Frances Stewart – The murderous grandmother.

 

Fanny Stewart, as she was known, was the first woman in England to be hanged by the newly introduced “long drop” method when she was put to death at London’s Newgate prison on Monday the 29th of June 1874 by William Marwood who had succeeded William Calcraft.  It should be noted that her christian name was recorded as Francis (the male version) at her trial.

 

Frances was a forty three year old widow who was convicted of drowning her one year old grandson, Henry Ernest Scrivener after a quarrel with her son in law.  She lived with her daughter Henrietta and Joseph Scrivener at No. 4 Lordship Place, Chelsea in London.  Joseph had accused his mother in law of breaking the door of the hen house, which she denied and this led to an acrimonious quarrel, with Joseph telling Frances that she would have to go or they would.  On the evening of Tuesday the 28th of April Frances did leave and took young Henry with her.  She went to the house of a friend, a Mrs. Sparville, who put them up for the night.  Frances left with the baby the following morning telling Mrs. Sparville that she had not decided whether to return to Lordship Place.  In the event she didn’t and wandered the streets all day instead.  She went back to Chelsea in the evening and met a Mrs. Ireland who knew both her and Henrietta.  Mrs. Ireland took the exhausted Frances to her home and then went out to get some beer for them.  She asked Frances to take the baby home to his mother before she left later in the evening.  Frances told her that the baby was all right and that he loved his granny and she loved him.

 

Joseph Scrivener received a highly disturbing letter on the same evening suggesting that Frances had drowned herself and the baby.  The letter read “Joe, I have left Mrs. Sparville, if you or your wife had come there you would have found the child.  It is the only thing I can do to make your heart ache as you have made mine so long.”  Joseph immediately went to the police with the letter. 

 

Frances however was still alive and was seen on Friday the 1st of May in Great Queen Street where she pushed a note through the letter box of the house her younger daughter Caroline worked.  The note read “Come at once as I have done murder and I want you to give me into the hands of justice.”  Later Frances went to the door and spoke to Caroline who had not seen the note.  Caroline sent for the police and Frances told them that she had taken the child.

 

She was arrested and taken before a magistrate who committed her for trial and remanded her to Newgate.  However there was no body at this point to show that a murder had occurred, only Frances’ partial confession.

The body of Henry was found a week or so later in the river Thames by a waterman called Edward King near Millwall Dock.  There were no external injuries and the cause of death was drowning.

Frances was visited by her daughter in Newgate who told her more of the circumstances of the boy’s death.  She said that she had been crossing Albert Bridge over the river Thames but could not find anywhere to sit down.  She lent against the bridge parapet and lost her grip on Henry who fell into the river below.

 

Her trial, held at the Old Bailey on Wednesday the 10th of June was a relatively brief affair and the jury quickly convicted her.  However in view of her age, her recent widowhood, her known love for the baby boy plus the provocation of her son in law, they added a recommendation to mercy.  Once again this was not apparently endorsed by the trial judge, even though he was reported as saying that she “had committed the act under some perversity of mind”. Sir Richard Asheton Cross, the Home Secretary, saw no reason to interfere with the course of the law in this rather sad case. 

 

After the ending of public executions some prisons had constructed executions sheds within one of the prison’s yards as was the case at Newgate.  (Click here for photo) Frances was to be the first woman to be hanged within this shed and the first woman to be hanged by William Marwood.  On the morning of her death she was pinioned in the condemned cell and then led in a procession of two matrons, the under sheriff and the chaplain to the gallows.  Here Marwood made the necessary preparations and operated the trap doors.  According to a report from the Echo newspaper he bungled the execution by not tightening the noose sufficiently and she struggled somewhat.  Whether this is actually true we cannot know.  Reporters were not actually allowed inside the shed and had to watch the proceedings from outside.  However in evidence to the Aberdare Committee, Mr. Leonard Ward, the then Chief Warder at Newgate reported that Frances turned her head at the last moment and thus altered the position of the eyelet to the back of her neck but that she still died instantly. The entrance to the shed had two pairs of half doors and only the upper pair were left open after the prisoner and officials had entered.  Thus with a long drop all that would be seen was a taught rope hanging down from the beam, the prisoner’s body would have been completely below the level of the trap doors.

The body was still left on the rope for an hour to ensure total death, before being taken down for inquest and burial within the prison.

 

This case did not attract great publicity at the time and Madame Tussaud’s did not feel the need to make a wax effigy of Frances for the Chamber of Horrors as they did with more heinous murderers. 

 

William Marwood was to hang eight more women, these being Mary Williams at Liverpool on the 31st of August 1874, Elizabeth Pearson at Durham on Monday August the 2nd 1875, Selina Wadge at Bodmin on August the 15th 1878, Catherine Churchill at Taunton on May the 26th 1879, Catherine Webster at Wandsworth on July the 29th 1879, Annie Tooke at Exeter on August the 11th 1879 and finally, poisoner, Louisa Jane Taylor at Maidstone on January the 2nd 1883,

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