Friday 21 August 2009

Bristol Gaol - First & Last Executions

Further to my previous post outlining the history of Bristol's New Gaol, I found details of the first and last public executions carried out there.

Hanged 3 days after his 18th birthday, on 13/4/1821, John Horwood was convicted of the murder of a girl he was infatuated with. Eliza Balsum was hiton the head by a large stone, thrown by Horwood, as she crossed a stream.

People crammed onto the road along the New Cut, outside the entrance where the hanging was to take place, to witness the event. It is recorded that so many people wanted to see it, that there was a real danger of people falling in the Cut - there were no safety barriers at this time.

The tale is morbid enough as the death was not a clean or pretty one, but it takes a gruesome turn. After he was cut down, Horwood's corpse was given to Dr Richard Smith of the BRI who taught surgery and used bodies to teach dissection.

He used his body in the normal manner, allowing student's to dissect it and practise surgical procedures. Afterwards however, the boy's skin was removed before preserving and tanning it. A ledger outlining the legal case, trial and execution of Horwood was written in a ledger and the skin was given toa book-binder who covered the ledger with the unusual leather. embossed on the cover were a skull and crossbones in each of the corners and a gilded title "Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood" ("The Skin of John Horwood").

It was kept for many years in the basement records office of the BRI until it was found and transferred to the Bristol Records Office. Inside the ledger, a bill for ten pounds from the binder was found. The ledger is now too fragile to be handled, however microfiches of the contents are available for viewing.

The last execution was of a servant girl young girl in 1849. Sarah Harriet Thomas was convicted of the murder of her elderly employer, Miss Elizabeth Jefferies who was found beaten to death in her own bed. On the day of the sentence, she was dragged kicking and screaming to the gallows begging for her life.

William Calcraft, England's longest serving hangman, was charged with carrying out the sentence and it was reported he was greatly disturbed by the victim's youth and attractive looks. she pleaded for clemency right up to her final moments. Despite the normal distasteful jokes and comments, many citizen's never forgot the way Sarah died - it was such an ordeal that even the Prison Governer fainted.

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