Susan Newell - a senseless murder.
Susan Newell was
born in 1893 and had lived a hard life in constant poverty. In June 1923, she
was living in a rented flat in
noted for having a bad temper and also had some history of violence. On
On the evening of
Janet carried John's body downstairs and put it in an old pram, which she had
found, still covered by the rug. With Janet perched on top of the bundle, they
set off together on foot towards
Susan had already worked out her story if she was caught and had primed Janet as well. She told the police that her husband had killed the boy and that she had tried to stop him. He had then forced her and Janet to dispose of the body for him. John was now also arrested and they were both charged with the murder.
Husband and wife came to trial in
The main and most compelling evidence against Susan was given by her daughter Janet. She told the court how she had come back to the flat from playing outside to see the body of John lying on the sofa and how she had helped her mother wrap it up. She also related to the court how she had helped her mother try to dispose of the body and what her mother had told her what to say if she was questioned by the police. Susan had given Janet a full story that she was to tell of how her stepfather had killed John.
defence, it was argued that Susan was insane, although this was rebutted by the
prosecution's expert witness, Professor John Glaister
who had examined her while she was on remand. Her counsel pointed out that the
killing was not premeditated and had no obvious motive.
The jury retired and reached their verdict in 37 minutes. Somewhat surprisingly in view of the weight of evidence, Susan was only convicted by a majority verdict. At least one of the jurors believed her defence of insanity. The jury unanimously recommended mercy for her.
Upon receiving the guilty verdict, Lord Alness sentenced her to death and she was taken back to
No woman had been hanged in
Secretary of State for
to be hanged by John Ellis, assisted by William Willis. (Ellis heartily
disliked executing female prisoners and there was some sort of incident at each
of the three he did. The other two were Emily Swann and Edith Thompson) He was noted for the speed at which he
conducted executions and it is perhaps for wanting to get the procedure over
with quickly and not wanting to hurt Susan he did not pinion her wrists
properly. Ellis decided to use the leather body belt that he had had made for
Edith Thompson which had an additional strap to go round the thighs. This was
necessary because as skirts got shorter over the years, there was concern that
they would billow up as the prisoner dropped.
On the gallows, Susan allowed Baxter to strap her legs and thighs without protest but was able to get her hands free from the loose wrist straps on the body belt and defiantly pulled off the white hood saying to Ellis, "Don't put that thing over me." Rather than risk another trying scene, Ellis decided to proceed without it, as the noose was already in place and so he simply pulled the lever and Susan went through the trap with her face in full view of the small number of officials who were present. She became the last woman to hang in
There seem to be few mitigating factors in Susan's case - both she and John Johnson were the victims of her violent temper. The evidence against her was clear and overwhelming.
There is the question of motive. John's father had told the court that his son wouldn't have had more than 9 pence on him at the time of the killing. So it seems doubtful that Susan killed him for money and rather more likely that she simply could not control her temper.
Perhaps John was somewhat cheeky and said something to Susan when he asked her for the money that made her snap. She was already in a "wound up" state after the rows with her husband and it is quite possible that, unwittingly, young John just pushed her over the edge.
Undoubtedly, there are a significant number of murders committed due to temporary loss of control by people who are sane on normal definition of that term. The M'Naughten rules, which came in to being in 1843, were the basis of the legal definition of sanity. They required that, for a person to be found insane, it had to be shown that they were, at the time of the crime, suffering from such defect of mind that either they did not know what they were doing or that what they were doing was wrong. Clearly Susan, at least knew, what she had done was wrong.
One wonders whether it was Susan's natural defiance that made her refuse to admit her crime, at least in public. Some people who have committed a dreadful crime go into denial and are unable to admit it even to themselves. Some know in their own hearts what they have done but see denial as the best way forward. Perhaps because they think it might win a reprieve or because they want their loved ones at least to believe they were innocent.