Interesting article and the possible origin of two well know saying
Posted by Brian on March 28, 2021, 0:06:27
Came across this article on The History of North East England group on facebook written by Dave Shotten, I thought it was very interesting and may be of interest to some of the board members: |
Durham’s Second Worst Hanging: William Marwood /James Burton. Long post, graphic content.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. You have something really; really important to do early in the morning, but there is a really good party going on tonight. Rather than miss it you promise yourself that you will go but you will “keep yourself right” by just having a couple of drinks, leaving early and getting a good night’s sleep. You go and you are swept away by the party. One drink leads to two, then three, then……..Next thing you know it is 2.30 and you are drunk. You get yourself home and into bed, get a few hours of anxious sleep then get up not-quite-drunk and not-quite-sober. Then you do your very important thing, whatever that is.
What if that very important thing is to kill a man, quickly and efficiently? What if you have to do it in front of the eyes of the world, while you are not quite drunk and not quite sober? Think about that for a moment, then read on. The story so far…….
Brutal hangman William Calcraft has been forced into retirement after the Home Secretary heard about his botched hanging Of Mary Ann Cotton and his rope selling antics in the Dun Cow pub in Durham City. A more competent humane approach to capital punishment was sought and along comes our hero, William Marwood or Billy as he was known to his many friends. Billy Marwood was the exact opposite to Calcraft: Marwood was a genuine humanitarian and as such you might think an unlikely candidate to take up the post of hangman. He was a devout Weslyan Methodist and a cobbler by trade. When he was a boy he had the misfortune to witness a Calcraft hanging on the way to school and it was a sight that haunted him for years afterwards. He determined to make the process of judicial hanging more humane, using his cobbler skills.
Although Marwood received only a basic education he was well read and intelligent, and the mid-Victorian era was the era of the inventor. Marwood set about creating an invention that would kill quickly and humanely and his invention is still used today wherever judicial hanging is still used: he revolutionised capital punishment. It was widely known that if the hangman used a long enough drop during the execution the victim’s neck would be broken and they died almost instantly. Overestimate the drop however, and the victim’s head is pulled off his shoulders. That was messy and the hangman tended not get paid so executioners tended to use as short a drop as possible which often resulted in the victim suffering slow painful strangulation. The length of the drop was critical for a humane death and needed some careful experimentation.
Marwood lived a simple life with his wife in a two storey cottage on Church Lane, in the village of Horncastle in Lincolnshire. He grew tomatoes in his greenhouse and the couple walked their little dog Nero frequently but he spent much of his spare time working on his humane execution machine. With his wife’s permission he cut a trapdoor into the ceiling of the living room and experimented by hanging sandbags of varying weights from the bedroom upstairs. It seems likely that eventually he hanged animals of various weights borrowed from the local slaughterhouse and examined the results.. Eventually he came to the conclusion that it needed about 1200 foot-pounds of energy to break a human neck but not cause decapitation. Put another way, if the person weighed 200 pounds then they required a drop of 6 feet. This became the basis of what became known as the Table of Drops, which is still used in a modified version today. Hangmen of those days were not necessarily good at maths so each hangman’s noose was accompanied by a chart on a bit of paper which told the executioner the right length of drop for each body weight. Slightly longer for a muscular man, less for a delicate framed individual. Official Table of Drops - Wikipedia
The second part of the invention was a radically different noose. The traditional noose was a piece of rope with a slip-knot tied in it. See Procedure for Military Executions,No. 27-4, December 1947 (loc.gov) Calcraft’s noose tightened slowly, leading to a slow death. Marwood wanted a fast running noose so he used a metal ring rather like a shoelace eye, but bigger, threading the rope through it to form the noose. He was anxious to make the prisoner as comfortable as possible under the circumstances, so he used his cobbler skills to cover the part of the noose that touched the prisoner’s neck with soft chamois leather. A leather washer sat on the rope next to the noose and made sure the noose could tighten but not slacken during the drop. At the other end of the silk hemp rope there was a metal ring so that the rope could be attached to the gallows quickly. These were re-useable ropes, never cut up and sold. Once applied the metal ring sat underneath the victim’s jaw. His final modification was the split-trap that opened in the middle ensuring the victim fell vertically down.
Ideally, once the trap is sprung the victim falls the predetermined distance and at the end of it the noose tightens suddenly on the back of the neck and it creates a spinal fracture between the second and third cervical (neck) vertebrae, the so-called Hangman’s Fracture. This destroys the lower part of the brain stem and causes instant brain death, the victim dying painlessly of strangulation a couple of minutes later but was left to hang for the traditional one hour. This was the theory but would it work out in practice? Strange as it might sound, Marwood contacted the governor of the local prison, Lincoln Castle Gaol, and inspired so much confidence in him that he was allowed to carry out the next execution on 1st April 1872. The victim, William Frederick Horry, died instantly and the governor was impressed with Marwood’s efficiency. Soon afterwards he became the official country hangman, travelling up and down the country by train to carry out his duty and received an annual pay of £20 plus £10 per hanging. He even had business cards printed saying “William Marwood, Executioner.”
Although he kept working in his cobbler’s shop, he executed 176 people over a period of nine years, approximately one every three weeks. He patented his execution method, which is still used today, but the USA refused to ratify the patent and pictures taken of public executions in the 1960’s show that they were still using the knotted rope method. When he was not mending shoes or hanging people he would appear at horse fairs and farmer’s markets, proudly exhibiting his hanging equipment and for a small amount of money you could put the noose around your neck. He was immortalised as the hangman in seaside Punch & Judy shows and there was even a playground joke: “If Pa killed Ma, who would kill Pa?” answer “Mar-wood.” Eventually he became one of the most famous people in England. Bill Greenwell - William Marwood
There were aspects of his job that Marwood loved. He enjoyed the fame and adulation he received, the parties in the pub that the Home Office scornfully described as “holding court” where he was the centre of attention As well as this he genuinely loved the train journeys that took him to all part of Britain. He did not sell inches of his ropes but it does seem likely that he sold his victim’s clothing to Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks for their Chamber of Horrors exhibit. The only part that he did not enjoy was actually carrying out the hanging, and it seems he began drinking before executions to steady his nerves. This was by no means uncommon among hangmen, many of whom ended their days by suicide or alcoholism: in fact only the cold-blooded Calcraft seems to have escaped this aspect. The quality of Marwood’s work started to suffer and comments were made about his drinking.
It is the evening of August 5th 1883 and Billy Marwood is sitting around the fireplace of the Dun Cow pub, telling his stories and enjoying the drinks people bought for him; this was his ninth execution at Durham. Over the road in Durham prison James Burton, the Sunderland born murderer Marwood had come to execute, was also enjoying Dun Cow beer brought over for him from the pub in a jug covered with a cloth. He was resigned to his fate; he had pleaded guilty to bigamy and murder. He was married but took a fancy to an 18 year old girl and married her also. When his crime was in danger of being discovered he attempted to resolve the problem by killing the young woman with a rock, crushing her skull flat and burying her in a shallow grave. He had made his confession and believed that his upcoming fate was well deserved.
We will never know how much alcohol Marwood drank that night or whether, as he often did, he had more to drink just before the hanging to strengthen his resolve. We do know that as he stepped out of the Dun Cow to make the short walk to the prison across the road his gait was distinctly unsteady. According to the legend that has grown up around this event as he crossed the road a Fenian touched him on the shoulder and put a curse on him. The Fenians were a militant Irish Nationalist group, the precursors of the IRA, and Marwood had executed the Finnian Phoenix Park murders a short while before. According to others it was a gypsy who did the cursing, but what we can say for certain is that things started to go badly wrong for Marwood that morning.
After the normal preliminaries Marwood positioned Burton over the trap, but just before he opened it, Burton stumbled and his arm caught in the rope next to him. Instead of dropping straight down into the pit below, he bounced off the side again and again. In horror Marwood looked down and saw that Burton was still alive. With the help of the warders he pulled him up and sat him on a chair while he reset the trap. His neck was broken and his head lolled at an odd angle; he was in agony and murmured “Oh Lord, help me.” One reporter wrote later “When drawn up Burton presented a shocking appearance,” Without resetting the trap Marwood moved him over onto the side of the pit and pushed Burton into it; as he looked down he saw that Burton was still not dead but strangling noisily at the end of the rope. An autopsy next day, performed by prison surgeon William Boyd proved that he had died of asphyxia rather than the quick humane death for which Marwood was famous.
The reporters present at the scene were horrified and once again the drunken hangmen of the Dun Cow stories became national news. The scandal came to the attention of the Home Secretary and he ordered an enquiry. Marwood’s reputation was in tatters: “My situation is not a happy one” he said. The hangman died only four weeks later on September 4th, some said by drink or suicide but the official diagnosis was inflammation of the lungs. His wife, who was also quite fond of a drink died only a month after him but not before selling his clothes to Madame Tussaud's and his ropes to a collector, James Harrison of Dispey Road, Horncastle. The rest of Marwood’s possessions, including his little dog, were auctioned off and brought a good price. His will showed that the hangman had done well for himself, owning several local cottages.
When the public heard the news of Marwood’s death, 1400 people applied to the Home Office for the vacant post of executioner. Soon after Marwood was buried at Trinity Church in Horncastle souvenir hunters with rock hammers came and chipped pieces of his headstone away until nothing was left and eventually Marwood himself, the man who revolutionised capital punishment, disappeared from the memory of the public. The irony of this is who do we remember? None other than poor James Burton, the man who tripped and fell, with the phrase “gone for a Burton” When my grandmother used that phrase she meant a trip or fall, but later the phrase came to mean any kind of accident or that something had gone wrong. As I said in my previous Dun Cow post there are some events which are so memorable they leave a memorial to themselves in the English language that remain long after the event itself has been forgotten.
After the inquest and enquiry the Home secretary clamped down on the behaviour of the hangmen and there were no more drunken pre-execution parties in the Dun Cow. The hangman had to arrive at the prison by 4pm the previous day and practise the execution ritual. Both hangman and victim were allowed a modest amount of alcohol, brought over from the Dun Cow. The hangman was no longer a local hero and Marwood’s successor, James Berry, almost got into a fist-fight when he called into the Dun Cow before the execution of William Waddall (aka The Birtley Ripper.) Did Jack the Ripper kill North woman? - Chronicle Live who many Durham folks believed to be innocent.
Berry was reprimanded at least once for drunkenness and “holding court” in pubs before and after executions. The hangman’s rope was still a highly valued item and Berry exchanged two of his for a Chinese decapitation sword. By1890 the Home Office had become so concerned about the distasteful aspects of souvenir hunting and decreed that after every execution the rope and the deceased’s clothing should be burnt, putting an end to the “money for old rope” scheme. Berry wrote a book about his experiences as executioner at Berry.pdf (archive.org) which contains a lot of practical detail concerning the improvements he made to the Marwood method. More about hangings at Durham at Durham prison (capitalpunishmentuk.org) and GENUKI: Executions at Durham, 1732-1909, Durham