Saturday, 20 January 2018

140 Public Executions

140 Public Executions
Swansea has many distinctions, such as being where the first weekly English language newspaper in Wales - The Cambrian - was published in 1804, and likewise the first Welsh language newspaper in Wales - Seren Gomer - in 1816.  It would hardly be a distinction, but Swansea is also where the last public execution in Wales took place.  This was not such a violent occasion as mentioned last week - the burning of Bishop Robert Ferrar in Nott Square, Carmarthen, in March 1555 - but it was a hanging in April 1866 outside Swansea prison, witnessed by a crowd of thousands.  This inspired a poem by Harri Webb, while Ferrar’s execution had inspired a poem by Ted Hughes, who was related to the bishop on his mother’s side.  Disorderly scenes at the hanging in Swansea contributed to future executions being carried out within prison walls.
Swansea’s most notorious public execution - also a hanging - was that in 1290 of William (Gwilym) Cragh of Llanrhidian, sentenced to hang by William de Breos, with the execution carried out on Gibbet Hill (by today’s North End Road).  Bizarrely an apparently dead Cragh later recovered, and this was regarded as a miracle.
The last person to be publicly executed in Wales was Robert Coe, aged 18, from the Midlands.  He worked in a blacksmith’s shop as a striker at the Powell Dyffryn Works, and in September 1865 in Mountain Ash’s Graig Dyffryn Wood he murdered fellow-worker John Davies with a hatchet, severing his head.  The motive was murder - Coe took 33 shillings from the dead man and hid the body.  But Coe and Davies had been noticed drinking together in an inn on the day of the murder, and were seen by a stile leading to the woods.  Some months later Davies’s body was discovered, and when the borrowed hatchet was found to contain traces of blood, Coe was arrested.  He did admit to his crime just before his execution, for which crowds poured in to Swansea, with special trains laid on: around 15,000 people were present at 7am, including women and children.  Street vendors had set up stalls near the scaffold, with some even driving their carts right up to the gallows, then removing and hiding the wheels, so that the police could not move them on.  They would charge exorbitant fees for people to witness the execution from the carts.  Essex-born William Calcraft, then in his sixties, was the hangman, a role he performed about 450 times.  But as the crowd pushed and jostled, scores were injured and many trampled on.
The Cambrian commented, “We are far from believing that any salutary effect is produced upon the minds of the spectators by the exhibition presented them, by seeing a poor wretch deliberately and publicly strangled, and would gladly welcome the alteration in the law.”                                                                           
Public executions were often held on market days to enable the largest number of people to see them, with school parties attending as a moral lesson, and public houses and gin shops doing a very brisk trade on a hanging day.  Sometimes executions were carried out around midday to give people time to get there.  Death masks might be made of famous criminals after their execution and put on display - that of body-snatcher William Burke, executed in Edinburgh in 1829, shows the indentation in his neck left by the noose.  In London, Madame Tussaud’s waxworks might purchase a prisoner’s clothes and other objects from the hangman to display, to add authenticity to wax figures in the “Chamber of Horrors”.  Throughout the nineteenth century Quakers and such authors as Dickens and Thackeray were prominent in calling for an end to all this.  
The last public execution in mainland Britain was in May 1868, just before the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act came into force to end public hanging, two years after Robert Coe was hanged outside Swansea prison.                                                        


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