Emily Swann & John Gallagher - the Wombwell Murder.
It is amazing what a glass of brandy will do! A few minutes before 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, December 29th, 1903, Emily Swann was in a state of virtual collapse, moaning pitifully on the floor of her cell and yet, after a drink of brandy, she was able to regain her composure and walk to the execution room where she said, "Good morning John" to her hooded and pinioned boyfriend, John Gallagher, as she was brought up beside him on the gallows in Leeds' Armley prison. He wasn’t aware that she was there and was completely taken aback by this but managed to reply, "Good morning love." As the noose was placed round her neck, she said: "Good-bye. God bless you."
A grainy photo of Emily Swann and John Gallagher is here.
Emily was a 42 year old mother of 11 children. She was described as a stumpy little, round-faced woman, 4 ft.10 in. tall and 122 lb. in weight and from a "respectable" background. She was married to William Swann who was a glass-blower and they had a lodger, a 30 year old miner called John Gallagher, who was living with them at Wombwell in
It is probable that Emily and John were having an affair and it was common knowledge to their neighbours that William beat Emily up at times, although whether this was because he felt she was too friendly to John or for other reasons is not known. Domestic violence was not uncommon at this time anyway. Attitudes to extramarital relationships and wife beating were very different 100 years ago, and it is probable that William felt well within his rights to lay into Emily over her liaison with John.
There had been lots of quarrels and John had decided to leave the Swanns' household, although he was still a regular visitor. His visits always seemed to provoke another fight so he had resolved to leave Wombwell for good in June 1903 and move to Bradford.
came to a head on the afternoon of the 6th of June when Emily went into her
neighbour's house with a shawl over her head. She removed the shawl and showed
the neighbour her two black eyes and facial bruises, saying: "See what our
On seeing Emily's injuries, John, who was also at the neighbour's house, became instantly enraged and said, "I'll go and give him something for himself for that." Another neighbour saw him dashing into the Swanns' house, followed closely by Emily. John was shouting, "I'll coffin him before morning." The neighbours heard the sounds of a struggle from inside the house.
The noises of fighting went on for some 10 minutes, at the end of which John came out and went back to the neighbour's house.
"I've busted four of his ribs and I'll bust four more," he announced. A few minutes later he told the neighbour, "I'll finish him out before I go to
Ten minutes later Emily and John emerged from William's house holding hands and being described by neighbours as showing "every sign of affection." Behind them, in the shambles of the house, William lay dead. John and Emily calmly went over to their friends house and told them the situation.
The police had been sent for and when they arrived, they immediately arrested Emily. John, however, had escaped and went on the run for two months before finally being tracked down to the house of a relative in Middlesborough, having spent some time living rough.
John and Emily came to trial in October 1903 at Leeds Assizes. Their barrister admitted that the relationship between them was "of a misdirected order," but contended that John had merely gone to the house to remonstrate with William for his brutal treatment of Emily. Their defence insisted that neither John nor Emily wanted William dead.
However, the judge advised the jury that John's remark, "I'll finish him out before I go to
"As for the woman" continued the judge, "it is my duty to tell you that one does not commit murder only with one's hands. If one person instigates another to commit murder, and that other person does it, the instigator is also guilty of murder."
Not surprisingly, they were both found guilty of William's murder on what was very clear evidence, the jury taking only an hour in their deliberations.
Emily remained calm as the foreman of the jury gave the guilty verdict and when asked if she wanted to say anything before sentence of death was passed, told the judge, "I am innocent." "I am not afraid of immediate death, because I am innocent and will go to God." Both she and John were then formally sentenced to death.
was aware of some more evidence which it had been decided would not be put
before the jury because it would prejudice Emily's case. After the sentencing
and before he discharged the jury, the judge told them that when Gallagher was
taken into custody, he had told the police that Emily hit William and beat him
with a poker, and that he (Gallagher) did not touch the dead man, although he
was present. "That statement was not direct evidence against the woman but
from the proved position of the poker I am convinced that the statement was
partly true and that Mrs. Swann did really take part in the actual
killing." Understandably, this caused quite a stir. It was held up as an
example of the fairness of the judicial system which declined to take unfair
advantage of an accused person. It was also a matter for satisfaction to the
prosecution that even without that vital evidence, the jury had still been
convinced of the woman's guilt.
After she was sentenced to death, Emily seemed quite unperturbed and smiled and blew a kiss to someone in the gallery as she was led down from the dock.
They were taken from court to Armley prison,
Both were informed that would be no reprieves and that their executions would take place on
Apparently, John had not expected to be reprieved but Emily had hoped that she would be and had had major mood swings in the condemned cell where she was guarded by pairs of wardresses 24 hours a day.
Emily was greatly distressed and in a state of near collapse when the governor informed her that there would be no reprieve. Emily told her wardresses repeatedly that she was very worried about the disgrace she was bringing on her family. Emily's family made a last, forlorn appeal to the King for clemency but this was, as usual, ignored.
The only time Emily and John saw each other between sentence and execution was at the prison chapel service on Christmas morning where they were kept separate and not allowed to speak. It is reported that they both ate a substantial Christmas dinner.
At this time, double (and even treble hangings) were still allowed and it was decided to execute them side by side. John Billington was the principal executioner assisted by John Ellis.
They went first to John Gallagher who was quite calm and pinioned his wrists behind him. He was then led forward to the gallows by warders, while Billington and Ellis pinioned the now much recovered Emily, whom they escorted into the execution room flanked by two male warders.
John was already on the trap, surrounded and supported by warders, with the white hood over his head when Emily was led in. She would have been able to see the two nooses dangling from the beam. As she came onto the trap, Billington drew the white hood over her head and then she made her famous remark. A moment later the lever was pulled and they plummeted down through the trap together. The autopsy found that death had been "instantaneous" in both cases.
This was very much an "open and shut" case where the evidence against both defendants was strong and one which involved the doctrine of Common Purpose that was part of English law in 1903 (and still is now). The law states that if two (or more) people commit a crime, they can be held equally responsible where there was common purpose, i.e. they both intended or could have reasonably foreseen the outcome. This seems to have been true in this case - if Emily's words were accurately reported by her neighbours, it is clear that at that moment, at least, she wanted John to kill William and, therefore, would be equally responsible for the outcome. Her precise role in the actual killing is unclear, although it is probable that she did in fact take part as John had claimed.
It is unlikely that either John or Emily intended to kill William, because he was in the way of their affair, but rather because John lost his temper when he saw Emily's injuries and between them things went too far in the "heat of the moment." Today Emily might be seen more as the victim than she was then, but they would almost certainly still both be found guilty of murder because she played an active role in the killing and did nothing to restrain John.
The factor that makes this case unusual is the behaviour of Emily on the gallows. Normally not a word was spoken by the prisoner in this situation. They were not invited to speak and many were probably paralysed with fear or had retreated into a world of their own by the time they were pinioned and hooded.
Double hangings were ultimately abolished because they took longer to carry out, and this was felt to prolong the suffering of the first prisoner especially. After about 1920 where two or more people were to be executed for the same crime, they could be hanged in separate prisons at the same moment in time, as happened with Edith Thompson and her boyfriend, Frederick Bywaters. In this case, it was probably far less cruel, especially to Emily, to allow her to die beside John rather than make her suffer on her own. Edith Thompson may well have held up better if she had been allowed to be hanged with Bywaters.
This was the first of a trio of female hangings that John Ellis was involved in and all three had unusual features. Susan Newell refused the white hood and Edith Thompson's was very unpleasant and also involved the killing of the husband by the boyfriend. John Ellis had a very strong dislike of hanging women.