A public execution on the roof of Horsemonger Lane prison
Until 1868 executions – the hanging of criminals for murder – took place in public. There had been calls for this practice to end in the previous century but while capital punishment had been removed from nearly all crimes by the late 1830s, the public element was retained.
Critics (including novelists like Dickens and Thackeray) argued that the spectacle of seeing a man or, more rarely a woman, being hanged before a large crowd had a negative effect on those watching. Instead of learning the lesson that crime didn’t pay, or sharing in the collective shame of an offender the crowd drank, laughed, mocked the police and the condemned, and generally behaved as if they were at a carnival.
The large crowds that gathered were also the targets of thieves, who willfully picked the pockets of those whose attention was focused on the events taking place on the raised platform before them. This had worried William Hogarth 100 years earlier and in his final engraving for his ‘Industry and Idleness’ series he had included a pickpocket amongst the crowd that watched a thief being ‘turned off’ at Tyburn. His message was clear: the gallows was hardly an effective deterrent if thieves robbed those watching their fellow criminals being executed for the very same offence.
William Hogarth’s image of an execution at Tyburn (modern Marble Arch) you can see the pickpocket on the left, next to the man on crutches, two small boys are pointing him out.
Detective William Cummings of M Division, Metropolitan Polce, was on duty at 8 in the morning outside Horsemonger Lane prison. A gallows had ben erected to hang Samuel Wright. Cummings was in plain clothes and was there to watch the crowd for any disturbances or criminality. Wright had been convicted of murdering his lover, Maria Green, by cutting her throat after they had both been drinking heavily. He had handed himself in three days after the murder and there were public pleas for clemency in his case. Maria was known to have a temper and it was suggested that she had threatened him on more than one occasion. Despite this the home secretary remained unmoved and Wright’s execution was set to go ahead as planned.
His case was compared at the time with that of George Townley who also killed a woman close to him. In Townley’s case it was his ex-fiancé, Bessie Godwin, who had rejected him. Townley stabbed Bessie in the throat and then helped carry her home, declaring to her father: She has deceived me, and the woman who deceives me must die’. He too was convicted and sentenced to death but reprieved by the home office after his legal tram effectively fabricated evidence that he was insane.
So in 1864 we had two murderers with very different outcomes and the fact that the man left to swing was working class while the man saved was ‘respectable’ was not lost on the public outside Horsemonger Gaol. I suspect that is partly why the detective inspector was there.
However, he had not been there long when he saw when he saw two rough looking men trying to push their way through the crowds. They seemed to be being pursued by a more smartly dressed man. The man was loudly accusing them of robbing him, so the policeman intervened and collared the pair.
In court at Southwark James Walter Fisher (a commercial traveller) told the sitting magistrate (Mr Burcham) that he’d been waiting for the execution and had seen the tow defendants (John Jones and Richard Johnson) pick the pockets of a man standing in front of them. The pair moved off and he didn’t see what they’d taken but he quickly alerted the victim. The man checked his pocket and declared his handkerchief was missing. Fisher went off in pursuit and pointed them out to inspector Cummings.
Whilst John Jones was being searched at the local police station PC Reed (235M) said he noticed Johnson pull out something from his own pocket and chuck it away. It was a silk pocket-handkerchief. Johnson denied ever having one and said it must have been planted there by the copper. PC Reed said other officers were ready to give evidence that they had seen Johnson throw it away. Inspector Cummings told the court that the victim, a gentleman, had identified the item as his own but was unable to come to court today. He would, however, be able to attend on Friday. Mr Burcham therefore remanded the two men until then.
At this point both of them disappear from the records. John Jones is such a common name that it would be difficult to trace him anyway but while there are a number of men with the name Richard Johnson in the records of the Digital Panopticon I’m not convinced any of them are this man.
So perhaps the gentleman that lost his handkerchief decided that a few nights in a cell was suitable punishment for the pair of opportunistic thieves. He had got his property back by then and maybe chose not to give up a day taking them through the justice system. Equally Mr Burcham may well have chosen to punish them as reputed thieves using the powers given to him under the terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) that allowed him to punish those merely suspected of doing something wrong.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 13, 1864]