Sir Bernard Spilsbury

On This Day in 1934; The last British hanging witnessed by a journalist.


Wandsworth_Prison_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1030498

When Frederick Parker and Albert Probert mounted the gallows at Wandsworth Prison, they died never knowing they’d taken a singular place in Britain’s chronicles of crime. Theirs would be last execution in British prison to be witnessed by a gentleman (or lady) of the press.

Until the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 executions were performed in public. Anyone, be they prince, pauper, journalist or ordinary member of the public, could watch a felon pay the ultimate penalty. After 1868 executions were performed entirely behind prison walls, although reporters were still permitted to be present. Both hangmen and prison governors alike came to prefer it if they weren’t.

Prison staff came to loathe many reporters who witnessed executions, believing them to fabricate reports of doomed men struggling to the last and kicking and screaming their way to their deaths. This, as a rule, very rarely actually happened. In the eyes of warders, governors and hangmen alike, it appeared in the next day’s newspapers far too often. As former assistant hangman Syd Dernley described it in his memoir ‘The Hangman’s Tale’;

“In the absence of genuine information, the wildest stories were heard and believed. Gruesome reports circulated of nightmare scenes in which condemned people had to be dragged kicking, screaming and pleading to the trap, where the rope had to be forced round their necks and they were dropped to strangle, moving and twitching for minutes on end.”

Reporters weren’t officially banned to avoid accusations of censorship and officialdom muzzling the press. In practice, though, prison governors were able to say yes or no. Increasingly, they said no. By the time of Probert and Parker, Associated Press reporter W G Finch was very much the exception to a firm though unwritten rule. He would also be the last of his kind to receive such a privilege.

Finch was one of the doyens of British crime reporting. A member of a group known in the profession as the ‘Murder Gang,’ Finch made it his business to report murders, sometimes arriving at crime scenes before police officers. Like his fellow ‘Murder Gang’ members, he was as much tolerated as accepted by the police of the time. They couldn’t freeze out crime reporters, so they had to (sometimes grudgingly) tolerate their existence.

 

Parker and Probert themselves were otherwise unexceptional criminals. They’d assaulted shopkeeper Joseph Bedford while trying to rob his store on November 13, 1933. Severely beaten, Bedford died of his injuries the next day. Arrested a few days after the crime, Parker and Probert now faced trial for murder, then carrying a mandatory death sentence.

Bernard-Spilsbury-NLB

They were tried before Mr Justice Roche, legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury testified for the prosecution which was led by the equally legendary Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, KC (King’s Counsel). Against such heavyweight opposition the pair could only blame each other. This, of course, made no difference. They had gone to rob together, had killed together and so, in the eyes of the law, would be tried, convicted and hanged together.

Convicted on March 16, 1934, they stood before Mr Justice Roche as he donned the traditional Black Cap to pass what reporters often called ‘the dread sentence’;

“Frederick Parker and Albert Probert, you stand convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards your bodies 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 souls…”

Pierrepoints (1)

Their appeals proved fruitless and were denied on April 18, 1934. With that in mind, chief hangman Thomas Pierrepoint was booked to hang the pair. Uncle and nephew would work together so frequently they became known as ‘the firm of Uncle Thomas and Our Albert.’ With him were his assistant and nephew Albert (undoubtedly needing no introduction) and two additional assistants, Stanley Cross and Tom Phillips. Cross was an experienced assistant and Phillips even more so. Albert, however, was the relative novice that day.

Parker and Probert were only the sixth and seventh notches on Albert’s rope. Beginning with Patrick McDermott at Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on December 29, 1932 (assisting his uncle Thomas), Albert had only assisted at four hangings since then. His uncle, meanwhile, had been involved in almost 200 executions by that point. He would continue until hanging cop killer John Caldwell at Barlinnie Gaol in Glasgow on August 10, 1946. Caldwell would be Thomas’s 296th and final victim.

Parker and Probert died quietly and quickly at 9am, without trouble, dropping simultaneously was the fashion. As they had murdered and been tried together, so they dropped side-by-side. The presence of W G Finch, though causing no problems whatsoever with the hanging itself, was frowned on by higher authority. The customary placing of official notices on the prison gate, announcing the executions had been carried out, was undoubtedly the death knell for Parker and Probert.

It was also the end of media access to a British gallows. Executions would continue until August 13, 1964 when two inmates, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen died simultaneously at Strangeways and Walton Prisons respectively. Like Parker and Probert thirty years previously, Allen and Evans had committed murder during a robbery. With their deaths the Black Cap, ‘dread sentence’ and the death penalty itself became part of penal history.

 

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..?

‘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 gave Crippen 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’, might well be innocent.

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. Only recently have Spilsbury’s skill, accuracy and reputation been questioned. Spilsbury mostly testified for the prosecution in murder cases. His evidence and stature meant that, merely by appearing, he could swing a jury’s verdict. If he could be so far wrong in the Crippen case, his first big case and his passport to scientific and criminological 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. And Willcox, with possibly dubious ease, found hyoscine. This when it would have been a highly unlikely poisoner’s and forensic toxicology itself was in its infancy. Strange.

Rightly or wrongly, Crippen went to the gallows at Pentonville Prison at 9am on November 23, 1910. 103 years ago today. According to his executioner, hangman 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, not returning for many years. She 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 at the noose.