Thomas Macdonald - The
Tuesday the 30th of
December 1890 could be reasonably said to be the date of the first modern
34 year old Thomas
Macdonald had been convicted of the murder of Miss Alice Holt, a young school
teacher at the National schools in
Miss Holt’s mother
lived in a house on the main road between Bolton and
Dr. Robinson examined the remains and found that her skull had been fractured, her throat cut and the body bore evidence of various other injuries and defensive wounds.
On the day of the
murder, Macdonald was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and when released
was spotted near the murder scene. He
was questioned again after the body had been found and initially denied having
In this he confessed
that he had caught up with
Macdonald was tried at
St. George’s Hall in Liverpool on 12th of December 1890, before
As a result of the various recommendations of The Capital Sentences (Aberdare) Committee a new gallows was installed at Kirkdale. The twin beams were eleven feet above the trapdoors which were level with the floor of the chamber. Brackets were bolted to the beams and a pin passed through them and the appropriate link of a three foot long chain with a ring at the bottom end, allowing for setting the required drop accurately. The trapdoors were set over a twelve foot deep brick lined pit, reached from above by a flight of steps. The execution chamber was described as 24 feet x 18 feet with whitewashed walls and wooden boarded floor. The gallows stood along the back wall with the beam supported by two “massive” uprights. It is assumed that Kirkdale was chosen because hangings there could be supervised by Dr. James Barr, who had given evidence and made detailed proposals to the Committee. Dr. Barr considered himself to be the country’s leading expert on hanging and was highly regarded as such by the Home Office and the Prison Commission.
The Governor of Kirkdale, Major Knox, had Macdonald moved to a cell much nearer the gallows so as to avoid the 200 to 300 yard procession that had been the case previously.
Macdonald was brought from his cell to a reception ward at 7.55 a.m. Berry came to him and pinioned his wrists, using straps that he had previously laid out on a table. From this ward to the execution chamber was a distance of just 12 yards, via an open passage way between two buildings. Several newspaper reporters were permitted to witness the hanging.
by two warders and James Berry entered the execution chamber at 7.57 a.m.
Following them came the Under Sheriff, Dr. Barr, the
prison surgeon, and the Rev. Fr. Pennington.
Macdonald walked without assistance and once he was on the trapdoors,
Dr. Barr went into the pit and felt Macdonald’s pulse. It ceased within three minutes and it was clear that there had been fracture/dislocation of the cervical vertebrae.
Macdonald stood five
feet two and three quarter inches and weighed 124.5 lbs. A drop of nine feet, plus
a typical two inches for rope and neck stretching, as measured afterwards,
would have produced an energy of 1120 ft. lbs. This would be exactly in accordance with the report
submitted by Dr. Barr after the hanging of John Conway at Kirkdale on the 20th
of August 1891 (TNA PRO HO 144/213/A48697F/6a, dated 29th August 1891) which
read: “The Capital Sentences (Aberdare) Committee adopted my recommendation of
a force of 1260 foot pounds. That force was based on observations of executions
with the old form of rope and on the old scaffold. Part of the force was used
up in stretching the rope, in tightening the knots, and in the spring of the
beam. In my more recent table I reduced the maximum force to 1120 foot pounds,
to be reduced to 1000 foot pounds in the case of heavy weights. More recently I
stated in a letter to Mr Joseph (a Prison Commission clerk) that the force
would have to be still further reduced, and in the case of
The drop was in accordance with the table of drops contained in the July 1890 handwritten “Proposed memorandum of instructions for any person acting as executioner” which it is thought was the first move towards a gradual reduction in drop length from the original table produced by the Committee. It most probably originated from Dr. Barr.
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