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 that Elizabeth 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 returned. Elizabeth 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.  Elizabeth 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 at executions.


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