An Execution Witnessed

by John Regan

76 Church Street
Lancaster
Saturday, 5th September 1807.

 

My Dear Oliver,

As promised, I give below my memories of today’s executions at the Castle.

As an Assize Court official I am required to witness true justice being administered. My position atop the Parish Church wall gave a perfect view.

The day dawned brightly after many days of rain and promised fine weather for the expected crowds of the good townspeople who would attend.

The people began to arrive almost from first light. I heard that some had travelled from Preston, which is a good 20 miles hence. Stalls had been erected for the sale of bread and other baked goods. The pedlars were doing a fine trade in trinkets, in particular small models of the gibbet with hanging figures – their lack of accuracy pointing to the conclusion that these are made elsewhere as Lancaster’s scaffold is almost unique. The whole spectacle is nowadays being called a ‘Gala Day’, taken from Gallows Day.

The seating along the wall of the churchyard soon filled with the merchants and their families. Shortly before twelve noon, the boys from the Grammar School were led by their schoolmaster to a space kept for them. It is to be hoped that the experience will serve the boys well in their future lives.

The three felons due to be executed were James Callaghan, James Freeman and Thomas Byrne, all convicted of assault and highway robbery. They would have been led into the Drop Room from the condemned cells. The first items they would have espied would have been their coffins leaning against the opposite wall.

On the stroke of mid-day, the prison bell tolled and the doors to the Drop Room opened. The three men were moved forwards onto the balcony, especially erected for the purpose. Their arms were pinioned to their sides and their heads covered with cloth bags. After a few words from the vicar, the executioner fastened the nooses around their necks. The trapdoor is controlled from below and shortly this sprang open and the men fell about three feet.

Their struggles went on for some minutes but nowadays it is not possible to see the kicking of the convicted as the balcony is skirted with material. In the olden days, upon the Moor, their kicking was plain to see. I believe that in London this was called the “Tyburn Morris Dance” – our people have a black sense of humour. In days past, relatives of the condemned were able to stand below the scaffold to pull on the convicted’s legs and thus speed their end. I understand those people became known as ‘hangers-on’, a very fitting description.

The crowd of people had been building themselves to a rare state of excitement in the time leading up to the execution and a great roar greeted the entrance of the three. As the executioner stepped away from them, prior to the opening of the trapdoor, there was a moment of total silence, and then as the trap opened another great roar.

As the hanged gradually ceased to struggle the crowd became disinterested and soon began to talk with their neighbours. The cutting down of the bodies and removal to their waiting coffins stood in the Drop Room almost went unnoticed.

The good citizens of Lancaster and surrounds had ensured that the law of this land was not only enforced but seen to be enforced. There is no greater crime against the people than depriving them of their hard earned money and goods. The crowd went to their homes well satisfied.

Later this day, a man from Carlisle, James Skelton, threw himself from an upper window of the Royal Oak Inn. It is not known at this time if he was related to or associated with the executed felons.

I trust this description I have given above will satisfy your curiosity. We repeat the events of this day after every Assizes, which occur in March and August. Perhaps, one day, I shall have the pleasure of your company as a witness.

I remain, my dear Oliver

Your obedient servant

 

John Park

 

Footnotes:

1.John Park existed. He practised as a solicitor in Church Street. He was Mayor of Lancaster in 1814.

2.The three persons named were really executed on the day stated.

3.The gallows at Lancaster was almost unique in design. York was the only other English prison with a balcony scaffold.

4.The accident to James Skelton happened. The cause of his fall was never reported.

I was inspired to research a public hanging because I knew something about the main character in the piece and wanted to get inside him to discover his feelings attending such an event.

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