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Crime and punishment ...and gallows humour
10:39am Monday 29th October 2012 in Mike Pryce
SOME people never seem to learn. Witness the case of a man called Smith, I’m sorry I don’t have his first name because it happened rather a long time ago.
April 1774 to be exact. Four years before, Smith, who was from Worcester, had appeared in court in London accused of burglary and robbery, a style of crime for which he had previous.
He was found guilty and as was the custom at the time, harsh though it might appear now, sentenced to death. He was duely taken to the gallows at Tyburn and strung up.
According to the Worcester Post Man, the forerunner of our sister paper Berrow’s Worcester Journal, Smith was “hung for the usual time and then carried away by his friends in a coffin”. And that should have been that.
However, his body being returned home to the Faithful City appears to have done the convicted felon the world of good, because he “came to life again” and completely recoved from his near-death experience.
Despite his second chance, Smith couldn’t give up his old ways and after a four-year break, returned to robbing, this time in his own neighbourhood.
“It seems he could not forsake his old calling,” as the Post Man recorded. Adding the postscript: “It’s thought the hangman will take more care of him this time.”
Which presumably he did, Smith being hanged from the gallows, probably at Red Hill.
The story of Smith and his fatal inability to break a habit of a lifetime is told in the pages of Crimes of Worcestershire, a new book by county historian and author Don Cochrane, president of Stourbridge Historical Society.
It includes accounts of 50 or so of the most famous and gruesome murders of the 18th and 19th centuries.
It even stretches into the early 20th with the Garibaldi Pub murder in Worcester in 1925 and the case of the last man to be hanged in the city, a Chinese called Djang Djing Sung from Birmingham, who was executed at Worcester Gaol in Castle Street on December 3, 1919 for the murder of a fellow countryman Zee Ming Lu in Warley Woods.
Lu had been battered to death with a hammer and although Sung admitted being at the scene, denied striking the blows. However, the jury took only 10 minutes to convict him.
There followed one of the more unusual aspects of the job of local reporter of the day – they were invited along to witness the execution.
At 7.50am on the morning of the hanging, four members of the press were admitted through the jail’s main gate and escorted to the execution chamber in the coach house, where the gallows had been erected in the centre with seats surrounding.
The reporters took their place with the dignitaries who were also there to witness the historic last execution in the city.
There was a chalk mark on the drop-board, where the condemned man would stand beneath the beam, and a single noose hung down – the length having been calculated by hangman John Ellis, taking into account the victim’s height and weight.
About the same time the reporters were being allowed into the prison, Ellis went into the condemned man’s cell and pinioned the arms of Sung, who was very light of frame and less than 5ft tall.
Newspaper reports showed that at 7.55am, Sung “strode into the death chamber and positioned himself on the chalk cross beneath the noose with all the confidence in the world”.
Possibly because of the hour and time of the year, although it could have been the occasion, most of the onlookers were shivering in their boots.
Sung’s legs were strapped together and Ellis pulled the hood over his face, making a final adjustment to the noose as he did so. As the last words of the burial service were spoken by the chaplain, a signal was given by the governor of the jail and Ellis withdrew the bolt. The drop fell and the Chinese man disappeared beneath the floor and out of sight.
“There was a slight vibration of the tensioned rope, which Ellis steadied with his left hand,” wrote the reporter. The jail bell tolled and a crowd of about 30 outside in Castle Street watched as a notice was fixed to the main door announcing the execution. After that, executions for murders in Worcestershire were carried out in Gloucester or Winson Green, Birmingham.
Unsettling though it might have been, witnessing a hanging possibly counted among the less bloody sights of a crime reporter.
Some criminals were condemned to have their hands severely burned, a common punishment for theft, while beheading, burning at the stake and severe flogging were all options.
Not all hangings were from fixed gallows either. Some were carried out off the back of carts or from ladders, when the drop was not long enough to ensure a quick death and the victim slowly strangled.
However, few accounts of an execution match that of Belshazzer Windser, a convicted housebreaker, at Worcester on April 23, 1718.
Although denying the offence, Windser “seemed to be so impatient of taking his Flight into the vast Regions of Eternity that he tripped up on the underside of the ladder, desiring Jack Ketch (the hangman) to strain the rope about his neck, which no sooner done than he flung himself off with great Precipitation”. They just don’t write crime reports like that anymore.
Crimes of Worcestershire by Don Cochrane is published by Amberley, priced £14.99.