Hang ‘em high. Cornish executions

From 1735 to 1909 around 85 men and women (estimates vary a little) were executed in Cornwall after being found guilty of capital offences. In the eighteenth century, hangings took place at the two assize towns – Launceston and Bodmin. At Launceston the gibbet was set up either at the Castle Green or over the valley on St Stephen’s Down. At Bodmin the traditional site was at Five Ways, then on the outskirts of the town just beyond where the main road to Wadebridge branches off and near the site of the former St Lawrence’s Hospital.

Preparing the gallows in former times

From 1802 onwards hangings at Bodmin took place outside the walls of the prison until the 1860s when the grisly spectacle of public executions ended. Meanwhile, the last hangings at Launceston occurred in 1821, when John Barnicott and John Thompson were hanged for the murder of a farmer in west Cornwall.

The saying ‘might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’ was a little more relevant in the 1700s. Then, hanging was the penalty, at least in theory, for a whole series of offences in addition to murder. In fact, the majority of executions in Cornwall between 1755 and 1814 were for those other offences, peaking in the 1780s and 1790s. Thomas Roberts and Francis Coath were both convicted of sheep stealing and hanged in 1786, as was Joseph Williams in 1795. In the same period men were hanged for stealing horses and oxen as well as sheep, while straightforward burglary, housebreaking and even forgery could result in a short visit to the gallows.

One in seven of those hanged were women. The only woman hanged for a crime other than murder was Elizabeth Osborne, convicted of setting fire to a corn stack in 1813. Interestingly, of the dozen ‘notable executions’ listed currently on the Bodmin Jail website, five are of women, a proportion that would appear to overstate their actual presence among those executed.

The median age of the 50 or so whose age is known was 27, the youngest 17 year old John Thompson, mentioned above, and the oldest 61 year old Benjamin Ellison, for murdering a woman at Crowan, near Helston. Two thirds of the victims of murder were men, the rest women. The majority of the victims of women convicted of murder were their own illegitimate children with one or two husbands for good measure.

After 1834 nobody was hanged for offences other than murder. The last execution before the First World War was that of a 24 year old miner, William Hampton, for strangling his girlfriend – Emily Tredrea – at St Erth.

One thought on “Hang ‘em high. Cornish executions

  1. I wonder how many of the executed really were guilty. How much of a role did class bias play (much as racist bias today in the US) towards securing death penalties for women and men of the working and poor rural class?

    I know there are one or two famous cases of evident bias, but more generally? Has anyone ever conducted a class analysis?

    And, the article brings out the crassness of the punishment. Stealing a sheep. What desperation. What of tax avoidence? Was that punishable by death too?!

    Liked by 1 person

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