Execution of Mary Pearcey: The Hampstead Murderess

The execution of Mary Pearcey happened on 23 December 1890 at the Newgate Gaol after she was convicted and sentenced for the killing of Phoebe Hogg and her 18-month-old daughter, also named Phoebe. (You can learn more about these murders in this post, Mary Pearcey and the Hampstead Murders). Pearcey was to be executed under “arrangements which were intended to ensure the strictest privacy and secrecy.”[1] According to the The Weekly Dispatch this new policy was “an entire reversal of the traditions of the City in regard to executions, for reporters [had] always been admitted since the discontinuance of public hangings in 1868.”[2]

Execution of Mary Pearcey

Mary Pearcey. Author’s collection

Apparently, the goal of the Home Office was to prevent publication of descriptive details about the execution of Mary Pearcey. It seems authorities wanted to prevent any kind of scene and they also wanted avoid the public from being subjected to “the condemned woman succumbing to hysteria or weakness.”[3] However, others stated the banishment of newspapermen had more to do with authorities not wishing to have to report any execution bungling or execution problems with Pearcey’s death. English newspapers were of course unhappy that newspaper reporters would not be permitted to see the execution of Mary Pearcey and so the Manchester Evening News stated:

“[S]o far as the public is concerned the execution was done in secret. Of course, some sort of official information on the subject of the actual incident … was given.  But is it obvious that a story so told is not of the same value as an impartial tale related by an experienced newspaper man of what he himself saw.”[4]

Despite newspaper men unable to witnesses the execution of Pearcey, they still reported on the weather on the morning of her death. It was described as dull and cheerless. Moreover, according to Wales’ Western Mail:

“When the morning broke and the grim outline of Newgate was visible, it was noted that a flagstaff had been erected on the roof of one of the buildings facing the street, and this, with the running lines upon it, was grim evidence that the woman was beyond all hope of respite.”[5]

Further weather reports that day indicated that it so miserable that even when the sun rose it did nothing to reduce the melancholy or wintry scene. A light fog also surrounded the area as it had for several days, In addition, snow rested upon the projections of the prison and glistened upon the adjacent roofs making the grim granite prison walls look grayer and more foreboding than normal.

About an hour prior to the execution of Mary Pearcey, crowds collected so that they could observe the signal that the Hampstead murderess was dead. These curiosity seekers were kept off the pavement by local police and carts were arranged in the center of the roadway to keep them back. Despite the precautions, however, the number of people continued to increase until the space in front of the old debtors’ entrance to the prison was nearly full with spectators. They all hoped that Pearcy would explain how she killed Phoebe Hogg or child, but she said nothing and she gave not hint as to “what her exact movements had been in the disposal of the bodies of mother and child on the night of October 24. She added nothing whatever elucidatory … All this she left in intentional mystery, perhaps out of feminine vanity, for it is said that no woman confesses to a crime.”[6]

Prior to the execution, spectators concentrated their attention upon a cab that was drawn up at the wicket gate. Inside the cab was “a gentleman whose duty … obliged him to witness every execution for the last forty years at Newgate, this being the first that he was excluded from attending. The sheriff’s orders were imperative, and although the authorities of the gaol were evidently not in sympathy with the new mandate, they were loyal to their observance to the letter.”[7] Those who were allowed access to the execution of Mary Pearcey did not take any vow or pledge of secrecy. That meant they could later provide details about what they observed. Thus, several eyewitnesses gave newspapermen details about her death.

Among the details given by eyewitnesses was those that claimed that James Berry, the executioner, stayed overnight at the gaol as was customary. The next morning, he followed the usual preparations necessary for the execution and while busily engaged, “at a quarter to eight the ‘passing bell’ of the prison began to sound, but contrary to precedent, that of St. Sepulcher’s remained silent, the conditions of the bequest which provide the fund for it tolling having been for this occasion disregarded because several people were ill in the locality.”[8]

Pearcey met with her mother prior to her death. It was also reported that Pearcy had requested permission be given for Phoebe’s husband, Frank Hogg, to visit her. That was because Pearcey and Hogg had once been lovers. The Weekly Dispatch reported:

“[I]t was evident that she had built upon seeing him once more. As the time passed … and he did not come she grew somewhat nervous and impatient, and when it was evident that he had resolved to refuse her last request a terrible fit of dejection seized her. She lay on her bed with her hands over her face for some time sobbing, but not speaking. When this was over, she rose again, her face calm, her voice had recovered its quiet, low tone of speaking, and she resumed her reading at the table without giving any sign of the storm of emotion she had just passed through.”[9]

execution of Mary Pearcey

Mary Pearcey with her mother prior to her execution. Author’s collection.

Pearcy did not sleep well the night before her execution, and she reportedly woke early on the day she was to be hanged. She soon thereafter received her breakfast, but witnesses stated that her appetite “failed her.” Shortly thereafter she was taken to the condemned cell because the distance from it to the gallows was much shorter. (The condemned cell was in the male wing and looked like an ordinary room with whitewashed walls and with the “bedstead” in the center of it.)

Reverend H.G. Duffield, the Newgate chaplain, ministered to her from the moment she was moved to the condemned cell until the last moment of her life. He maintained that before her execution he asked her of she had anything to say. She stoically replied, “The sentence is just, but the evidence is false.”[10]

One eyewitness to the execution reported that a few minutes before eight o’clock the usual group that would accompany the condemned person appeared at the condemned cell. Among those present was sheriff Sir James Whitehead, the undersheriff, the governor of the gaol, and others. Pearcey was then informed that the time had come for her to meet her fate and accordingly an eyewitness maintained that she was determined to do it with “self-possession” and therefore “acted with the most extraordinary fortitude.”[11]

Also reported was that when the hangman Berry was first introduced to her, he said, “Good morning, ma’am’’ and held out his hand. She grasped it firmly and shook it without any emotion. “She was, as an eye-witness declared, the most calm and self-possessed of all present. Indeed, on the preceding night she astonished her watchers by telling them that she would give the executioner no trouble and would ‘die like a man.’”[12] Berry attested to this fact later when he told newspaper reporters that when walking to the scaffolding she was “the most composed person in the whole [execution] party.”[13]

Berry did his preliminary work skillfully and pinioned her arms rapidly after their introduction. He did not use the customary belt generally used on men but rather substituted a narrow strap that he girdled about her waist. She, in the meantime, raised her arms to assist him. Her wrists were then buckled to the strap and another strap was placed across her arms that drew them to the back.

Once the pinioning was completed Berry quietly said, “Ready” and the procession moved. Pearcy then commented to the two female warders beside her, “You have no need to assist me.”[14] The sheriff led the way. Behind him came others who were then followed by the chaplain in hood and surplice. Pearcey came next with the executioner bringing up the rear. The procession walked to the shed that was a permanent part of the prison. It was described at the time in the following manner:

“The shed occupies the north-west corner of the execution-yard, screened from the observation of all except those who are admitted into the yard. It is entered from the rear. Across the shed lengthways overhead runs a huge beam, to which are appended the hempen ropes. Below them is the ‘drop’ or false floor, the two halves of which fall downwards when a lever is pulled, allowing the person standing upon them to drop into a brick-built pit. One side of the shed is furnished with shutters, which conceal from the view of spectators without the shed the lower limbs of the condemned person, and they wholly hide from their sight the mouth of the pit when the bolt has been withdrawn. The whole distance from the cell to the scaffold is not more than a dozen yards.”[15]

Pearcey reportedly looked “pinched” and pale when she stepped outside into the sunlight. Her face purportedly had lost all its roundness and attractiveness. She offered no resistance when she was placed on the truncheons platform over the pit. She also submitted silently to the white cap as it was drawn over her head. Berry then “expeditiously adjusted the rope, stepped to the right-hand side, pulled the lever controlling the bolt, and all was over, the vertebrae of the women’s neck being broken by this six-feet drop, and death having been instantaneous. There was no hitch, and hardly a quiver of the rope.”[16]

Execution of Mary Pearcey

Mary Pearcey’s execution. Author’s collection.

The execution of Mary Pearcey happened at one minute to eight o’clock. It was reported that the clock at St. Sepulchre’s had not struck the hour when the black flag was raised at the gaol signaling her death. Later in the day, Dr. Gilbert (the medical officer) said that her execution could not have gone any better. As to the crowd waiting outside the prison the Western Mail out of Cardiff, South Glamorgan, Wales provided this description:

“On the signal that this unenviable task [Pearcey’s hanging] had been accomplished, a loud, exulting, cheer went up from the immense crowd stretching away from the entrance to the Old Baily to the Holborn end of the prison. It was a demonstration in which the voice of old and young people blended together in a strange chorus of satisfaction that Mrs. Pearcy had paid the penalty of her crimes. Some of the spectators seemed astonished at the general cheering, and others who did not join it, including a number of elderly women, laughed unrestrainedly as the vast concourse hurried from the scene.”[17]

The Weekly Dispatch gave a slightly different description of the scene after the execution of Mary Pearcey. It detailed how morbid satisfaction was achieved by the crowd and how many people were “fiercely denunciatory” of her actions. Their version also demonstrated little sympathy for the executed women’s plight:

“[T]he termination of Mrs. Pearcey’s sad career evoked brutal instincts. Immediately the somber square of sable stuff was seen to take shape upon the mast erected upon the roof of the debtor’s wing, and just above the door which formerly was used as an exit when prisoners were executed in the Old Baily, there was a subdued hush. But only for a moment. A lad shouted, ‘She’s gone for ever!’ and at once were heard loud execrations of the murderess, which were drowned in repeated cheers, the mob then numbering about 2,000 men and boys … relief appeared to be derived from this unseemly conduct.”[18]

After Pearcey’s body hung for about an hour it was cut down. It was reported that Dr. Francis Gilbert, “the medical officer of the prison, gave a formal certificate that the culprit was dead. … [and also] said the sentence was carried out in every way in a satisfactory manner, a drop of 6ft. being given [to the condemned].”[19] In addition, Duffield stated later that day:

“To the last … Pearcey continued to behave gently and quietly and displayed no bravado or desire to pose before the world in that spirit … [and he also stated that] he had always found the prisoner … sane, and she had never said anything to implicate any person whatsoever. On the other hand, she had left a letter (to Clara Hogg, Frank’s sister) in which she had exonerated Frank Hogg from all blame in connection with the crime.”[20]

Like many other famous Victorian-era murderers, Mary Pearcy was suggested as a suspect in Jack the Ripper cases. In fact, she was apparently the only female suspect mentioned at the time. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had speculated that Jack the Ripper might be female, as a woman could have easily pretended to be a midwife and therefore be seen in public wearing bloody clothing without arousing suspicion. This theory was expanded upon in 1939 by William Stewart in his book Jack the Ripper: A New Theory, which specifically named Pearcey in connection with the Ripper crimes. However, all evidence presented was circumstantial and no physical evidence or eyewitness reports was ever linked to Pearcey related to any of the Ripper murders.

References:

  • [1] The Weekly Dispatch, “Mrs. Pearcy Executed,” December 28, 1890, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Manchester Evening News, “Mary Eleanor Wheeler or Pearcy,” December 23, 1890, p. 2.
  • [5] Western Mail, “The Hampstead Murder,” December 24, 1890, p. 6.
  • [6] The Weekly Dispatch, p. 4.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The Freeman’s Journal, “How Murderers Die,” April 18, 1892, p. 7.
  • [14] The Weekly Dispatch, p. 4.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Western Mail, p. 6.
  • [18] The Weekly Dispatch, p. 4.
  • [19] Western Mail, p. 6.
  • [20] The Weekly Dispatch, p. 4.

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2 Comments

  1. Terri on April 5, 2023 at 2:33 am

    It is sad of the manner in which women have been subjected through the centuries. Denied education, freedom, more or less enslaved. It is clear that men, of any race, have always had the upper hand. We will never know the extent of great things that could have been had women had the same opportunities as men. It is something that should be considered moving forward. I cannot honestly say that crime would not occur if we were all highly educated or came from a different background. However, those given an opportunity, education, and support may have chosen a positive path leading to greater things. We should all aspire to creating positive experiences for all. If we could, perhaps, crimes such as this would not happen.

  2. Hels on April 5, 2023 at 5:19 pm

    I find capital punishment difficult enough to absorb, but the pleasure that the public enjoyed watching the execution was obscene. So the Pearcey story is important, even now, to watch our recent (1890) history unfold.

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