There’s No Such Thing as Dying With Dignity!

Just a fairly short one tonight. Inspired by a chat with a friend, I thought I would share a few tit-bits on the subject of a famous funeral that endured a couple of mishaps and all things awkward, that did not discriminate on the basis of class or fame.

When Winston Churchill died in January 1965 after suffering a stroke some days before, he was given one of the biggest state funerals ever known, particularly for a “commoner”. The ceremony involved somber journeys on a gun carriage through the streets of London to the service at St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by another procession to the Thames where the bearer party would hand over the coffin into the safe-keeping of the Royal Irish Hussars who would convey Churchill down the Thames by barge to Waterloo and on by steam train to his private burial alongside his parents and brother. His original intention following an earlier stroke some years previously, had been to be buried under the croquet lawn of his country home. Following his second stroke, his wife gently but firmly insisted it was a bad idea. He reluctantly agreed and the plan was switched to St Martin’s Church, Bladon.

When the procession reached St Paul’s, Churchill’s lead-lined coffin was taken by the bearer party and carried shoulder high up the steep double flight of steps into the doors of the Cathedral. Preceded by a party of pall-bearers, which included former Prime Ministers Clement Atlee and Harold MacMillan, it had been decided that in a break with tradition, due to their age, a bearer party would do the actual manual work involved in transferring the coffin from the gun carriage to the Cathedral. Since his first stroke 12 years previously, the funeral plan “Operation Hope Not” had been put into place, its organ
izer the Duke of Norfolk constantly revising the details over the following years, as Lord Mountbatten – another of the pall bearers – put it “The problem was that Churchill kept living and the Pall-bearers kept dying!”

So following the eventually fatal stroke, a group of soldiers from various regiments, picked in part for their height which ranged from six feet to six feet four, the further back they were positioned in the bearing party, began to practice lifting and lowering a coffin. On the morning, as they reached their destination with the gun carriage, they prepared to lift and hoisted Churchill to their shoulder. He proved heavier than they anticipated. Halfway up the second of the two steep flights of steps, Clement Atlee stumbled, causing the bearers to pause. As they did, the momentum caused the coffin to slip back from the shoulders of the front bearers. Lance Sergeant Lincoln Perkins, in the second row, recalled placing his hand upon the coffin to stop it sliding further, and reassuring the passenger that he was in safe hands. It took all the might of the rear “pushers” of the party to prevent the total dropping of the coffin, and the ability to continue to climb the steps from a standing start.

Of course, that wasn’t the only mishap of the day. Later that afternoon, as the coffin was lowered into its final resting place, a “thunk” was heard by the lead officer of the burial party. After a brief discreet glance around, he chose to ignore and carried on with his duties. It was only later on the train back to the city that one of the other burial party came to him and notified him that his medals had vanished….. back to that “thunk” and a quickly timed call to the diggers finishing the job, reassured him that the grave was as yet unfilled. The medals were quietly retrieved from under the coffin and returned to the soldier in question.

JJ

Military Mishaps

12806225_242346899440733_8850088551663408320_nMajor-General Sir William Erskine was born in 1748, becoming 2nd Baronet on the death of his father, Lieutenant-General Sir William Erskine, in 1795. He twice represented Fife in Parliament, in 1796 and then from 1802-1805. Erskine was appointed one of the senior commanders in the Peninsular War, despite having twice been detained in an insane asylum. The Duke of Wellington, upon querying Erskine’s sanity, was reassured that ‘no doubt he is a little mad at times, but he is lucid at intervals’ although this was soon called into question. Left in charge of both the light infantry and the cavalry at the Battle of Sabugal in 1811, Erskine somehow managed to send each in the direction the other should have taken, to the advantage of the opposing French. At the Siege of Almeida, the French garrison was able to escape because Erskine had failed to guard the Barba de Puerca bridge – Wellington’s order to do so had arrived while Erskine was dining with a colleague. Erskine was declared insane and discharged from service in 1812. Erskine died unmarried and with no children (causing the extinction of his baronetcy) by his own hand in 1813, jumping out of a Lisbon window. Erskine’s last words were ‘Now, why on earth did I do that?’

JJ

BITE SIZED: The Origins of the Poison Pen Letter

In 1527 the first known letter to England from North America was received, sent by the mariner John Rut to Henry VIII. The world’s first adhesive stamp available for public posting at a single price, the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840, replacing the previous system which saw the recipient pay for postage based on the number of sheets and the distance covered.Post isn’t always pleasant to receive, and the term ‘poison pen’ to refer to malicious and anonymous letters was first use […]

1096962_origIn 1527 the first known letter to England from North America was received, sent by the mariner John Rut to Henry VIII. The world’s first adhesive stamp available for public posting at a single price, the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840, replacing the previous system which saw the recipient pay for postage based on the number of sheets and the distance covered.

Post isn’t always pleasant to receive, and the term ‘poison pen’ to refer to malicious and anonymous letters was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1911 in a Maryland newspaper although the context is unknown, and again in The New York Times two years later when anonymous postcards were sent. The term first appears in the UK in the 1930s and was in common use by the 1939 release of the film Poison Pen, and Agatha Christie employed a poison pen letter in The Moving Finger. Poison pen letters in the UK are covered by the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

5947221_origOne interesting case of a poison pen letter writer is that of James Forster, whose campaign of harassment in Manfield, Yorkshire, lasted for twelve years. He was convicted of seven offences in 2001 and sentenced to four months in prison. Forster, a lecturer who lived with his wife, initially targeted his 88-year-old neighbour, Molly Christian, in 1987, and when she sold her house he began sending letters to the new occupants, the Kellets, and their daughter, who he accused of being a prostitute. The village’s Neighbourhood Watch coordinator, Eric Collin, was his next target followed by other villagers who received letters informing them that Collin had reported them to the police.

Forster was finally arrested in 1999 after sending a letter to Rona Wane, Clerk of the Parish Council, which led to her discovering that her thirteen year old daughter had been sent pornography. Forster was also suspected of, but not charged with, throwing paint-bombs at elderly residents and sealing their door locks with superglue. Questioned over his night-time wandering around the village, Forster claimed he had been attempting to “find a vantage point from which to observe the moons of Jupiter”. Judge David Bryant, at Teesside Crown Court, described the case as “most unusual…the like of which we may not see again”.

JJ

Bite-Size – A timeline of capital punishment in Britain

1671 – The Coventry Act. Lying in wait with the intention of disfiguring someone’s nose became a capital offence1699 – The Shoplifting Act. Theft of goods worth more than five shillings from a shop became a capital offence. James Appleton was hanged in 1722 for the theft of three wigs, and Benjamin Beckonfield was hanged in 1750 for stealing a hat1723 – The Waltham Blacks Act. Designed to combat a rise in poaching, this Act increased the number of capital offences from 30 to 1501782 […]

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1671 – The Coventry Act. Lying in wait with the intention of disfiguring someone’s nose became a capital offence

1699 – The Shoplifting Act. Theft of goods worth more than five shillings from a shop became a capital offence. James Appleton was hanged in 1722 for the theft of three wigs, and Benjamin Beckonfield was hanged in 1750 for stealing a hat

1723 – The Waltham Blacks Act. Designed to combat a rise in poaching, this Act increased the number of capital offences from 30 to 150

1782 – A fourteen year old girl was hanged. Her crime? Being found in the company of gypsies

1810 – Britain now had 222 capital crimes, including “adopting a disguise”

1816 – Four boys of between nine and thirteen years old were hanged for begging

1835 – The offences of sacrilege, stealing letters and early return from transportation were downgraded from capital offences

1861 – The Criminal Law Consolidation Act. This Act reduced the number of capital offences to just four, namely treason, mutiny, piracy and murder

1868 – Public executions are replaced with ones inside prisons. The last public hanging was of Michael Barrett on 26 May that year

1875 – The ‘long drop’ is introduced by William Marwood

1908 – Only those over the age of sixteen can be executed

1931 – Pregnant women cannot be hanged

1948 – The House of Commons approves a five year ban on capital punishment but this is overturned by the House of Lords

1955 – Ruth Ellis is the last woman to be hanged in Britain

1957 – The Homicide Act. Capital murder now has five categories – murder during a theft, murder by shooting or explosives, murder in the course of resisting arrest, murder of a prison officer or policeman, and two murders not committed at the same time

1964 – Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans are the last people to be hanged in Britain, for murder in the course of theft

1965 – The Abolition of the Death Penalty Bill Act. Capital punishment is suspended for a five year trial period

1969 – all capital punishment is abolished

JJ

When Executions Go Wrong

A gallows ticket to view the hanging of Jonathan Wild. (Google images)
A gallows ticket to view the hanging of Jonathan Wild. (Google images)

John Bibby was sentenced to death in 1814 for the crime of sheep stealing. On the day of execution, he ran up to the scaffold with cries of “I am the Duke of Wellington!” and, when the trapdoor opened he reportedly bounced upward shouting “What did I tell you?” until, following a struggle, he was subdued and finally hung.

William Duell was sentenced to death in 1740 for murdering one Sarah Griffin. Duell was hanged at Tyburn and taken to Surgeons Hall for dissection, Duell came back to life and within two hours was sitting up in a chair. He was returned to Newgate and his sentence later amended from death to transportation.

2nd Earl Robert Shirley Ferrers was tried by the House of Lords in Westminster Hall and found guilty of shooting his steward, Johnson. Ferrers was the first peer to be hanged rather than be decapitated, and his procession to Tyburn, with liveried servants and an escort of both cavalry and infantry, took three hours because so many people had gathered. Once on the scaffold, Ferrers inadvertently gave the five guineas to the assistant executioner, and Thomas Turlis, the hangman, wrestled his assistant to the floor to retrieve his money. Turlis had measured the drop incorrectly and Ferrers was only killed when the assistant pulled hard on his feet. Horace Walpole recorded that “He suffered a little by delay…but was dead in four minutes”

George Robert Fitzgerald, a soldier and duellist, was sentenced to death in Dublin in 1786 for the murder of Patrick McDonnel. When Fitzgerald was hung the rope broke and he dropped to the ground unharmed, announcing to the crowd “You see I am once more among you unexpectedly”. A new rope was found, and a new hangman – a convict who was offered a free pardon in exchange – successfully executed Fitzgerald.

Richard Arnett (1674-1728) was appointed as London’s hangman in 1719 after his predecessor, William Marvel was himself hanged. Arriving late for his first execution, Arnett was thrown into a pond by impatient onlookers which saw him needing treatment from a doctor and the condemned men returned to prison. The following year, needing to hang to people and somewhat the worse for drink, Arnett attempted to execute the Ordinary of Newgate, Reverened Villette, and a Catholic priest who was there to administer the last rites. Once this confusion had been resolved, the scaffold collapsed and the three officials fell ten feet to land on the two prisoners below – it was found Arnett had neglected to secure the bolt which held the scaffold together. In 1725, Arnett hanged Jonathan Wild but took so long to do so that Wild’s team of pickpockets were able to move through the crowd, depriving the spectators of their wallets and watches. The crowd threatened to repeat Arnett’s dunking in the pond if he didn’t get a move on.

JJ