The Aberdare Committee of 1886.

 

The Aberdare Committee’s report provides a remarkably candid insight into the execution process in England and Wales between 1868 and 1888.  The period from 1868 when public hangings ended up to 1886 saw a great deal of change in the way executions were carried out and also a significant number of unfortunate incidents.

 

At the start of the period there was no standard gallows, no standard noose or pinioning method and no concept of a drop that would typically cause instant unconsciousness.  Neither was there any uniformity of equipment.  The gallows was that provided by the county in which the execution took place.  Some were reasonably fit for purpose and were erected in a shed over a pit.  Others were set up in the open air, some required the prisoner to climb a flight of steps to reach the platform.  William Marwood was very much against this as he felt it caused delay and added to the prisoner’s suffering.  Some gallows had a ring or hook attached to the beam which required the rope to be tied to it with a knot that could slip or tighten thus altering the drop.  Others had a chain suspended from the beam which was an improvement.  Some had a single trap door others had double leaf traps. 

 

From 1878 the execution rope of a standard pattern with a metal eyelet was available from the Prison Commissioners. The “Government rope”, as it was known, was made by John Edgington & Co. Ltd. of 48 Long Lane, London, formed from a 10’ 2 ½” length of 3/4" diameter Italian hemp with a metal eyelet for the noose and another for attachment to the beam by means of a “D” shackle and chain.  A rope could be ordered for an execution from Newgate prison by the sheriff of the county requiring it.  Up to this time hangmen had supplied their own ropes but this was not considered satisfactory.  Nor was their propensity for showing off and indeed selling off used ones for profit.  The Committee endorsed the Prison Commissioners in recommending that in future only government supplied ropes should be used. 

 

The Committee members were decidedly “sniffy” about the hangmen describing them as unintelligent fellows, especially Binns.  However it should be noted that Calcraft, Marwood, Binns and Berry, et al, had received no formal training and carried out executions according to their own methods and concepts.  In single executions there was normally no assistant so the hangman had to pinion the prisoner’s legs adding to the period they spent on the gallows.  It was recommended that assistants be trained who could if required take over the job.

 

When Calcraft, Askern and Evans retired and William Marwood took over the prisoner was at least provided with a calculated drop. Marwood devised the first drop table and James Berry’s subsequent one was based upon it although later modified after discussions with the Chief Warder at Newgate.  Things could go badly awry as the hanging of James Burton at Durham in 1883 proved.  The free rope was allowed to hang down Burton’s back and just as Marwood pulled the lever Burton moved and his elbow got caught in the loop of the rope as he fell through the trap.  He had to be hauled back up, freed from the rope and then pushed off the side of the open trap.  The Committee recommended coiling up the free rope and tying it with a thin thread that would break as the prisoner fell.  This would be Marwood’s last hanging and he was succeeded by Bartholomew Binns.

 

Binns hanged just eleven people, nine men and two women.  At least two of these executions led to serious complaints against him.

The execution of Henry Dutton at Kirkdale on 3 December 1883 was botched by Binns.  The twenty two year old was to die for the murder of Hannah Henshaw, his wife’s grandmother on 6 October at their home in Athol Street Liverpool.  Dutton weighed just 128 lbs and was given a drop of 7’ 6” using an over thick rope with the eyelet positioned at the back of his neck.  Death resulted from strangulation.  Dr. James Barr, the prison doctor, was dissatisfied with the way Binns had conducted the hanging and there was a strong suspicion that he had been drinking beforehand. 

 

Binns’ last job was the hanging of 18 year old Michael McLean at Kirkdale on the 10th of March 1884.  Binns was seen to be the worse for drink and the execution was judged to have been bungled as it took 13 minutes for McLean‘s heart to stop. After a formal complaint from the prison authorities about this and his behaviour, he was sacked. 

 

James Berry took over from Binns and his first execution in England was that of 44 year old Mary Lefley at Lincoln on 26 May 1884 which went off without incident.  He carried out a double hanging at Newgate on the 6th of October 1884.  The prisoners were 21 year old Thomas Orrock and 48 year old Thomas Harris.  Mr. Leonard Ward, the Chief Warder of Newgate who had to be present at executions noted that Harris’ throat was ripped open by the force of the excessive drop.

On the 7th of October 1885 the Home Office wrote to the Prison Commission advising them that the hangman should be required to lodge within the prison on the night before an execution to avoid their getting drunk and entertaining the locals in hotels and pubs with stories of their executions.  This was advisory rather than mandatory as the Home Office recognised that it was the sheriff who appointed the hangman and oversaw the execution.  In Berry’s case drunkenness was not an issue as at this time he was a teetotaller.

Perhaps Berry’s most infamous case was that of 20 year old John Henry George Lee (“The man they could not hang”) Lee had been convicted of the murder of his elderly employer Emma Anne Keyse, for whom he worked as a footman.  The execution was set for Monday the 23rd of February 1885 at Exeter.  The gallows was set up in the coach house of the prison, that normally housed the prison van having been last used in another location for the execution of Annie Tooke in 1879.  It was of a rather flimsy construction and had not been installed correctly in its new location.  Although it worked when tested without any weight on it, it would not do so with the weight of a person standing on the trap doors causing them to flex and the long hinges to foul the wall of the pit. 
Lee was led in just before 8 a.m. and the usual preparations made, but when Berry pulled the lever, virtually nothing happened, the trap doors just dropped an inch or so. Berry stamped on them and tried the lever again but to no avail. So the hood, noose and straps were removed and Lee was then taken back to his cell whilst the trap release mechanism was checked and re-tested. It worked perfectly.
The process was now repeated but with the same result and yet again the trap worked as soon as Lee was removed. After the third unsuccessful attempt, the governor took the decision to halt the execution whilst he obtained directions from the Home Office. Lee’s death sentence was later commuted to life in prison by the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt.  This failure led to questions being raised in the House of Commons and an official enquiry.

Moses Shrimpton was hanged by James Berry at Worcester on the 20th of May 1885.  Shrimpton had been convicted of stabbing to death police constable James Davies at Beoley, near Redditch in Worcestershire, in February 1885. 
The gallows was set up in the prison’s treadmill house.  The normal preparations were made and when Berry operated the trap Shrimpton dropped from view.  When the witnesses and newspaper reporters looked down into the pit they were horrified by what they saw.  Shrimpton had been all but decapitated by the fall and there was blood running down over his body and splashes of it on the brick lining of the pit.  At 65 years old Shrimpton’s neck muscles had weakened and Berry claims the weight he was given for Shrimpton by the prison authorities had been incorrect.

Problems were to arise again at the execution of Robert Goodale (also given as Goodall in some official papers) at Norwich Castle on 30 November 1885. Forty five year old Goodale had been condemned for killing his wife Bathsheba.  Goodale weighed 15 stone (95 Kg.) but due to the fact that he was in poor physical condition, Berry reduced the length of the drop from 7’ 8” to 5’ 9”. This still proved to be far too much and his prisoner was actually decapitated by the force.  Again representatives of the press were present to witness this ghastly spectacle.  It led to editorials attacking capital punishment which would not have been appreciated by the Home Office of the day.

These incidents must have weighed heavily on Berry and he decided to reduce the drops he gave.  Unfortunately this had an entirely predictable result.  His next three executions led to death from asphyxia.  That of Edward Hewitt is described below.

 

The government were becoming increasingly concerned about these incidents and also by Berry’s unseemly behaviour.  Questions were raised in parliament over what were described as “levees” held in local hotels after executions where Berry would give a talk and demonstrate equipment to the public.  As almost all executions were witnessed by reporters, the problems outlined above resulting in bad publicity and leading to questions being raised over the continuing use of hanging as the form of capital punishment.

 

So in 1886, the Conservative Home Secretary, Sir Richard Assheton Cross commissioned a former Liberal Home Secretary, Lord Aberdare (formerly Henry Austin Bruce who had held the office from December 1868 to August 1873), to chair a committee with a brief to inquire into and report to the Home Secretary upon “the existing practice as to carrying out the sentence of death and the causes which in several recent cases have led either to the failure or to unseemly occurrences and to consider and report what arrangements may be adopted (without altering the existing law) to ensure that all executions may be carried out in a becoming manner without risk of failure or miscarriage in any respect”.  The Committee took two years to issue its report, in June 1888, partially due to Lord Aberdare becoming ill during the proceedings and having to go abroad to recuperate. The Committee’s work was of a largely technical nature, looking at the “nuts and bolts” of execution by hanging and trying to find detail improvements to the equipment and process that were for the first time to be used nationally.  None of its recommendations required any legislation to allow them to be implemented.

 

The Capital Sentences Committee, to give its full title, was made up of Lord Aberdare, Sir Henry Ibbetson MP, Sir Frederick Bramwell FRS, The Rev. Professor Samuel Haughton MD FRS and Robert Gover MD.  Major Alten Beamish Royal Engineers was the secretary to the Committee.  With three doctors, two of whom were also fellows of the Royal College of Surgeons there was very considerable medical knowledge amongst the team.

It was appointed on the 30th of January 1886 and reported to the then Secretary of Sate Henry Matthews in the Autumn of 1888.  Its meetings were held at 8 Richmond Terrace in Whitehall London.

It took evidence from a number of people, including Professor Haughton, Leonard Ward, the Chief Warder at Newgate, Dr. James Barr, the prison surgeon at Liverpool’s Kirkdale prison and also from the then hangman James Berry.  Some of the witnesses had been present at public and private hangings carried out by William Calcraft using the short drop method.  There was a great deal of first hand experience available to the Committee.

 

George Cuthbert who was Home Office engineer commented on the various patterns of gallows in use (some 12 different designs) and also on the failure of the one at Exeter the previous year.  A new gallows had been constructed at Ipswich prison for the execution of George Saunders in February 1886 and although similar in design to the one at Exeter was considerably stronger and met with Mr. Cuthbert’s approval. 

 

The Rev. Professor Samuel Haughton realised that a broken neck is what hanging should try to aim at, and he was the first person to try and develop a formula for achieving this result.  He published his findings in an article entitled “On Hanging, considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view“,  in The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. xxxii, of, 1866.  He came to the conclusion that one should “divide the weight of the patient in pounds into 2240, and the quotient will give the length of the long drop in feet.“  He had the opportunity to examine the body of Patrick Kilkenny who had been hanged at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin on the 20th of July 1865 and given a drop of 14 feet 6 inches (which had come close to decapitating him).

 

Dr. James Barr was the prison surgeon at Liverpool’s Kirkdale prison and had witnessed 15 executions there since 1877, including two double hangings.  In three cases he recorded death by asphyxia and in the others death by fracture/dislocation.  He offered views on all aspects of the execution process and criticised the over complicated pinioning process which he claimed could take 3-4 minutes to complete.  Dr. Barr favoured a drop which produced a final force of 1260 lbs/ft for prisoners of normal build and weight with a reduced figure for smaller persons.  He was very unimpressed with Bartholomew Binns’ work as an executioner and little more so with James Berry’s.

 

Colonel Phineas Cowan a former sheriff of London commented adversely on the selection of hangmen and felt that the Home Office should be responsible for this and for providing adequate training.  This came to pass and new appointees were trained at Newgate initially and then later at Pentonville.

 

The Committee heard from Dr. J de Zouche Marshall who described the hanging of Edward Hewitt (by Berry) at Gloucester 15 June of 1886, for the murder of his wife, Sarah Ann, as follows :
"I descended immediately into the pit where I found the pulse beating at the rate of 80 to the minute and the wretched man struggling desperately to get his hands and arms free. I came to this conclusion from the intense muscular action in the arms, forearms and hands, contractions, not continuous but spasmodic, not repeated with any regularity but renewed in different directions and with desperation. From these signs I did not anticipate a placid expression on the face and I regret to say my fears were correct. On removing the white cap about 1 ½ minutes after the fall I found the eyes starting from the sockets and the tongue protruded, the face exhibiting unmistakable evidence of intense agony."  Hewitt weighed 10 stone 4 pounds (65 Kg.) and Berry had given him a drop of 6 feet.  It took two and a half minutes for Hewitt to become still.  The same problem had occurred in the hanging of thirty year old David Roberts at Cardiff on the 2nd of March 1886 who was to die for killing David Thomas.  Roberts was clearly strangled to death due to the length of drop being insufficient.

Dr. Marshall was in favour of using a noose with a chin trough which combined with a shorter drop (of around 4 feet) would in his opinion cause fracture dislocation.  This concept was rejected by the Committee.  (Click here to see picture of proposed chin trough)

 

James Berry appeared before the Committee in June 1887 at his own request and part of his reasoning for this was to lobby the Committee for a proper salary as Calcraft had done but this was not actioned.  There was a discussion regarding the elasticity of the ropes supplied by the government.  The elasticity issue was very important because if the rope stretched significantly the condemned got a greater drop and therefore an increased chance of decapitation.  There was also discussion of the correct position for the eyelet or thimble of the noose, Berry was of the view that it should be placed behind the left ear, the sub-aural position. 

 

Part of the Committee’s remit was to produce an official table of drops and their provisional one is reproduced below.  There was much discussion of how much energy was required to produce fracture dislocation without the risk of decapitation.  An examination of 23 cases where the drop was recorded and the cause of death established included the two cases where there was or nearly was decapitation and the calculated energy was 2320 foot/lbs.  In three cases death was given as suffocation and the energy produced by the drop was between 1082 and 1106 ft/lbs.

In the remaining 18 of these executions fracture dislocation had occurred and the energy had been between 1102 and 1438 ft/lbs.  The average value was 1330 ft/lbs.  It was however decided to recommend a final striking force of 1260 ft/lbs except for very light prisoners where an energy of 1120 ft/lbs was deemed sufficient.

 

Weight of culprit

Drop

 

Energy developed

Stone

Pounds

Feet

Inches

ft/lbs

7

98

11

5

1119

8

112

10

0

1120

9

126

9

6

1197

10

140

9

0

1260

11

154

8

2

1258

12

168

7

6

1260

13

182

6

11

1259

14

196

6

5

1258

15

210

6

0

1260

16

224

5

7

1251

17

238

5

3

1250

18

252

5

0

1260

19

266

4

8

1241

20

280

4

6

1260

The weight shown above is that of the clothed prisoner.  The Committee recommended that the prisoner be weighed on the day before the execution rather than using their weight recorded at admission to the prison as it was found that many put on weight in the condemned cell due to good diet and lack of exercise.

Sadly the Committee’s recommendations did not prevent further mishaps occurring.  Robert Upton was nearly decapitated at Oxford prison on 17 July 1888.  61 year old Upton was hanged for the murder of his wife Emma.  It seems likely that Berry actually gave Upton a considerably greater drop than he had originally calculated.  Although Upton died easily enough it created another gruesome scene for the attending newspaper men to report. 

On 10 August 1888, the opposite problem occurred at Derby prison.  31 year old Arthur Delaney was to suffer for the murder of his wife at Chesterfield.  Delaney died from asphyxia rather than the effects of a broken neck and again it seems that Berry miscalculated the length of the drop.  The same was to happen at the execution of wife murderer Henry Delvin, who was hanged on 23 September 1890, in Glasgow’s Duke Street prison. 

 

After further discussion and experimentation the Home Office finally issued another table in 1892. It specified shorter distances than Aberdare had recommended to avoid the possibility of decapitation, although this was considered to be preferable to strangulation.  The new table would provide for a drop that produced 840 pounds force. 

 

A number of other recommendations were made by the Committee.  Executioners were no longer to be paid a salary as Calcraft had been but rather hired by the individual county sheriffs on a by the job basis.  Properly trained assistants were to be used of who would be able to take over if the hangman became ill or fainted and would also be available to carry out an execution if the “No.1” was busy with one elsewhere.  This particular recommendation did not really take effect until after James Berry resigned in 1892.  The sheriffs were then able to choose from a list of hangmen and assistants approved by the Prison Commissioners.  The suggestion that the hangman and assistant should stay in the prison from 4 o’clock in the afternoon prior to an execution was endorsed by the Committee and became standard practice.

 

A report was to be completed after each execution (Prison Commission Form LPC4) and among other details, such as the drop given, would contain the governor’s comments on the conduct of the execution by the hangman and his assistant.

 

After execution the prisoner’s clothes were no longer to be the property of the hangman and were to be burnt.

 

Once these various recommendations had come into actual practice the Home Office had effectively taken control of the administration of executions.  However the Home Office were not willing to take responsibility away from the sheriffs for the appointment of the hangman as was made clear by the Home Secretary of the day, Henry Matthews, later Viscount Llandaff, in a parliamentary debate on 12 April 1889.

As a result of another recommendation by the Capital Sentences Committee the design of the gallows beam was to be improved.  The single beam was replaced by two beams of 8-11 inch deep x 3 inch section oak, running parallel to each other about 2 inches apart. Over the centre of the beams were positioned three cast iron brackets, each having four holes offset at half inch centres through which a cotter pin was inserted, supporting the chain which hung down between the beams and terminated in a “D” shackle. This allowed very much more accurate adjustment of the drop. The beams were 11 feet above the trapdoors and were generally set into the wall at each end, there being no uprights.  It took until the end of the 19th century for the new standard to become universal. (Click here for a picture)

The Aberdare Report in effect gave the first national execution protocol and paved the way for standardised executions with many of its recommendations continuing to be used up to abolition.

With special thanks to Gary Ewart for providing me with a copy of this fascinating document.  Some of the minutes of evidence given can be found here in pdf format (scroll down to page 17).

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