Strangely the last two women to be publicly hanged in
Twenty nine year old Ann Lawrence was separated from her
husband, Stephen, by whom she had a four year old son, Jeremiah, known as
Jesse. Mother and son were living with Ann’s boyfriend, Walter Highams, in their terraced cottage at No. 2 Ebury Cottages in Tunbridge Wells in
In the early hours of
Initially she told the constables that Walter had killed Jeremiah, who was his stepson and that this had caused her to attack him with a billhook (a small chopper with a hooked blade that is used for chopping firewood). She claimed that she acted in self defence as she thought Walter intended to kill her too.
Superintendent Embery arrived on the scene at about six thirty that morning and began questioning Ann about the events. She still persisted in the story that Walter had murdered Jeremiah and that she had attacked and had intended to kill him. Embery decided to arrest Ann and take her to Tunbridge Wells for further questioning. Enough evidence was unearthed to be able to charge her with both the murder of Jeremiah and the attempted murder of Walter.
Ann came to trial at
The prosecution case was opened by Mr. Sergeant Parry Q. C. and Ann was skilfully defended by Mr. Ribton and Mr. Ormerod who probed every avenue to try to get an acquittal for her.
The court heard evidence from Walter Highams, who described the frenzied attack on himself but had not witnessed the actual murder as he was asleep at the time. Evidence was given by the two constables and the neighbours. Dr. Richard Davy, the House Surgeon at Tunbridge Wells Infirmary, who had examined the body of Jeremiah and afterwards the clothes Ann was wearing at the time of arrest, explained to the jury that the pattern of blood stains he had found on the dress was consistent with what he would expect from slitting the throat of a child and the severance of the main arteries. The jury deliberated for three hours before reaching a guilty verdict. Before Ann was sentenced to death she was asked, as was customary, if she had anything to say and she said that she wished to make a statement. Once again she affirmed her innocence of the murder and told the court that her conscience was clear. The judge then passed sentence on her and she was taken back to Maidstone Gaol to await execution.
Another murderer was also convicted at this Assize, twenty
year old James Fletcher, a Derbyshire miner, who had battered to death prison warder
James Boyle with a hammer in
Ann was to be the first woman to hang at Maidstone Gaol. The last female execution in Kent having taken place over sixty years earlier when Elizabeth Barber suffered for the murder of John Daly at the old execution site at Penenden Heath on the 25th of March 1805. As was now usual, where a woman had been sentenced to death, a petition had been got up by well meaning local people to save her but the Home Secretary was unmoved by this and had to take into account the violence of the crimes.
Death warrants were received for both prisoners on Saturday the 5th of January and these were read to them by the Governor of Maidstone prison, Major Bannister. Ann told the governor that she hoped her execution would be carried out.
The scaffold was erected outside the main gate in
It is recorded that Ann slept well on the Wednesday night
prior to her execution and ate a good breakfast. She particularly asked that her baby not be
given to Walter after her death and arrangements were made for it to go into
William Calcraft arrived at the prison around on the
Ann’s husband, Stephen Lawrence had tried to gain admittance
to the prison and had to forcibly removed by the
police. It is not known whether he
joined the crowd to watch his estranged wife die. It was estimated that some four to five
thousand, including a large number of women, had assembled in
On the Sunday before her execution Ann had asked to see the governor, Major Bannister, to whom she gave a full confession and accepted responsibility for the murder. She told him that she could not remember how she had done it because she was so enraged at the time. She told him again that she hoped that she would not reprieved and that she wanted her death. She also apologised for having tried to incriminate Walter Highams.
Her motives began to unfold and she related that the main reason for both crimes was jealousy over Walter’s affairs with other women and her wish to avenge herself on him for them.
Ann had been working as servant when she first met Walter,
who after his wife had left him in 1864, had invited Ann to live with him. She decided to leave her husband, Stephen Lawrence
for Walter soon after Jeremiah was born.
The couple often rowed and it was usually over Walter’s other
relationship. Prior to Ann going to live
with him he had been having an affair with a young woman, one Miss Eaglington in the nearby
It would seem that Ann was genuinely sorry for what he she had done and that her execution bought her closure, rather than having to live in prison for twenty or more years with her conscience.