The tragedy of James and John: No mercy for pair accused of being homosexual

  • Go deeper into the societal pressures, hang-ups and outrageous hypocrisy of 1835 London that led to 2 working class homosexual males being executed with the Mail’s new podcast 
  • Author Chris Bryant hosts the haunting and deeply immersive three-part sequence Lost Voices – The Story of James and John. Click right here to pay attention or discover it on Apple or Spotify 

There was barely time to register what the Recorder on the Old Bailey had simply mentioned. With evident relish, he’d condemned James Pratt and John Smith to demise – and now, nonetheless reeling, they had been being herded by a slender passageway often known as Birdcage Walk.

With iron crossbars overhead – to forestall any determined makes an attempt to flee – it led straight again to the infamous Newgate Gaol, the place all executions occurred.

For James and John, it was a very hideous journey. As warders had been solely too eager to level out, the letters carved into the partitions of the passageway had been the initials of those that’d been hanged.

Worse, their stays lay beneath the flagstones on which the 2 males had been strolling. They will need to have questioned in the event that they’d quickly be buried underneath these themselves.

Their ‘crime’? Unaware that they had been being spied on by a keyhole by a suspicious landlord, James and John had had consensual homosexual intercourse in a first-floor rented room.

‘Sympathy towards persons for such offences cannot be expected to be shown,’ the Recorder had boomed in courtroom, ‘for they are offences, which, in a British country, mercy can never be extended to.’

The 12 months was 1835. It was barely a month since a policeman had been summoned by the spying landlord on August 29 and had taken the 2 males into custody. Since then, for many of that point, John and James had languished in Newgate.

MP Chris Bryant begins the three part story of James and John, the last two men in Britain to be hung for the crime of sodomy on LOST VOICES: The Tragedy of James & John

MP Chris Bryant begins the three half story of James and John, the final two males in Britain to be hung for the crime of sodomy on LOST VOICES: The Tragedy of James & John

James, aged 32, had spent most of his working life as a groom and footman and was married with a 10-year-old daughter. His spouse, Elizabeth, had visited him usually in jail, whereas John, who’d labored as a labourer, had obtained no guests in any respect.

They had been now returning to Newgate as condemned prisoners, which meant they had been consigned to the ‘press-yard’, named after one of many gaol’s grisliest practices. Criminals who refused to enter a plea could be tied down on a press, then steadily loaded with weights on their stomachs, till they had been ‘either brought to compliance or expired’.

Although this explicit barbarity had been abolished, the press-yard’s fame lingered on. Consisting of an extended, slender courtyard, two darkish and dank ‘press-rooms’ for the prisoners to collect through the daytime and a set of 15 condemned cells, it was the nineteenth Century equal of Death Row.

Twelve others had been incarcerated with James and John, eight of whom had been aged between 13 and 20. They too had been condemned to demise, for crimes that included stealing 30 shillings’ price of handkerchiefs, filching 4 cigar tubes and grabbing half a crown at knife-point.

Yet practically all of them had been oddly cheerful. They gambled on playing cards or video games of shove ha’penny, they performed blind-man’s buff and leap-frog they usually entertained prostitutes (who gained admittance by pretending they had been wives or sisters). But then these prisoners knew the foundations of the sport.

With reform of the justice system within the air, successive governments had baulked on the sheer variety of demise sentences – so the overwhelming majority had been later downgraded to spells of imprisonment or transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Indeed, Charles Dickens, who visited Newgate whereas James and John had been there, questioned whether or not there was a person amongst these he noticed ‘who did not know that… it was never intended that his life should be sacrificed’.

But James and John had been an exception. And Dickens, then a 23-year-old journalist, observed that the 2 males ‘were as motionless as statues’.

One of them, he wrote, was stooping over a hearth, together with his arm on the mantelpiece and his head sunk upon it, whereas the opposite was leaning on the sill of the farthest window.

Dickens famous: ‘The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly.

‘His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall.’

The two males’s doom, he added, ‘was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world’.

As Dickens left the dimly lit press-room, the turnkey whispered to him: ‘The two short ones [are] dead men.’

Through jail chatter, James and John – 5ft 1in and 5ft 3in tall respectively – would have learnt that, previously 25 years, there had been 15 responsible verdicts for sodomy and ten hangings. That meant that they had a two in three likelihood of dying on the scaffold. Sharing the press-yard with males who had each expectation of reprieve was subsequently a merciless, added punishment.

The others repeatedly goaded the 2 males, poked them, pushed them, known as them names and tried to start out fights. It was even worse at evening, when John and James needed to share a dank stone cell with them.

The taunts, abuse and innuendo continued till daybreak, they usually lay awake virtually as fearful of their companions as they had been of the hangman.

On Tuesday, September 29, that they had their first go to from the Reverend Horace Cotton, the ‘ordinary’ of Newgate, whose title was so synonymous with hangings that it was mentioned the condemned died ‘with Cotton in their ears’.

But if James and John had been hoping for compassion from the portly, red-faced minister, they had been disenchanted. Cotton had attended their sentencing ‘for the detestable crime of sodomy’ – as he put it in his pocket book – and been duly impressed by the Recorder’s ethical outrage.

Nonetheless, he was the lads’s solely contact with authority they usually poured out their hearts to him. Sharing cells at evening with the opposite males, they mentioned, was insufferable.

Cotton was appalled – not for his or her sake however for the sake of the prisoners pressured to share cells with such abominable sinners. So he shortly organized to have John and James moved away from the burglars, robbers and thieves.

In their new cells, the one furnishings was a barrack bedstead with out bedding. Beside it was only a Bible and a prayer e-book. During the day, they had been allowed unique use of the decrease press-room, the place condemned prisoners had been ready for his or her ordeal on the day of their execution.

At precisely 8am, two sheriffs in ceremonial robes and gold chains marched John up the ten steep steps to the scaffold and placed him under the wooden beam. Next, they came back for James. ILLUSTRATION: EOIN COVENEY

At exactly 8am, two sheriffs in ceremonial robes and gold chains marched John up the ten steep steps to the scaffold and positioned him underneath the picket beam. Next, they got here again for James. ILLUSTRATION: EOIN COVENEY

They had been now, fairly actually, the bottom of the low. But neither James nor John had but given up hope.

Back in 1835, no execution might happen till King William IV and his privy counsellors had examined studies – compiled by the Old Bailey Recorder – on every case. Many held the ‘Recorder’s Report’ in open derision. Twenty instances might be handled in lower than an hour, and the King was recognized to go to sleep whereas his Ministers mentioned them.

At one assembly of this so-called Grand Cabinet, each the King and the Duke of Wellington had nodded off, at one other it was apparent the King was closely dosed with laudanum (an opium-based tincture).

For James and John, nonetheless, the Grand ‘Hanging’ Cabinet could be their final likelihood of a reprieve. Meanwhile, they may petition each the Home Secretary and the King.

John seems to have had nobody to assist combat his nook, however James’s spouse, Elizabeth, was indefatigable on her husband’s behalf. She set about gathering signatures for a common petition for mercy, and the doc she submitted is spectacular.

Fifty-five house owners and tradesmen not solely signed it however testified robustly to James’s ‘moral character’. Remarkably, the primary two names on the petition had been these of John and Jane Berkshire – the owner and his spouse who’d spied by a keyhole on John and James’s assignation.

We can’t know the Berkshires’ motives. Perhaps they regretted bringing the prosecution. Maybe they’d by no means thought it might come to this. Whatever their cause, it was uncommon for a plea for mercy from a prosecutor to be ignored.

Equally spectacular, on the backside of the petition, was a plea for ‘a respite from so awful a sentence’ from a professor of regulation and former Tory MP, who’d recognized James when he labored for a number of years as a groom for his son.

A report from 1835 details the case of James Pratt and John Smith as they were condemned to be hanged, saying the prisoners 'left the dock in tears'

A report from 1835 particulars the case of James Pratt and John Smith as they had been condemned to be hanged, saying the prisoners ‘left the dock in tears’ 

Elizabeth additionally wrote a letter, copied professionally and signed in her personal hand, pleading for mercy. But probably the most putting letter the Home Secretary obtained got here from Hensleigh Wedgwood, the Justice of the Peace who’d dedicated the lads’s case to trial on the Old Bailey.

‘I feel so strongly that death is not the punishment for their offence and the dreadful situation they are in shocks me so much that I cannot neglect a chance of saving them,’ wrote Wedgwood, a grandson of the well-known potter and a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Rich males, caught in comparable circumstances, had by no means been convicted, he identified. It was a chic and authoritative letter, and the bravest despatched in a recent sodomy case. Yet, shockingly, it had no impact on the Home Secretary. Nor did Elizabeth’s exhaustive petition, not to mention her personal letter.

Everything now trusted the Grand Cabinet. For this, James and John needed to wait 52 days after being sentenced, when the King travelled to Brighton and determined to carry courtroom on the Marine Pavilion.

On November 20, the privy counsellors – who included the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice – assembled in an ornate room with gold cornices and an 18 ft chandelier to contemplate 17 appeals for mercy.

Charles Law, the Recorder who’d sentenced John and James, sat on a small stool by the King’s aspect and the opposite Ministers stood behind the monarch. Law’s report on the 2 males was appallingly temporary.

It made no point out of Elizabeth’s petition, signed by all these tradesmen and house owners. Nor did it embody Wedgwood’s letter or point out that the chief prosecutors, the Berkshires, had been amongst these petitioning for mercy.

Even the Government Ministers recognized to be usually lenient might see little cause to commute the demise sentences. Furthermore, they could have calculated that elevating any objections would merely delay the luxurious dinner awaiting them with the King. The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, would definitely have insisted that the sentences stand. Having signed off 164 executions throughout his 4 years as Home Secretary, he was happy with his lack of squeamishness.

Then there was the Recorder himself, who was eager to safe his first hanging – as everybody he’d beforehand sentenced to demise had later been reprieved.

As for the King, he was in no temper for debate. He was fuming as a result of he felt the present Whig Government had been foisted on him and consequently, based on the privy council secretary, abhorred ‘all his Ministers’.

And, so, within the short while, the Grand Cabinet made their resolution: James and John’s appeals had been denied. They had been to hold.

ON SATURDAY morning, on November 23, the Newgate turnkeys gathered all 17 condemned males into the higher room of the press-yard, the place they pressured them to kneel in a circle with their heads bent. Then the Rev Horace Cotton got here in, wearing his lengthy black robe and preaching bands.

This was his second. Looking straight at James and John, who had been kneeling subsequent to one another, he mentioned: ‘I am sorry to tell you it is all against you.’ He then instructed the remainder their lives had been spared.

There was an eruption of pleasure within the room, however James and John had been thunderstruck. One of them – in all probability James – truly collapsed. Cotton then requested everybody current to recite a common thanksgiving to God and the King earlier than they may have their breakfast.

The following day, the prisoners and paying members of the general public gathered within the Newgate chapel at 10am for the ‘condemned sermon’. Such was the thrill about setting eyes on James and John – sitting within the oval-shaped ‘condemned pew’ – that tickets had gone for a shilling apiece. Elizabeth Pratt was virtually actually there, probably along with her daughter.

Dressed in a black cassock, and together with his knuckles lined in rings, Cotton ascended the pulpit and stared down at James and John. Slowly and intentionally, he took a big serving to of coarse snuff earlier than he began on the ‘condemned sermon’. It was a routine he’d gone by many occasions – and lots of thought he loved it an excessive amount of.

In his sermon, Cotton pontificated for 40 minutes on the evil of sin and the vengeance of the Lord of Hosts. Finally he performed the service for the lifeless.

The two quaking men could not avoid seeing their own coffins, which had been laid out on the scaffold

The two quaking males couldn’t keep away from seeing their very own coffins, which had been laid out on the scaffold

When it got here to the responses, Cotton mentioned: ‘From the gates of Hell’, and the congregation replied, ‘Deliver their souls, O Lord’. James and John had been taking part in their very own funeral.

On Thursday night, Cotton paid them a go to of their condemned cell, eager on a last-minute confession. According to what he later instructed the Press, James lastly admitted his guilt ‘and the justice of his sentence’ for an ‘abhorrent’ crime.

Whether this occurred in any respect is a matter for conjecture. As for John, mentioned Cotton, he’d by no means actually denied what he’d accomplished.

Early on Friday morning, the gallows was assembled in entrance of the gaol. In the center was a platform measuring ten ft by eight, the place the condemned males would stand. When the hangman pulled out a lever, the platform would give manner.

James and John had simply had a cup of tea when the Rev Cotton arrived at their cell at 7am. They appeared so utterly exhausted, he mentioned later, that he ordered them some heat wine, which they drank.

They had been then taken by to the press-room to satisfy the hangman, William Calcraft, and his assistants. Also current had been a small group of gawping spectators who’d paid for the privilege.

Newspaper studies recommend that each males had been weak and dejected, and that when Calcraft’s assistants began pinioning John, James ‘appeared to suffer dreadfully’ and his groans might be heard all through the gaol.

Soon John’s palms had been tied in entrance of him (ready in order that he might pray), and a second loop was handed round his elbows. Then Calcraft’s assistants began on James, who repeatedly collapsed and needed to be held up.

Finally, Calcraft positioned a noose spherical every man’s neck, with the unfastened finish wound round his waist.

James and John then walked by the jail, whereas Cotton recited prayers and biblical texts. As they emerged exterior Newgate, a crowd of spectators instantly began hissing.

At exactly 8am, two sheriffs in ceremonial robes and gold chains marched John up the ten steep steps to the scaffold and positioned him underneath the picket beam. Next, they got here again for James.

The two quaking males couldn’t keep away from seeing their very own coffins, which had been laid out on the scaffold. Nor might they block out the phrases of the burial service, which Cotton was already reciting, or the remorseless tolling of the good bell of St Sepulchre’s church.

As the spectators continued hissing, Calcraft handed every rope over the beam and tied it again on itself. Next, he tied handkerchiefs across the males’s eyes and positioned white caps over their heads – lest they leap once they noticed him pull the lever that launched the trapdoor.

When all was prepared, Calcraft seemed in the direction of Cotton, who began reciting the Lord’s Prayer and waved a white handkerchief. The hangman pulled the bolt. The drop fell.

An hour later, the our bodies had been taken down. One of the Newgate wardsmen reported that ‘some effect continued on a few [prisoners], but the majority went to their breakfast immediately after it was over as if nothing had happened’.

The hanging itself had been a money-spinner. Piemakers and pickpockets had plied their commerce across the crowd. The hangman offered items of the noose.

A day later, John was buried on unconsecrated floor, as our bodies had been now not consigned to Birdcage Walk. Elizabeth Pratt, nonetheless, as soon as extra set to work on her husband’s behalf, persuading a minister to present him a Christian burial at St Paul’s, in Deptford, the next Friday.

She could be married once more 5 years later, to a bricklayer. But for the second time she outlived her husband, earlier than dying of ‘paralysis’ in 1873 on the Union workhouse in Greenwich, aged 76. It appears that her in-laws, who had been rich sufficient to make use of a housekeeper and housemaid, had not been ready to assist her.

Most newspapers lined the execution of John and James. None named their ‘heinous’ crime.

There was only one newspaper that refused to leap on the self-righteous bandwagon. Bell’s New Weekly Messenger mentioned that ‘no man of sense and humanity in the present age will venture to say it ought to be punished with such dreadful severity – severity exercised, I believe, by no civilised nation upon Earth but our own’.

The regulation underneath which the lads had been convicted and executed was not repealed for one more 25 years. Yet nobody else convicted of buggery throughout that interval was hanged.

James Pratt and John Smith, victims of an period of spectacularly merciless and bloodthirsty prejudice, had been the final to be judiciously murdered by the state for such a ‘crime’.

© Chris Bryant 2024.

James And John: A True Story Of Prejudice And Murder, by Chris Bryant, to be revealed by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC on February 15 at £25. To order a duplicate for £21.25 (supply legitimate to 09/03/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to or name 020 3176 2937.