On This Day in 1901 – Marcel Faugeron at Newgate Prison, Henry Pierrepoint’s First Hanging.


 

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Henry Pierrepoint.

Hangings weren’t unusual at London’s Newgate Prison. In Fact, in 1901 a British prisoner was hanged every few weeks on average. The execution of French Army deserter and murderer Maurice Faugeron, however, was a singular event in British penal history. It was the first time the name Pierrepoint drew attention

Not Albert, nor Albert’s uncle Thomas, but Albert’s father Henry. Henry would assist then-chief executioner James Billington at 8am when Faugeron paid his debt to society. A few years later Thomas joined the elite yet shadowy world of England’s executioners. Many years later Thomas, Albert joined what he called his ‘craft,’ but Henry would be the first. Faugeron would be the very first of what the Pierrepoints came to call their ‘customers.’ From 1901 until 1956 there would be hundreds more.

Between 1901 and 1956 these three men would officiate at 836 executions over 55 years. Murderers, traitors, Nazis, serial killers, spies and mass-murderers would meet their end at the hands of the Pierrepoint clan and Marcel Faugeron, though he didn’t know it, would be the first of their number.

Faugeron had been convicted of murdering watch-maker Hermann Jung, a member of the Swiss Benevolent Society and known to have lent money to Faugeron. It was also claimed that many of Jung’s associates were anarchists and subversives and that Faugeron was one of them. Faugeron himself claimed self-defence, alleging that Jung had threatened him and tried to force him to assault Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain.

Jung’s wife identified Faugeron at his trial. Having first heard the two men arguing she then saw Faugeron, who she’d met several times, fleeing the scene of the crime. It was also Matilda Jung who found her husband dead, stabbed several times. Brought before Mr. Justice Bigham, Faugeron was swiftly convicted and condemned. Donning his Black Cap, Bigham recited the death sentence in French for the non-English-speaking Faugeron.

Bigham, as was the custom, finished reciting the death sentence with the words: “And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

Faugeron responded defiantly in his native tongue:

“I hope so. If that is what Justice is in this country I hope I shall have better Justice in the next world!”

His defiance did him no good. The authorities had little time for murderers, especially those suspected of having the wrong political leanings. As was entirely expected, Faugeron’s appeal was denied and the Home Secretary didn’t issue him a reprieve. Lodged in the condemned cell at Newgate Prison, Faugeron awaited 8am on November 19, 1901. Chief executioner James Billington would push the lever, Henry Pierrepoint would inaugurate the now-infamous family tradition.

Henry had always had a dark interest in executions and was keen to become an executioner. At A time when most people were born, lived, worked and died without ever leaving their hometown, the chance to travel the country was incredibly attractive. His travel expenses would be covered and so would his accommodation. The chance to supplement his income with semi-regular fees also proved too much for him to resist.

Arriving at Newgate the day before, Billington and Pierrepoint prepared and tested the gallows. The rope held a sandbag filled with sand weighing the same as Faugeron. It was left to hang overnight to remove any stretch. The drop was precisely calculated for Faugeron’s weight and build. Drop him the right distance and his neck would break instantly. Drop him too far and he’d be decapitated. Drop him too short and he could strangle for up thirty minutes before finally dying. Nothing was to be left to chance. Everything had to go perfectly. It couldn’t have eased Pierrepoint’s nerves, let alone Faugeron’s.

Though it was Henry’s first execution Newgate wasn’t unfamiliar to him, having completed his training there earlier that year. As senior hangman Billington would occupy Newgate’s ‘Hangman’s Room.’ With the initials of previous hangmen, some long dead, carved into the wooden wall timbers, Billington was comfortable. Pierrepoint, who as a mere assistant slept in the second condemned cell next door to Faugeron, had a far more uncomfortable time.

The door between Faugeron’s cell and Pierrepoint’s had a spyhole and, peering through it, Pierrepoint saw something very unsettling. The neighbouring Church of St. Sepulchre’s clock chimed every hour on the hour. Several times Pierrepoint looked silently through the spyhole into the neighbouring cell. With every hour Faugeron, chain-smoking through his last night, gestured to the two warders on condemned cell duty.

As the clock chimed the hour Faugeron pointed skywards, counting up to eight with his fingers. Despite not speaking English his meaning was perfectly clear to his guards and, unknown to him, his debutant executioner watching silently only feet away. At Newgate executions were always carried out at eight in the morning. Marcel Faugeron knew it and so did Henry Pierrepoint. It would be a first for both of them. Billington, a highly experienced executioner, probably slept better than both of them.

At 7am the final preparations began. Faugeron was given a hearty breakfast and allowed a final walk outdoors in the November dawn. While Faugeron was distracted Billington and Pierrepoint reset the trapdoors and prepared the rope, ensuring that the drop would be exact when Billington pushed the lever. The end, when it came, was precise, swift and clinical, but not brutal.

Just before eight the execution team assembled outside the condemned cell. Billington, Pierrepoint, Prison Governor Millman, Newgate’s resident doctor Dr, Scott, the Under-sheriff of London Kymaston Metcalfe and several warders watched Millman, awaiting the sound of St. Sepulchre’s clock and Millman’s silent signal. As the clock began to chime the cell door was opened.

Faugeron, nervous but entirely in control, had his arms strapped behind his back. Escorted by two warders, one on each side, he began his brief final walk to the execution shed. As he reached the shed its doors swung open, revealing for the first time where he was to die. Placed on the exact centre of the trapdoors, Faugeron’s last sight was of Billington drawing the white hood (traditionally called the ‘cap’) over his head. His last sensations were of Pierrepoint bobbing down behind him and drawing a leather strap around his legs and feeling Billington’s noose drawing snugly around his neck. The second Billington saw all was ready he immediately pushed the lever.

Marcel Faugeron was dead.

Dr. Scott immediately felt for a pulse. Not Faugeron’s, but Pierrepoint’s. He listened for a few seconds then, satisfied that Pierrepoint’s nerves weren’t too rattled, said simply:

“You’ll do.”

It was almost Newgate’s last hanging. Already slated for demolition, Newgate’s gallows doors dropped for the last time on May 6, 1902, after which the gallows beam was removed and re-installed at Pentonville. It later hanged Doctor Crippen and numerous others. Woolfe was the last of 1169 people to be executed at Newgate.

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John Ellis.

Pierrepoint was, by his own admission, remarkably unruffled now that the job was safely done. The first of his 105 executions had gone according to plan. He’d been nervous during Faugeron’s final hours, but that was yesterday. Until the execution of Frederick Foreman at Chelmsford Prison on July 14, 1910 Henry Pierrepoint would officiate at 105 hangings, but at Chelmsford his career ended after a brawl with assistant (and later chief) executioner John Ellis. For arriving drunk and assaulting Ellis the Prison Commissioners removed him from the official List. Ellis, later to become chief executioner himself, earned Henry’s lasting enmity as a result. When Ellis took his own life in 1931 Henry’s son Albert recalled him saying:

“He should have done it years ago. It was impossible to work with him!”

Before his removal Henry brought brother Thomas into what the Pierrepoints called their ‘craft.’ Tom would be involved in 296 executions. His first was assisting Henry when they hanged Harold Walters at Wakefield Prison on April 10, 1906, his last that of John Caldwell who he hanged for murdering retired Detective Sergeant James Straiton at Barlinnie Prison on August 10, 1946.

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Uncle Tom and ‘Our Albert.’

The most famous Pierrepoint was Albert. Albert debuted at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin on December 23, 1932, assisting his Uncle Tom in hanging murderer Patrick McDermott. Albert and his Uncle Tom would perform hundreds of hangings together. McDermott would be the first of Albert’s 435 executions ending with Norman Green on July 27, 1955. Albert hanged some of the 20th century’s most notorious criminals including over 200 Nazi war criminals, ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ John George Haigh, John Christie of 10 RIllington Place, Ruth Ellis (britain’s last woman to hang) and Michael Manning (Ireland’s last execution). He resigned early in 1956 in a dispute over fees.

Henry’s first boss James Billington died shortly after executing Faugeron. His final execution involved hanging a personal friend, Irishman Patrick McKenna at Strangeways Prison on December 3, 1901. It was only Henry’s second execution, but also his first time pushing the lever. This time Billington would be assisting him. Already seriously ill with bronchitis, Billington managed to do the job but, as he was leaving, he remarked to Pierrepoint;

“I wish I’d never have come.”

James Bilington died on December 13, only 10 days later.

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Albert Pierrepoint – Master Hangman.


 Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

.Public Executioner. It’s not what you’d call an everyday profession. Unusual? Certainly. Skilled? Absolutely. Dark and scary? Well, it depends on why you fancy the job, really. But it’s certainly not the sort of work that most people would consider a life’s ambition or the family business unless you happen to be Albert Pierrepoint. Albert really wanted the job and even wrote a school essay on how much he fancied doing it, possibly because his uncle and father were hangmen as well and he ended up working with his uncle quite a few times. Albert ended up having legally killed more people (at least 435 men and 17 women) than any half-dozen British serial killers combined and then, having ‘topped’ that many people (as he so quaintly put it) the ‘Master Hangman’ (as he so modestly called himself) had a sudden revelation that killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong slightly failed any semblance of logic or common sense. Which was bit late for him (after 25 years in the job) and ever so slightly late for the 450 or so people that dear Albert referred to as his ‘customers’ (although the complaints department phone never rang, for some reason utterly unrelated to their all being dead).

 The 'Execution Box' containing the tools of Albert's grisly trade.

The ‘Execution Box’ containing the tools of Albert’s grisly trade.

For our diminutive death merchant (he was a little chap, only about five feet and six inches tall) stringing people up wasn’t a sordid, grim, depressing affair that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It was a skilled and potentially dangerous ‘craft’ at which he liked to excel with his speed and skill. British hangmen had an unofficial competition to hold unofficial records for the fastest and cleanest killings possible. Sort of a ‘Death Race’ if you like. Albert managed to ‘top’ his rivals (not literally) when he executed a prisoner and took only 7 seconds from start to finish. 7 seconds. Not even long enough to say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Pierrepoint’ before his latest dance partner was doing the hangman’s hornpipe before a bevy of (somewhat stunned) local dignitaries. Still, it was Albert’s job to make things go with a swing, when you think about it.

 Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Albert was always somewhat irked by the miserly pay for what he considered a skilled and potentially dangerous profession. The pay for the job was, frankly, lousy. It was a small amount that was only paid half before a job and half after and if a prisoner’s sentence was commuted then the executioners weren’t paid anything at all, not even travel expenses. Albert often went from one end of the UK to another and came home penniless and that was why he quit the job in 1956, leaving the authorities to go hang, as it were. It didn’t matter to the powers-that-be that their master butcher ended up out of pocket, just as long as they saved some cash as well as saving a prisoner’s neck (literally).

 You weren't paid a thing if they didn't have to swing.

You weren’t paid a thing if they didn’t have to swing.

Still, Albert’s job did have its lighter side. He owned a pub when he wasn’t travelling round the country performing his famous rope trick and it had an amusingly appropriate name all things considered. His pub was named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, something Albert had made a career out of. It’s even said there was an appropriate sign dangling over the beer pumps, presumably for the benefit of more tardy customers, which read ‘No Hanging Round the Bar.’

 Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert even found time to become an unwilling celebrity. He’d always kept his ‘craft’ a secret from anybody who didn’t absolutely need to know (it tends to invite a certain amount of unhealthy curiosity when you say you kill people for a living, after all). But his best efforts to stay out of the limelight ended courtesy of World War Two when it was publicly announced that he’d be popping over to Germany to perform his rope trick on over 200 Nazis. Not surprisingly in 1945 this made him a pretty popular chap all round. His amusingly-named pub did more business than ever as voyeurs turned up in droves just to look at him, get their photos taken with him, buy him pints of beer (which he kept behind the bar and sold back to other customers) and simply so they could say they’d shaken hands with the ‘Genial hangman’ as he became known.

Albert resigned in 1956 in a dispute over money. As usual, he’d been engaged to execute Thomas Bancroft, a murderer of no particular note, gone to Walton Prison at his own expense and then Bancroft was reprieved with only 12 hours to spare. Albert, tired of being stuck with travel and hotel bills, demanded that his superiors pay his expenses and they refused. So he quit as he’d rather be dropping convicts than dropping cash every time an inmate’s lawyer managed to get them off. His bosses begged and pleaded (they didn’t have anyone else who could do the job as well as Albert and you could call him ‘Top of the drops’ really) but he held firm and even refused their oh-so-kind invitation to go back on their list and continue providing cut-price carnage on their behalf. He finally turned against his former occupation (a bit late for himself and certainly far too late for 450 convicts) and later said that the death penalty achieved nothing but revenge.

Which was nice…

Trial Watchers – A Strange Breed.


1912: Poisoner Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Mr. Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of a British judge passing a death sentence.
1912: Poisoner Frederick Seddon being sentenced to death by Mr. Justice Bucknill. This is the only known photograph of a British judge passing a death sentence.

“Prisoner at the Bar, the sentence of this court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And that afterwards your body shall be 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…”

Frederick Seddon heard this sentence in 1912 and was hanged a few weeks later. Doubtless, he wasn’t happy to hear it. The trial judge, Mr. Justice Bucknill, was a kindly man by the standards of British judges. He had no relish for passing death sentences, unlike some of his colleagues, and as soon as he’d finished he removed the ‘Black Cap’ traditionally worn during death sentences as a gesture of mourning for the newly-condemned and rushed from the court in tears.

Seddon hadn’t come to hear it. His lawyer didn’t want to hear it and the judge didn’t want to pass it, but there was a percentage of attendees in the public gallery who probably had come to enjoy a genuine life-or-death drama and possibly in the hope of seeing Seddon condemned to hang. They were the trial watchers.

As a pastime, trial watching is nothing new. You might ask what would make people who have no personal or professional connection with a court case bother turning up and cramming the public gallery, but people have been doing so not for decades or centuries, but for millenia. In ancient Rome the Forum was the administrative heart of Roman life where issues were debated, rulings made and laws passed. It also contained the law courts where, in the absence of universally-applied criminal trials there were many private prosecutions. Lawyers held celebrity status in Rome and the public turned out in droves to watch trials, especially those involving unusually gruesome crimes or well-known public figures, as though they were attending the theatre. In a sense, they were, although its performers had faced worse than a bad review if they lost their case. At a time when finely-crafted public executions were the norm, using methods expressly designed to be as hideous as possible, the defendants were in grave danger. A prosecutor losing a case would likely find his forehead branded with the letter K, short for ‘Kalumniator’ or ‘false accuser.’ A defender losing a case might face the same punishment as his client. All in all, the law courts were a great show to attend unless you happened to be performing in it.. If you came merely to watch then you got real drama, not actors playing from a script. You got a taste of tension as the trial was in progress, even more tension as the citizens delivered their verdict and there was always a good chance of seeing either an ecstatic defendant walking free or being clapped in irons and led off to await a gruesome death. And then you could go and watch that as well, if you had the stomach for it. Many Romans usually did.

But it didn’t end there. Trials usually being public affairs, the highest profile cases always attracted increased attendance and still do. The worse the crime or the more famous the defendant, the bigger the crowds flocking into the public gallery. O.J. Simpson, Amanda Knox and Phil Spector all spring to mind.Mafia boss John Gotti may have been the archetypal celebrity gangster, but he wasn’t the only celebrity attending his numerous trials as Hollywood stars Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rourke and Jon Voight all turned up to watch. Some reporters more or less ignored the criminal aspect in favour of endless column inches on which stars had turned up, what they were wearing and why they were there. Gotti himself was the subject of almost daily reports regarding his clothes and hairstyle.

Look through the true crime section in any public library or bookstore or online sotre and you’ll find books devoted to famous trials such as the ‘Notable American Trials’ and ‘Notable British Trials’ collections. Go online and websites like http://www.wildabouttrial.com/ and http://www.websleuths.com/forums/forum.php carry live trial coverage and debate as their most popular content. You don’t have to make an effort to get to court to watch the show, you can do it from your own PC, laptop or mobile device. And many, many people do.

.  In the US trial watching has always been a popular pastime. In Britain it still happens, the celebrity of the defendant or witness and/or the gruesome nature of the crime being the yardsticks to measure likely attendance. But, which doesn’t say much for human nature, trial watching in person started losing its popularity after the abolition of the death penalty. After the last British hangings in August 1964 as five-year moratorium was agreed and in 1969 capital punishment for murder was abolished. Curiously, trial watching began to diminish as well.

Nowadays you could put some of that decline down to modern media, especially the internet, making it possible to follow a criminal trial from the comfort of your own home and (reporting restrictions and contempt of court notwithstanding) voice your own opinion from your own armchair. In that they’re not so different from their pre-internet predecessors. The 1920’s through to the 1950’s were what some people think of as the ‘classic’ era of British murders and crime in general, a kind of ‘Golden Age.’ Almost anybody could sit in the public gallery at a murder trial and if it was a high-profile case then there was seldom standing room. At the trials of notorious killers like ‘Doctor’ Crippen, George Smith of ‘Brides in the Bath’ infamy, Herbert Rowse Armstrong (the only British lawyer hanged for murder) and so on. Scheming husbands, jealous lovers, obsessed wistresses, ambitious business partners and suchlike all turned up as defendants, one of the distinguishing features of murder being that it can be committed by almost anybody and for almost any reason. A trial watcher in those days could have the drama of the capital case, they could see the lawyers duel with each other, the witnesses grilled, the defendants under constant strain and experience the heightening tension as the jury delivered their verdict.and, if they were lucky (and in those days they often were) the prisoner was guilty, the judge donned his ‘Black Cap’ and they got to watch them condemned to death as well. It was a vicarious thrill experienced from a safe distance.

People lined up in their hundreds to watch the action and discuss the cases as they unfolded. Even the least-educated, lowest-born trial watcher knew the names of the famous judges and their habitual demeanour. If Justice Avory or Hilbery were presiding then you knew the they would be icily severe, brooking no kind of breach of protocol or levity in their courtroom. Justice Mackinnon or Justice Bucknill, on the other hand, might be inclined to be less hard-nosed. Justice Darling might interject with tart remarks on a regular basis while Justice Shearman might decide (as he so often did) to marry his ironclad Edwardian morality with his judicial duties and sit on the bench glowering mercilessly at anything and anybody that looked they even might be of slightly loose morals. Which, as much as the rather weak and entirely circumstantial evidence, helps explain the highly dubious conviction and execution of Edith Thompson over whose trial Shearman presided. The famous lawyers such as Sir Edward Marshall Hall or Norman Birkett had their admirers and detractors as well. When a well-known defender like Hall was against an equally well-known prosecutor like Hewart or Goddard the anticipated legal battle was touted more like a heavyweight boxing match than a life-or-death criminal trial.,  The famous detectives of the time, Bob Fabian, Jack Capstick,  Fred Cherrill, Ernest Millen, Leonard Burt and others, were public figures whose cases were followed fervently by crime buffs. And the legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who made his name convicting Crippen and George Smith (both of whom were hanged) was as much a celebrity as any judge if not more so. Spilsbury carried enough weight simply by turning up that one of his more bitter critics acidly remarked that he could solve a case in days from start to finish, needing only the briefest assistance from the public hangman. High-profile murder trial in those days were as much a theatre of justice as formal criminal proceedings.

Even Britain’s executioners like the Billington family, John Ellis and the Pierrepoint family (especially Albert) attracted a certain fame and notoriety when arriving at a prison to do a job and leaving afterward. Albert Pierrepoint became so well-known that even after he resigned in 1956 (in a dispute over fees, not a matter of conscience) he spent the rest of his life signing into hotels under an assumed name. It seemed as though, British trial watches, now long denied the atavistic thrill of watching somebody tried for the life (and possibly going to watch in the hope of seeing their favourite judge don the dreaded ‘Black Cap’ and recite what was once called ‘the dread sentence’, seemed to lose interest as though trials had a little less spice to them.

It was probably the arrival of the internet that caused a certain resurgence in British trial watching. Looking at the various websites and news coverage, radio programmes, Tv documentaries and so on, it doesn’t look as though we’ve lost our taste for it. If anything, the web has made it possible to make this a global pastime. If I wanted to sit here in Truro and watch a capital murder trial in, say, Florida or Texas, then I could do that.It wouldn’t be the same as being there in person, having attended trials before now I’d certainly notice the difference, but the general principles remain the same.

All of which makes me wonder whether, despite the world having moved on a little in many ways since Roman prosecutors being branded and British judges having long abandoned the ‘Black Cap’ and the ‘dread sentence’, just how much have human beings really changed..?

Herbert Rowse Armstrong – A Poisonous Plymothian


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Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the only British lawyer to be hanged for murder,

 

Next up in a parade of deliberately-forgotten Plymouth folk is Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong. Retired Army Major, former MP for Plymouth, respectable small-town lawyer, embezzler, fraudster, repeat poisoner and one of Britain’s most notorious murderers. His case isn’t especially memorable in itself, bored and bitter husbands poisoning their wives is nothing new in the true crime trade, but only one British lawyer was ever hanged for murder and it happens to be this chap.

Now many wags, seeing that Armstrong was the only British lawyer to be strung up, might well be thinking ‘Well, it’s a pity more lawyers don’t hang, but at least they made a start.’ or some other macabre witticism. There are also those who believe Armstrong was framed and should never have kept his date with the hangman. If you visit the town of Hay-on-Wye where Armstrong did his dark and deadly deeds (and famous today for its international literary festival), there are still two distinct bodies of opinion on whether he did them at all. I was there a couple of years ago and feelings can still run high on Hay’s most famous (and notorious) resident.

Armstrong’s legal career began after graduating from Cambridge and his first law practice was in Devon, Newton Abbot to be precise. He was born in Plymouth on May 31, 1869 and his childhood home was in Princess Square. Like much of pre-war Plymouth it now no longer exists. What Hermann Goering’s lads couldn’t demolish in wartime mostly fell to the city planners after VE Day, hence the grey, uninteresting concrete jungle that passes for Plymouth city centre. But we digress…

After taking a partnership in a law firm in Hay, the Armstrong’s moved there and initially all was well. At least until the arrival of a certain Oswald Martin. Martin joined Hay’s other law firm and displayed all the conscientiousness, reliability and work ethic that Armstrong conspicuously lacked. With a lawyer available who actually made a decent effort, locals began deserting Armstrong and hiring Martin instead. Business began to slacken off and profits began to dry up. Armstrong needed money to cover his debts and to remove his troublesome rival. He decided on fraud to cover his debts and arsenic to resolve the Martin situation. Domestically, things were increasingly troublesome as well. His wife Katherine, also a native Devonian, was a domineering, quarrelsome, hectoring individual who ran the Armstrong home like her personal fiefdom. To Armstrong, who’d achieved the rank of Major and briefly served in World War One (while cleverly managing to avoid being under fire except once) she was a pain in the neck. She also had a considerable estate so, should she succumb to sudden illness, her husband would be her sole beneficiary.

Armstrong managed to cook the books at his law practice for a while to hide his financial woes, but time was running out. Having embezzled money held as a deposit for a local land deal Armstrong couldn’t then complete the sale because the deposit would be asked for. Stalling the buyer and vendor on completion exasperated both of them so much that they decided to abandon the deal and demanded the deposits be returned. Armstrong didn’t have the money he was supposed to be holding in trust.

First to suffer (after Armstrong’s defrauded clients) was his annoying, domineering, cash-rich wife. Katherine’s health began to fluctuate and she went in and out of hospital during 1921 and 1922.  She always recovered in hospital, but also always became ill while under Armstrong’s care. Armstrong, being a keen gardener, always had large amounts of arsenic in hand and, curiously, her repeated illnesses bore the hallmarks of arsenic poisoning. She died suddenly and Armstrong profited, buying him some more before being publicly outed as a crook in addition to a second-rate and lazy small-town lawyer.

Next on Armstrong’s hit parade was his professional rival Oswald Martin. Not long after the unfortunate departure of Katherine Armstrong (an event her grieving husband barely grieved over at all even in public) Martin received an anonymous gift of a box of chocolates. Not liking chocolates he gave them to his wife and his sister also ate a couple. Both Mrs Martin and her sister-in-law fell seriously ill. Then Martin (who’d been acting for the other party in Armstrong’s embezzled land deal and consequently had no fondness for Armstrong) received a sudden invitation to afternoon tea at Armstrong’s home. Armstrong gave him tea and made sure he ate a particular scone which Armstrong handed him rather than offering the whole plate with the words ‘Please excuse fingers.’ Not a memorable breach of etiquette, as a rule, but it certainly seemed memorable to Martin when he was suddenly and almost fatally ill. Again, his symptoms bore all the classic signs of arsenic poisoning.

The Martin’s all survived, but spent several months living in Hay (a very small place) with Martin’s office right across the street from Armstrong’s and with their would-be murderer not only making polite conversation on a daily basis but persistently inviting both Martin and his wife for another dose of his highly-dubious afternoon tea. The strain must have been almost intolerable. Bad enough for the Martins that they firmly believed Armstong was trying to kill them. Worse that they had to socialise with their would-be assassin as well.

Martin first alerted the local GP, Doctor Hincks. Hincks had treated Martin and Mrs Armstrong and Martin’s suspicions were matched by his own. They were more than matched when Hincks sent the box of chocolates to a private lab for a toxicology test. Lo and behold, a couple had been hollowed out, their fillings replaced with pure white arsenic and melted chocolate smeared over the holes. Enter Chief Inspector Crutchett of Scotland Yard…

Crutchett and his partner, Detective Sergeant Sharp, were hampered by having to work in secret. As a suspect in his wife’s poisoning (proved when her body was exhumed and tested for arsenic) and in the attempted murders of three other people, Armstrong was seen as the type who would either attempt escape or suicide if he knew Scotland Yard were on to him. In the end it made no difference. On New Year’s Eve, 1922 they dropped by Armstrong’s office, questioned him and then arrested him for the murder of his wife. And what did they find when they turned out his pockets before taking him away? A small wrap of special pharmacist’s paper in his waistcoat pocket. A wrap of paper containing a lethal dose of arsenic. When they searched his office they also turned out his desk drawers. Another, larger, package of arsenic was found stuffed inside the desk itself.

Armstrong was quickly tried, convicted and condemned to hang. His appeal failed and this truly poisonous Plymothian met his end at the hands of chief hangman John Ellis at Gloucester Prison on, with a bitter irony, May 31, 1923. It was his 53rd birthday.

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Like a certain Duncan Scott-Ford it’s unlikely that Plymouth’s boosters are likely to put this gentleman in the tourist leaflets. In fairness, he’s been dead since 1923 and his crimes were committed on the Welsh border so it’s no great surprise. That said, he was a local lawyer, Plymouth’s Member of Parliament at one time and, ironically, campaigned heavily on behalf of John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee whose failed execution gave him the unwelcome notoriety of being ‘The man they couldn’t hang.’  passage by murdering his wife and attempting to murder two other people, went from this world to the next without any mishap.

‘Doctor’ Crippen, Hanged Today In 1910. Innocent? Or Hanged For The Wrong Murder..?


The infamous ‘Doctor’ Crippen, actually a salesman of quack medicines.

Most people know the name. Most who know the name, know the story. ‘Doctor’ Hawley Harvey Crippen (actually a salesman of quack remedies) unwittingly became one of criminal history’s most infamous names. His wife Cora disappeared. Her remains were found beneath  the coal cellar of their home, 39 Hilldrop Crescent. Crippen flees to Canada with his mistress, Ethel le Neve. The Transatlantic pursuit of Crippen and his paramour, secretly recognised by Captain Kendall of the SS Montrose, whose radio message made Crippen the first murderer caught by radio. Crippen and le Neve arrested after Scotland Yard’s Walter Dew caught a faster ship (the SS Laurentic) and surprised them.

 

 

Talk of an abusive, unfaithful, drunken, violent wife whose conduct might have driven him to breaking point. Crippen’s illicit liaisons with his secretary and the final chapter on November 23, 1910, when Crippen walked smiling to the gallows. Ethel, having been cleared of any wrongdoing, disappeared into obscurity for the rest of her life. Well, almost…

But was Crippen hanged for the wrong murder? Was he even guilty? New forensic evidence doesn’t conclusively exonerate him. But it certainly raises questions about the original verdict, particularly the forensic evidence that saw Crippen receive his death sentence. According to leading forensic toxicologist John Trestrail (writer of the FBI textbook on poisons and poisoners) and DNA expert David Foran, the remains found under the coal cellar are not Cora Crippen’s.

Foran’s testing of mitochondrial DNA (only present on the female side) was based on an original tissue sample tested for a match with three of her surviving descendants. The samples didn’t match. This doesn’t automatically exonerate Crippen. After all, if the remains weren’t his wife then whose were they? If he didn’t murder Cora then did he murder somebody else? Was he tried, convicted and condemned as a genuine murderer, but actually hanged for the wrong murder?

Trestrail, a world-renowned expert on poisons and poisoners, has stated that this is the only poisoning case he’s ever examined where the poisoner also dismembered their victim. He bases this idea on the premise that poisoners have recognised the real principle of the so-called ‘perfect murder.’ A ‘perfect murder’ isn’t one where a murderer isn’t caught, it’s the murder that goes entirely undetected. Use a poison that mimics some disease or other and, barring any suspicions, it’s far more likely the death will be attributed to natural causes.

Poisoners usually grasp that, at least in theory. They don’t need to dissect their victim. Doing so would be pointless if they’re hoping to pass off poisoning as a natural death. Crippen, despite being one of the world’s most notorious poisoners, doesn’t fit the typical profile of a poisoner. If he was a poisoner at all.

One other complication arises. While the samples were DNA-tested they were also tested to establish the gender of the remains. The test used is cutting-edge and only performed at Foran’s lab. According to the test results, the remains were male. If the tests are accurate, the remains weren’t Cora’s and the deceased wasn’t even female (ruling out the theory that Crippen performed illegal abortions and something went wrong). Essentially destroying the prosecution’s case and the forensic evidence on which it was largely based.

Hawley Crippen, star of the world’s first trial-by-media and still resident at Madame Tussaud’s ‘Chamber of Horrors’, could be innocent of the murder for which he was hanged. One body of opinion, debatable though it may be, has suggested that Cora did indeed leave her husband for America as Crippen initially claimed. That said, even if she did that doesn’t resolve the question the human remains found in Crippen’s basement. If they weren’t those of Cora Crippen, whose were they and how did they get there?

If Crippen was wrongly convicted and unjustly hanged, it doesn’t just destroy the case against him. It cripples the reputation of the prosecution forensic expert, the ‘Father of forensic science’ Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury is still a colossus in forensic circles. His career was legendary. His case findings and working practices are still held up as examples.

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Sir Bernard Spilsbury, ‘Father of forensic science.’

Only relatively recently have Spilsbury’s skill, accuracy and reputation been questioned. Spilsbury mostly testified for the prosecution in murder cases, very seldom appearing for the defence. His evidence and stature meant that, merely by appearing, he could swing a jury’s verdict.  Another defendant, Norman Thorne, went to the gallows in April 1925 having declared himself a ‘martyr to Spilsburyism.’ Author Richard Gordon described him thus:

‘His opinions were so impregnable, he could achieve single-handed all the legal consequences of a homicide – arrest, prosecution, conviction, and final post-mortem – requiring only the brief assistance of the hangman.’

If he could be so far wrong in the Crippen case, his first big case and his passport to scientific and criminal legend as helping convict over 250 murderers, then how many other defendants might have died at the end of a rope for crimes they didn’t commit?

Trestrail also questions the behaviour of the lead investigator, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Walter Dew. The dismembered body reminded many Londoners of Jack the Ripper. The resulting media storm created immense pressure to catch the murderer. Even Home Secretary Winston Churchill took a personal interest in the case.  After Crippen’s arrest, Dew left Scotland Yard, becoming a private detective and writing the lucrative book ‘I Caught Crippen…’

Trestrail believes that another crucial piece of evidence (a pyjama top belonging to Crippen, found with the remains) was planted by Dew and his Detective Sergeant in an effort to close the case quickly. According to Trestrail, the press and public wanted a murderer hanged, so Dew (and possibly Willcox and Spilsbury) served them Crippen on a plate.

If Dew did frame Crippen, did he frame  the right person for the wrong murder? Was he so convinced of Crippen’s genuine guilt that he planted evidence for the forensic team to find? Did he frame an actual murderer at all, or simply serve up the most plausible suspect, not on a plate, but a pathologist’s slab with his neck broken?

William Willcox, chief toxicologist for the prosecution, found hyoscine in the remains. He also found it with unusual (if not suspicious) speed. Hyoscine has never been used in a murder case before or since, yet Willcox found it very quickly despite that. Crippen had purchased hyoscine from a local chemist before the murder. But why and how did Willcox even know to test for it? Why look specifically for hyoscine when far more common poisons like arsenic or cyanide were more likely suspects?

Crippen possessed hyoscine. Scotland Yard knew he possessed hyoscine. Willcox, with possibly dubious ease, found hyoscine. This when it would have been a highly unlikely poisoner’s choice. Granted, Willcox found a drug police knew was in Crippen’s possession, a drug then used in obstetrics and possibly by illegal abortionists. Was it standard practice to test for every drug in a suspect’s possession, or did Dew suggest it?

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Executioner John Ellis

Rightly or wrongly, Crippen went to the gallows at Pentonville Prison at 9am on November 23, 1910. 109 years ago today. According to executioner John Ellis, Crippen smiled as he saw the noose and quickened his pace as though he wanted it over quickly. He was buried, as was the custom, within the prison where he was hanged. Ethel changed her name and left England for Canada and then Australia, not returning for many years. ‘Ethel  always feared exposure as ‘Doctor’ Crippen’s mistress.

Near the end of her life she finally came back and, not long before she died, she asked a friend to take her to London to visit two places from her past. One was Holloway Prison where London’s female criminals are held, where Ethel herself was held before trial as an accessory. The other was Pentonville, where her lover smiled as he approached the hangman’s noose.