Hanging a murderer – 1881

Public hangings were brought to an end in Britain by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, but the sentence was still carried out behind closed doors. This is one account of a hanging.

For a few short weeks in 1881, the case of Percy Lefroy was a newspaper sensation.

Lefroy had set out one morning in June 1881 to rob any poor unfortunate who crossed his path. Failing to find a victim at London Bridge station, he ended up on the 2pm train to Brighton, where he came across a wealthy merchant named Gold.

Lefroy (real name Mapleton) shot and stabbed Gold to death and made off with his watch and a few gold coins. Spotted getting off the train at Preston Park , he claimed to have been the victim of a robbery himself.

Despite obvious signs of his involvement, Lefroy was allowed to escape, and remained at large for 10 days. Recaptured, he was tried at Maidstone assizes and found guilty of murder. He was hanged by William Marwood (pictured) at Lewes jail.

This account of Lefroy’s execution appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 30 November 1881 .

Warning: this is an eyewitness account of a hanging. Please stop reading here if you are likely to be upset or offended.

The murderer hanged on the Sussex Downs

Just as the clock was striking half past eight this morning the little wicket gate of the lodge of Lewes jail was opened by a warder for the purpose of admitting some dozen and a half gentlemen who till then had lingered in the garden which belongs to the prison. A bright sunshine had succeeded a gusty night, and was rapidly driving away the mists that still hung over the South Down hills.

At ­last we came to the yard ­– the one for which we were particularly bound – a large irregular space, bounded on one side by the prison, and on three others by high walls, and containing at one end a row of celery trenches carefully banked up. At the end, however, facing that where the vegetables were grown, and closest to the corner of the prison, were two objects which forced themselves upon the view. In the right-hand corner as we looked upon them rose a couple of thick black posts, with a huge cross piece, from which dangled a staple and a long, thick rope; in the other, about 10 yards distance, an open grave.

As we filed into the yard, I noticed that we were being one by one saluted by a somewhat diminutive man clothed in brown cloth, and bearing in his arms a quantity of leather straps. There was nothing apparently in common between the grave and the gallows and the man, and for the moment I imagined that the individual who raised his hat and greeted each arrival with a “good morning, gentlemen,? was a groom who had chanced to pass through the place, bearing a horse’s bridle and headgear, and who was anxious to be civil. But to my horror, the man in the brown coat proved to be no stranger wandering about in the manner I had pictured, but the designer of the horrible structure on the right, and the official most closely connected with that and the open grave. William Marwood it was who thus bade us welcome, and the straps on his arms were nothing less than his “tackle”.

I confess to a shudder as I looked upon the girdle and arm pieces that had done duty on so many a struggling wretch, and half expected that the man who carried them would have attempted to hide them. But no such thing! To him they were implements of high merit, and together with the gallows formed what he now confidentially informed his hearers was “an excellent arrangement”. It was evident that in the gallows and the tackle too he had more than a little pride. He was even ready to explain with much volubility the awful instruments of his craft.

“That rope that you see there,” quoth he, as he gazed admiringly at the crossbar of black wood, “is two and a half inches round. I’ve hung nine with it, and it’s the same I used yesterday.” Nor does he manifest the quaver of a muscle as he went on to point to certain peculiarities of design in his machinery of death. Had he been exhibiting a cooking apparatus, a patent incubator, or a corn mill, he could not have been more complacent or more calm. “It’s the running noose, you see,” said he, “with a thimble that fits under the chin.”

“The pit’s all new,” he went on to say; “new brickwork, you will se, and made on purpose.” A glance revealed that it was new – as new as the grave. Formed after the ideas of Marwood himself, it certainly appeared to be complete as an engine of death. It consisted of two pits, connected with each other, one a broad and the other a narrow oblong, the broad one being immediately under the gallows, and covered by a black trapdoor that opened in the centre and was only supported by a long bolt; the other containing a brick staircase that led under the gallows.

Above the trapdoor, or rather at the right-hand side of it, and close by the gallows tree, was a lever, something like the switch handle that one sees on railway lines, connected with the vault below the trapdoor. The rope that hung from the crossbar was coiled up; and although it had done duty so frequently, as Marwood said, seemed nearly new.

To Marwood the whole thing evidently seemed a triumph of art; and as he moved hither and thither, explaining the superiorities of his design, he evidently expected that his handiwork would meet approval. All the while the bell dismally tolled. At length a warder came battling up, and with a bundle of keys in his hand beckoned to Marwood. It wanted about 10 minutes to 9 o’clock, and the doomed man was waiting.

“Ready for you,” remarked the warder, and with an expectant look Marwood gathered up his “tackle” and followed. With an easy skip and a hop, as though we were answering an agreeable call, he left us, and disappeared towards the cell of the man about to die. I pictured him as he would move along the corridor, and present himself at the portal of the condemned cell, with that smile on his face and that ready step. I wondered mightily how he – the agent of death – could move so briskly, and after what fashion he would introduce himself to the human being he was going to strangle. Death is proverbially swift; in the guise of Marwood it moved with appalling celerity.

As it chanced, [the condemned man, Percy Mapleton] Lefroy knew nothing of this, and only saw his executioner as the latter with a bow entered the cell. Then it was probably too late for much thought. “I hope the rope will not break,” was the only expression to which he gave utterance, possibly the result of some apprehension from what he had heard of the “Marwood long drop”.

There was not time for more, the hangman was already busily at work, passing the leather belt round his body, fastening his elbows and wrists, and baring his neck. The bell was tolling, and nine o’clock had nearly come. It was time to be moving. The clergyman, in his white surplice, was ready; two warders had taken their places, one on either side of the condemned; Marwood, with one strap yet unused in his left hand, and his right hand firmly fixed on the leather belt that confined his victim, was prepared to move; the under sheriff, the governor of the jail, surgeon, and magistrate all were waiting; it was time for the burial service to begin. The corridor echoed forthwith to the sound of the death prayer. Slowly passing through the passage towards the door that led into the yard moved that awful procession; and as the warder unlocked the door which opened close by the scaffold it emerged into the air.

I had chanced to see Lefroy on several previous occasions, and notably at the trial, and yet it was with a feeling bordering upon curiosity that I now looked upon him as he emerged into the open. There was much that operated against the producing of a favourable impression: he was attired, not, as had been stated, in a prison garb, but in a very old suit of greyish tweed; he was tightly pinioned, so tightly that, as I afterwards observed, his wrists were bruised; his hat was off, and his hair somewhat disarranged; he had not been shaved for some time; and he was being hurried along by his executioner at a disquieting rate.

But apart from all this, there was a pallor on his face so unearthly that he presented the appearance of one who was already dead, and I much doubt whether, but for the presence of the warders on either side of him, and the support which he gained from the hangman who pushed him forward, he would have been able to accomplish the distance from his cell to the grave. The words of the clergyman, rising and falling upon the ears of the spectators, were evidently lost upon him; he did not appear to hear the passing bell, but looked upwards as though in an agony of fear, and so stumbled helplessly along.

It was not far, only a few score yards in all, but the march to the grave, or rather to the scaffold, seemed terribly painful; all the bravado that was witnessed in the dock at Maidstone had gone; the terrors of death were in full force upon the hapless culprit. As he approached the scaffold this was particularly noticeable; he could scarcely take the step which was to place him where he had never stood before and from whence he would never step again, and Marwood, who at no instant left go of the belt, was fain once more to push him forward.

It was evidently not the moment for ceremony with the hangman, who was now once more very busy placing the tall young man, up to whose shoulders his own face scarcely reached, under the cross tree, stooping down to strap up his legs, and then fumbling about with a white glazed linen cap which he now assayed to put over the trembling youth’s face.

I do not suppose for a moment that Marwood intended to be rough; he was possibly excited, and anxious to do everything as expeditiously as possible. But it certainly appeared to me that in attempting to fix the cap on Lefroy’s head, and in pulling it down over his face, he hurt the prisoner somewhat unnecessarily. The worst of this was, however, yet to come. The long rope dangling about Lefroy had now to be adjusted, and the thimble through which the noose ran to be placed beneath his neck. I did not time it; it may have lasted only a few seconds; but to me it seemed appallingly long, while the swaying of Lefroy’s body showed the agony he was enduring.

I cannot tell whether the sound of the clergyman’s voice, which continued all the while the preparations went on, was of great consolation to him. His last look as the white cap was produced was lifted heavenward, his pallid face turned upwards, his lips moving as though in prayer; but so soon as the cap was over his face he began to sway, so much that I expected he would fall before the business was finished.

At last, however, all was ready, and Marwood, grasping the hand of his victim, stepped back; there was another awkward pause, apparently for the purpose of allowing the clergyman to finish the sacred invocation in which he was engaged; and then the, the lever being pulled back, the trap doors opened, and Lefroy falls with a terrible thud into the cavern below. Down 10ft, as was presently shown by the measurement of a tape line, he had dropped, the whole weight of his body falling upon the neck, which, receiving such a strain, was instantly broken so completely that the body never gave so much as one convulsive shudder, but, turning half round, hung swaying in the cold morning air, enveloped by a haze of steam rising from the corpse, and showing, by the visible disconnection of the vertebrae and by the open hands, how sudden death had been.

The preliminaries to the hideous spectacle had been painful in the extreme, to spectators and sufferer alike. But I think the actual death was as merciful as it could well be, if the agony of the two or three minutes from the leaving of the condemned cell to the fall of the scaffold be left out of consideration. Had there been an assistant to expedite the movement upon the scaffold, or had chloroform or another benignant anaesthetic been given to the condemned to lessen the pain of suspense, less fault might have been found with the miserable business.

As it was, without any feelings other than those of reprobation for the horrible crime for which Lefroy suffered, I felt that the agony of death had been unnecessarily prolonged, and that, compared even with the punishment of the guillotine in France , it was a tedious and horrible form of execution. It may, too, have been fancy; but it seemed that the actual falling of the trap doors and the long drop occupied a sensible period, though it is impossible to say how long the two seconds or so thus occupied may seem to one who is being thus awfully despatched.

But the whole of the spectacle connected with the Lefroy execution was not over. An inquest had yet to be held on the body of the dead man, and for this purpose a number of the inhabitants of Lewes had been summoned as jurymen. Thus, a little after 10 o’clock, we found ourselves – spectators of the execution, jail officials, coroner, and jury men – convened in the committee room of the prison once more, for the purpose of determining how Percy Mapleton Lefroy “now lying” to quote the words of the commission, “dead within the precincts of the jail,” had come by his end.

The jury, sworn in, now proceeded to view the body, and were conducted to the infirmary of the jail, the same room in which, by the way, Lefroy was incarcerated prior to his trial – a large apartment, containing three or four beds and a bath. Here, on trestles, in a shell coffin, lay the dead body of the man, clad as we saw him when he emerged into the yard where he was executed, with his boots still on, and the same grey tweed suit. He had evidently been measured for his coffin while alive, and placed in it but a minute or two before we arrived.

A more horrible appearance than the remains presented is difficult to conceive. And, as though to add to the horrors of the scene, it appeared to be the duty of the jurymen to examine the body minutely, and by prods and pushes to satisfy their curiosity as to the physique of the dead man. In truth, his dead body did present the appearance of more strength than I had supposed, and there remained less cause for wonder in my mind as to how he contrived to kill a well built man such as Mr Gold.

The viewing over, the jury returned to the rooms, and there sat in solemn conclave, while the governor of the jail gave evidence of the identify of Lefroy, and the surgeon deposed to the effect that the deceased met his death by hanging; and then we filed out into the open air once more and the bright sunlight; the mists had gone from the Sussex hills, there was no cloud in the blue sky, and the day, so unusually ushered in to us, was as gladsome as though it had been the herald of spring.

Source: Daily Telegraph, 30 November 1881.