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The Times Report of the Last Public Hanging in England

The Times May 27, 1868.

The Execution of Barrett

Yesterday morning, in the presence of a vast concourse of spectators, Michael Barrett, the author of the Clerkenwell Explosion, was hanged in front of Newgate. In its circumstances there was very little to distinguish this from ordinary executions. The crowd was greater, perhaps, and better behaved; still, from the peculiar atrocity of the crime for which Barrett suffered, and from the fact of its being probably the last public execution in England, it deserves more than usual notice. It would be almost impertinent now to review the evidence on which Barrett was condemned. Probably in the history of criminal trials there is none which affords such proof of patient investigation, of long, anxious, and deliberate searching after truth. In fact, Barrett may be said to have had two trials if we include the supplementary one since his conviction to ascertain if there was a possibility of doubts about the verdict, or if there was any evidence which could strengthen his plea of an alibi. On both trials he was found guilty. The defence of an alibi is, of course, the best or the worst in the world. If established, it is final, but, on the other hand, it is fatal if the person accused tries to prove that he was absent from the spot where he is charged with the crime, and it is found on examination that he was in the very place and at the very time on the scene from which he strives to show that he was absent. This was the defence of Barrett, and it failed most signally. It is rare in the history of our criminal jurisprudence that Government allows a sort of special commission to inquire into the validity of the Jury’s verdict and the Judge’s approval. Still, in this case there were what may be called special circumstances, for it was urged that the truth of the alibi, if inquired into at Glasgow, could be more easily ascertained than in London. With a life at stake, of course no room was left for doubt. A most searching inquiry was made, and the result proved to conviction that Barrett was in London at the time he tried to prove he was in Glasgow, and that Barrett was the man who fired the powder barrel. He was brought from Glasgow “to do the job.” He sought to prove that he was in Glasgow at the time, and the evidence which the Government Commission elicited shows beyond a doubt that he was in London and at all the places where he was identified. It seems rather a failure of justice that only one man should suffer for a crime in which so many were concerned, and which brought about such a terrible destruction of life and property. But the same jury which acquitted the others convicted Barrett, and we need say nothing more to show the leniency which governed their decisions, and the scruples with which they admitted even possible doubts. Michael Barrett was left to die, and none who know anything of the private history, if we may so term it, of this plot can doubt that he deserved his fate.

The execution differed little from other similar exhibitions. On Monday the barriers were put up, and on Monday night a fringe of eager sightseers assembled, mostly sitting beneath the beams, but ready on a moment’s notice to rise and cling to the front places they had so long waited for. There were the usual cat-calls, comic choruses, dances, and even mock hymns, till towards 2 o’clock, when the gaiety inspired by alcohol faded away as the publichouses closed, and popular excitement was not revived till the blackened deal frame which forms the base of the scaffold was drawn out in the dawn, and placed in front of the door from which Barrett was to issue. Its arrival was accompanied with a great cheer, which at once woke up those who had been huddled in doorsteps and under barricades, and who joined in the general acclamation. The arrival of the scaffold did much to increase the interest, and through the dawn people began to flock in, the greater portion of the newcomers being young women and little children. Never were there more numerous than on this occasion, and blue velvet hats and huge white feathers lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death. The crowd was most unusually orderly, but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust. It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield—a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

Within the prison itself the attendant proceedings were divested of whatever public interest they might otherwise have had by an unusual arrangement to which the authorities, in the exercise of their discretion, had recourse, and with the view, it would almost seem, to baffle publicity while appearing to court it. One had better, however, narrate the circumstances as they occurred in the order of time, premising that for years the custom has been for the Sheriffs and Under-Sheriffs, with the rest of the authorities, and a few of the recognized representatives of the Press, to be present at the process of pinioning a convict about to be executed. At that supreme moment a doomed man has occasionally volunteered statements of more or less public interest, or has been led to make them, in reply to a question from some of the authorities as to whether he had anything more to say. Sometimes, but the occasions are rare, he has availed himself of the opportunity to cast aspersions upon others, who had no means of answering him, and to whom a certain amount of odium might attach in consequence; but, upon the whole, the balance of advantage has inclined in favour of the custom, and it has obtained at Newgate and in most other prisons for years. It had another recommendation. At such a moment, when a man was about to expiate a great crime by a violent death, and when no relative or friend, however dear, could be permitted to see or console him, there is reason to believe he has derived satisfaction from knowing and feeling that he was closing his days in the presence of humane men, clothed with authority, and disposed to sympathize with him in his untimely end. From that custom, however, such as we have attempted to describe and explain it, there was a manifest departure yesterday, for reasons known only to the authorities themselves, but in having recourse to which they are understood to have been far from unanimous.

The Sheriffs (Mr. Alderman Stone and Mr. MacArthur), with the Under-Sheriffs (Mr. Septimus Davidson and Mr. Roche), arrived at the prison shortly after 7 o’clock, and, according to custom, spent the interval until 8 in their official apartment connected with the Court-house. There they were joined by the Governor of Newgate (Mr. Jonas), the prison Surgeon (Mr. Gibson), and the Ordinary (the Rev. F. Lloyd Jones). A few representatives of the Press to whom tickets of admission had been given were also present. The convict Barrett had retired to rest about 10 on the previous evening, and, having spent a somewhat restless night, rose at 6 yesterday morning, dressed himself, and engaged in prayer. Shortly afterwards he was joined in his cell by the Rev. James Hussey, attached to the Roman Catholic chapel in Moorfields, who had attended him regularly since his conviction, and who remained with him to the last. It is understood that he received the Sacrament one day last week, and again yesterday morning. Towards 8 o’clock the Sheriffs paid him a visit, accompanied by the Governor, and then retired to a part of the prison leading to the scaffold, where the rest of the authorities and the public representatives had already assembled. By a predetermined arrangement, and contrary to the usual practice, the convict was not pinioned in the press-room, as it is called, but in his own cell, and, this process over, he was conducted to the drop by a private way, accompanied by his priest and attended by the executioner and three or four warders, the prison bell and that of St. Sepulchre’s Church, hard by, tolling the while. The Sheriffs and Under-Sheriffs, who, with others, stood in a group in a gloomy corridor behind the scaffold, just caught a glimpse of the doomed man as he emerged with his attendants from a dark and narrow passage, and turned a corner leading to the gallows. He was dressed in the short claret-coloured coat and the gray striped trousers, both well worn, by which he had become familiar to all who were present during his protracted trial. His face had lost the florid hue it then wore, and in other respects he was an altered man.

With the first sound of the bells came a great hungry roar from the crowd outside, and a loud, continued shout of “Hats off,” till the whole dense, bareheaded mass stood white and ghastly-looking in the morning sun, and the pressure on the barriers increased so that the girls and women in the front ranks began to scream and struggle to get free. Amid such a scene as this, and before such a dense crowd of white faces, Barrett was executed. His clergyman came first. Barrett mounted the steps with the most perfect firmness. This may seem a stereotyped phrase, but it really means more than is generally imagined. To ascend a ladder with one’s arms and hands closely pinioned would be at all times difficult, but to climb a ladder to go to certain death might try the nerves of the boldest. Barrett walked up coolly and boldly. His face was as white as marble, but still he bore himself with firmness, and his demeanour was as far removed from bravado as from fear. We would not dwell on these details, but from the singular reception he met as he came out upon the scaffold. There was a partial burst of cheers, which was instantly accompanied by loud hisses, and so it remained for some seconds, till as the last moment approached the roars dwindled down to a dead silence. To neither cheers nor hisses did the culprit make the slightest recognition. He seemed only attentive to what the priest was saying to him, and to be engaged in fervent prayer. The hangman instantly put the cap over his face and the rope round his neck. Then Barrett turning spoke through his cap and asked for the rope to be altered, which the hangman did. In another moment Barrett was a dead man. After the bolt was drawn and the drop fell with the loud boom which always echoes from it, Barrett never moved. He died without a struggle. It is worthy of remark that a great cry rose from the crowd as the culprit fell—a cry which was neither an exclamation nor a scream, but it partook in its sound of both. With the fall of the drop the crowd began to disperse, but an immense mass waited till the time for cutting down came, and when 9 o’clock struck there were loud calls of “Come on, body snatcher!” “Take away the man you’ve killed!” &c. The hangman appeared and cut down the body amid such a storm of yells and execrations as has seldom been heard even from such a crowd. There was nothing more then to be seen, so the concourse broke up with its usual concomitants of assault and robbery.

The body on being taken down was placed in a shell and removed to an adjoining building in the presence of the Sheriffs and Under-Sheriffs, the Governor, the prison surgeon, and the Ordinary. There the rope having been removed from the neck, and the leathern straps by which the legs and arms had been pinioned, the surgeon certified that life was extinct. The expression of the face was marvellously serene and placid, and the features composed to a degree irreconcilable at first sight with the notion of a violent death, though the lips and parts of the forehead were unusually livid. Towards evening the body was buried in the accustomed place within the precincts of the prison, in a grave upwards of five feet deep, in the presence of the Governor and other officers of the gaol. Barrett was an Irishman by birth, about 27 years of age, of a thick-set, muscular figure, rather below the average height, and with a prepossessing countenance. He was unmarried, and by trade a stevedore. Neither before nor after his conviction did any relative call at the gaol to see him, and after sentence he was only, or chiefly, visited by the Rev. Mr. Hussey, who was with him a considerable time daily, and by his counsel and occasionally by one or other of the Sheriffs. His behaviour in prison was uniformly becoming, and he bore himself to the last with great fortitude, submitting himself at the same time with affectionate docility to the exhortations of his priest, and gratefully receiving the consolations of religion. He was never unduly buoyed up by the efforts made out of doors to reverse his sentence, but rather welcomed the repeated respites as affording him further time to prepare himself for the worst, should it come to that. He died without making any confession of the crime of which he was convicted, so far as any of the authorities are informed. What he may have said to his priest, if anything, in reference to the murders may never be divulged. All that is known is that he gave him “immense satisfaction,” to use that gentleman’s own expression, by his humble and penitent demeanour, his extraordinary fortitude, and by the earnestness with which he strove to prepare himself for his end. Yet there was this peculiarity about him, as observed more than once by one of the authorities in his visits to him after sentence—that he never absolutely denied his guilt. On those occasions, whenever he referred to the crime, he always said he had been convicted on insufficient evidence, and that he was not guilty of murder.

Since the execution the police who have guarded the prison of Newgate for months past have been relieved. They were a body of picked men from the City force, and they patrolled the outer walls day and night. It was a duty in the last degree monotonous and irksome, but their incessant vigilance was never in the least relaxed. The police arrangements yesterday at the execution were simple and effective, and fully equal to the necessities of the occasion. A considerable number of special constables had been enrolled in the parish of St. Sepulchre, and were prepared to aid the regular force if required, but happily the necessity did not arise.

The Times