(Detail from the image by William Hogarth – The Four stages of Cruelty : The Reward for Cruelty, 1751)
In 1831 between 8,000 and 9,000 people – mostly members of the fair sex and fashionably dressed – gathered outside Maidstone Prison to witness the hanging of 14 year old John Amy Bell. He had pleaded guilty to murdering Richard Taylor (13) just outside Rochester.
Richard Taylor, from Strood, had been sent to Aylesford by his sick father to collect 9s (45p) [benefit] from the Relieving Officer. On his way home Richard was murdered in woodland near to what is now Rochester airport, and robbed of the money he was carrying. The murder was brutal. Richard who was described as a ‘delicate creature’ had his throat cut and possibly his left hand cut off – he had been told to hide the money he was carrying inside a mitten.
John was arrested for the crime, admitted his guilt and was sent for trial.
At this time people charged with a criminal offence were not automatically represented in court. They therefore had no one to professionally challenge the evidence or maybe submit a ‘plea of insanity’ – that could perhaps have been made in this case on the grounds that John had imperilled his life for the sake of 9s. The best the accused could hope for was that the jury would successfully recommend mercy.
After hearing evidence from a number of witnesses the jury deliberated, in their box, for a few moments. They found John guilty but recommended mercy for the “unhappy wretch, neglected by his parents, inured to habits of dishonesty and profligacy”. However the judge passed the death sentence saying the crime was so atrocious that the prisoner could not be shown any mercy.
When the death sentence was passed John showed no emotion. However when the judge decreed his body should be given over to Rochester surgeons for dissection, he dropped a solitary tear. Without a right of appeal the sentence was carried out a few days later.
Hangings at this time were a public event – an occasion for a local holiday. Apparently Thomas Cook even arranged excursions to hangings. In Maidstone hangings were until 1831 carried out on Penenden Heath – the last being a triple hanging carried out on Christmas Eve 1830. After this time executions were carried out in front of the new Maidstone Prison. This town centre location would have made attendance much easier.
The execution of John was carried out on 1 August 1831 in the front of Maidstone Prison. A rumour circulated that the execution was to be carried out at 8am and a large crowd of around 4,000 began to assemble from 5am. When it was apparent the crowd was expecting an early execution the governor of the gaol [jail] placed a board in the front of the gaol door stating that the sheriff would not make his appearance till a few minutes past 11 o’clock. This announcement occasioned considerable disappointment amongst the assembled throng but this did not prevent their attendance at the hour appointed.
At 11:30am the sole peal of the prison bell announced the preparations for the execution. After the rope had been placed around John’s neck he “exclaimed in a load clear voice Lord have Mercy on Us”. At the appointed signal the bolt was withdrawn and in a minute or two the wretched malefactor ceased to exist”.
The crowd that had assembled for the ‘entertainment’ would not have been disappointed. Not only did John cry out to them for their prayers, he dangled from the rope for up to two minutes before his life was extinguished. Putting aside the horrors he inflicted on Richard, the anguish caused by the delay, and the extreme pain and terror he would have experienced, before a cheering crowd, for what would have seemed an interminable time, was barbaric.
Charles Dickens lobbied for the ending of public executions. In 1849, after witnessing, along with 30,000 others, a hanging he wrote to the Times. He vividly described the execution and the actions of the crowds who had gathered to watch, and described the whole event as inhumane. However public executions continued until 1869 – after which they were carried out within the prison walls.
It was the Children Act 1908 that ruled that children under the age of 16 would not be executed.
Dissection of the human body was critical to the development of medical knowledge. In 1540 Henry VIII granted the Company of Barber-Surgeons the bodies of four executed criminals / year. This proved insufficient so the Murder Act 1751 mandated that all murderers should be dissected after their execution. This obviously advanced medical knowledge but it also added to the punishment as condemned prisoners feared and hated the thought of the public dissection of their body and consequentially being deprived of a grave. Although this legislation increased the supply of anatomical corpses it was insufficient to meet the need. This led to the ‘growth’ in grave robbing.