HL Deb 06 June 1856 vol 142 cc1056-9

, in rising to put the Question of which he had given notice—Whether Her Majesty's Government intended to bring in any Bill to abolish the punishment of death as regarded women?—desired to explain that he did not ask the question with any desire of suggesting to the Government to bring in any such measure, which, on the contrary, he should certainly oppose to the utmost, if it were introduced; neither did he wish to quarrel with the right of the Crown to exercise its prerogative as had been done in two recent cases. But the question had been suggested by what had taken place with reference to two women who had recently been convicted for most atrocious murders of their own illegitimate offspring. The feeling of the public certainly was that justice had not been done in those cases. Upon the evidence, more atrocious murders never had been committed. One of these cases was of a peculiarly horrible character, for a girl of ten or twelve years old had been cruelly murdered, under circumstances the most revolting, by her own mother, who had entrapped her down into a cellar, and had there committed the revolting crime. If ever a case was calculated to excite horror this was that case. Now, if the noble Earl opposite (Earl Granville) could state that these women had been allowed to escape the punishment of death on account of any particular circumstances which had induced the Crown to extend the prerogative of mercy, he had not a word to say; but, from want of any information on that point, as far as the public knew, the perpetrators of two of the most atrocious murders ever committed in this country had been pardoned without any sufficient reason. There might have been extenuating circumstances in those cases, which had satisfied the advisers of the Crown that the last punishment of the law ought not to be carried into effect. But if they had been relieved from the penalty of death merely because the Government had an opinion that the sentiment of the country was against exposing women to public execution, let it be stated; the exact state of the case would then be known, and he should have something to say on the subject. Such a course would practically involve an abrogation of the law as regarded women. It would be annulling the law of the land by the authority of the Crown, and not an exercise of the prerogative of mercy, and it would lead to the most frightful consequences, if it were understood that in future female murderers were to escape the penalty of death. It would be extremely satisfactory, therefore, to hear upon what grounds the sentences on these women had been commuted. If the sole reason were any supposed feeling as to the indecency of executing women in public, then, although he desired to express no opinion as to the propriety of private executions—being a Member of the Committee of their Lordships' House upon the subject, he should think it would be better to execute women in private than to let it be understood that they were not to be executed at all.


said, in answer to the question which had been put by the noble Lord with so much propriety, he had to state that it was not the intention of the Government to bring in any Bill proposing any such change in the law as he had referred to; and it was not the intention of the Government, in all cases, to extend the prerogative of mercy to women convicted of murder. He was glad to hear the noble Lord lay it down so clearly, that the exercise of the prerogative was not to be canvassed in either House of Parliament. But he had to state, as to the particular cases referred to, that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department had given due consideration, not only to these cases, but to others in which the prerogative of mercy had been exercised; and had come to the conclusion that it was his duty to recommend to the Crown that the sentences of death should be suspended. He would add, that in conformity with the ordinary practice, his right hon. Friend had left a statement of the circumstances of these cases in writing for the information of his successor in the office.


agreed with the noble Earl as to the inconvenience of Parliament discussing, in each particular case, the exercise of the prerogative of the Crown. The right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Home Department had for many years discharged the duties of that office with the greatest ability and impartiality, as had also Mr. Waddington, the, Under-Secretary. He should very much regret if it should be supposed that it was the determination of the Government not to carry the sentence of death into execution in any case in which a woman was convicted of murder—an opinion which was widely prevalent—and he now heard, therefore, with much satisfaction, that no such rule had been laid down. The first person upon whom it had been his painful duty to pass sentence of death happened to be a woman, who went by the name, in the county where she lived, of "Sally Arsenic," and she had murdered he knew not how many persons before the case could be satisfactorily brought home to her. She had attained such a consummate skill in the crime, and apportioned the doses with such nicety and minuteness that it was impossible to trace the death directly to the poison, and it became necessary, therefore, to indict her not for wilful murder, but for administering poison with intent to murder. Upon this indictment she was found guilty and executed. At the time of her trial the practice of poisoning by arsenic had become frightfully common in the county where she lived, but he believed that since her execution it had entirely ceased. To lay down the rule, therefore, that no woman should suffer the last sentence of the law would, in his opinion, lead to most disastrous consequences, because, unhappily, we knew from history that women had been driven to the detestable crime of poisoning quite as frequently as the other sex. He had heard with satisfaction from his noble Friend the President of the Council that it was in consideration of the special circumstances of the two cases which had been alluded to by the noble and learned Lord (Lord St. Leonard's) that the prerogative of mercy had been exercised; and he had no doubt, from what he knew of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, and of the Under-Secretary, that extenuating circumstances had been discovered in those two cases, and that the prerogative had been rightly exercised. He was glad to hear that there was no intention to alter the law of the land upon this subject.