Graphic content. Please consider this a trigger warning for descriptions of self-inflicted injuries, blood and hanging.
If you follow me or ‘Race and the Death Penalty’ on Twitter you’ve probably noticed that I got very excited recently when I found books of late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century capital cases kept by Home Office civil servants at the National Archives. The ‘black books’ index and classify cases that set precedents or were otherwise significant enough to be referred back to when making later decisions. Entries outline the key aspects of a case and why the defendant’s sentence was or was not respited (meaning that rather than being hanged, their death sentence was commuted post-trial to imprisonment). The books have important implications for the Race and the Death Penalty project, some of which I talk about as part of this post over on the project blog, and also for my own research. They give specific reasons why cases were considered appropriate for mercy, for example ‘provocation’ by the victim (even before the notion was codified in law), and other mitigating circumstances of a crime.
Crucially, they reveal why the cases were considered significant to those who kept these books, reasons that might not be immediately obvious from the case files or other records. For example, multiple entries in one of the books suggests that an additional reason, or even a sole reason, for commuting some defendants’ sentences from death by hanging to a term of imprisonment was their bodies, rather than the victim’s behaviour or some detail of the offence itself. And not because there was sympathy for their pain or suffering, but because the Home Office feared public scandal. To put it more explicitly; the Home Office were apparently reluctant to hang a person whose injured neck was likely to bleed during hanging.
‘Exercise of the prerogative [of mercy]’ and punitive practices tended to be based on precedent. A page in one of the Home Office black books acts as an index to Home Office files containing accusations of ‘misconduct’ by executioners. A reference number under the name Marwood led me to the case of William Brownless who in 1880 murdered his ‘sweetheart’ by slashing her neck with a razor and then cut his own throat in a failed suicide attempt. As Crime and Punishment Historian Patrick Low’s blog post suggests, his injured neck caused one of many complications in his execution:
‘It will be remembered that after committing the murder for which he this morning forfeited his life, he attempted to commit suicide, cutting his throat badly in two places. When he dropped the jerk caused the rope to break one of these wounds and it sank into the neck, being completely embedded in one part of it.’ Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 26 November 1880, p. 2 (quoted in P. Low, ‘My verybloody Valentine’, Last Dying Words, 9 February 2015 [last accessed 31 October 2017].
Another contemporary newspaper described:
‘On approaching the top of the scaffold a ghastly spectacle presented itself to view. The wound in the throat had given way, the wound was plainly exposed to view, and a narrow streak of blood tricked down his chest.’ ‘EXECUTION AT DURHAM’, The Scotsman, 17 November 1880, p. 8 (via The BritishNewspaper Archive)
The terrible scene must have been really harrowing for those involved. Unsurprisingly perhaps then, it seems that William Brownless’s execution remained in the minds, or at least the records, of Home Office officials for more than half a century afterwards. The following entries in a later black book of capital cases, each separated by many pages of different classifications, show that the Home Office were anxious to avoid a repeat incident:
‘HENSON, Sam (1903)
Caused an explosion which injured his wife and killed his son, then cut her throat and his own. Motive jealousy. Decision to respite because the state of pr[isoner]'s neck would have made execution a most horrible spectacle.’
‘GRAY, William (1948)
Shot his wife and then tried to shoot himself. Premeditated crime, whose motive was revenge on his wife and her mother. Reprieved because injury to his jaw incurred when he shot himself made execution impossible. Otherwise he would have been executed.’
‘WAYMAN, Alfred John (28), 1955
Stabbed divorced woman whom he hoped to marry, and then tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat. She had been going about with another man. Non-Stat[utory] Med[ical] Inq[uiry] found him sane. To hang him might cause public scandal as his throat wound would open and probably bleed profusely. Respited.’
‘GRINSTEAD, Leslie William (39), 1955
Pleaded guilty to stabbing sweetheart. Supported by her father she had rejected his marriage proposals and when she found herself pregnant by him had procured miscarriage. After murder attempted siucide [sic] by cutting his throat. State of his neck would have made execution unseemly. Respited. (Licenced 20.11.64. Served 9 years. Licence revoked 12 March 1967. Relicenced 15.12.78. Served 11 years 9 months.)’
The above entries suggest that defendants with a serious neck injury were being respited because of the potential mess; literal and figurative. The mention of a possible ‘public scandal’ is interesting because since 1868, twelve years before the case of William Brownless, hangings had taken place ‘in private’. The only witnesses to executioner misconduct or the ‘most horrible spectacle’ of a bloody hanging would be the executioner and his assistant, the prison governor, sheriff, a couple of warders, a surgeon/doctor and a chaplain. In some instances there might also be representatives of the press in attendance but it seems unclear if they actually observed the hanging or were admitted to view the body and interview the governor to gain a first-hand account afterwards. Interesting then, given these limited potential witnesses that the Home Office were so concerned about the possible offence to public opinion. I wonder if fear of ‘public scandal’ here is more about concern that instances of ‘unseemly’ executions, even in private, could have been used to fuel campaigns for abolition of the death penalty.