Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXVII - A Private Execution

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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.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875