Reviewed by: Eduardo Reyes
Author: Martin Baggoley
In Surrey Executions, retired probation officer Martin Baggoley presents well edited information on all the criminals hanged in the county in chronological order.
As well as shining a light in to the lives of victims and felons in these accounts, the book gives a sense of the changing attitudes of the public and policy-makers to capital punishment.
When Surrey County Goal was built in 1799, just off what is now London’s Borough High Street, it was a thoroughly modern facility, replacing execution sites on commons and heaths.
In this version of ‘modern’, public executions were held on the roof of the Goal, with ‘Broadsides’, like theatre programmes, giving an account of the crimes committed sold to crowd.
Changing sensibilities moved executions within the prison walls 1867. They eventually moved to the more modern Wandsworth Prison in 1878.
At the start of the century, a sentence to be hung, drawn, quartered and beheaded could still be handed down. In one of the most interesting cases, in 1803, such a sentence was passed on army colonel Edward Despard and several co-conspiritors for high treason.
In this case Despard was imprisoned without charge for three years on suspicion of supporting Irish independence – treatment which seemed to drive him to directly support and plot for the cause on his release.
Lord Nelson appeared as a character witness for Despard, but it is his black wife who had a more interesting role, campaigning for a pardon.
This had some limited effect – the sentences were altered to hanging, followed by beheading, but only once the traitors were dead.
She later successfully asserted his personal right to be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, against strong opposition from the government.
Treason could be much less dramatic, though the sentence was still death, as recalled in the account of Daniel Buckley and Jeremiah Andrews, convicted of high treason and executed in 1827, for producing counterfeit coins.
The development of forensic examination is also evident in accounts like that of the conviction of Catherine Wheeler, executed in 1879 for the murder of her employer Julia Thomas.
Body parts disposed of in different locations, including a tied-up box thrown in to the Thames. Westminster Hospiral surgeon Thomas Bond examined the parts – some burned, some boiled, more found in a dung heap – to confirm they were from the same woman.
Reading between the lines of many accounts, poor mental health and depression seem to play a part in many murders of family members, including that of the final execution of the century – Robert Ward, who returned home ‘unwell’ from work, sent his wife out for a tin of salmon, then killed his two young daughters, before trying to cut his own throat.
‘I have done it and I want to die,’ Ward told his landlady immediately after the event.
For anyone with an interest in social history and the law, Surrey Executions is a consistently good read – enhanced by contemporary ‘broadsides’, illustrations and lurid crime accounts from the author’s own collection of such items.
And across the whole century, many accounts raise issues about crime, punishment and justice that have an echo in debates to this day.
Eduardo Reyes is commissioning/features editor of the Law Society Gazette.