jewellery, and so forth – must be handed then and there to the discharged prisoner as he leaves the dock a free man.’

Perhaps most striking of all, Living London highlighted the fact that three days a week, there was a great gathering of detective officers at Holloway. I can just imagine a real-life version of Detective Reid arriving at the prison:

‘…they come from all the London divisions, and their business is to run down the men they know, often enough a man “much wanted” who has long evaded pursuit, but having been caught for some minor offence is now “remanded for inquiry”…Our police use both the Bertillon system of identification by measurements and that by “fingerprints” but they cling still to the older aids of memory and instinct.’

There was an hour every morning for exercise in the yards and the men were a real motley crue:

‘Here is a “swell” in frock coat and tall hat; he is of good presence, with a pleasant face, and is charged with being the moving spirit of a Long Firm fraud. Behind him walks a London pickpocket – small, active, with a fox-like face and the loping gait that carries him fast beyond pursuit; followed by costers and riverside characters, seafaring men – a Lascar, perhaps, or a heathen Chinee – the butcher, still in his blue blouse, the artisan in green baize apron, just as he was taken from his bench after he had done the deed.’

Naturally, ‘police days’ were dreaded by the inmates and the detectives regularly found their ‘most wanted’.