William Frederick Horry – England’s first ‘long drop’ hanging.

His name isn’t going to ring any bells with many readers, I know, but Horry (an otherwise unexceptional murderer) occupies a singular place in the chronicles of crime. Horry met, fell in love with and married wife (and victim) Jane in 1866 and the couple went on to run a hotel together in Burslem, Staffordshire while also having three children. Unfortunately William was both increasingly paranoid about Jane’s alleged infidelity. As time went on he also became increasingly drunk and abusive. In 1871 the couple split, Jane taking the children to live with Horry’s father (whose backing his daughter-in-law over his increasingly drink-sodden son probably didn’t help matters). Nor did William being banned from visiting his former wife and children due to his increasingly drunken, abusive behaviour when he did actually turn up.

Having sold the hotel in September, 1871 (being unable to run it properly without remaining sober, a state which he found increasingly elusive), been banned from visiting his ex-wife and children and feeling thoroughly betrayed by his father’s support for Jane and the children, it made things even worse when he found himself serving a short sentence for not paying maintenance for his estranged family. Now living in Nottingham, a desperate Horry made one final, unauthorised and unwelcome visit and pleading for a reconciliation. Jane turned him down flat. The stage was set for their final encounter.

Horry returned to Nottingham and straight back to Burslem having done a little shopping during his trip away. He returned carrying a loaded revolver and was about to murder his wife and seal his own (strangely willing) place in criminal history. He managed both, shooting her in the back and simply waiting calmly for her relatives to detain him. Handed over to the police, Horry’s fate was effectively sealed.

His trial began at Lincoln Assizes in the courthouse within the walls of Lincoln Castle, then also Lincoln’s largest prison. On March 13, 1872 the Crown’s lawyers opened the case for the prosecution. On April 1 he was convicted and the judge lost no time in donning the dreaded Black Cap (a square of black cloth or silk traditionally worn by British judges while passing a death sentence) and reciting what reporters then called ‘The dread sentence.’

“William Frederick Horry, the sentence of this Court is that you shall be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterward cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul…”

“Remove the prisoner.”

With a conviction secured, a death sentence passed and Horry (now racked with guilt) refusing to lodge an appeal, all that was needed was for the County of Lincolshire to find a hangman. Lincoln’s last execution, that of Priscilla Biggadyke in 1868, had been a dreadful affair involving the use of the then-standard ‘short drop’ method as exemplified so crudely (and cruelly) by the likes of William Calcraft. With that in mind, Prison Governor Foster and the County Sheriff exercised their right to appoint their own choice of executioner. Until the Prison Commissioners in London formalised the selection, retention and training of hangmen and made it compulsory for officials to choose them only from the ‘Official List’ local officials could appoint pretty much whoever they felt was best for the job. Which, with the Biggadyke disaster in mind and a fast-looming date of 9am on April 1, left them with few options. After some persuasion by a local tradesman, a shoemaker from the nearby town of Horncastle, they agreed to let him officiate in the hope that his fresh approach might avoid yet another botched job.

Enter one William Marwood…

Marwood was a risky choice for the job. Admittedly his sole knowledge of hanging was a lot of reading, he’d never actually performed or assisted at an execution in his life and his novel idea of using the ‘long drop’ method suggested by a group of Irish surgeons (a method never before used in judicial hanging) meant that Marwood’s first execution could easily be his disastrously-bungled last execution. But, pressed for time and with the memory of Priscilla Biggadyke’s botched hanging uncomfortably fresh in their minds, the local officials were hardly prepared to ignore even the possibility of something less gruesome than the ‘short drop’ method then in vogue.

The differences were immense, but so were the risks. If Marwood gave Horry too short a drop then the usual prolonged horror show would ensue, Horry taking up a half-hour to slowly strangle. If the drop were too long then the jolt when Horry reached the end of the rope would instantly decapitate him. The fact that Marwood was, practically speaking, a total novice made either option distinctly possible. But Marwood was engaged and, on that fatal day, was at Lincoln Castle to officiate as planned.

The ‘long drop’ is calculated precisely using a mathematical equation designed to apply just enough force to break a prisoner’s neck and also knock them unconscious. If done correctly death is as near instantaneous and painless as an execution can be. That does little (and often nothing) to ease a prisoner’s mental anguish but, all things considered, Horry didn’t have to descend into a pit of aclohol0fuelled paranoia and jealousy. If he hadn’t descended into that pit he wouldn’t have been about to descend through the trapdoors of a prison gallows and, thereafter, into the grave and possibly Hell itself. Wherever Marwood sent him, He intended that Horry should go there as quickly and with as little suffering as possible.

Having refused to appeal (and seemingly feeling he deserved his date with the hangman, albeit too late to prevent it) Horry spent his has last couple of hours writing a very penitent last letter and receiving the Sacrament from the prison Chaplain Reverend Richter who also accompanied him reciting the specially-bridged version of the burial service used for executions. Shortly before 9am Marwood entered the condemned cell and pinioned Horry’s arms. With two warders, Chaplain Richter, Prison Governor Foster and the prison surgeon in tow. Horry walked calmly and unaided to the foot of Lincoln Castle’s ‘New Drop,’ a purpose-built gallows similar to that at London’s notorious Newgate Prison.

As they reached the scaffold Horry turned to Governor Foster.

“Goodbye, Mr Foster. God bless you. God forgive my poor dear father. God bless my poor children.”

The execution party ascended the scaffold and, as Marwood strapped his ankles together, gently pulled the white hood over his head and carefully positioned the noose below his left ear Horry made one final statement, a brief prayer similar to that of the judge who sentenced him:

“Lord have mercy on my soul.”

At a silent nod from Governor Foster Marwood wasted no time in pulling the lever. Horry plunged vertically downward to the crash of the trapdoors and the sound of a dry branch breaking. It was his neck. Marwood had calculated the drop and positioned the noose perfectly and Horry would have been unconscious immediately and dead within minutes when he reached the end of the rope. The prison surgeon reported his death a virtually instant and without any sign of suffering on Horry’s part. Marwood had taken his entirely-theoretical knowledge and an untested method and proved both to be utterly effective.

It didn’t end there, either. Horry was the first of 176 prisoners to die at Marwood’s hands, almost all of whom died as quickly and cleanly as they could have done. Granted, the ‘long drop’ didn’t become the national standard until the mid-1870’s, but Marwood’s way was clearly the new and improved form of societal retribution. Always scathing of Calcraft’s crudities, when asked about his predecessor and whether Marwood was a hangman Marwood always said disparagingly:

“Calcraft hanged them. I execute them.”

Marwood went on to become something of a public figure. Widely known for his lethal sideline, he dispensed business cards and always called himself an executioner, never a mere hangman. He’s credited with devising the original ‘Table of Drops’ and with using double trapdoors rather than a single door to ensure the prisoner dropped cleanly to avoid shifting the noose and bringing slow strangulation instead of the now-famous ‘hangman’s fracture’ of the cervical vertebrae. Incidentally, medical professional often still call it the ‘hangman’s fracture’ long after Britain’s executioners (and the British death penalty itself) have gone the way of their deceased ‘customers.’

He even found himself immortalised in a popular children’s riddle of the time which went like this:

“If Pa killed Ma, who’d kill Pa..?” 


Horry’s case is featured in my e-book ‘Criminal Curiosities: Twelve Remarkable Reprobates You’ve Probably Never Heard Of.’

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