Robert Goodale - “The Walsoken Tragedy”.
A decapitation at a hanging.
45 year old Robert Goodale was a market gardener who had been married to a lady called Bethsheba for 22 years. He owned a piece of land at Walsoken Marsh, near Wisbech, where he grew fruit and vegetables. On the property was a house that was used only for storage and not lived in, together with a well. The Goodale’s lived in Wisbech with their two sons, aged 18 and 21. All of them would walk to Walsoken in the mornings and work on the land.
On the 15th of September 1885 Bethsheba did not arrive at the market garden and a search was made for her. Her body was discovered the following day in the well. Examination of the body revealed that she had been struck three times on the head, most probably with a bill-hook, and then thrown down the well, where she drowned.
Goodale was arrested by Sgt. Roughton on suspicion of murder and later charged with the crime. He came to trial at the Norfolk Assizes at Norwich before Mr. Justice Stephen on Friday the 13th of November 1885.
was presented of the Goodale’s unhappy marriage and of threats of violence made
against Bethsheba by her husband. A
witness testified that he had heard a quarrel in the Goodale’s house on the
afternoon of the murder.
Dr. Stevenson the Home Office analyst said he had found traces of mammalian blood on the prisoner’s hat and jacket.
The defence led by Mr. Horace Browne contended that the case against Goodale was very weak. He conceded that husband and wife were not on good terms but insisted that Goodale’s conduct was not consistent with that of a murderer. He rebutted the blood stain evidence and suggested that it had come from the prisoner having a nose bleed. At this time it was not possible to determine the group to which the blood belonged and therefore it could not be certain that it was the victim’s blood, or even that it was human rather than animal blood.
The trial resumed on the Saturday and after the closing speeches and the summing up it took the jury just 20 minutes to reach their verdict of guilty of the wilful murder of his wife. Goodale was sentenced to death and removed to the Condemned Cell in Norwich Castle to await execution on Monday the 30th of November.
He was visited by his two sons and his sister on the Friday. Later that day he asked to see the governor of Norwich Castle, Mr. Dent. He and the Chief Warder went to Goodale’s cell where he told them that the crime had taken place due to extreme provocation. He claimed that his wife had told him that she liked other men. Mr. Dent took Goodale’s statement down in writing and sent it to the Home Secretary. The Rev. Mr. Wheeler and a former Sheriff of Norwich went to London and made representations for a reprieve at the Home Office. On Sunday the 29th of November the governor received a letter saying that the Home Secretary had not found cause to grant a reprieve.
James Berry had arrived at the prison and tested the drop on the Monday morning in the presence of the governor and under-sheriff. The gallows there had been constructed some three and a half years earlier for the execution of William Abigail on the 22nd of May 1882. The trap doors were set level with the floor over an 11’ 5” deep brick lined pit in the middle of a small yard. This yard was approximately 48 feet long by 15 feet wide near the Castle wall, opposite Opie Street. The gallows consisted of a black painted wooden beam supported by two stout uprights set over the black painted trap doors.
Goodale stood 5’ 11” tall and was a heavy man at 15 stone (210 lbs.) with a weak neck. Berry considered that a drop of 5’ 9” should be given. He used a “government rope” that had been used for the hanging of John Williams at Hereford a week earlier.
At 7.55 a.m. on the Monday morning the bell of St. Peter’s church began to toll and the officials proceeded to the condemned cell. A procession then formed consisting of the governor, the Rev. Mr. Wheeler, the surgeon, Mr. Robinson and the under-sheriff, Mr. Hales. Mr. Charles Mackie of the Norfolk Chronicle represented the press. They went down a passage that connected the cell to the gallows yard where Berry met them and pinioned Goodale, after which they continued into the prison yard.
Here Berry strapped Goodale’s legs and applied the white hood and the noose. Goodale several times exclaimed “Oh God, receive my soul.” As the church clock struck for the eighth time Berry released the trap doors and Goodale disappeared into the pit, but the rope sprung back up to the horror of the witnesses.
As they looked down into the pit they could see the body and the head lying separately at the bottom.
The law required that an inquest be held after an execution and this was presided over by Mr. E. S. Bignold, the Coroner. Mr. Dent gave evidence that the machinery of the gallows was in good working order and that Goodale was decapitated by the force of the drop. Mr. Dent did not think that a drop of 5’ 9’ was excessive and in fact thought it was insufficient for a man of ordinary build. He also stated that James Berry was perfectly sober.
Berry himself testified and at the end of this the Coroner absolved him of any blame for what had happened. The jury returned a verdict that Goodale “came to his death by hanging, according to the judgement of the law.” They further said “that they did not consider that anyone was to blame for what had occurred.”
This is the only occasion of a complete decapitation occurring at a hanging in England, Scotland and Wales, although Berry had several partial ones.
Assuming that Goodale actually weighed 15 stones (in some reports it is given as 16 stones) and that Berry had correctly set the drop at 5’ 9 1/2” or 5’ 10” then the energy developed would have been around 1218 foot lbs. This is around 100 foot lbs. more than would have been given after 1939 for a man of normal build with a normal neck. The “Goodale Mess” as it came to be known, led to a lot of unfavourable comment in the press.
Just one day after the most damning newspaper editorials had appeared, the head of the Prison Commission, Sir Edward Du Cane, wrote to the Home Secretary on the 2nd of December. In his letter he suggested the setting up of a Committee on Capital Punishment (which became the Aberdare Committee).
Norwich Chronicle published an interview with Goodale's spiritual advisor, the
Rev. Mr. Wheeler, a Baptist minister. He felt that maybe Goodale might not have
been convicted of murder if he had said earlier what he said in his confession
on the Friday evening. When Bethsheba fell into the well, he fetched a ladder
to go down and look for her but that he could not get down the well since the
opening was just 18 inches wide and he could not physically fit through it.
Had he spoken up earlier, Mr. Wheeler said, the police would have found the ladder still in the well and the dirt of the well on Goodale's clothes. It might have led to a verdict of manslaughter.
When Goodale finally came forward with this tale, it was too late.
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