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A PRIVATE EXECUTION.
I WAS quietly fiddling away one evening in the Civil
Service band at King's College, as was my custom
while my leisure was larger than at present, when
the gorgeous porter of the college entered with a
huge billet which he placed on my music-stand with
a face of awe. It was addressed to me, and in the
corner of it was written "Order for Execution." The
official waited to see how I bore it, and seemed rather
surprised that I went on with my fiddling, and
smilingly said, "All right." I knew it was an order
from the authorities of Horsemonger Lane Gaol admitting
me to the private execution of Margaret
Waters, the notorious baby-farmer.
If anything is calculated to promote the views of those who advocate the abolition of capital punishment, it is the fact of a woman meeting her death at the hands of the common hangman. There is something abhorrent, especially to the mind of the stronger sex, in the idea of a female suffering the extreme penalty of the law. On the other hand, the crime for which Margaret Waters suffered - which is too much a cause celebre to need recapitulation - is [-218-] exactly the one that would exile her from the sympathy of her own sex. Whilst therefore her case left the broad question much in the same position as before, we are not surprised to find that strenuous efforts bad been made to obtain a commutation of the sentence. Mr. Gilpin, Mr. Samuel Morley, and Mr. Raines had been conspicuous for their efforts in the cause of mercy. All, however, had been to no purpose. Margaret Waters was privately executed within the walls of Horsemonger Lane Gaol at nine o'clock. It was a thankless errand that called one from one's bed whilst the moon was still struggling with the feeble dawn of an October morning, and through streets already white with the incipient frost of approaching winter, to see a fellow-creature - and that a woman - thus hurried out of existence. On arriving at the gloomy prison-house I saw a fringe of roughs lounging about, anxious to catch a glimpse, if only of the black flag that should apprize them of the tragedy they were no longer privileged to witness. Even these, however, did not muster in strong force until the hour of execution drew near. On knocking at the outer wicket, the orders of admission were severely scrutinized, and none allowed to pass except those borne by the representatives of the press, or persons in some way officially connected with the impending "event." There was an air of grim "business" about all present, which showed plainly that none were there from choice, nor any who would [-219-] not feel relief when the fearful spectacle was over. After assembling, first of all, in the porter's lodge, we were conducted by the governor, Mr. Keene, to the back of the prison, through courtyards and kitchen gardens ; and in a corner of one of the former we came upon the ghastly instrument of death itself. Here half-a-dozen warders only were scattered about, and Mr. Calcraft was arranging his paraphernalia with the air of a connoisseur. I remember - so strangely does one's mind take in unimportant details at such a crisis - being greatly struck with the fine leeks which were growing in that particular corner of the prison garden where the grim apparatus stood, and we - some five-and-twenty at most, and all in the way of " business" - stood, too, waiting for the event !
Then ensued a quarter of an hour's pause, in that cold morning air, when suddenly boomed out the prison bell, that told us the last few minutes of the convict's life had come. The pinioning took place within the building; and on the stroke of nine, the gloomy procession emerged, the prisoner walking between the chaplain and Calcraft, with a firm step, and even mounting the steep stair to the gallows without needing assistance. She was attired in a plaid dress with silk mantle, her head bare, and hair neatly arranged.
As this was my fist. experience in private hanging, I do not mind confessing that I misdoubted my powers of endurance. I put a small brandy-flask in [-220-] my pocket, and stood close by a corner around which I could retire if the sight nauseated me ; but such is the strange fascination attaching to exhibitions even of this horrible kind, that I pushed forward with the rest, and when the governor beckoned me on to a "good place," I found myself standing in the front rank with the rest of my confreres, and could not help picturing what that row of upturned, unsympathizing, pitiless faces must have looked like to the culprit as contrasted with the more sympathetic crowds that used to be present at a public execution.
One of the daily papers in chronicling this event went so far as to point a moral on the brutalizing effect of such exhibitions from my momentary hesitation and subsequent struggle forward into the front rank. The convict's perfect sang froid had a good deal to do with my own calmness, I expect.
When the executioner had placed the rope round her neck, and the cap on her head ready to be drawn over the face, she uttered a long and fervent prayer, expressed with great volubility and propriety of diction, every word of which could be distinctly heard by us as we circled the scaffold. She could not have rounded her periods more gracefully or articulated them more perfectly, if she had rehearsed her part beforehand! Though most of the spectators were more or less inured to scenes of horror, several were visibly affected, one kneeling on the bare ground, and another leaning, overcome with emotion, against the [-221-] prison wall. At last she said to the chaplain, "Mr. Jessopp, do you think I am saved?" A whispered reply from the clergyman conveyed his answer to that momentous question All left the scaffold except the convict. The bolt was withdrawn, and, almost without a struggle, Margaret Waters ceased to exist. Nothing could exceed the calmness and propriety of her demeanour, and this, the chaplain informed us, had been the case throughout since her condemnation. She had been visited on one occasion by a Baptist minister, to whose persuasion she belonged; but he had; at her own request, forborne to repeat his visit. The prisoner said he was evidently unused to cases like hers, and his ministrations rather distracted than comforted her. The chaplain of the gaol had been unremitting in his attentions, and seemingly with happy effect. Though she constantly persisted in saying she was not a murderess in intent, she was yet brought to see her past conduct in its true light ; and on the previous Saturday received the Holy Communion in her cell with one of her brothers. Two of them visited her, and expressed the strongest feelings of attachment. In fact, the unhappy woman seemed to have been deeply attached to and beloved by all the members of her family. She had, since her condemnation, eaten scarcely anything, having been kept alive principally by stimulants. Although this, of course, induced great bodily weakness, she did not, from the fist exhibit any physical fear of death. On [-222-] the night before her execution - that peaceful moonlit night - when so many thoughts must have turned to this unhappy woman, she slept little, and rose early. The chaplain had arranged to be with her at eight, hut she sent for him an hour earlier, and he continued with her until the end. On Monday night she penned a long statement addressed to Mr. Jessopp. This was written with a firm hand on four sides of a foolscap sheet, expressed with great perspicuity, and signed with the convict's name. Whilst still repudiating the idea of being a murderess in intent, she pleaded guilty to great deceit, and to having obtained money under false pretences. If she had not given proper food, that, she contended, was an error of judgment. It was hard, she thought, that she should be held accountable for the child who died in the workhouse. She dwelt much upon the difficulties brought upon her by her dread of the money-lender - that fungus growth of our so-called civilization, who has brought so many criminals to the gallows, besides ruining families every day in each year of grace! That she had administered laudanum she denied. The evidence as to the dirty condition of the children she asserted to be false. She wished to avoid all bitterness ; but those who had so deposed had sworn falsely. "I feel sure their consciences will condemn then, to-night," she wrote, "for having caused the death of a fellow-creature." In the face of the evidence, she felt the jury could not find any other [-223-] verdict, or the judge pass any other sentence than had been done. The case had been got up, she argued, to expose a system which was wrong. Parents wished to get rid of their ill-gotten offspring. Their one thought was to hide their own shame. "They," she concluded, "are the real sinners. If it were not for their sin, we should not be sought after."
There must surely be some whose consciences these words will prick. However this woman deserved the bitter penalty she has now paid, there is indeed a tremendous truth in her assertion that she, and such as she, are but the supply which answers their demand.
And so we filed away as the autumnal sun shone down upon that gloomy spectacle, leaving her to the " crowner's 'quest," and the dishonoured grave in the prison precincts. Up to the previous night strong hopes of a commutation of the sentence were entertained. Her brothers had memorialized the Home Secretary, and were only on the previous day informed that the law must take its course. Let us hope that this stern example will put a stop, not only to "babyfarming," which, as the dead woman truly said, is but a consequence of previous crime - but also to those "pleasant vices" which are its antecedents and encouragements.