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A man prepares for his execution. Source: jahorimine / Adobe Stock

Stories from the Gallows: Executions Exhibition Reveals Tragic Tales of Death


The Museum of London Docklands is hosting Executions, a major exhibition exploring the capital’s history of public punishment, from the first recorded public execution in 1196 to the last in 1868. More frequent in London than any other British city, the capital (known as the City of Gallows) was host to some the most high-profile public executions, as well as those of thousands of unknown and forgotten Londoners. Bringing together the rarely told and often tragic human stories behind these events, the exhibition reveals the social, cultural and economic impact of public executions over 700 years.

John ‘Jack’ Sheppard, age 22: Robbery, 1724

Jack was one of London’s greatest criminal heroes. Celebrated for escaping multiple times from the notorious Newgate prison, he became a symbol of freedom for London’s working classes.

A talented apprentice carpenter, Jack fell into a life of thieving, reputably led astray by ‘bad company and lewd women’. Although eventually executed at Tyburn at the age of 22, his effrontery and skill in challenging authority ensured his story was recounted in popular books and plays for generations.

The exhibition includes a portrait of Jack in Newgate’s condemned cell by James Thornhill. Sheppard was already a celebrity before the artist paid him one shilling and sixpence to immortalise his fame. The portrait depicts a youthful Jack with the traditional shaven head of a condemned convict. His final procession from Newgate to the Tyburn gallows in 1724 was accompanied by a huge, sympathetic crowd. On arrival, Jack requested a printer come to the cart where he presented him with a pamphlet entitled ‘A narrative of all the robberies and escapes of John Sheppard.’ By the following day the pamphlet was being sold throughout London.

Jack remained a working class hero for over 100 years after his execution. The exhibition also includes etched illustrations by George Cruikshank for a dramatized novel on the life of Jack published in 1839. The author William Ainsworth confidently predicted: ‘The success of Jack is pretty certain, they are bringing him out at half the theatres in London.’ The authorities, however, attempted to ban the plays fearing their popularity would encourage a crime wave amongst London’s youths.

They had cause for concern. In the 1850s, Henry Mayhew discovered chapbooks recounting Jack’s exploits, similar to one on display, were hugely popular in low lodging houses where they were read aloud to illiterate youths. He interviewed 13 boys who confessed to thieving in order to pay for a theatre ticket for the play about Jack’s life.

‘Blueskin cutting down Jack Sheppard’. Illustration of Jack Sheppard’s execution. © Museum of London

‘Blueskin cutting down Jack Sheppard’. Illustration of Jack Sheppard’s execution. © Museum of London

Catherine Welch, age 24: Infanticide, 1828

Catherine was convicted of murdering her 6-week-old baby and burying it in a ditch. At trial her denial of giving birth was dramatically challenged by a doctor who had expressed breast milk from her. The jury found Catherine guilty on circumstantial evidence but recommended a reprieve from public execution.

Following her conviction, a member of the jury at her trial, wrote letters to the Home Office in support of a reprieve, one of which is on display in the exhibition. Her petition for mercy was not, however, successful. As a new arrival to the capital from Ireland she struggled to find influential supporters to sign her petition. Before her execution, just four days after her conviction, Catherine confessed murder to a Catholic priest. She explained she was unable to support her child after her husband abandoned her. She had married him when already pregnant by another man. When the baby was born, he realised he was not the Father and ordered she dispose of the child.

Under the terms of the 1752 Murder Act, Catherine’s executed body was taken to the Royal College of Surgeons where, as was traditional, a drawing of her head and shoulders, currently on display in the exhibition, was carefully composed. The body of a woman who had recently given birth was particularly prized by the surgeons as it could be used to research female anatomy at a time when male doctors were not allowed to undertake intimate examinations of female patients. Her remains was subsequently sent to Charles Bell’s private anatomy school in Windmill Street, where her lactating breasts were removed for preservation in the College museum.

An account of the Execution of Catherine Welch. © Museum of London

An account of the Execution of Catherine Welch. © Museum of London

Thomas Corrigan, age 29: Murder of his wife, 1855

Two days before his execution Corrigan’s sentence was commuted to transportation on the grounds of his insanity at the time he murdered his wife. An execution broadside on display in the exhibition, printed in advance of the reprieve, erroneously quotes Corrigan’s ‘last words on the scaffold’ as ‘When I slew my dear Louisa, Wandering was my jealous mind.’ Broadsides ‘written in the language of the street’ and sold cheaply at the site of execution were hugely popular with London’s working classes but often included inaccurate details scripted by the printers.

Corrigan’s crime was notoriously referred to as the Boxing Day Murder. A Foreman at the East India Company Warehouse, he was known to drink heavily. Although only 29 years at the time of his conviction he and his wife, Louisa had four daughters between the ages of one and nine. On Boxing Day 1855 Corrigan went to work having stayed up all night drinking with friends. On his return home he violently stabbed Louisa who despite managing to escape into the street died of her injuries.

During his trial at the Old Bailey, friends described how Corrigan’s drinking had increased over the last year. Reputed to be ‘a mild-mannered man’ the crime was considered completely out of character and thought to have been an inexplicable moment of insanity.

Although found guilty and condemned to death Corrigan’s sentence was commuted to transportation to Australia, following petitions from supporters including Louisa’s family and members of the jury. By the time of his arrival at the penal colonies of Western Australia in 1858, Corrigan had found Christianity and abandoned alcohol.

A model convict, Corrigan received his ‘ticket of leave’ or parole documents just three years after his arrival and a conditional pardon in 1868. He remained in Australia and became a successful journalist. In London he had been a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters, a friendly society, which took care of its members during times of hardship. Following his transportation, the Foresters paid for Corrigan’s four daughters’ upkeep at an orphanage in Kennington Park. He wrote a book of verses to raise funds for their upbringing and three of his daughters later joined him in Australia where he had found love with a new wife and two sons. Corrigan died in 1905 aged 80.

Broadside account of the crime, trial and sentencing of Thomas William John Corrigan © Museum of London

Broadside account of the crime, trial and sentencing of Thomas William John Corrigan © Museum of London

Eliza Fenning, age 22: Attempted murder, 1815

Born in Dominica to an Irish mother and English soldier father, Eliza moved to London aged three and entered domestic service at 14. In 1815 she was found guilty of attempting to poison her new employers, the Turner family, by lacing dumplings with arsenic. Eliza maintained her innocence throughout her trial and the evidence that convicted her was dubious.

When Eliza was publicly executed outside Newgate prison, she wore ‘a white muslin gown, a handsome worked cap and laced boots’. The hanging of a possibly innocent young woman captured the public’s imagination. Rumours circulated she was hanged in the dress she had intended to wear to her wedding.  

Following her execution, Eliza’s body was taken to her parents’ house, where sympathisers came to witness her lying ‘in her coffin seemingly as in a sweet sleep, with a smile on her countenance.' A crowd of 10,000 were estimated to have attended her funeral, her coffin carried by six young women dressed in white. A local newspaper reported: ‘Every window was thronged, and in many places the tops of the houses were covered with spectators.’

The apparent injustice of the case of Eliza Fenning was sympathetically reported in pamphlets and newspapers and referred to by Charles Dickens. A publication on display in the exhibition includes evidence to support her innocence, a detailed account of her execution and letters written by her during imprisonment. The authors warn the law should be scrutinised to avoid similar abuses.

The white muslin gown Eliza was hanged in. © Museum of London

The white muslin gown Eliza was hanged in. © Museum of London

Maria and Frederick Manning: Murder, 1849

Maria and her husband Frederick murdered Maria’s lover Patrick O’Connor for financial gain and buried his body beneath their kitchen floor in Bermondsey. Alarmed when O’Connor’s friends and the police started to make enquiries about his disappearance, the Mannings fled. Maria was arrested in Edinburgh trying to sell shares she had stolen from O’Connor. Frederick was captured in Jersey. Both claimed their innocence and blamed each other. London was transfixed by the ‘Bermondsey Horror’. At their sensationalist trial a lawyer declared of Maria ‘when a woman gives way to vice, she sinks far lower than a man.’

Maria and Frederick Manning, were executed together on 13th November 1849 on the rooftop scaffold of Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark.  A print of the scene in the exhibition depicts the ‘immense assemblage’ gathered to witness the rare execution of a married couple. Amongst them was Charles Dickens who later wrote a furious letter to The Times criticising the ‘inconceivably awful behaviour’ of the crowd. Describing public execution as a ‘moral evil’, he doubted communities could prosper where such scenes of ‘horror and demoralisation’ could take place.

Dickens was not alone in his condemnation of the behaviour of the crowd. By the mid-19th century witnessing an execution was regarded as ‘uncivilised’ by the emerging middle-class who feared it brutalised society. Public pain and death became morally unacceptable to squeamish Victorians. Such concerns did not represent greater sympathy with the condemned but rather the desire to establish modern standards of conduct and to control the urban masses.

James Radclyffe, Earl of Derwentwater, age 26:  Treason, 1716

James Radclyffe, 3 rd Earl of Derwentwater was the Grandson of King Charles II by his lover Moll Davies. Raised within the Catholic religion he supported James Stuart’s claim to the English throne. Arrested at the Battle of Preston, during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, James was brought to London and imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting execution for treason.

James was beheaded on Tower Hill on 24 February 1716, aged just 26. He left behind a widow, Anna Maria, a young son, John born in 1713 and a daughter Mary, born in 1714.  In his speech, delivered from the scaffold, James apologised for pleading guilty to treason, declaring his only loyalty was to the Catholic James Stuart. Confirming he would die a Catholic, he hoped his martyrdom would further the Jacobite campaign.

The exhibition features a bed-sheet used by the Earl while imprisoned in the Tower. Anna Maria had initially been allowed to stay with her husband in the Tower until forced to leave during an outbreak of smallpox. Following his execution she collected his body, his severed head and possessions from the Tower, including the bed-sheet.

In 1721 Anna Maria and her children moved to Belgium where she found the time and solitude to memorialise her grief by embroidering the bed-sheet in human hair, with the emotive inscription ‘ The sheet OFF MY dear Lord's Bed in the wretched Tower of London February 1716 x Ann C of Darwent=Waters+.’

It appears Anna Maria threaded her needle with two types of human hair intriguingly suggesting she may have intertwined locks from her own hair with those from her deceased husband.

During her life-time the embroidered sheet became a symbol of the young Earl’s tragic death and Anna Maria’s personal mourning. Following her own premature death in 1723 from smallpox, the bed-sheet also became a symbol of Catholic martyrdom, venerated as a holy relic at the Augustinian convent in Louvain where Anna Maria had been a regular visitor.

Bedsheet belonging to James Radclyffe, Earl of Derwentwater. It is embroidered with human hair – likely to be that of Anna Maria’s and possibly also her husbands. (© Museum of London)

Bedsheet belonging to James Radclyffe, Earl of Derwentwater. It is embroidered with human hair – likely to be that of Anna Maria’s and possibly also her husbands. (© Museum of London)

Sarah Malcolm, aged c. 22: Murder, 1733

Sarah Malcolm, was convicted of the murder of three women in the Temple Chambers where she worked as a laundress.

Often referred to as the ‘Irish Laundress’ due to having lived in Dublin, Sarah’s 5 hour trial at the Old Bailey was sensationally reported. In her defence she claimed the blood found on her clothing was due to menstruation rather than the blood of the victims. Accomplices linked to the crime were never charged and, although Sarah admitted involvement in the robbery of the women, she denied murder. Found guilty by the jury within 15 minutes she was condemned to death.

Sarah’s case attracted the interest of leading artist William Hogarth who visited her in Newgate to sketch her portrait. She maintained her innocence until her execution in Fleet Street within sight of Temple Chambers before a vast crowd. The decision to execute her near the site of the murders was taken ‘because of the atrociousness of her crimes and for terror to other wickedly disposed people.’

Hogarth’s portrait was sold to the writer Horace Walpole but public interest in Sarah’s case created a healthy market for prints of the painting including pirated versions. One such black and white print included in the exhibition adds two salacious details to Hogarth’s portrait: the scene of Malcolm’s execution and the figure of a clergyman holding a ring. This may be intended as Reverend W. Piddington, Lecturer at St Bartholomew the Great, who accompanied Sarah to the scaffold and intriguingly was rumoured to be in a romantic relationship with her.

Top image: A man prepares for his execution. Source: jahorimine / Adobe Stock

By Beverley Cook, Social History Curator, The Museum of London

Executions: Explore how public executions shaped Londoners’ lives and the city’s landscape in The Museum of London’s major exhibition, 14 October 2022 – 16 April 2023.



Pete Wagner's picture

The difference between true events of the past and myth/legend/urban is the former is mentioned in texts of that era.  So you know what the question is.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

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