William Marwood was born in 1818 in the village of Goulceby. He was the fifth of ten children born to William and Elizabeth Marwood and became a cobbler like his father. However, he harbored a deep desire to be an executioner and eventually did becoming the chief executioner for London and Middlesex from 1874 until 1883.
Before becoming the chief executioner for London and Middlesex, William Marwood assisted William Calcraft,* one of the most prolific of British executioners who is estimated to have carried out 450 executions during his career. As his assistant Marwood was reported to have “showed expertness in discharging the ghastly duties of his office.” So, when Calcraft retired it seemed only fitting that Marwood would assume the executioner’s position and in that role he stood out. According to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph:
“What made [William Marwood] particularly notorious was his introduction of the ‘long drop,’ by which he claimed to have dispensed with all unnecessary torture. Calcraft not unfrequently gave his victims a drop of no more than three or four feet, the consequence being that many painful scenes were enacted in full view of a horrified public. Marwood’s system has been to allow a fall varying from 7 1/2 ft to 9 1/2 feet, and by a dexterous adjustment of the noose under the chin has almost invariably managed to secure instantaneous death.”
As the chief executioner, William Marwood liked talking to the press. He frequently gave interviews of what it was like to be an executioner and in 1883 a newspaper correspondent met with him. At the time Marwood explained his views on strangulation and on his ability to do his job, which the correspondent summed up:
“Marwood … claims his system a superiority over any other in the known world. For years, he says, he has made the question a subject of study and is prepared to meet scientists to argue the matter of hanging with them. He claims that his executions are carried out as quickly as a flash of lightening, and altogether without pain to the condemned. The culprit rarely every raises so much as a finger, nor is there but exceedingly seldom the least quivering of the body. Compared with the guillotine his way is greatly superior, as by the former method there is considerable motion of the body after the execution, the lungs work for some time after the head is severed, and the death is a lingering one. By his system the neck is quickly dislocated, the spinal cord is broken, and the rope is so adjusted round the neck that the fall tightens it; the airpipes are thus closed, the lungs cease, and apoplexy is produced, so that the culprit is quite insensible, and, in fact, death is always instantaneous … Marwood … with some pride asserted, ‘I am quite willing to meet. The modus operandi cannot be improved upon. … Advertising again to his own system and its superiority to all others, led him to speak of ‘the old man,’ as he described Calcraft, who, he said used to strangle his clients, and this process was accompanied with great pain and suffering, and, he added, this opinion could be confirmed by all the gaol officials in England. The suggestion that the condemned men should have poison administered to them, or that they should be killed by electricity, he entirely scouted, and, if adopted, it would be disgrace to the English. Let a man meet his fate like a man.”
During his career William Marwood hanged several infamous murders. One of the most notorious was Charles Peace, who had embarked on a life of crime after being maimed in an industrial accident as boy. He later killed a Manchester policeman and then fled to Sheffield where he became obsessed with his neighbor’s wife eventually shooting and killing her husband. Peace then settled in London, carried out multiple burglaries, and shot a Blackheath policeman. Fortunately, authorities caught Peace, who was then linked to the Sheffield murder, tried and convicted.
He was hanged by Marwood at Armley Prison and of his execution the Cambrian News reported:
“Just as Marwood was about to put on the cap, Peace, with a wave of his hand, dissented. ‘God have mercy upon me,’ he said. Then addressing the reporters, he said, ‘Gentlemen,’ but the executioner did not hear, and he said to Marwood, ‘Do stop a bit if you please.’ Marwood immediately desisted, and Peace turning to the reporters, said: ‘Gentlemen. … You know that my life has been base and bad, but I desire to show you, the reporters, how a man can die ― a man who dies in the fear of the Lord. … I feel sure my sins are forgiven, and that I am going to the Kingdom of Heaven, … I hope I have no enemies, but if I have I freely forgive them all. … [A few minutes later he said] ‘Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,’ Marwood, who had adjusted the cap and rope, moved the lever, the door fell, and Peace dropped instantly. He entirely disappeared from view with a drop of eight feet, and death was immediate ― in fact, he never moved after he fell.”
During the nine years William Marwood served as executioner of London and Middlesex he executed 176 people. Besides Peace, Marwood also executed William Frederick Horry (an Englishman who murdered his wife and was the first person Marwood hanged using the ‘long drop’ method), Henry Wainwright (an English brushmaker who killed his mistress), Kate Webster (an Irish servant who threw her employer down the stairs killing her), Percy Lefroy Mapleton (a British journalist who murdered Frederick Gold on a train for his watch and some coins), and Joe Brady and four other members of the Irish National Invincibles** gang, who murdered the Chief Secretary for Ireland named Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Permanent Under-Secretary for Ireland named Thomas Henry Burke.
Of his 176 executions William Marwood said he never committed a blunder. However, his last execution involved a mishap. The convicted man slated for execution was 33-year-old James Burton. He had murdered his 18-year-old wife after she jabbed him with an umbrella and threatened his life. His execution took place on 6 August 1883 and the Edinburgh Evening News provided the particulars of what happened and the controversy surrounding the execution:
“Marwood … appeared quite indifferent to the criticisms of the newspapers in the north, and stated that they had exaggerated the mishap, which he acknowledged had occurred. … He asserted that there had never been a bungle on his part of any execution yet. Referring to Monday’s execution, he said everything was as well arranged as at other times. The culprit walked from his cell with a weak step, and was duly pinioned and placed on the drop. The noose was properly fixed, but on Marwood leaving and going to the lever the culprit fainted and fell backwards, and in falling his left elbow was caught in the slack of the rope, but this did not occur until after the lever had been pulled by the executioner. Marwood, without a moment’s delay, raised the culprit to the edge of the pit, and removed the rope from his elbow, instantly letting him fall again into the pit below, and dislocation of the neck took place immediately, … He empathically denied that the noose slipped on to the face of the man. It never moved an inch from where it was placed, and it never had to be adjusted. Questioned as to his opinion of the system, he affirmed that it was the most humane and quickest in the whole world. As to the insinuations of being drunk Marwood declares that is quite false, as he had only had a cup of tea that morning. With regards to the statement that his ropes had been exhibited on the previous Sunday, Marwood states that they were never seen by anyone in Durham till Monday, when they were placed on the gallows. Referring to the charge of his parading the streets of Durham with the same pride as a victorious army general, and refusing private quarters in the prison, Marwood again states that all this is far from the truth. He understood that there was no accommodation in the jail, so he went to a hotel … ‘The prison,’ he added, ‘is the fittest place for me to stay in, and I always stay there if I am allowed.’”
Executioners almost alway received some sort of threats during their careers and William Marwood was no execption. Although most were found to be hoaxes, he did receive several threats from from the Irish National Invincibles. One of the alleged threats from this group was dated 19 May 1882 and mailed to him from Dublin. It stated:
“Marwood ― It was decided last night at meeting of the Secret Association here to forward this communication to you, to the effect that no doubt you are longing intensely for the job to murder us here by your rope for the wilful murder of Burke and Cavendish. Well, don’t’ be in a hurry, for although we are all in Dublin we are not caught yet, and not likely for this paltry ten thousand pound. Should we be arrested and convicted, on the peril of your life you must not set your foot upon the soil of this city, or part of this country of Ireland. If you do you will never go out of it alive You very narrowly escaped from Armagh the last time you were there, but you will not escape the next time you come over here, even should you have an escort. We shall manage the whole lot of you about right. We shall have revenge somehow you may depend upon it, and this I tell you once and for all. So now beware. We know you. …Your movement will be telegraphed from here from the time you leave Horncastle until you get here, if you get so far under a false name and false business. We want no hangman in this country to carry out English dirty law . … From Jack of -, the murderers of Burke and Cavendish.”
During Marwood’s tenure as hangman and executioner, there was a great deal of curiosity about him. A person known as D.D.D., who wrote Marwood’s Confession, visited him around 23 August 1883, a week or two before his death. D.D.D. had imagined William Marwood as an “insignificant wizened old man,” but he discovered something different and wrote of him:
“I found him to be a man apparently in the prime of life, and with a substantial respectable look about him that would have done credit to the deacon of any chapel in the country. He had a large head, dark hair, side whiskers, very small moustache, broad shoulders, and big body, but a pair of small shoemaker’s legs. Observed closely, one (unless he was excited) was noticed to be half closed, and his mouth to be cruel and bad in the extreme.”
On 4 September 1883 William Marwood died. His death was unexpected as a few days prior he had traveled to Lincoln. He, however, became suddenly unwell afterwards. Many people questioned why he died so quickly, and some thought foul play might be the cause. Marwood’s doctor thought otherwise and reported that he suffered from jaundice, “congestion of the lungs,” and then died of pneumonia. The coroner came to a similar conclusion and noted after his postmortem examination that Marwood’s death resulted from “acute pneumonia, accelerated by the diseased condition of the liver and kidneys, and that no evidence existed of death from any other than natural causes.”
Marwood was buried at Trinity Church in Horncastle in Lincolnshire. A year after his death a political and humorous journal named the Jingo out of Boston, Massachusetts, wrote the following about him:
“‘The common hangman’ has for centuries been an opprobrious phrase, descriptive of an offensive avocation. In England, from whose common law system we have borrowed the murderer’s gallows and all its ghastly accessories, ― trapdoor, pinions, black cap, and all, ― the common hangman is an object of universal contempt. He goes to his repulsive work by stealth, performs it behind a mask, and slinks away from it in shame, avoiding all, and by all avoided. The public feel that he is a necessary and, in his sphere, a useful functionary; but the repulsive character of his work is none the less real. There is a chamber-of-horrors odor about him that is unmistakable. The late hangman Marwood … used to receive $50 per murderer for his work …. the English Marwood lived unhonored, died unwept, and was no sooner in his grave than his effigy appeared in Madame Tussaud’s London gallery of waxworks, in close and fitting proximity to the murder’s row of that famous exhibition.”
*Like William Marwood, Calcraft was a cobbler by trade. He was initially recruited to flog juvenile offenders at Newgate Prison. While selling meat pies on streets around the prison, Calcraft met John Foxton, the City of London’s hangman, and was appointed the official Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex after Foxton’s death in 1829. Among his most famous executions was the November 1849 execution of Marie and Frederick Manning, the first husband and wife to be hanged together since 1700.
**The Irish National Invincibles, known as the Invincibles, were a splinter group of the Irish Republican Brotherhood active in Dublin between late 1881 and 1883 and intent on killing authorities in Dublin Castle, a major Irish government complex. The Invincibles settled on a plan to kill the Permanent Under Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke. He and the newly installed Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, were walking in Phoenix Park in Dublin when the Invincible assassins struck using surgical knives and killing them on 6 May 1882.
-  Sheffield Daily Telegraph, “Death of Marwood, The Executioner,” September 8, 1883, p. 8.
-  Ibid.
-  Todmorden & District News, “Marwood on Hanging,” August 17, 1883, p. 6.
-  Cambrian News, “The Execution of Charles Peace,” February 28, 1879, p. 6.
-  Edinburgh Evening News, “Marwood on the Durham Execution,” August 10, 1883, p. 4.
-  Sheffield Daily Telegraph, p. 8.
-  DDD and M. Marwood, Marwood’s Confession (1883), p. 2.
-  Dundee Courier, “The Death of Marwood,” September 7, 1883, p. 5.
-  “Jingo: A Journal of Politics and Humor,” 24 September (1884), p. 34.