The End of Public Executions

"The Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1861 reduced the number of capital crimes to four, murder, high treason, piracy and arson in a Royal Dockyard, (this was a separate offence, not high treason).  In reality, except for four executions for attempted murder, this act was more of a tidying up exercise as nobody else had been hanged for a crime other than for murder since 1837.

The 1864 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment sat for two years and concluded that there was no case for abolition of the death penalty but did recommend ending public executions. (Franz Muller, above, was hanged whilst the committee was sitting).

In the Spring of 1868, England and Scotland carried out their last public executions.  In Wales, the last one had been two years earlier when 18 year old Robert Coe was executed outside Cardiff prison on the 12th of April 1866 for the murder of John Davies.  Joseph Bell became the last person to die in full public in Scotland when he was hanged at Perth on the 22nd of March of that year.

The last public hanging of a woman and also last public execution at Maidstone prison took place at midday on Thursday the 2nd of April 1868 when twenty five year old Frances Kidder suffered in front of the prison.  She had murdered Louisa Kidder-Staples, her 12 year old step-daughter. Frances had married William Kidder, who had Louisa and a younger child by his previous relationship and whom Frances deeply resented.  Only Louisa lived with them and Frances consistently abused her. On 24 August 1867, she had taken Louisa to visit her parents in New Romney and also took one of her own children with her.  Frances' parents went out and while they were away, Frances drowned Louisa in a ditch, having to hold the struggling child under as the water was only a foot deep.  She claimed afterwards that they had fallen into the ditch together when they were frightened by passing horses.  She came to trial on Thursday, 12th March 1868 at the Spring Assizes in Maidstone before Mr. Justice Byles. The prosecution brought in evidence of the abuses of Louisa and of previous threats to drown her. Frances maintained her story of the two of them being frightened by the horse and of Louisa falling into the water, from which she claimed she had tried to rescue her. This was rejected by the jury, after just 12 minutes deliberation. 
The execution was set for exactly three weeks later.  In the condemned cell she confessed to the prison chaplain.  Kidder had to be helped up the steps onto the gallows and held on the trapdoors by two warders where she prayed intently while Calcraft made the final preparations.  She struggled hard for two or three minutes after he released the trap and was described by the reporters, who witnessed her hanging, as having "died hard".  An estimated 2,000 people, a lot of them women, had come to watch her final agonies. 

The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act received its third reading in parliament on the 11th of May 1868.  The following day Robert Smith was executed outside Dumfries prison but the authorities ensured that the public saw very little. This was the last nominally public hanging in Scotland.  Nineteen year old Smith had raped and strangled 9 year old Thomasina Scott in a wood near Annan.

England’s last fully public hanging was to be that of Michael Barrett at Newgate.  Twenty seven year old Barrett originated in Co. Fermanagh, Ireland, and was another member of the Fenians (Irish Republicans).  He was convicted of causing an explosion at the Clerkenwell House of Detention in London on the 13th of December 1867, in an attempt to free Richard O'Sullivan Burke, a Fenian Brotherhood member.  The bomb blew a huge hole in the prison wall, destroying and damaging several houses opposite the prison in Corporation Lane.  The blast killed seven innocent people and injured many more. This was one of the first Irish bombings on English soil. Six people were arrested but Barrett was the only one to be convicted at the Old Bailey on 6 April 1868 on one specimen charge of murder in respect of the death of Sarah Ann Hodgkinson who lived at No. 3a Corporation Lane, the house most severely damaged by the blast.  Poor Sarah had received a huge cut to her neck that extended from in front of her right ear to the cheek, her scalp was cut with glass and one of her major veins severed, causing death from haemorrhage and suffocation.  Unusually for the time, a government commission was set up to review the case prior to the execution, hence the abnormally long period between the trial and the hanging.  This concluded that Barrett had been correctly convicted and that his alibi defence of having been in Glasgow at the time was false.

Barrett was hanged by William Calcraft shortly after 8 am on Tuesday, the 26th of May 1868, dying without a struggle. It was reported in The Times newspaper that there were a great many members of the lower classes, including young women with children present at this execution and that the crowd stretched past St. Sepulchre’s Church and almost into Smithfield, such was the interest in it.  The Times celebrated the fact that this hanging would be the last such vulgar public display (their editorial opinion). 

Three days later, on the 29th of May, the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act came into force ending public hanging as such, and requiring all future executions to be carried out within prisons.  It further required that the sheriff or under sheriff, the governor, the prison doctor and such other prison officers as were needed had to be present. 

The prison doctor was required to examine the prisoner after execution to verify that life was extinct and to sign a certificate to that effect to give to the sheriff.

The sheriff, and the governor and the prison chaplain were required to sign a declaration to the effect that judgment of death had been executed on the prisoner.
This Act allowed the governor of the prison and the sheriff of the county in which the execution took place the discretion to admit newspaper reporters and other witnesses, including the victim’s relatives to the hanging." (

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