Surviving the Hangman’s Noose in the 1700 and 1800s

Execution by hangings were not always successful and sometimes didn’t turn out as expected. There are several stories about botched hangings and a few about the condemned surviving the hangman’s noose in the 1700 and 1800s. Here are four stories about those who happened to survive being hanged between 1723 and 1885.

Surviving the Hangman's Noose

Creating the hangman’s noose. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The first story of surviving the hangman’s noose begins in 1723. A young man was serving as an apprentice to a master sail maker and decided to leave London to visit his hometown of Deal, about 80 miles away. It was a long trip, and on his way, he needed a bed for a night and eventually obtained one at a public house. However, he had to share it with the inn keeper’s uncle, a sailor who was a boatswain.

When he met the boatswain in the room, they talked amiably before saying good night and falling asleep. The young man reported that his bedmate snored loudly and that around one in the morning the boatswain’s snoring woke him up and he went outside for some fresh air. He claimed that when he returned, he found the boatswain missing but thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. In the morning the young man awoke refreshed, dressed, and departed for Deal.

When the boatswain did not appear for breakfast, the innkeeper went in search of her uncle and found “marks of blood” throughout the room where he had been sleeping. She decided her uncle had been murdered and his body thrown into the sea, and she blamed the young man as his assassin. She went to police and they issued a warrant for his arrest.

When the young man was discovered, investigators found he had blood on his clothes and knife. They also found him with a coin that the inn keeper swore belonged to her uncle. The young man declared his innocence and continued to do so even at trial. However, he could give no proper explanation as to the blood in the room and so the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

“In those time it was sometimes permitted to the friends of the hanging man to gather around his form after he had been turned off, and ‘shore’ him up by the lifting pressure of their shoulders. The young fellow seems to have had friends who were willing to help him in this way in the supreme moment of his tragical necessity. Besides, his executioner was a bit of a blunderer. The young fellow was tall and the executioner’s rope was long, and when the cart drove off the youth’s toes touched the ground. His friend pressed round him; the sheriff and the hangman conversed with their eyes amiably averted from the gibbet. After hanging half an hour, the malefactor was cut down, popped into a shell that was ready at hand, and hurried away at a gallop either to his mother’s or some other person’s house. A surgeon-barber … was speedily in attendance; a vein was opened, the young fellow sighed and returned to life, and, when sufficiently recovered, spirited out by his friends … He made way to Portsmouth and entered on a man-of-war, outward bound within an hour or two of his making his appearance.”[1]

For the next few years the young man sailed the seas, and then one day he stepped onto a frigate in the West Indies. To his surprise he came face to face with boatswain, the same man whom he had been convicted of murdering. According to reports:

“It turned out that the boatswain had been bled for a pain in the side on the day of the young man’s arrival at Deal. When his bedfellow quitted the room, he found … the bandage had come off his arm during the night, and that the vein was again bleeding freely. He jumped out of bed and hastily dressed himself, with the intention of calling up a barber, who lived a few houses away, but as he stepped out of the door of the public-house, a pressgang rounding the corner, pounced upon him and carried him to the quay. He was tumbled into a boat that lay in waiting and … shortly afterwards weighed for the West Indies.”[2]

Surviving the Hangman's Noose

The Sailor’s Return, C. Mosley, 1750. Courtesy of National Maritime Museum.

Another more shocking story of surviving the hangman’s noose involves Margaret (or Margret) Dickson, who became nicknamed “ill hangit Maggy Dickson.” She was executed in 1724 for killing her child. Her troubles began when her husband was at sea and she committed fornication and became pregnant by another man. Unfortunately, in Scotland, any woman who committed fornication was punished publicly, and because she wanted to avoid punishment, she concealed her pregnancy, but she could not do it forever.

Dickson eventually gave birth. As to whether the baby was born alive or not remains in question. However, at some point the child was discovered dead, and she was blamed, apprehended, and sent to trial. A doctor at trial then claimed the child was alive and that she killed it, despite her remaining steadfast in her innocence. She was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to the gallows where she was hanged.

After the execution, her body was transported on a bier to Musselburgh for burial. However, during the trip, the day was extremely hot, and the men transporting her extremely thirsty. They finally stopped for refreshments and while doing so one of the men heard a noise coming from the coffin. He went to the cart, moved the lid off, and to his surprise, Dickson suddenly sat up.

It shock him so much, he and the other men bolted, but a gardener who was also having a drink, saw what happened and was much less surprised. In fact, he opened the coffin and bled Dickson, and, supposedly, within an hour of this intervention, she revived. She was also recovered enough to get out of the coffin, and, the next day, being fully recovered, she walked home to Musselburgh under her own power.

Surviving the Hangman's Noose

Margaret Dickson rising from her coffin. Public domain.

Because of various laws at the time, Dickson was considered to have been executed and because she was declared dead, she could no longer be charged with a crime. After her miraculous recovery she became extremely popular prompting a report that read:

“Tuesday last the famous Margaret Dickson (who so cannily outwitted John Dalgleish in the Grass-market) came to town from Musselburgh. Peoples curiosity was such, to see a hanged woman appear in the streets … that she’d infallibly been trode down or stifled in the crowd, but that she got into the house of John Hood, (one of the keepers of the tolbooth and a Gospel Relation of hers who conveyed her off by a back-door.”[3]

A third story of a person surviving the hangman’s noose happened in 1752. It all began when a fight broke out on 23 May 1752 at a public house in the Bigg Market at Newcastle. The argument involved 19-year-old Ewan “Owen” MacDonald and a cooper named Robert Parker. It started out initially as a heated exchange but soon escalated into vicious blows. Hoping to escape the confrontation, Parker left with some other men, but MacDonald followed them outside and then “wickedly stabbed” him in the neck instantly killing Parker.

Macdonald was then surrounded by a crowd of furious men seeking revenge and during the fight, he ultimately broke another man’s arm. As the fight raged on, authorities were sent for and MacDonald was arrested and placed in the guard house. He remained confined there until he was sent to Newgate. Of the incident it was reported:

“On Saturday Night the following melancholy Accident happened at a Publick House in the Big market in this Town. One Ewen Macdonald, a Soldier in Guise’s Regiment, now quartered here, being at Supper, and some Company coming in, out of Sport said a few babbling Things to him, which he warmly resenting, occasioned Blows, and the said Macdonald, in the Fury of his Passion, stabbed one of the Company, viz. Mr. Robert Parker, a Cooper here, in the Neck with a Knife, in so cruel a Manner that he died immediately. The above Mr. Parker was a sober industrious young Man, and was not concerned in promoting the quarrel. The Coroner’s Inquest brought in their Verdict, Wilful Murder. The Soldier is committed to Newgate, and closely confined in Irons, in order to take his Trial at the next Assizes.”[4]

There was considerable newspaper interest and there was also conjecture that if MacDonald was found guilty, a public dissection of his corpse would occur. At the time, the only corpses available for dissection were executed criminals. This meant doctors and students regarded such corpses as rare and thought of them as valuable because it allowed students to learn about human anatomy firsthand. Moreover, if MacDonald was dissected, his dissection would be one of the first to happen in the Northern counties of Georgian England.

At trial MacDonald was easily convicted of “wilful murder” and sentenced to be executed on 28 September. Unfortunately, when he went before the executioner he behaved as unruly as he had at the public house. He was so combative he threw the executioner off the ladder, but that did not mean he escaped his punishment. He was hanged and afterwards his corpse sent for dissection.

When it arrived at Newcastle’s Barber Surgeons’ Hall there were plenty of enthusiastic surgeons and eager students wanting to participate in or witness the dissection. Unfortunately, when surgeons and students went to the infirmary, they were shocked by what they saw. According to local records:

“[They] found Macdonald so far recovered as to be sitting up; he immediately begged for mercy, but a young surgeon not wishing to be disappointed of the dissection, seized a wooden mall with which he deprived him of life. It was further reported, as the just vengeance of God, that this young man was soon after killed in the stable by his own horse.”[5]

The final story of a survivor is John “Babbacombe” Lee. He survived the noose in a most unusual way. He was convicted in 1885 for having brutally murdered his employer, an elderly spinster named Emma Keyse, on 15 November 1884 at her home in Babbacombe Bay near Torquay.

Surviving the Hangman's Noose

John Lee. Author’s collection.

Lee was born on 15 August 1864 in Abbotskerswell. When he was a young boy he began serving in the navy, but by the time he was eighteen, he was considered unfit for naval service having contracted pneumonia. He then began to pursue an occupation as a footman but was soon arrested for stealing from his employer and sent to Exeter Prison. After his release he then began working for Keyse.

When Keyse’s was found, she had been bludgeoned to death with an axe, her throat slashed by a knife, and her body partially burnt because her house had been set on fire to cover up the crime. Investigators also found a pool of blood in the hall and under the stairs. A hatchet was also located in the dining room with blood on it. In addition, the dining room window was smashed in and smears of blood and some pieces of skin were found on it. Other traces of blood were also found elsewhere in the residence.

Surviving the Hangman's Noose in the 1700 and 1800s

Portion of the front page of The Illustrated Police News on 6 December 1884 showing Keyse’s murder. Author’s collection.

Lee had practically no legal help as his trial drew near. A solicitor named R. Gwynne Templer finally offered to assist him but two days before the trial he was stricken ill and could not attend. In his place he sent his younger brother Charles. Ultimately, Lee’s defense was poorly prepared, no one was cross examined, and no witness were called on his behalf.

Evidence against Lee was weak, and he constantly claimed throughout the trial that he was innocent. However, that did not stop the jury from convicting him. He was found guilty partly because he had a previous record for being a thief, which caused everyone to think he was therefore more likely to have committed the murder. In addition, he was the only male in the house at the time, the deed was committed close to his room, and he had an unexplained cut on his arm.

His execution was set to be carried out on 23 February 1885 at Exeter Prison by the executioner James Berry. He readied Lee to die, but when the lever was pressed, the trapdoor failed to open. Berry tried two more attempts to hang Lee, but they also failed even though Berry had tested the trapdoor beforehand. After the third failed attempt, the proceedings were halted, and, as result, the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life in prison.

Various reasons were given for the trap door not working that included the woodwork had become swollen because of rain. Later, however, an investigation was conducted, and investigators discovered that when the gallows were moved from the old infirmary to the coach house, one of the draw bars became slightly misaligned, thereby preventing the trapdoor from opening. Because of this technical problem, Lee’s life was saved, and he became known thereafter as “The Man They Couldn’t Hang.”

Like many other well-known criminals of these times, Lee soon ended up in Madame Tussaud‘s wax museum. The museum must have thought him guilty and probably wanted to see him executed because in their 1886 catalog he was cited as “one of the most cruel and inhuman of modern criminals.”[6] His wax figure remained on display for some twenty years.

References:

  • [1] Lancashire Evening Post, “An Innocent Man Half Hanged,” August 31, 1889, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] The Scots Magazine v. 70 (Edinburgh: Sands, Brymer, Murray and Cochran, 1808), p. 906.
  • [4] Manchester Mercury, “Country-News,” June 9, 1752, p. 3.
  • [5] J. Sykes, Local Records v. 1 (Newcastle: John Sykes, 1833), p. 202.
  • [6] Madame Tussaud and Sons’ Exhibition, Biographical and Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose the Unrivalled Exhibition and Historical Gallery of Madame Tussaud and Sons (London: G. Cole, 1866), p. 56.

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