Frances Kidder – The last woman to hang in public.

Frances Kidder made history by becoming the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain, when she was executed at Maidstone at midday on Thursday, the 2nd of April 1868.

25 year old Frances had been born in 1843 to John and Frances Turner of New Romney in Kent.  She married William Kidder in 1865 as she was pregnant by him and she gave birth to the baby daughter they named Emma before the marriage.  What Frances did not know at the time was that William had two children by a previous relationship with a woman called Staples. The younger child was sent to live with relatives after its mother died but his daughter, Louisa, who was about ten years old came to live with Frances and William at Hythe in Kent.  From the outset things did not go well between Louisa and Frances.  Although corporal punishment in the home was considered normal in the 1860’s, Frances inflicted wanton cruelty on the little girl who turned from being a typical lively ten year old into a withdrawn and sullen girl over the next two years.  Frances beat the child with anything that came to hand, made her wear rags and often deprived her of food.  She was also frequently excluded from the house, irrespective of the weather, or was made to sleep in the cellar with old sacks for bedding.  Such was the abuse that their next door neighbour William Henniker reported William and Frances to the police who charged Frances with cruelty for which she was fined.  Louisa was sent to live with a guardian.  However William did not make his regular maintenance payments to the guardian and Louisa was returned to them.  Louisa’s presence re-kindled France’s resentment and the abuse of the little girl resumed.  William and Frances began to quarrel over her treatment of his daughter and at least once he threw Louisa out of the house. 
Frances helped William in his work as a potato dealer and in July 1867 was quite seriously injured in an accident when she was thrown from their horse and cart due to the horse bolting.  The accident may have caused brain damage.  In any event she took some time to recover from it and it did nothing to reduce her enmity towards Louisa.  On the 24th of August 1867, she had taken Louisa to visit her parents in New Romney and also took her own daughter, Emma, with her.  She was to tell her parent’s neighbour, Mrs. Evans, of her feelings towards Louisa and that she intended to get rid of her before returning to Hythe.

On the Sunday Frances told her parents that she was ill and would not be going out for a walk with them, preferring to stay at home with the children.  Once they had left she suggested to Louisa that they visit a nearby fair and told her that it would be sensible to change into their old clothes before going.  This they did and then started out on foot for New Romney.  They came to Cobb’s Bridge and it was here that Frances grabbed Louisa and forced her into the stream that ran under the bridge.  She held the girl face down in the stream and drowned her in less than a foot of water.  Frances’ father and her husband who had come to collect his wife and daughter started searching for them.  Frances got back to her parent’s house just before William returned and he immediately noticed that Louisa was not with her.  Neither William or his mother could get a satisfactory explanation from Frances as to Louisa’s whereabouts.  She ran upstairs to her bedroom and was discovered by her father, having changed into dry clothes.  He found her previous clothes which were very wet and muddy but could get nothing out of her regarding Louisa. In view of the history of violence towards the girl, he and William decided to go to the police.  Constable Aspinall returned with her father and husband and took Frances into custody on suspicion of Louisa’s murder.  The constable questioned her and she told him that Louisa had fallen into a ditch after being frightened by passing horses near Cobb’s Bridge.  A search was organised and little girl’s body was soon discovered.  It was removed to the Ship Inn to await an inquest and Frances was charged with murder.  The coroner’s inquest opened the next day and heard various witness testimonies which led to a verdict that Louisa had been murdered by her mother.  She was thus taken before the magistrates for a committal hearing who remanded her in custody to appear at the Kent Spring Assizes at Maidstone. She was transported to Maidstone prison the following day, suffering fits during the journey and having to stop at Ashford Police Station until they subsided.  She remained on remand for over six months and was ministered to by the chaplain, Reverend W. Fraser, who managed to teach her to read and get some grasp of religion.  William did not visit her on remand and it was rumoured that he had started a new relationship with Frances’ younger sister who had been helping him look after Emma.

Frances’ trial took place at Maidstone on the 12th of March 1868, before Mr. Justice Byles and was to last six hours.  She had a court appointed barrister, Mr. Channell, to defend her. The prosecution brought in evidence of the widespread abuses of Louisa and of previous threats to kill her. A local doctor who had examined Louisa at the Ship Inn told the court that the girl had died from drowning but that he had found no marks of violence on her body.  Mr. Channell suggested to the jury that some of the witness evidence against Louisa, whilst not actually lies, may well have been exaggerated, but made little of the injuries sustained in the accident with the horse and cart and the effect of them on her mental and physical health, nor of the doctor’s findings of no marks of violence on Louisa’s body.  Frances clung to her defence of the two of them being frightened by the horse and of Louisa falling into the water, from where she claimed she had tried to rescue her. Mr. Justice Byles made a careful summing up and told the jury that they were to give Francis the benefit of the doubt if they were not wholly satisfied with the largely circumstantial evidence against her.  All of this was rejected by the jury, after just twelve minutes of deliberation. Francis had shown an interest in the proceedings and particularly in the judge’s summing up but was calm when she was sentenced to death and walked unaided from the dock.

In the condemned cell, she confessed the murder to Reverend Fraser.  She was visited twice by William whilst here and on both occasions they quarrelled over his relationship with her younger sister, which he strongly denied at the first meeting although he admitted it at the second. She was also visited by her parents and Emma.  She frequently became hysterical while awaiting her death and this behaviour continued until the moment she was hanged.

The execution was set for midday on Thursday the 2nd of April and William Calcraft again officiated  The gallows that had been used to execute Ann Lawrence the year before was again erected for the hanging outside the main gate in County Road.

Around noon the under sheriff of the county, the chaplain, Calcraft and the other prison officers formed up outside her cell and Calcraft went in to pinion her, with a strap around her body and arms at elbow level and another around her wrists.  She was then led out across the yard to the main gate which opened to reveal the gallows. Frances had to be helped up the steps onto the platform and held on the trapdoors by two warders where she prayed intently while Calcraft made the final preparations. Her last words were “Lord Jesus forgive me”. With that Calcraft released the trap and she dropped some eighteen inches, struggling hard for two or three minutes, writhing in the agonies of strangulation. A well behaved, but quite small crowd estimated at 2,000 people, a lot of them women, had come to watch her final moments although they could only see the top half of her body above the platform. Her body was left hanging for an hour before being taken down and buried in an unmarked grave within the prison.  There was some sympathy for Frances in the press and amongst the public.  The Times commented on the way William had treated her and the fact that he had deserted her in prison and taken up with her sister.  It was reported that an effigy of him was burned in Hythe after the execution.

On the 29th of May 1868 Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Within Prisons Bill ending fully public hanging.  Six more men were to die in public before this Act came into force.  The last of these was Michael Barrett who was hanged at Newgate on the 26th of May for his part in the Fenian bomb outrage in Clerkenwell.

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