The Last public hanging


The Last public hanging

Newgate, London The 26th of May 1868 AD

It seems somehow fitting that the last public execution in Britain should have been an affair of enormous public concern, and very probably of rank injustice.

The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 meant that public executions were to be ended. The supposed exemplary nature of the punishment was deemed of less importance than the appalling behaviour of the crowds on ‘galas’ (the word is derived from gallows).

The last person publicly hanged in Britain was Michael Barrett, a member of the Fenian Society, forerunners of the IRA, found guilty of participation in the deadly explosion set off outside Clerkenwell Prison in London in December 1867. Gunpowder had been fired in an attempt to liberate Richard O’Sullivan-Burke, a senior figure in the Fenian movement. Things went disastrously wrong, and an adjacent row of terraced houses was destroyed in the blast. Reports vary about casualties, with some claiming 12 deaths, but in the court case only two names were given, Martha Thompson and Humphrey Evans.

Barrett was convicted largely on the word of a supposed co-conspirator – there were indeed eight defendants when the case came to trial - Patrick Mullany, who with his wife was given free passage to Australia for turning Queen’s evidence. Another man, Jeremiah Allen, was discharged as he was a police agent.

Barrett produced witnesses showing he had been in Glasgow when the Crown claimed he was in London master-minding the outrage, and the whole case against him was flimsy and full of inconsistencies. The 27-year-old Barrett would hang nevertheless. It seems that to satisfy the public, and government honour, someone had to pay for the outrage. Barrett was possibly an innocent man who just happened to fit the bill.

On May 26 1868 Barrett was taken outside the walls of Newgate Prison, where a crowd of more than 2,000 awaited. The night before both within the prison and without there had been jeering and mock-hymns, and jeering accompanied Barrett as he made his way to the gallows, the bells of Newgate and a nearby church tolling in the background. More police than was usual were in attendance, armed very visibly with cutlasses and revolvers because of the fear of Fenian action.

Newspaper reports of the hanging vary according to their political standpoint. Some have Barrett dying without a struggle, others tell of his convulsions, protruding tongue and distorted features. The crowd was said to have been silent as his end came, respectfully removing hats at the moment of execution.

After his death, as was customary, the hangman was abused by the onlookers.Barrett’s remains were buried in a lime grave in Newgate Prison, eventually being transferred to the City of London Cemetery when Newgate was demolished in 1903.

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