1816 executions were held at the site of what used to be Dryburn Hospital
(to the north of Durham City) and you can still see a small metal notice
to mark the spot where these were carried out. Capital punishment in
Durham, as in other places, was a spectator event with many people travelling
from all over the county to see the guilty being hanged. It also seems
that you didn't have to have any experience to become an executioner!
In 1780 Bartholomew Pendleton, who had been appointed as executioner
because his cousin was a Canon at Durham Cathedral, got his attempt
to hang a criminal so badly wrong that he decapitated his victim instead
of hanging them! He wasn't paid as a result but he learnt from his mistake.
For future executions he used a very short rope. However, this meant
that instead of dying quickly and painlessly, the criminal hung squirming,
choking for life on the rope for up to 20 or 30 minutes. It was so horrendous
that families and friends would rush to pull down of the legs of the
hanging criminal to help break their necks and end their suffering by
killing them more quickly. Some criminals even paid people to do it
for them! The last person said to have been executed here was Ann Crampton
who had been found guilty of 'cutting and maiming'. It is held that
she punished her unfaithful husband by cutting off his penis whilst
he was asleep! However, this is not confirmed by the records.
19th century image of Durham Assize Court. Taken from Mackenzie and
Ross, An historical, topographical and descriptive view of the county
palatine of Durham. 1834. (DUL ref: LL 942.81 DUR/COU/MAC)
last execution carried out in public was that of Matthew Atkinson on
16 Match 1865, killed for murdering his wife at Spen near Winlaton.
The rope snapped when Atkinson was first hanged and he was brought round
and was able to talk with people nearby. After 30 minutes a new rope
was found. Atkinson wasn't so lucky with the second attempt. When public
hangings were abolished in 1868, the gallows were set up in the prison
exercise yard. In 1890 a special execution shed was built as a temporary
measure before an entire block was built which contained two cells for
prisoners and self-contained facilities.
execution at Durham was in December 1958 when 18 year old Brian Chandler
was hanged for battering 83 year old Martha Dodd of Darlington to death.
Recent modernisation of the prison meant some of the graves of executed
criminals were disturbed. Their bodies were removed and cremated.
Rowlandson engraving of an execution at Newgate, clearly showing the
carnival aspect of the event. Taken from The Lesson of the Scaffold
by David R Cooper. (DUL ref: 343.23 COO)
first execution at Durham Prison took place on 17 August 1816, three
years before the new prison opened, when John Greig was publicly hung
for the murder of Elizabeth Stonehouse on gallows specially built outside
the courthouse for each hanging. Once the prison was open, the prisoner
was brought from the prison through a passage and out through a window
to the gallows set up over the main entrance (you can still see the
holes in the walls where the posts for the gallows went!). Across the
street, houses rented out their balconies to the rich who paid handsomely
for a better view of the hanging.
showing a house opposite Durham Assize Court with a balcony. Image
courtesy of John Cavanagh.