Oxford History: Executions at the Castle: reformed mode  

The following article published in Jackson's Oxford Journal on 14 May 1887 describes the improved scaffold first used in Oxford that year at the execution of Charles Smith, a gipsy who had murdered his wife on Bullingdon Common. It gives a very full picture of the procedure:

The arrangements for it were vastly improved upon, so far as the gallows was concerned, upon those previously in existence. On former occasions of private executions the criminals had to walk a long distance after being pinioned, and for some 40 or 50 yards the repulsive object was in full view of the condemned; it was then erected in the Deputy-Governor's garden, immediately under the north wall of the Castle tower, where the boundary wall joins it, and it had to be ascended by a ladder of seven steps, a much too trying an ordeal for the unfortunate persons going to their doom in the last few moments of existence.

Two years ago, when Boddington was under sentence of death for the murder of Beckley in Blenheim Park the authorities had constructed, inside the Prison, a new scaffold on the latest approved principles, and everything was then in readiness for the execution. However, the prisoner was reprieved, and the apparatus, on being wanted at Worcester, was removed thither, and quite recently a fresh one was made. It is in a part of the old buildings of the Prison, where apparently two cells have been knocked into one, and the trap-doors when open disclose a pit some 12 or 14 feet deep, which formerly contained a boiler. The beam overhead is fixed in the wall and is painted black, and in the centre is an iron band from which depends a ring, through which the rope is passed.

The instrument was inspected by the authorities and the executioner, Berry, of Bradford, on Saturday, and was found to work in the easiest possible manner. Berry was accommodated in the Prison during his stay here, and on Sunday he walked round Iffley and about that locality; he is a man of about five feet seven inches, with fair hair, and slight whiskers, beard, and moustache, of fresh complexion, and full face, and he was attired in a rather light-coloured suit, with a still lighter helmet-shaped cap. Precisely at a quarter to eight o'clock the mournful tones of the Prison bell struck the ear, and at that moment the three representatives f the local Press presented their orders of admission at the gate and were admitted to the entrance lodge. The culprit had partaken of the Holy Communion in the Chapel at half-past seven, and on returning to his cell the chaplain, who had remained in the Prison through the night, engaged in prayer with him. There the reporters remained until 5 minutes to 8, and then they proceeded to the steps of A bloc just inside which Berry was observed leaning against an iron railing with his pinioning gear in his right hand. It then wanted three minutes to eight o'clock, and Berry remarked to the Governor in a cool and business-like manner “I am ready.” Mr. Davenport, the Under-Sheriff, consulted his watch, as did also several others gathered around, and at one minute to the hour Berry was told to proceed with his work.

The cell in which the culprit was confined was within a dozen yards, and on his entrance the Chaplain quitted the place and remained standing in the corridor until the executioner had adjusted the belt round the boy of the prisoner. He first of all shook hands with Smith, and while putting on the straps he said, “You've no need to put these things on me, I'll give you no trouble.” This occupied about a minute, and the procession to the place of execution then moved across the corridor and along a dark passage for a distance of about 20 yards in all, in the following order:—First the Chaplain in his surplice, the chief warder (Mr. Riordon), the culprit, surrounded by warders, the Under-Sheriff, the Governor (Lieut.-Colonel Isaacson), the surgeon (Dr. Spencer), the Sheriff's Officer (Mr. H. Ives), the representatives of the Press, and more warders. The Chaplain, immediately the procession started, commenced reading the opening sentence of the Burial service, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord. He that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.” The condemned man walked without assistance, and then sharply turning to the left in about three paces he stood under the beam. Berry placed him on the required spot on the drop, and while putting a strap on the convict's legs he experienced a slight difficulty, owing to the left leg being drawn up through disease of the hop, and thus causing him to walk lame. The executioner made a remark, and the culprit said, in a tone just above a whisper, “I can't.” The strap was, however, quickly buckled, and then Berry produced a carefully folded white cap from his pocket, and while drawing it over the head of the criminal those who stood nearest heard him faintly ejaculate, “Oh, dear.” The Chaplain had directly on entering the place gone round to the edge of the drop, where he knelt in front of the condemned man, and prayed in an intensely fervent manner, saying, “Oh, Lord, have mercy on this man's soul,” “O, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity, three persons and one God, have mercy on this man's soul.” The impressiveness of the prayers thus being offered and the awfulness of the moment affected the bystanders to a great degree. Berry reached down the end of the rope, which had been put up on the ledge of one of the grated windows, and put the noose round the prisoner's neck, paying particular attention to placing the ring through which the rope worked under the left ear, and having drawn it rather tightly, he motioned to the two warders who were supporting the culprit to stand clear. They moved away, and Berry grasped the handle of the lever, and although scarcely a moment of time had elapsed, the hapless man fell sideways to the right and backwards in a dead faint. Berry had allowed, according to the Government regulations, a drop of only four feet, and as Smith had fallen nearly to the floor the slack rope had nearly all been used, as it were, but the flaps then opening, the body fell, and with a violent side jerk it was brought into a perpendicular position. There were some slight convulsive quivers of the shoulders, but death must have been instantaneous, and even if it were not, the fact that he had fainted had, in the opinion of the surgeon, the same effect as if he had been under the influence of chloroform. Thus, being insensible, he met with a painless death. The movements of the shoulders, the executioner afterwards remarked, were such as were nearly always noticeable, and were merely the death quiver which passed through the body. As the body disappeared the Chaplain said, “O, Lord, have mercy upon him,” and he engaged in silent prayer for a few moments immediately the dreadful tragedy had been enacted. When he rose, the surgeon reached down into the pit for the purpose of ascertaining if there were indications of life by feeling the pulse of the suspended man, but as the bands were too low down, a ladder, standing close by, was put into the pit, by which he descended, and he then pronounced life to be extinct. The executioner certainly performed his abhorrent duties with expedition, and the rope that was the same with which he hanged Rudge, one of the Cumberland burglars, at Carlisle. The body was left hanging for an hour, those who had witnessed the execution having retired directly it had taken place, and at the end of that time it was lifted up, the rope taken off, and it was then laid alongside the drop, on the floor, to await the inquest.

A crowd, estimated at about six or seven hundred persons, congregated in the New-road, and when the drop fell a black flag was hoisted to the top of a pole on the front of the prison, to signify that the law had been carried out.

The representatives of the Press are under a great debt of obligation to the Under-Sheriff, and the Governor and other officials of the Prison, for their courtesy in the discharge of a painful but necessary duty.

The culprit left behind no confession of any kind, written or otherwise; in fact, it is understood that he to the last denied that he ever had any premeditation in his mind, or intention whatever, to take his wife's life.

At several of the churches and chapels in this City on Sunday reference was made to the approaching execution, and prayers were offered on behalf of the unhappy man. At Merton College Chapel, the Rev. G. Noel Freeling, the preacher of the day, made mention in his sermons of the Bishop, a a former Postmaster of that College, sacrificing all other considerations to a high sense f duty in visiting the condemned man. Special communion services were held at St. Paul's and St. Barnabas Churches at the time of the execution, and intercessory prayers were offered, and the beautiful hymn, “Rock of Ages,” was sung by the communicants.

Before leaving the prison those who had witnessed the execution signed the usual certificate, which was posed outside at the entrance gate in the New-road at nine o'clock, under the provisions of the Capital Punishment Act 1868.

This was followed by a transcript of that official declaration and the surgical certificate, and the description of the inquest on Smith's body, held in the new Visiting Justices' Committee-room of the prison.

© Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 29 August, 2023

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