HL Deb 09 July 1874 vol 220 cc1341-5

, in calling the attention of the House to the frequent instances of unintended and unnecessary torture inflicted on criminals in the execution of capital sentences through the clumsiness or inexperience of volunteer executioners, and to move— (1.) That in the opinion of this House the present system of executing criminals is attended with unequal and needless torture and often leads to revolting and discreditable scenes: (2.) That until any preferable method shall be adopted it is expedient to have recourse to the Spanish garotte as being immediate in its result and always uniform in its operation, said, what their Lordships had to do in considering this question was to reflect whether there were sufficient instances to show that the present method of execution was attended with unnecessary and uncertain suffering. He would first refer to the recent execution in Newgate of Frances Stewart for the murder of her daughter's baby. The hangman employed was named Marwood, from one of the Midland Counties. The rope was stated to be thicker and longer than usual, and it slipped round to the back of the neck of the wretched woman, who, it was stated in the newspaper reports, struggled for at least three minutes before life was extinct. When death could be produced in a single second, to prolong a prisoner's agony for 2 minutes 59 seconds additional was superfluous and barbarous. In one well-known hanging case the rope employed was too long, and the convict's head was separated from his body; in another the man's feet touched the ground, and he did not hang at all. In an execution in Ireland not long ago the Irish papers declared that the criminal struggled for 20 minutes. In another case the rope broke, and the prisoner fell to the pavement. He was carried, pinioned as he was, back to the drop, and a messenger was sent into the town to get a new rope. The prisoner cried for mercy, exclaiming—"The first time I stood it like a brick, and I don't think I ought to be hanged again." The Sheriffs, however, had no option, and when the rope was procured the man was suspended a second time. Such scenes were unworthy of a civilized country, and they might at any time occur again. The system was one under which the most unequal suffering was inflicted on different individuals according to the clumsiness or inexperience of the hangman, and the lightness or weight of body of the culprit. He remembered a criminal named Tawell, who was hanged many years ago for the murder of a woman at Slough. He was a small and light man, and he struggled so long that the hangman jumped upon his shoulders until he died. Was that a seemly or decorous spectacle '? Death by hanging was death by strangulation, and that, to be effectual, required that the integuments of the windpipe should be crushed. In the case of a muscular pngilist these integuments were not easily broken, and death, if it occurred, would probably be caused by diminishing the supply of blood to the brain, and by causing an apoplectic fit. Life in such cases would sometimes be only suspended; and hence there were well-authenticated cases in which criminals had not only survived the punishment of hanging, but had actually received the Royal pardon. It might be assumed that in a small number of cases the same thing still happened, and that consciousness was merely suspended. They all knew that a very brief period elapsed between the cutting down and the burial. An inquest was immediately held, the surgeon certified the cause of death, and the body was immediately buried within the precincts of the prison. Thus there might be cases like that recently reported from Paris, where a newly-married woman was found to have turned in her coffin and to have bitten her shroud. He had said there were well-authenticated instances of criminals who had survived execution, and he would mention a few. The noble Lord proceeded to cite several cases from Notes and Queries. The noble Lord mentioned the case of a woman who had been hanged in Edinburgh in 1724 for child murder, and whose body was given for dissection; but before the dissecting knife was applied it was found she was not dead, and she lived for several years, married, had children, and was always called "Half-hanged Meg." Another well-authenticated case was related in the Rolls of King Henry III. These were cases which required some answer. If they had occured once they might occur again. In the second Resolution, as he originally placed it on the Paper, he suggested the substitution of the guillotine for the gallows; but the very mention of the guillotine shocked the feelings of many noble Lords, for whom he had great respect, although he could not help thinking that, if any of their Lordships were placed in the unfortunate position of having to make a selection, they would prefer the guillotine. The objection made to the guillotine on the score of shedding blood was a sentimental one, for the authority to take human life was based upon the passage—"Whoso take human's blood by man shall his blood be shed;" and he had now substituted the Spanish garotte for the guillotine. He hoped the Government would, as a duty to humanity, consider whether measures could not be taken to prevent the recurrence of such cases as that of Frances Stewart. He would not move the second of the two Resolutions, recommending the Spanish garotte; and if the Government would take the matter into their own hands, he had no wish to press the first Resolution, which, however, he would conclude by moving.

Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House the present system of executing criminals is attended with unequal and needless torture and often leads to revolting and discreditable scones.—(The Lord Dunsany.)


said, he would not follow the noble Lord through the ghastly stories he had narrated—some of which were rather irrelevant. The quotations from Jeremy Bentham referred to a state of things long past, when executions were conducted in a manner very different from the present practice, and therefore no argument could be drawn from the list of criminals who had recovered after execution. In those days the method of execution was of a bungling character. A cart containing the criminal was drawn under the gallows, and the condemned fell with scarcely any momentum beyond that derived from his own weight. That past of the noble Lord's argument which was derived from such cases was entirely disposed of by the altered circumstances of the present time. He did not quite gather whether the noble Lord contended that persons were killed or were not tortured under the present system. With regard to the recent case of the execution of Prances Stewart, on inquiry at the Home Office he found there was no information on the subject, because the execution of the law rested with the local authorities, and the Government was in no way responsible. He could not but believe that there had been a great deal of exaggeration and sensational writing in the description of executions in the newspapers. The young gentlemen, to whom was generally allotted the duty of reporting what occurred, knew their occupation would soon come to an end unless they could furnish a sensational account, and one full of thrilling interest; and, therefore, he could not help thinking that if any defect did occur the most was made of it. He did not mean to say that there was not some foundation for the descriptions which had been given; but the truth was an execution was not a matter of such every day occurrence that it was easy to find persons expert in the work. Henry Drummond once said in the House of Commons that the only way to teach a man a trade was to set him to work at it; and the only way in which a man could learn to be an expert hangman was to have sufficient practice. Happily, capital sentences were comparatively few, and hangmen had little chance to qualify themselves; and yet he had reason to know that there was an active competition in that branch of trade—there were plenty of volunteers, but it did not follow that a volunteer was an expert performer; it was a morbid taste which induced men to volunteer, and not their fitness to do the work with accuracy and despatch. Painful incidents might sometimes occur at executions, but the accounts were often tainted with exaggeration. The Government were not prepared to assent to the Resolution of the noble Lord, who himself seemed doubtful as to the best means of inflicting capital punishment. Last week he asked them to express a preference for the guillotine; but an article in the Encyclopœdia Britannica showed that that instrument was neither immediate in its result nor uniform in its operation, and a similarly adverse conclusion with reference to the garotte would be drawn from the evidence taken by a Committee of that House some years ago, when a witness was examined who gave a description of the process by no means favourable as compared with our system. Under all the circumstances, there were excellent reasons why their Lordships should refrain from passing the Resolution.


made a few observations in reply.

Motion negatived.