John Thurtell’s case was considered sensational at the time. It also made history in two significant ways and therefore forms a valuable part of the chronology of capital punishment in Britain.
Thurtell was born on 21st December 1794, son of the then Mayor of Norwich. He seems to have been a fairly wealthy young man and was a gambler. He had a grudge against a fellow gambler, solicitor William Weare, whom he accused of having cheated him of £300 in a game of cards and to whom he now owed, by the standards of the day, this vast sum. A waxwork was made of Thurtell after execution and is shown here.
Thurtell invited Weare to spend a weekend gambling with him and some friends at a cottage owned by fellow gambler William Probert at Radlett in Hertfordshire and they travelled up from London together in Thurtell’s gig on 24th October 1823. As they neared the cottage Thurtell confronted Weare over his behaviour, outside the Wagon and Horses Inn, in Watling Street, Radlett. He drew a pistol and fired its single shot at Weare’s face, the bullet glancing off his cheekbone as the gun had misfired. As shooting had not worked Thurtell set about the now dazed Weare with a penknife and cut his throat. He also rammed the muzzle of the gun into Weare’s skull with maximum force, leaving blood, hair and tissue in the barrel. William Probert and another friend, Joseph Hunt, an actor, helped Thurtell dispose of Weare’s body. Initially they put it into a pond in the garden of Probert’s cottage but later, under cover of darkness moved it to and threw it into another pond in Elstree, thus the newspapers dubbed this the “The Elstree Murder”.
A labourer found the bloody knife and pistol by the cottage and took them to the authorities and a murder investigation began. As the owner of the cottage, Probert was the first to be questioned and realising his predicament turned King’s Evidence against Weare. He also implicated Hunt who was soon arrested and led the police to the body.
Thurtell and Hunt were taken into custody and came up for trial at the January sitting of the Hertford Assizes before Mr. Justice Park. Thurtell was charged with the murder of Weare and Hunt with being an accessory to it. It was virtually impossible for them to get a fair trial for two reasons. Firstly their guilt was seen as self evident by both the press and the public, to the extent that the judge remarked that if “these statements of evidence before trial which corrupt the purity of the administration of justice in its source are not checked, I tremble for the fate of our country.” The newspapers had shown great interest in Thurtell’s case and every detail was lapped up by an eager public. Secondly this was to be the last trial in England conducted under the old 16th century principles in which the accused has to defend himself against the prosecution, being allowed only to make a speech after the evidence against them had been heard and not being allowed to cross examine the prosecution witnesses. This was hardly conducive to a fair trial and neither man was represented by counsel. Thurtell made a lengthy and somewhat rambling address to the court in which he tried to shift the blame for the killing to Probert. He referred to his Christian upbringing and also made references, apparently, to Voltaire and Saint Paul, all of which failed to impress either the judge or the jury. A witness for Thurtell said, “I always thought him (Thurtell) a respectable man.” Being asked by the judge what he meant by this he replied, “He kept a gig.” Not surprisingly this was not in itself enough to save him and it took the jury just twenty minutes to find both accused guilty. Mr. Justice Park then sentenced them to death and ordered that Thurtell’s body be anatomised after execution, as was the norm at that time for murderers. Hunt’s sentence was commuted to transportation for life and he was duly shipped to Australia’s Botany Bay where he was to live on for very many years. Thurtell was returned to Hertford prison to await execution. It is noteworthy that even being an accessory to murder carried the death penalty in the 1820’s.
Hangings at Hertford were not a frequent event even then. The previous one having occurred in August 1822 when Charles Lee was executed there for burglary. It was thus decided that a new gallows incorporating a proper drop should be built for Thurtell. This design did away with the need for ladders and carts to get the prisoner suspended and was copied for several other prisons round the country, becoming effectively the standard pattern of its day. A very similar one was used at York Castle from the mid 1820s. Construction began before the trial, so certain was everybody of the outcome! Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff of Hertfordshire supervised the work and the gallows consisted of a “temporary platform with a falling leaf (single trap door) supported by bolts which could be withdrawn in an instant” so launching the criminal into eternity, as was the contemporary expression. The substantial cross beam was supported by two equally substantial uprights, about 8 feet high. The enclosure beneath the beam consisted of boards 7 feet high and dovetailed into each other so that there were no gaps (through which the body could be viewed). It was 30 feet long and 15 feet deep with a short flight of steps up to the platform at the back leading directly from the prison door. The whole gallows was painted black and presented “a very gloomy appearance”. The walls of the platform rose approximately 2 feet above the platform so the bulk of the prisoner’s body was hidden from view after the drop. The outer enclosure was for the javelin men who stood guard at hangings to prevent escape or rescue attempts.
James Foxen, the hangman, arrived from London on the Thursday and made the usual preparations. Thurtell dressed for the occasion and was described as being “elegantly attired in a brown great coat with a black velvet collar, light breeches and gaiters, and a fashionable waistcoat with gilt buttons”. A little before 12 noon on Friday the 9th of January 1824 Foxen pinioned Thurtell’s hands in front of him with handcuffs (unusual) and he was then led from his cell to the accompaniment of the tolling prison bell and the prison chaplain reading the burial service. A few moments earlier he had confessed his guilt to the chaplain. He mounted the five steps slowly but steadily and positioned himself on the trap. Here Foxen removed his cravat and loosened his collar. When Thurtell had finished praying Foxen drew the white cotton cap over his head and placed the noose around his neck. the Governor of Hertford Gaol and the Chief Warder both shook hands with him, before Foxen adjusted the noose. Wilson said “Good bye Mr. Thurtell, may God Almighty bless you” to which Thurtell replied “God bless you, Mr. Wilson, God bless you.” At two minutes past midday, on the signal from Mr. Nicholson, the Under Sheriff, Foxen drew the bolts and Thurtell dropped into box like the trap with a crash. It was reported that his neck broke “with a sound like a pistol shot” but this is most unlikely as he would certainly not have been given sufficient length of drop for this to occur. It is probable that the reporter who made the statement got confused by the sound of the falling trap doors. However by the standards of the day Thurtell died easily and was not seen to struggle. After hanging the customary hour his body was taken down and sent to London for dissection in Surgeon’s Hall in accordance with his sentence. A wax work of him was made and exhibited in Madame Tussauards. The new gallows had been designed to be quickly dismantled and was taken back into the prison after the execution. It was judged to be a success and considerably speeded up the process. It was to be used for a further 14 hangings up to 1838, including two double executions for burglary later in 1824 and a treble hanging in 1838, when three men were executed for murder. After that there were no more public hangings in Hertfordshire and it was to be 1876 before the next execution occurred—out of the public gaze and utilising Marwood’s “long drop” method. The concept of carrying out hangings at midday was quite common at this time as it allowed more time for the public to assemble to watch the proceedings.
William Probert, although escaping prosecution over Weare’s murder, was to be convicted horse stealing the following year and he was hanged by Foxen on the 20th June 1825 outside Newgate with three other men.