HC Deb 24 February 1885 vol 294 cc1155-7

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether the account which has appeared of the attempted execution at Exeter is true; and, what course he intends to take in the present case, and also in the future, in order to prevent the recurrence of such a scandal? I assume that the answer to the first part of my Question will be in the affirmative. With regard to the second, the Home Secretary had said he did not think public opinion would uphold him in carrying out the execution if this person were brought to be hung again, in which statement I am bound to say I agree. But I should like to ask the third Question—that is, as regards the future—whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman means to take any steps to prevent the recurrence of such a scandal? I ask this, because I think it is of importance to be known whether the responsibility of finding the scaffold rests on the Sheriff or the officers of the prison; and if, as I suppose the answer will be, it rests on the Sheriff, whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman proposes fresh legislation to make any alteration in this position?


I am extremely glad to receive the support of the right hon. Gentleman in the decision at which I have arrived, because I am quite sure it will carry great weight in public opinion. As regards the first Question he has asked me as to the cause of this deplorable miscarriage in the execution, substantially, I believe, the account that has appeared in the newspapers is true. I have received this afternoon an account from men who were sent down to inquire into what happened in the gaol, and, of course, there will be a more formal Report and investigation in the case. With reference to the Question as regards the responsible authority in matters of this kind, there can be no doubt that the entire responsibility for the execution of capital sentences in all respects rests with the Sheriff. That is a fundamental part of the Constitution of this country, and when various changes have taken place in the gaols, both in the Act of 1865 and the Act of 1877, great care was taken that the position of the Sheriff in that respect should remain entirely unaltered; and, therefore, whatever the officers of the prison do in respect of these executions, they do simply and directly under the orders of the Sheriff; and there was a letter from the right hon. Gentleman in December, 1878, to the Governors of prisons, ordering them, when the prisons came under the control of the Government, to obey and to carry out the orders of the Sheriff in this respect. I confess myself, on the best consideration I could give to the matter, I do not see that there would be any advantage—but, on the contrary, considerable disadvantage—in altering that state of things. Though the right hon. Gentleman has been good enough to express his concurrence in the decision I arrived at in reference to the respite, perhaps, as some doubt has been expressed on the subject, I may say a word upon that matter. Of course, the responsibility of a decision in that matter rests absolutely and entirely upon the Secretary of State. It is, of course, a very grave and very onerous responsibility; but I confess in this case I never entertained one moment's doubt upon it. At the same time, it is desirable that the truth should be understood—I do not mean in this House, but outside this House. The tact is that the exercise of the Prerogative^ mercy does not depend upon principles of strict law and justice; still less does it depend upon sentiment in any way. It is really a question of policy and of judgment in each individual case; and, in my opinion, a capital execution, which in its circumstances creates horror and compassion for the culprit rather than a sense of indignation at his crime, is a great evil, and when such events occur it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the punishment of death at all. This is a question that cannot be decided on precedents alone—it is not a question of precedents. But it is important to consider what we have done in cases of this kind in former times. When I had to decide this case, which I had to do at once, I had in my recollection a book I recently read—The Chronicles of New gate—which contains a quantity of incidents of this character which have happened in former times, when executions were more carelessly performed than they are now. In those cases there were frequent instances of the rope breaking; and still oftener there were oases of persons being resuscitated after they were supposed to have been hanged. In many of these cases—indeed, in most of them—the practice was, when the execution had miscarried, not after an interval of time to revert to it, and carry it into effect. I do not know whether I should be taking up the time of the House too much; but I should like to mention a case which is very much like the present. There was a horrid scene at Jersey at the beginning of this century. The hangman added his weight to that of the suspended culprit, and having first pulled him sideways, he then got on his shoulders, so that the rope broke, and to the surprise of all, the criminal rose to his feet with the hangman on his shoulders, and with his fingers loosened the rope. After that the Sheriff sent for another rope; but the spectators interfered, and the man was carried back to gaol. The whole case was referred to the King, and the poor wretch, whose crime had been a military one, was pardoned. That shows what in former times was the view taken in these cases; and I do not think that anybody would desire that our manners should be more savage and barbarous than they were at the beginning of the century.