Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Carmarthen: The Gallows At Work

As has been said elsewhere on this site, many early executions were recorded in William Spurrell's book, but it was with the new weekly newspaper that more detailed accounts were reported. They are great records for feelings and emotions of the time.
Take bits of this letter dated 1752 from Grifeith Philips of Cwmgwili to his son in London for example:

'there are this day to be hang'd at Carmarthen two men for house breaking, which I suppose will draw al ye country peoples together, it being a very uncommon thing here to get em hang'd in pairs.'

Another letter dated 1788, from Richard Jones, Carmarthen, to John Philips, M.P. stated:

'we had three persons condemned, two for horse stealing and one for stealing goods and breaking into a house in the day time; this last was the hangman in the gaol, a person not 20 years of age, who had been tried at our bar three times; not half an hour after he received sentence he hung himself in the gaol.'

A large number of executions are recorded as having taken place at Carmarthen.

Edward Higgins - Hanged 7th November 1767

Higgins was a notorious highway man, housebreaker and burglar, and his escapades had excited the County. He was finally convicted of the burglary of Lady Maud and Madam Bevan's residence at Laugharne. As was the case for burglary at the time he received the death sentence.

The Bogus Respite

On 23rd October, Higgins wrote to his friends asking them to arrange a reprieve. Accordingly on 3rd November, four days before the hanging, a respite duly arrived at the office of the Under Sheriff.
The document was a forgery; it appeared to be in the handwriting of Lord Shelburne and initially it was accepted as being genuine. However, the Under Sheriff suspected that the respite was fake when he discovered that the envelope used to deliver the letter carried a Brecon and a London postmark. He made enquiries only to find that the wife and sister of Higgins had disguised themselves and had delivered the respite to the Under Sheriff's office in the late evening.
He made further enquiries, and is reported as saying, 'for I do not want on my conscious the death of Higgins if the respite is genuine.' Having been satisfied that the document was a forgery, on the evening of 6th November he went to the gaol and told Higgins of his findings and that he should now prepare himself for the execution in the morning when he would be sent into eternity.

The dawn approached and was bitterly cold as crowds gathered outside the gaol and lined the route to the hanging, which was to take place in public at Pensarn, a mile from Carmarthen. A huge crowd greeted Higgins as he stepped from the gaol gate at 7 o'clock. The robber walked so fast on his way to the gallows, (over the old Roman Bridge), that the officials and spectators following had to run to keep pace.
As they walked/ran, the crowd called the Under Sheriff a 'Scoundrel', shouting that the respite was real, and that he the Under Sheriff was taking away the life of a man with a reprieve in his pocket. The chanting lasted the entire journey to the gallows at Babell Hill, Pensarn.
Higgins approached the scaffold without a falter in his step and mounted the steps. He looked like a man without a care in the world, with a flower in his buttonhole, not at all resembling a man about to meet his death. He scanned the vast crowd and made a speech:

'Gentlemen now is the time to do as you please. You have my reprieve in your custody.'

Higgins prayed for 5 minutes and said to the waiting crowd:

'I am ready.'

He then handed a letter to the Under Sheriff, which not only included his confession to the crime for which he was about to hang, but also several other crimes committed throughout the country. More startlingly, he confessed to the murder of Mrs Ruscombe, of College Green, Bristol, and that of her maidservant.

With that, the executioner kicked away the stool on which he was standing sending Higgins off to meet his maker. It was not the end of the story however. The crowds who had been calling the Under Sheriff a 'scoundrel' were not to know that he had struck a deal with the undertaker. The body was removed from the gallows almost immediately and not allowed to hang for the customary hour in public.
With the body now in the mortuary in Carmarthen and the apprentice set about to dissect the body. However, when they went to cut the body Higgins was still alive and it now fell to the apprentice to have the 'honour' of giving him the coupe de grace and finishing the sentence of the law.
The undertaker made a cast of the body and had it on display in his private museum for many years. This anecdote finally put an end to the story of the notorious Lancashire highwayman who passed through Carmarthen on his way Laugharne and ended his life hung, dissected and buried in the north side of St Peter's Church in Carmarthen.

John Morris - Hanged Saturday 16th June, 1804

On Saturday 23rd June, 1804 the Cambrian newspaper carried the following article:

Saturday last (16th June, 1804) John Morris was executed at Carmarthen for horse stealing. Great interest was made to save his life, but it proved unavailing. The unfortunate culprit has been accused of much levity of conduct while under sentence of death but we can state on good authority, that his behaviour since his trial, and at the place of execution, (Pensarn, Babell Hill) was such as became his unhappy situation.

Rees Thomas Rees - Hanged Saturday 19th April 1817

His crime was the murder of his sweetheart. He was described as an honest, honourable man who occasionaly preached at the Presbyterian chapel in Llangadock.
Rees Thomas Rees had been courting Elizabeth Jones for a number of years, and they intended to marry but her parents felt she was too young at 19, and Rees 26. She fell pregnant during this courtship but with her family still continuing to refuse consent, Elizabeth became concerned about the social stigma associated with being pregnant, and being forced to raise a child out of wedlock.
Elizabeth had heard of a medication that would help her terminate the pregnancy and she asked Rees to get it for her. He agreed and went to Brecon to buy it. They then set about hiding their shame by terminating the pregnancy and Rees administered the medicine to Elizabeth. Rees left her house at midnight and went home. Not long after, Elizabeth's sister, Gwenllian Jones, was awoken by groans from her sister. She described how she found her rolling on the floor in agony, her body had become swollen and blood was coming from her mouth.
After getting her to bed she was able to ask her what caused the illness. Elizabeth, through swollen lips, managed to describe how Rees had given her a grey medicine. She immediately became ill and told Rees he was killing her, and she went on to tell her sister that he had just walked away. She told how the medicine burned her throat like fire but Rees had forced her to swallow at least three amounts of the liquid. It was later dicovered that the poison was so strong it had ulcerated her throat, and her gums and cheeks became so swollen they had stuck together. Her teeth turned black, and she was able to pull them out to show her mother.
In this terrible condition, Elizabeth was able to last a few hours before death became her salvation.
Rees had not gone home, instead he started walking away from the area, intending to go to America and start a new life. However, he decided to return and face the authorities in the hope the outcome would be in his favour.
He was charged with murder and brought before the court. In his defence, he insisted that Elizabeth had swallowed numerous concotions on the days before her death. He also stated that her family had known about the pregnancy and that they had also obtained various medicines for her to take.
Nevertheless it was evidence from Gwenllian that sealed his fate. Her evidence was considered that as being a dying declaration. Many witnesses came forward on behalf of Rees, and all concurred that he had previous excellent character. The judge, Mr Justice Haywood, in his summing up directed the jury that their judgement must consider all the aspects of the case and urged them to fully consider all the circumstances.
The jury retired at 8pm and after 2 hours of deliberation, they returned to the hushed courtroom and announced their verdict. Guilty!
Mr Justice Haywood pronounced the sentence as prescribed by law, death by hanging. He said that execution was to take place on Saturday 19th April, 1817 and the body would be dissected. Rees returned to Carmarthen Gaol to await his fate.
It was reported that after been sentenced, Rees made a full and frank confession to two vicars. He admitted giving the medicine to Elizabeth, but it had not been his intention to kill her. His only intention had been to prevent the pregnancy and in doing so save the shame they would have had to endure if the pregnancy had gone through.

The Execution

On the morning of the hanging, Rees Thomas Rees was brought out of the gate of the gaol and placed in a chaise and carried through 10,000 spectators who had gathered to witness the grim event. As Rees ascended the gallows at Pensarn, the ministers started praying with the crowds joining in. Rees looked down on the masses and joined in with the singing and rejoicing that was taking place. It lasted for an hour. He then addressed the crowd in calm voice and recited a prayer.

'O Lord, thou knowest that I am a great sinner.
But my heart is glad to think that thou hast mercy fot the greatest sinner.
Thou gavest mercy to Messiah
Mary Magdalene was cleansed.
Thou didst save the thief on the cross.
Oh cleanse thou me! Cleanse me
Cleanse me from my sins.
I am found wanting in the balance in this world.
Oh for a sufficiency to stand in judgement!
Here the mercy of men faileth.
Here the help of all is ended.
Lord, Jesus recieve my spirit.'

When he finished, the crowd was silent.Many women were crying. The handkerchief was placed over his eyes by the hangman. As he felt the steps on which he was standing start to move he cried out:

'Nawr ydw fi ar ochr tangnefedd pob hwyl yn crudo ar y yr arglwydd Iesu I fyn ysbryd!' - Now im on the edge of eternity, goodbye, I give my spirit to the Lord Jesus.

The body of Rees Thomas Rees was later dissected before burial as instructed by the court.

1 comment:

  1. Reading the true story of people getting hanged the wording makes you feel you have gone back in time pushing to get the best spot to see the hanging, Its very Strange feeling reading it and thinking you're their feeling the crowd all around you what a story ,never have I felt like this reading a true story .Brilliant how you pull the reader in with the words cleever but spooky.