Elizabeth Godfrey – A major tragedy
at an execution.
Richard Prince was a coachman
by trade and was living with a woman named Emily Bisset
in the Marylebone area of London
in a house of “ill repute”, owned by their landlord Mr. William Scott. Elizabeth Godfrey (also given as Godfry) had taken the room adjoining theirs four days
before Christmas 1806.
A quarrel had occurred
between Richard and Elizabeth, apparently due to him having sent for William
Atkins, the watchman, to arrest her for having a man (customer?) in her room
the day before, with whom she was arguing with over money. It was alleged that
Richard had cut Elizabeth’s
hand during this altercation. It seems
was quickly freed without any criminal charge being brought and returned to her
lodgings. However this incident festered
in her mind and she determined to take revenge on Richard.
Between five and six o'clock in the evening of Christmas Day 1806 she knocked
on Richard and Emily’s door and told Emily, who answered her call, that she
wanted to speak to Richard. Emily called
him but when he went to the door he did not see Elizabeth, so he fetched a candle and
verbally abused him for fetching the watchman and then stabbed him just below
the eye with a pocket knife, sending Richard reeling back into the room,
exclaiming “Oh! I am a dead man.” He
pulled the knife from his eye and threw it down. Mr. Scott was alerted by the commotion and
came to see what had happened. Emily
took Richard to the surgeon who decided that he needed immediate hospital
treatment for what was considered to be a dangerous injury. He was accordingly admitted to the Middlesex Hospital under the care of Mr. Barry, a
surgeon. Richard survived in hospital
until Saturday the 18th of January when he finally died from the wound. John Foy an officer from Marlborough Street police station was
sent by the magistrate to the hospital to enquire into the stabbing and took
possession of the knife.
Elizabeth had been arrested
and originally charged with wounding, with the charge being upgraded to murder
after Richard died. She came to trial at
the Old Bailey on the 18th
of February 1807 before Mr. Justice Heath. Emily Bisset, her
landlord William Scott and William Atkins the watchman gave evidence for the
prosecution. Mr. Barry told the court that he was certain that the cause of
Richard’s death was the stab wound rather than other causes.
The case for the defence was
that Richard had abused Elizabeth
and also given her a bad cut to the hand. She called William Atkins to corroborate
this. She also pointed out how hard life
was for a single woman with no man to protect her and that she had not caused
any trouble to Mr. Scott on the previous occasion she had lodged in his
house. However she had no real answer to
the charge of stabbing Richard. It was
not possible to argue self defence as the reported incidents of his injuring
her hand and of her stabbing him were separated by a
considerable passage of time. The jury
found her guilty of wilful murder after a brief deliberation and Elizabeth was returned to
Newgate to await sentence at the end of the Sessions.
She was not the only person
to have been convicted of murder at these Sessions. John Holloway and Owen Haggerty had robbed
and murdered John Cole Steele on Hounslow Heath in Middlesex in November 1802
and would have got away with except for an accomplice turning them in four
years later when he thought he was dying.
All three were duly sentenced to be hanged and their bodies delivered to
Surgeon’s Hall for dissection. Their executions were to take place three days
later, on Monday the 23rd of February 1807.
The hanging of these three
murderers attracted enormous public interest and it was estimated that no less
than forty thousand people had come to watch, with every inch of ground outside
Newgate and the Old Bailey occupied. The
sheer numbers and the pressure created by movements in the crowd quickly began
to cause problems as people were being crushed and trampled even before the
execution preparations commenced.
Just before eight o‘clock the
prisoners were led out, accompanied by the Ordinary, Brownlow Forde. The first up being Owen
Haggerty who was already pinioned and had the halter around his neck. The rope was tied up to the beam and then
John Holloway was brought out. Elizabeth was allowed to
sit on a bench at the bottom of the stairs to the platform until the two men
had been prepared. Haggerty said nothing
on the gallows but Holloway made a short speech proclaiming his innocence until
William Brunskill, the hangman, terminated it by
pulling the white night cap over his face.
was now brought up the stairs and must have been shocked to see the two hooded
and pinioned men standing there. She was
prepared in the same manner and all three continued to pray with Brownlow Forde
who then gave the signal at around a quarter past eight to Brunskill
to release the trap. The three hooded
bodies dropped together, falling a short distance into the huge box like
structure of Newgate’s gallows. Haggerty and Holloway became still almost
immediately but Elizabeth
writhed and struggled for some time after suspension, “dying hard”, as was the
then expression. Little of her struggles
would have been seen by the spectators, all they could typically see was her
upper body and perhaps some convulsive movements in it.
As the three people died on
the gallows above more were being injured and dying in the crowd in the Old
Bailey below. Women, children and men
were being crushed and then trampled as they feinted and fell. It is reported that there were cries of
“Murder, Murder” from some of the victims.
It was impossible for the small number of officials present to do
anything to help the injured as they were so densely packed in. The worst part of the crush was in Green Arbour Lane,
nearly opposite the Debtors' Door where the gallows stood. A pie seller had his placed his basket of
pies on a stool which was pushed over by the surging crowd. The basket and upturned stool caused more
people to fall and be trampled. A 12 year old boy, by the name of Harrington,
who had gone to watch the hangings with his father was
killed here, although his father survived and was taken to St. Bartholomew’s
Hospital. A woman who was nursing a baby
had the foresight to pass the infant over the heads of the crowd to a man, who passed it on finally enabling it to be rescued. Sadly the mother died a few moments later.
Elsewhere a cart onto which
spectators had crowded collapsed and some of these people died in the ensuing
panic, in which everybody was trying to save themselves.
It was only after the bodies of the three
murderers could be taken down and the gallows removed back inside Newgate that
officials were able to clear the street and begin to attend to the
casualties. There were a total of twenty
seven bodies recovered and some seventy or so casualties requiring
treatment. The site was strewn with
hats, shoes and other personal effects of the dead and injured.
Most of the dead were taken to St.
Bartholomew’s Hospital where a temporary mortuary was set up to enable
relatives to come and identify their loved ones. An inquest into the tragedy
opened at the hospital the following day which concluded on the Friday with a
verdict "That several persons came by their death from compression and
suffocation." Hardly helpful! It is
not clear what, if any, action was taken by the authorities to prevent a
recurrence of the tragedy but no similar problems were reported subsequently.
It is interesting to note that there were always plenty of refreshments on sale