Joseph Philip Le Brun - The last public hanging in the British Isles.


On the 29th of May 1868, the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act came into force ending public hanging in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  In the drafting of the Act, the Channel Islands were either overlooked or resisted the change and so it was just over seven years later when the last public hanging took place in Britain.  On Wednesday the12th of August 1875, 52 year old Joseph Philip Le Brun was executed by William Marwood at St. Helier on Jersey for the murder of his sister, Nancy Laurent (also given as Laurens).  This was the only public execution by the measured drop ever seen in Britain.  Strangely there were no photographs of the event.  The law in Jersey finally came into line with England in 1907 when Thomas Connan sentenced to death.  Connan was hanged within the prison on the 19th of February of that year.


Jersey’s main prison at the time was in Newgate Street.  The gallows was erected in the exercise ground and consisted of a platform some 20 feet square and 10 feet from the ground reached by a flight of steps, which began some 20 feet from the door through which Le Brun would enter the yard.  The whole thing was painted black and the platform contained double trap doors.  The lower portion was boarded in to a height of 4 feet, allowing the witnesses to see the preparations and the head and shoulders of Le Brun once he was suspended.  Three newspaper reporters were present.

A very large number of people wanted to see the hanging and Newgate Street and surrounding streets were packed.  140 Halberdiers kept order and guarded the gallows.


Marwood spent the night in a room above the condemned cell.  He had brought with him the rope, a leather waist band, shoulder and leg straps.  A large crowd had assembled to watch the execution.

At 7.30 am. Le Brun was given a glass of rum.  The pinioning took place at 7.45 and at 7.55 he was led from his cell into the yard, escorted by Mr. Beaumont, a Plymouth Brethren minister and another man and preceded by the Rev. Lamprière, the chaplain.  He was wearing the same blue suit he had worn at his trial.  At the bottom of the steps the Deputy Viscount read Le Brun his death warrant to which he replied he was innocent.  He then ascended the steps.  The crowd fell silent, only the voice of the chaplain being heard.  Marwood positioned Le Brun on the trapdoors and applied the hood and noose.  Le Brun spoke to Mr. Beaumont, saying “God grant that you may be the means of saving many souls.”  His last words were “Lord Jesus save my soul.”  Marwood drew the bolt and Le Brun died in a few moments, after a brief convulsive struggle.  After the drop had fallen there was an extraordinary outburst from Mr. Beaumont, who threw up his hands and shouted “Innocent.  Innocent blood, Innocent blood.  This is nothing less than murder, but thank God he (Le Brun) has put his trust in Christ and is a saved man. He is innocent and God will clear it up.”

The body was left hanging for the usual hour before being taken down and buried in the prison yard.


Le Brun normally dined with his sister and her husband Philip but did not live with them.  He ate with them on the evening of the 15th of December 1874 and afterwards Philip Laurent left to go to St. Hellier.  It is not clear why Le Brun then shot his sister, Nancy, who was found dead on the sofa.  He also fired at her husband Philip when he returned to their home in St. Lawrence after a trip to St. Hellier, causing serious facial injuries.  Philip did not see Nancy’s body and ran to a neighbour, Clement Rondel, for help.  Police quickly arrested Le Brun and took him back to his sister’s house where Philip Laurent was able to identify him as the shooter.  The shotgun belonged to Philip.  He asked Le Brun why he had shot him to which Le Brun issued a flat denial. 


Le Brun was tried on the 7th of July 1875 and continued to deny the crime, however 23 out of the 24 jurors found him guilty.  The prosecution suggested that he might have killed his sister for the £25 in the house, which had gone missing after the shootings.  The defense countered this, telling the court that Nancy was drunk nearly every day and he would not have needed to kill her in order to steal the money.  They further suggested that Philip could have been drunk and therefore mis-identified Le Brun as the shooter.  The evidence against Le Brun was purely circumstantial. No other motive was put forward, there was no blood on his clothes, no gunpowder residue on his hands, and only small change in his pockets.


Le Brun wrote to the Home Secretary, Robert Lowe, protesting his innocence and asking for a reprieve, but this was not forthcoming.


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