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The Executions Of Old London

June 11, 2021
by the gentle author

In the days before the internet, television or cinema, public executions were a popular source of entertainment in London. Ed Maggs, fourth generation proprietor of Maggs Bros booksellers (now safely esconced in their new home at 48 Bedford Sq), sent me this fine selection of Execution Broadsides that he came across recently.

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Execution Broadside of Henry Horler for the murder of his wife Ann Horler on 17th November 1852, at Sun St, Bishopsgate.

Ann Horler’s mother, Ann Rogers, came to take her daughter away from her husband Henry Horler on the night before the murder was discovered. She had been told that her daughter had been abused by her husband. Henry Horler insisted his wife would not go with her mother that night, but Mrs Rogers should return in the morning for her. The next morning Ann Horler was found dead.

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Execution broadside of John Wiggins at Newgate, 15th October 1867, for the murder of Agnes Oakes on the morning of Wednesday 24th July at Limehouse. Printed with the trial and execution of Louis Bordier, a Frenchman charged with the murder of Mary Ann Snow on the 3rd September 1867 on Old Kent Rd.

Agnes Oakes lived with John Wiggins as his wife for about six months prior to the murder. Neighbours said they witnessed John beating Agnes and she had said she would leave him if he did not stop.

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Execution broadside of Michael Barrett, the Fenian, and last man to be hanged in public, on the 26th May 1868, Newgate. Barrett was arrested for the “Clerkenwell Explosion” on 13th December 1867 which killed twelve people and injured many others. Barrett was the only Irish Republican to be convicted of the crime, five others were acquitted.

This tragic event occurred during an attempt to release Richard O’Sullivan Burke from prison. The explosion was misjudged and not only did it blast a sixty foot hole in the prison wall, (O’Sullivan Burke is thought to have been killed in the blast), a number of tenements on Corporation Lane were also destroyed.

The conviction appeared largely to be based on the fact Michael Barrett was a Fenian and that several witnesses claimed he may have been in London at the time. Barrett stated he was in Glasgow on the day of the explosion and if ‘there were 10,000 armed Fenians in London, it was ridiculous to suppose they would send to Glasgow for a person of no higher abilities than himself.’

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Execution broadside of John Devine for the murder of Joseph Duck in the early morning of 11th March 1863, Little Chesterfield St, Marylebone.

The condemned pleaded not guilty to the crime which appeared to result from a robbery that went wrong. The jury was sympathetic to Devine and, although the verdict returned was guilty, there was a strong recommendation to mercy, as they were of the ‘opinion that the prisoner inflicted the injuries on the deceased while in the act of robbing him; but, at the same time they thought he did not intend to murder him.’ The scene of the execution was described thus: ’There was not a large concourse assembled to witness the sad spectacle, nor was there exhibited by those present any of that unseemly demonstrativeness which they are wont to indulge in.’

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Execution broadside of the nurse Catherine Wilson for the murder by poisoning with colchicine of her patient Maria Soames in Albert St, Bloomsbury, on the 18th October 1856. The last woman to be publicly hanged in London.

This was Catherine Wilson’s second indictment for poisoning a patient, having been acquitted the first time round to the astonishment of many. When the first trial took place, on 16th June 1862, in the documents the accused appeared as Constance Wilson and was also occasionally found under the alias Catherine Taylor/Turner. Immediately, she was taken back in to custody and charged with the murder of Maria Soames. During the initial trial, the police had been busy putting together evidence of further victims and even exhumed several bodies, including that of Ann Atkinson, Peter Mawer and James Dixon, who was one of Ms. Wilson’s former lovers. In seven of these exhumed bodies a variety of poisons were found.

The Judge presiding said he had ’never heard of a case in which it was more clearly proved that murder had been committed, and where the excruciating pain and agony of the victim were watched with so much deliberation by the murderer.”

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Execution broadside of Dr William Palmer, for the poisoning of John Parsons Cook at Stafford. Dr Palmer was described by Charles Dickens as ‘The greatest villain that ever stood at the Old Bailey’ in his article on ’The Demeanor of Murderers’. He is also referenced in several novels and an Alfred Hitchcock film.

He was also suspected, although never indicted, of the murder of his four children, all of whom died in infancy, his wife Ann Palmer, Brother Walter Palmer, a house guest Leonard Bladen, and his mother-in-law, Ann Mary Thornton. The doctor benefited financially from all of these deaths.

Dr Palmer was executed at Stafford Prison Saturday 14th June 1856. Although not mentioned in this broadside, the prisoner was said to have had an interesting exchange with the prison governor moments before his death. When Dr Palmer was asked to confess his crimes, the exchange went thus:

Dr Palmer – ’Cook did not die from strychnine.’

Prison Governor  -’There is not time for quibbling – Did you or did you not kill Cook?’

Dr Palmer – ’The Lord Chief Justice summed up for poisoning by strychnine.’

In the trial text, it is stated Dr Palmer reiterated he was: ‘innocent of poisoning Cook by strychnia.’

The Judge stated in his summation: ‘Whether it is the first and only offence of this sort which you have committed is certainly known only to God and your own conscience.’

Dr Palmer became notorious for his supposed crimes. It was said 20,000 people attended his execution and a wax figure of him was displayed at Madame Tussauds in the Chamber of Horrors from 1857 – 1979.

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Trial broadside of Thomas Cooper,‘would-be’ highwayman, for the murder of Timothy Daly, policeman, and also for shooting at and maiming, with intent to murder, Charles Mott (a baker), and Charles Moss (another police officer) on 5th May at Highbury.

The defence, Mr Hory, addressed the jury, saying ‘for the first time during the seven years that he had been at the bar, he was called upon to address a jury upon a charge, conviction upon which was certain death. He almost felt that his anxiety would defeat itself. He could not help referring to different published statements, most of them monstrous perversions of established fact, and all calculated to excite the prejudices of a jury. When he saw these he could hardly fancy they lived in an enlightened age’.

Mr Hory made the case that the prisoner was not of sound mind, citing attempts of suicide, and claims of being Dick Turpin and Richard III. But this defence was unsuccessful with the jury reached a verdict of guilty, and Thomas Cooper was sentenced to death and executed July 7th 1842.

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Execution broadside of Charles Peace the notorious Blackheath burglar, for the murder of Arthur Dyson at Banner Cross, on the 29th November 1876.

Charles Peace murdered Arthur Dyson after become obsessed with Mr Dyson’s wife. Then Peace went on the run for two years with a £100 reward on his head, until he was betrayed by his mistress, Mrs Sue Thompson, who revealed his whereabouts to the police. She never received her expected reward as the police claimed her information did not lead directly to Peace’s arrest. He was caught on 10th October 1878, by Constable Robinson, who Peace shot at five times.

Subsequently, a waxwork figure of Charles Peace featured at Madame Tussaud’s, and two films and several books were produced about his life and crimes.

Images courtesy of Maggs Bros

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8 Responses leave one →
  1. Clare Burgess permalink
    June 11, 2021

    Fascinating that the image of the person hanging in most of the articles is like an outdoor cinema screen/ huge TV. Entertainment for the masses from another era.

  2. June 11, 2021

    Looking at the first half-dozen, it becomes obvious why the gallows was known, among much else, as ‘the sheriff’s picture-frame’.

  3. paul loften permalink
    June 11, 2021

    Breathtaking is perhaps not the right word. Captivating , sad and so very interesting . Thank you Gentle Author and Ed Maggs for allowing us to view these remarkable broadsides which give a detailed description of the actual events and feelings of all those involved.

  4. Pauline Taylor permalink
    June 11, 2021

    Thank you so much to our friend Ed Maggs for these , sadly I am sure some people would still flock to public executions as a source of entertainment. Also interesting is the reference to the Fenians. Frederick Francis Greenwood, my relative and the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette,was threatened by them and was given police protection for his journey by cab from his home to his office. George Murray Smith and Greenwood were told by Colonel Henderson, Chief of the Metropolitan Police that there was a plot to blow up the offices of The Times and the Pall Mall. ” You will easily understand”, said Henderson, “that anyone may come in and ask to see the editor and, when shown into a waiting room, leave a packet the contents of which would blow up the place”. Fourteen detectives were deployed to protect the offices and two were stationed on the roof. Smith carried a revolver after that and Greenwood accepted the protection offered. For weeks he was seen into his cab at night and out of it in the morning by plain clothes constables stationed at each end of the street

  5. June 11, 2021

    Thanks for sharing this article with us

  6. Linda Granfield permalink
    June 11, 2021

    It’s interesting to see how often the same illustration was used–only the body of Catherine Wilson is “photoshopped.”
    Or perhaps the crowd always wore the same attire and stood in the same place through the years? (wink)

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    June 11, 2021

    You begin today’s blog by writing ‘In the days before the internet, television or cinema, public executions were a popular source of entertainment in London.’ Am I the only one to reflect that I am pleased that it was a considerable number of years ago that such ‘entertainment’ existed?

  8. Pamela Traves permalink
    August 15, 2021

    So Sad to see people going out to watch the hanging of the killers. A terrible death even how bad they may have been.😢🙏🤦‍♀️💖🌹

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