Thriller Thursday ~ Sentenced to Hang

Catch up! Previous posts in this series before you read “Sentences to Hang”:

~Accident or Murder

~The Vanishing

~The Fate of Rhoda

~Dear John

~The Coroner’s Inquest

Reading Gaol

Reading Gaol

The inquest verdict, “Willful murder” and the assize trial upholding this result, there was nothing left for the judge but to pass sentencing.  As was the customary punishment for murder, my great-great grandfather John Carter was sentenced to hang.  Just as the line of a movie, the judge was quoted as saying:

“I have nothing to do but to pass upon you the sentence of the law, and that sentence is, that you be taken to the place from whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck till you be dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

Sent to the infamous Reading Gaol to await his fate, John Carter, spent many days in prison to dwell upon his crimes, contemplate his death, and make his peace.

In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called,
And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangman’s hands were near.

Excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s Poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)

Tuesday December 5th, 1893 the hangman’s noose was ready.  A hangman of renown and experience in England, James Billington–chief executioner of Great Britain and Ireland from 1891-1901–would be in control of the rope which encircled John’s neck and would soon violently jerk his head backward and sideways, fracture and crush his vertabrae, and soon cause him to cease breathing. 8 am John Carter was dropped!  That long drop through a trap door, a perfect penance for a heinous murder, by Capital Punishment advocate standards. Billington, it was said, had a lifelong fascination with hanging.  Creating model gallows in his yard, using weights and dummies, and rumoured use of neighbourhood strays. Perhaps the pleasure he took in his job was a sign of a psychy as perverse as that of his “clients”.

James Billington, executioner/hangman.

James Billington, executioner/hangman.

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

Excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s Poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)

John Carter –in an amazing twist of events which opens old wounds– confesses to another crime.  He confesses to the prison chaplain–in his weakest moments and final hours of life–to the murder of his second wife Elizabeth Alder-Carter!  He describes where he had, years prior, unceremoniously and hastily buried her body. Having no reason to offer a confession, perhaps John felt remorse or perhaps he wished to save his soul from damnation–a secret wish for redemption.

John then took the final walk, a walk to the gallows, a walk ending in the swing from a rope!  His body was laid to rest or unrest on the Reading prison grounds. The police however had a new investigation ahead of them, another body to discover.

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