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
She was born Rhoda Leselles
in Sunderland and had been given a good education at a girls boarding school in
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.
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
Rhoda also received other replies to her
advertisement, including one from an Emily Stroud from Abertillery
who had had a baby on
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
"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 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
Rhoda asked the governor of
The gallows at
Around the same time on the Tuesday
afternoon that 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 6.10 a.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
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 7 a.m.
The execution had been set for 8 a.m. on Wednesday, the 14th of August, 1907, which was also 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. It was reported by a witness that Rhoda met her death bravely and died without a struggle - "We learn from one who was present that the culprit's demeanour prior to her execution was wonderfully calm, and she went to her death bravely. In fact, the officials of the prison were lost in admiration of her fortitude. "She displayed far greater control over her emotions than some men whom eye-witnesses of the execution had seen hanged.
"As she stepped out of the cell into the open air she gave one glance towards the sky, the last she was to give before being ushered into the presence of her Maker.” Her last words just before the lever was operated were “Lord Jesus receive my soul.”
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 , the event being photographed by the press and a few of the onlookers. The formal inquest was held later in the morning and Mr. Williams gave the cause of death as fracture/dislocation of the upper cervical vertebrae.
She was the last baby farmer to be hanged
and the seventh person to be executed at
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.