When Executions Go Wrong
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.