A Most Unfortunate Execution

The volume Celebrated trials of all countries, and remarkable cases of criminal jurisprudence (1835) is a collection of 88 accounts of murders and curious proceedings.
Several of these anecdotes are quite interesting, but a double hanging which took place in 1807 is particularly astonishing for the collateral effects it entailed.

On November 6, 1802, John Cole Steele, owner of a lavander water deposit, was travelling from Bedfont, on the outskirts of London, to his home on Strand. It was deep in the night, and the merchant was walking alone, as he couldn’t find a coach.
The moon had just come up when Steele was surrounded by three men who were hiding in the bushes. They were John Holloway and Owen Haggerty — two small-time crooks always in trouble with the law; with them was their accomplice Benjamin Hanfield, whom they had recruited some hours earlier at an inn.
Hanfield himself would prove to be the weak link. Four years later, under the promise of a full pardon for unrelated offences, he would vividly recount in court the scene he had witnessed that night:

We presently saw a man coming towards us, and, on approaching him, we ordered him to stop, which he immediately did. Holloway went round him, and told him to deliver. He said we should have his money,
and hoped we would not ill-use him. [Steele] put his hand in his pocket, and gave Haggerty his money. I demanded his pocket-book. He replied that he had none. Holloway insisted that he had a book, and if he
did not deliver it, he would knock him down. I then laid hold of his legs. Holloway stood at his head, and swore if he cried out he would knock out his brains. [Steele] again said, he hoped we would not ill-use him. Haggerty proceeded to search him, when [Steele] made some resistance, and struggled so much that we got across the road. He cried out severely, and as a carriage was coming up, Holloway said, “Take care, I’ll silence the b—–r,” and immediately struck him several violent blows on the head and body. [Steele] heaved a heavy groan, and stretched himself out lifeless. I felt alarmed, and said, “John, you have killed the man”. Holloway replied, that it was a lie, for he was only stunned. I said I would stay no longer, and immediately set off towards London, leaving Holloway and Haggerty with the body. I came to Hounslow, and stopped at the end of the town nearly an hour. Holloway and Haggerty then came up, and said they had done the trick, and, as a token, put the deceased’s hat into my hand. […] I told Holloway it was a cruel piece of business, and that I was sorry I had any hand in it. We all turned down a lane, and returned to London. As we came along, I asked Holloway if he had got the pocketbook. He replied it was no matter, for as I had refused to share the danger, I should not share the booty. We came to the Black Horse in Dyot-street, had half a pint of gin, and parted.

A robbery gone wrong, like many others. Holloway and Haggerty would have gotten away with it: investigations did not lead to anything for four years, until Hanfield revealed what he knew.
The two were arrested on the account of Hanfield’s testimony, and although they claimed to be innocent they were both sentenced to death: Holloway and Haggerty would hang on a Monday, February 22, 1807.
During all Sunday night, the convicts kept on shouting out they had nothing to do with the murder, their cries tearing the “awful stillness of midnight“.

On the fatal morning, the two were brought at the Newgate gallows. Another person was to be hanged with them,  Elizabeth Godfrey, guilty of stabbing her neighbor Richard Prince.
Three simultaneous executions: that was a rare spectacle, not to be missed. For this reason around 40.000 perople gathered to witness the event, covering every inch of space outside Newgate and before the Old Bailey.

Haggertywas the first to walk up, silent and resigned. The hangman, William Brunskill, covered his head with a white hood. Then came Holloway’s turn, but the man lost his cold blood, and started yelling “I am innocent, innocent, by God!“, as his face was covered with a similar cloth. Lastly a shaking Elizabeth Godfrey was brought beside the other two.
When he finished with his prayers, the priest gestured for the executioner to carry on.
Around 8.15 the trapdoors opened under the convicts’ feet. Haggerty and Holloway died on the instant, while the woman convulsively wrestled for some time before expiring. “Dying hard“, it was called at the time.

But the three hanged persons were not the only victims on that cold, deadly morning: suddenly the crowd started to move out of control like an immense tide.

The pressure of the crowd was such, that before the malefactors appeared, numbers of persons were crying out in vain to escape from it: the attempt only tended to increase the confusion. Several females of low stature, who had been so imprudent as to venture amongst the mob, were in a dismal situation: their cries were dreadful. Some who could be no longer supported by the men were suffered to fall, and were trampled to death. This was also the case with several men and boys. In all parts there were continued cries “Murder! Murder!” particularly from the female part of the spectators and children, some of whom were seen expiring without the possibility of obtaining the least assistance, every one being employed in endeavouring to preserve his own life. The most affecting scene was witnessed at Green-Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the debtors’ door. The lamentable catastrophe which took place near this spot, was attributed to the circumstance of two pie-men attending there to dispose of their pies, and one of them having his basket overthrown, some of the mob not being aware of what had happened, and at the
same time severely pressed, fell over the basket and the man at the moment he was picking it up, together with its contents. Those who once fell were never more enabled to rise, such was the pressure of the crowd. At this fatal place, a man of the name of Herrington was thrown down, who had in his hand his younger son, a fine boy about twelve years of age. The youth was soon trampled to death; the father recovered, though much bruised, and was amongst the wounded in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.

The following passage is especially dreadful:

A woman, who was so imprudent as to bring with her a child at the breast, was one of the number killed: whilst in the act of falling, she forced the child into the arms of the man nearest to her, requesting him, for God’s sake, to save its life; the man, finding it required all his exertion to preserve himself, threw the infant from him, but it was fortunately caught at a distance by anotner man, who finding it difficult to ensure its safety or his own, disposed of it in a similar way. The child was again caught by a person, who contrived to struggle with it to a cart, under which he deposited it until the danger was over, and the mob had dispersed.

Others managed to have a narrow escape, as reported by the 1807 Annual Register:

A young man […] fell down […], but kept his head uncovered, and forced his way over the dead bodies, which lay in a pile as high as the people, until he was enabled to creep over the heads of the crowd to a lamp-iron, from whence he got into the first floor window of Mr. Hazel, tallow-chandler, in the Old Bailey; he was much bruised, and must have suffered the fate of his companion, if he had not been possessed of great strength.

The maddened crowd left a scene of apocalyptic devastation.

After the bodies were cut down, and the gallows was removed to the Old Bailey yard, the marshals and constables cleared the streets where the catastrophe had occurred, when nearly one hundred persons, dead or in a state of insensibility, were found in the street. […] A mother was seen to carry away the body of her dead son; […] a sailor boy was killed opposite Newgate, by suffocation; in a small bag which he carried was a quantity of bread and cheese, and it is supposed he came some distance to witness the execution. […] Until four o’clock in the afternoon, most of the surrounding houses contained some person in a wounded state, who were afterwards taken away by their friends on shutters or in hackney coaches. At Bartholomew’s Hospital, after the bodies of the dead were stripped and washed, they were ranged round a ward, with sheets over them, and their clothes put as pillows under their heads; their faces were uncovered, and there was a rail along the centre of the room; the persons who were admitted to see the shocking spectacle, and identified many, went up on one side and returned on the other. Until two o’clock, the entrances to the hospital were beset with mothers weeping for their sons! wives for their husbands! and sisters for their brothers! and various individuals for their relatives and friends!

There is however one last dramatic twist in this story: in all probability, Hollow and Haggerty were really innocent after all.
Hanfield, the key witness, might have lied to have his charges condoned.

Solicitor James Harmer (the same Harmer who incidentally inspired Charles Dickens for Great Expectations), even though convinced of their culpability in the beginning, kept on investigating after the convicts death and eventually changed his mind; he even published a pamphlet on his own expenses to denounce the mistake made by the Jury. Among other things, he discovered that Hanfield had tried the same trick before, when charged with desertion in 1805: he had attempted to confess to a robbery in order to avoid military punishment.
The Court itself was aware that the real criminals had not been punished, for in 1820, 13 years after the disastrous hanging, a John Ward was accused of the murder of Steele, then acquitted for lack of evidence (see Linda Stratmann in Middlesex Murders).

In one single day, Justice had caused the death of dozens of innocent people — including the convicts.
Really one of the most unfortunate executions London had ever seen.


I wrote about capital punsihment gone wrong in the past, in this article about Jack Ketch; on the same topic you can also find this post on ‘Bloody Murders’ pamphlets from Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (both articles in Italian only, sorry!).

Ultime parole

Ecco una lista delle ultime parole profferite da alcuni condannati a morte, nel momento dell’esecuzione, nello stato del Texas:

Go ahead? – Avanti.

Nothing I can say can change the past. – Nulla di ciò che dirò può cambiare il passato.

I done lost my voice. – Ho perso la voce.

I would like to say goodbye. – Vorrei dire addio.

My heart goes is going ba bump ba bump ba bump. – Il mio cuore sta facendo pu-pum, pu-pum, pu-pum.

Is the mike on? – Il microfono è acceso?

I don’t have anything to say. I am just sorry about what I did. – Non ho niente da dire. Mi dispiace soltanto per ciò che ho fatto.

I am nervous and it is hard to put my thoughts together. Sometimes you don’t know what to say. – Sono nervoso, ed è difficile mettere due parole in fila. Alle volte non sai cosa dire.

Man, there is a lot of people there. – Caspita, c’è un sacco di gente qui.

I have come here today to die, not make speeches. – Sono venuto qui oggi per morire, non per tenere comizi.

Where’s Mr. Marino’s mother? Did you get my letter? – Dov’è la madre di Mr. Marino? Ha ricevuto la mia lettera?

I want to ask if it is in your heart to forgive me. You don’t have to. – Voglio chiedervi se nel vostro cuore potete perdonarmi. Non siete costretti a farlo.

I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am. – Vorrei poter morire più di una volta per dirvi quanto mi dispiace.

Could you please tell that lady right there – can I see her? She is not looking at me – I want you to understand something, hold no animosity toward me. I want you to understand. Please forgive me. – Potete dire a quella signora là – riesco a vederla? Non mi sta guardando . Voglio che capiate questo, non mi portate rancore. Voglio che capiate. Per favore, perdonatemi.

I don’t think the world will be a better or safer place without me. – Non credo che il mondo sarà migliore o più sicuro senza di me.

I am sorry. – Mi dispiace.

I want to tell my mom that I love her. – Voglio dire a mia madre che le voglio bene.

I caused her so much pain and my family and stuff. I hurt for the fact that they are going to be hurting . – Le ho causato così tanto dolore, e alla mia famiglia, e tutto il resto. Mi fa male il fatto che soffriranno.

I am taking it like a man. – Io la prendo come un vero uomo.

Kick the tires and light the fire. I am going home. – Basta chiacchiere, e accendi il fuoco. Sto per tornare a casa.

They may execute me but they can’t punish me because they can’t execute an innocent man. – Possono uccidermi ma non possono punirmi perché non possono mandare a morte un innocente.

I couldn’t do a life sentence. – Non sopporterei un ergastolo.

I said I was going to tell a joke. Death has set me free. That’s the biggest joke. – Avevo detto che avrei raccontato una barzelletta. La morte mi ha liberato. Questa è la barzelletta migliore.

To my sweet Claudia, I love you. – Alla mia dolce Claudia, ti amo.

Cathy, you know I never meant to hurt you. – Cathy, sai che non ho mai voluto farti soffrire.

I love you, Irene. – Ti amo, Irene.

Let my son know I love him. – Dite a mio figlio che gli voglio bene.

Tell everyone I got full on chicken and pork chops. – Dite a tutti che mi sono riempito di pollo e costole di maiale.

I appreciate the hospitality that you guys have shown me and the respect, and the last meal was really good. – Apprezzo l’ospitalità che mi avete dimostrato, e l’ultimo pranzo era davvero buono.

The reason it took them so long is because they couldn’t find a vein. You know how I hate needles… Tell the guys on Death Row that I’m not wearing a diaper. – Il motivo per cui ci hanno messo  tanto è che non trovavano una vena. Sapete quanto odio gli aghi… Dite ai ragazzi del Braccio della Morte che non indosso il pannolino.

Lord, I lift your name on high. – O Signore, invoco il tuo nome.

From Allah we came and to Allah we shall return. – Da Allah veniamo e ad Allah ritorneremo.

For everybody incarcerated, keep your heads up. – Per chiunque sia incarcerato, levate la testa.

Death row is full of isolated hearts and suppressed minds. – Il Braccio dlela Morte è pieno di cuori isolati e di menti soppresse.

Mistakes are made, but with God all things are possible. – Gli errori si commettono, ma attraverso Dio tutto è possibile.

I am responsible for them losing their mother, their father and their grandmother. I never meant for them to be taken. I am sorry for what I did. – Io sono responsabile del fatto che loro non abbiano più una madre, un padre o una nonna. Non ho mai voluto questo. Mi dispiace per quello che ho fatto.

I can’t take it back. – Non posso tornare indietro.

Lord Jesus forgive of my sins. Please forgive me for the sins that I can remember. – Il Signore Gesù mi perdoni i miei peccati.  Vi prego perdonatemi per tutti i peccati che riesco a ricordare.

All my life I have been locked up. – Per tutta la mia vita sono stato imprigionato.

Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back. – Datemi i miei diritti. Datemi i miei diritti. Datemi i miei diritti.  Datemi indietro la mia vita.

I am tired. – Sono stanco.

I deserve this. – Me lo merito.

A life for a life. – Una vita per una vita.

It’s my hour. It’s my hour. – È la mia ora. È la mia ora.

I’m ready, Warden. – Sono pronto, Guardiano.

Scoperto via New York Times.