The Random Thread of Bollocks (NSFW)

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MIA
Book Reviewer
For centuries, public executions were one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the UK, and Dorset witnessed its fair share.
The macabre ceremonies would attract hundreds of people in all weathers who would jostle to get the best view of proceedings.
The gallows were often sited in open spaces to accommodate large crowds.
Poole’s town gallows, for example, were situated at Baiter. They were first used in the 14th century and the last hanging took place there in 1759.
Gallows and gibbets were also located at the meeting points of various roads or the approach to towns and villages so that corpses would be seen by many passing travellers.
Examples are Gallows Corner near Milborne St Andrew and reputedly Monkey’s Jump roundabout on the approach to Dorchester.
Gallows Hill is another common name for the site of executions, and there are several in Dorset. Gallows Hill in Dorchester was used as one of the main sites for public executions, on the junction of Icen Way and South Walks. A town plan from 1610 shows a gallows comprising two uprights and a crossbeam wide enough for multiple hangings. The site is marked today by three metal sculptures of local Roman Catholic martyrs hanged for their faith.
For centuries before this, the ancient amphitheatre at Maumbury Rings was the place where crowds would gather to gleefully relish the death of a criminal.
In 1792 a gaol was built at the north end of Icen Way. Here, prisoners were executed outside, facing northwest across the River Frome.
With no trees to obscure the vista, crowds would assemble for hang fairs in the meadows on the other side of the river.
It was outside this gaol that writer and poet Thomas Hardy witnessed the execution of Elizabeth Martha Brown who was sentenced to death in 1856 for murdering her unfaithful husband.
Hardy was 16 years old at the time and the spectacle made a lasting impression on him. Around 70 years later he remembered “what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.”
The incident was to provide inspiration for his famous novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Britain’s most prolific hangman, William Calcraft, was called in to execute the unfortunate woman. He was known for his short drops, where most of his victims strangled to death.
Later, the more humane long drop method was used, which tended to break the victim’s neck instantly.
The grisly practice of hanging, drawing and quartering was the harsher punishment for treason until 1870. The person was hanged by the neck until almost dead, then disembowelled and emasculated and the genitalia and entrails burned before the condemned’s eyes.
The body was divided into four parts, then beheaded, with the resulting five parts gibbeted (put on public display) around different parts of the town.
This is what happened in 1685 to the men who played their part in the Duke of Monmouth’s unsuccessful rebellion.
Judge Jeffreys held his infamous ‘Bloody Assize’ in Dorchester where he tried 312 people and sentenced nearly 200 to be hanged. Thirteen men were executed in Dorchester, and the heads of some were impaled on spikes and church railings, left there for several years as a warning of the penalty for treason.
‘The Hanging Judge’ ordered gallows to be erected in many other Dorset towns and villages to execute men thought to be Monmouth supporters.
Those in Wareham were put to death on gallows on the Wareham Walls close to the current car park.
In Weymouth 12 were executed near Greenhill, between Melcombe Regis and Radipole and their heads and quarters exhibited in various points such as town halls, bridges and the Esplanade.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon for whole bodies to be gibbeted after hanging, making particular examples of criminals such as highwaymen, robbers or murderers.
The dead body would be tarred and put in an iron cage suspended from either the original gallows or a purpose built gibbet in a prominent position. It was left as a grim reminder to local people for a year or more until it rotted away or was eaten by birds.
According to legend, the sites of today’s red signposts in Dorset are where gibbets once stood.
In 1747 the Hawkhurst Gang of smugglers were gibbeted in various villages following the most famous incident in local smuggling history. When their contraband tea, rum, brandy and coffee was intercepted and locked in the Customs House warehouse in Poole, the gang broke in to reclaim their bounty and paid with their lives.
More than 200 crimes were punishable by death in the 1700s and 1800s, ranging from being in the company of gypsies for a month, to pick-pocketing and writing threatening letters.
In 1740 the owner of a saltworks at Parkstone, Henry Smith, murdered a young pregnant woman from Witchampton who was found on the heath at Parkstone lying with a knife beside her with her ‘head almost off’.
Smith was hanged in chains on the spot where the murder was committed.
In 1752 Anthony Colpis and his wife were tried for the murder of ‘widow Bucket’ by throwing her from a third storey window. Mrs Coplis was acquitted, but her husband was executed at Windmill Point on the Baiter peninsula.
Other recorded Dorset hangings were for a man ‘present at a rick-burning’; Catholic priests executed for their beliefs during the civil war and in 1833 a 15-year-old boy, Sylvester Wilkins, foolishly ignited a rag stuck in the hole of a house.
The hanging of a gang of pirates at Studland Beach is rather eloquently described in Dorset Elizabethans: At Home and Abroad by Rachel Lloyd.
“There in full view of the crowd, at the turn of the tide, Piers and his companions were strung up; one by one they were jerked off the gallows, and hung with lolling heads, peering at their toes. When the tide came in, a row of corpses gyrated gawkishly upon the waves.”
However, the tide soon turned for public executions. In 1868 the government ordered them all to be carried out within prison walls. The press and witnesses were still permitted to attend although the era of the great public spectacle was over.
The last person hanged in Dorset was 21-year-old David Jennings in early 1941, an army soldier who was caught stealing petty cash from the NAAFI club in Princes Street, Dorchester. Jennings used his rifle to shoot away the lock, unwittingly killing a nightwatchman in the process.
But if you still want a small taste of the macabre today, head to Dorset County Museum where there are lead mercy weights on display – once attached to local hanging victims to add weight.
You can also see the death mask of Jonah Detheridge, hanged on August 12, 1869, and the first to be executed privately at Dorchester Prison.
Credit: written by Maria Court for the Daily Echo, 2013.
 

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