Rhoda Willis – the last baby farmer to hang.

 

Leslie James was the last woman to be hanged for baby-farming and also the last woman to be hanged in Wales.  Only on the day before her execution did she reveal to her solicitor, Mr. Harold Lloyd, that her real name was Rhoda Willis, having been charged, tried and convicted in the assumed name of Leslie James.  Apparently her motive for this deceit was to avoid bringing shame on her family, according to the Western Mail newspaper.

 

She was born Rhoda Leselles and was originally from Sunderland and had been given a good education at a girls boarding school in London.  Around the age of 19 she met and later married Thomas Willis, a marine engineer from Sunderland.  The couple moved to the Grangetown area of Cardiff where Rhoda gave birth to a daughter.  Thomas later died of natural causes leaving Rhoda on her own to bring up their child.  She took up with a Mr. E S Macpherson, strangely another marine engineer and the couple lived together for some time in Paget Street, Cardiff, with Rhoda bearing him two daughters before they decided to separate.  Rhoda went to live with her brother in Birmingham and the two children stayed with their father.  She later returned to Cardiff and had begun to drink heavily and was generally going “down hill”.

In 1907 she was knocked down by a bicycle and sustained a head injury which necessitated a lengthy stay in the workhouse infirmary.  After her release she was convicted of her first criminal offence, the theft of a medal, for which she received a short prison sentence. 

 

The murder.
Rhoda placed an advert for a baby to adopt in The Evening Press and gave a Box No to reply to. One was received from a Mrs. Lydia English, whose sister Maude Treasure was pregnant. It was agreed that Leslie James, as Mrs. English knew her, would take the baby when it was born, which it duly was on the 3rd of June 3 1907.  Rhoda collected the infant the following day (4th of June) and the pre-agreed fee of £8 at Hengoed railway station and took her by train back to her lodgings at Portmanmoor Road, Splott, in Cardiff.  It was on this train journey that she later confessed to smothering the baby.  Rhoda wrote out a receipt for the money and Lydia and Maude had kept it.  She had also written another letter to Lydia English after the baby’s death in which she said "I am leaving for the North. Have just given baby a nice bath. She is lovely."

Rhoda also received other replies to her advertisement, including one from an Emily Stroud from Abertillery who had had a baby on the 20th of March 1907.  Rhoda took this child and kept it until early May when she dumped it outside the Salvation Army House in Cardiff, with a note claiming she was an unmarried mother who could not cope. Sadly, the baby was not discovered quickly enough and subsequently died eight days later as a result of suffering exposure. Another child was adopted on the 8th of May, but this one was able to return to its parents unharmed.

Her landlady, Mrs. Wilson, told the police that Rhoda had gone out on the 5th of June and had returned home drunk. She helped to get Rhoda to bed and noticed a bundle by the bed. When she opened it, she was horrified to find the body of a newborn baby girl.  She immediately sent for the police who arrested Rhoda at the scene.  She was charged with murder and remanded in custody to the next Glamorgan assizes.

She was tried at Swansea before Mr. Commissioner Shee on Tuesday and Wednesday, the 23rd and 24th of June 1907 on the one charge of murder of Maude Treasure’s unnamed baby.  She pleaded not guilty and claimed that the child had been ill and therefore died of natural causes.  Examination of the baby showed that it had been dead for between 12 and 48 hours when it had been discovered, but had been healthy at birth.  The prosecution showed that she had died from asphyxia, having been smothered, although the defence claimed that the suffocation could have been accidental.  This might well have been accepted and led to an acquittal had it not been for the letter that Rhoda had sent after the baby’s death.  Handwriting experts claimed that the writing on the note found with the dumped baby outside the Salvation Army House was Rhoda’s as it matched the writing in a letter sent by her to Lydia English and the receipt for the £8.  The jury retired at 2.45pm on the second day of the trial and took just 12 minutes to bring in a guilty verdict.  Commissioner Shee agreed with their verdict and told Rhoda "Don't let anyone suppose that because you are convicted of murder that nobody pities you, nobody prays for you. "I implore you to employ the short time that is left to you to prepare for death and for that mercy which you will undoubtedly find in Heaven, but which you cannot expect here.

"The sentence of the court upon you is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been confined before your execution, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul!"  She was then removed to the condemned cell at Cardiff prison, presumably because Swansea prison did not have female facilities.

 

Cardiff City Council decided to draw up a petition for a reprieve to be sent to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone.  Alderman John Jenkins MP promised to obtain a meeting with Gladstone to explain the Council’s position.  As usual, especially in the case of a woman, public petitions were got up for a reprieve.  Rhoda’s solicitor received 120 letters on the Monday prior to the hanging in support of a reprieve, including two from members of the coroner’s jury who thought that she was only guilty of manslaughter.  Herbert Gladstone was unmoved by this agitation and confirmed that the law would take its course on Wednesday as planned.

 

Rhoda asked the governor of Cardiff prison, Mr. H B Le Mesurier, if she could have a meeting with her former partner, Mr. Macpherson, which he allowed and sent Mr. Macpherson an urgent telegram telling him to come at once.  They had their emotional meeting in the condemned cell and she gave him a lengthy letter.  This letter was reported to be full of remorse and regrets but stated that she was resigned to her fate and hoped God would forgive her.  She also beseeched him to keep the details of her fate from their two daughters.

 

The gallows at Cardiff were housed in an execution shed in a small yard quite close to the main gate and totally hidden from view by high walls.  On the Tuesday prior to the execution the prison staff tested the drop and Henry Pierrepoint and his brother and assistant, Thomas tested it again upon their arrival at the prison in the early afternoon. Rhoda stood 5’ 2” tall and weighed 145 pounds, her drop being calculated at 5’ 9”.

 

Around the same time on the Tuesday afternoon as the Pierrepoint brothers arrived at the prison so did her solicitor Mr. Lloyd and a warder mistook him for one the brothers.  Mr. Lloyd had drawn up Rhoda’s will and had bought it for her to sign and be witnessed by the matrons looking after her.  She left what little she had to Mr. Macpherson to help him care for their daughters.
Late on the Tuesday evening Rhoda asked the Governor for another meeting with Mr. Lloyd and he was contacted and agreed to be at the prison at 6a.m. the next morning.  Rhoda made a full confession to him in the condemned cell in an interview lasting nearly half an hour.  She reportedly told him that she could not go to her death without a clear conscience and that she did indeed wilfully murder the baby on the train back from Hengoed, between Llanishen and Cardiff.  She told Mr. Lloyd that a sudden temptation (to kill the child) came over her and that she couldn’t resist it.  She asked him to let the trial judge and jurors know of her confession so that they would not have the execution of an innocent woman on their consciences. The chaplain of Cardiff prison, the Rev. Arthur Pugh, then gave Rhoda the sacrament.

 

To avoid any contact with the group of seven men and one woman who were being released from the prison on the Wednesday morning at the end of their sentences, the governor bought forward their release to 7a.m.

 

The execution had been set for 8a.m. on Wednesday, the 14th of August, 1907, which would have been her 44th birthday. She was still an attractive woman, her blaze of golden hair glinting in the morning sunshine as she was led across the yard to execution shed.  This was remarked upon by Henry Pierrepoint in his diary.  Present were the usual officials, including the Under Sheriff, Mr. T T Williams, the governor, Mr. H B Le Mesurier, the chaplain Rev. Arthur Pugh and the prison surgeon Mr. J D Williams.  As was usual with a female execution the press were not admitted.

A large crowd had gathered outside the prison to witness the official notices of the execution be put up on the prison gates at around 8.30a.m., the event being photographed by the press and a few of the onlookers.

She was the last baby farmer to be hanged and the seventh person to be executed at Cardiff prison which had been opened in 1854. 

 

Comment.

It is interesting and disturbing to note that Rhoda suffered a head injury and it is possible that this may have precipitated her criminal behaviour.  There is no record of any offence prior to this injury being sustained.  It was much harder to check for brain damage in 1907 and as Rhoda appeared sane there was no obvious reason to try. 

Although the Criminal Appeal Act had been passed earlier in the year it could not help Rhoda as it had bee decided by Parliament that it would only apply to persons convicted after the 18th of April, 1908. 

 

With special thanks to Monty Dart for providing contemporary newspaper reports of this case.

 

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