Cambridge’s last public hanging at Castle Hill


The grim and darkly comic tale of John Green’s execution by hanging in front of a crowd of several thousand.

Almost as spoofed by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.

…but reading between the lines it makes for depressing reading.

The tale of John Green of Whittlesey

The story has been written up in a number of books, digitised here for example in Chapter 7. The details are actually really grim, but essentially John Green, a labourer and father of three children under five years old, was convicted of murdering his wife, Betty, and trying to burn the body. He was convicted in 1863 and hanged outside Cambridgeshire County Gaol on Castle Hill, not far from where the Registry Office now is.

Ye olde hangman

The person who had the job of executioner for this case was William Calcraft. Going through the newspaper article from the Cambridge Independent Chronicle in the online British Newspaper Archive, I noticed that the newspaper had two separate extensive reports. The first was on the execution, and the second was on the background to the case. The newspaper knew there would be thousands more people in town so the sooner they got everything into print, the better it would be for their business. Furthermore, they printed a separate ‘execution special’ for the event – as the snapshot below reveals.

640102 CambIndy Buy our execution special

Roughly translated from the British Newspaper Archive, the paragraph at the end in box-brackets reads as:

***Buy our execution special this morning where we’ll have the most gruesome details of the evil murderer! Be shocked at what this scumball did! Shed a tear for the deceased and look forward with excitement to execution day!***

Interestingly, this slightly contrasts with how they reported the case following the execution.

“So Mr Calcraft, what brings you to Cambridge this week?”

William Calcraft was probably one of the few people in our city’s history ever to be able to respond:

“I’m here to execute someone”

Yet the exchanges between the local journalists and Mr Calcraft descend into something of a farce. Just before the execution, the only people who were allowed to be inside the prison were the gaolers, the executioner and accredited reporters. Mr Calcraft not being in a good mood decided that the last thing he needed was to face the media. Upon which one of them said:

“You made a sad mess of hanging that woman at Chester the other day!”

One of the things that happened far too often was that the executioner misjudged the length of the drop. Too short and it’s a slow lingering death. Too long and you end up with a decapitated body and a lot of mess. Via the WikiP page, Calcraft according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography appeared to be particularly incompetent as an executioner – often having to run round and pull down on the legs of the convicted in order to ensure they died a faster death.

“Who was ‘that woman’?”

I went looking online to find out who this unfortunate woman was that the reporter referred to. Turns out it was Alice Holt, a 27 year old mother from Chester. Holt was accused of murdering her mother (named Mary Bailey) and convicted. The British Newspaper Archive again is a wealth of source material from the time. The London Evening Standard writes that the case was essentially an attempted insurance fraud. Mary Bailey fell ill and at that time, Alice took out a life assurance policy for both her and Mary. She induced another woman to take the place of her ill mother at the insurance office to sign the forms. Mary’s health deteriorated further, and two local health officials were called. Alice, according to the report bought some arsenic for the purposes of killing rats and other vermin. However, she put some of the arsenic into some brandy and water which inevitably lead to Mary’s death. Somehow, the insurance office found out about the impersonation of Mary Bailey at the insurance office and ordered the body to be exhumed and a post-mortem to be carried out. In the corpse’s stomach were found “no less than 160 grains” of arsenic.

Alice was due to be tried in summer 1863 but this was postponed due to her being pregnant. The newspaper uses the term ‘enceinte’ which I assume refers to a confinement in the latter stages of pregnancy – stating that the child was adopted by her uncle. The really sad bit comes here.

Alice alleged that this Mr Holt character was with them throughout this time, and said that ‘it would be a great releasement if [Mary] were in her grave’. Alice accused Mr Holt of bringing her to destruction and now to the gallows. Mr Holt beat Alice and said that Mary had already drunk the poison – and that no one would believe her. He also threatened to tell everyone about the insurance fraud. Alice’s final moments are described below.

631229 Alice Holt Chester last moments described Calcraft

Alice did not die instantly, taking several minutes in front of a huge crowd of people. As yet I don’t know what happened to Mr Holt.

Back to Cambridgeshire County Gaol

Mr Calcraft was clearly taken aback at this accusation of incompetence.

“I never made no mess of nothing! I wasn’t by no means nervous as the press says I was. Was it my fault for how the drop wouldn’t fall?” 

The reporters were having none of it.

“They should have tried the drop before hand”

Calcraft replied

“It wasn’t my duty…but the papers tell a lot of lies. The fact is there doesn’t ought to be no papers. We want no papers, and if I had my will there shouldn’t be no papers!”

Again, the reporters stood their ground.

“Some of the papers, Calcraft, reciprocate the compliment, and think there ought to be no hangmen.”

“I don’t want no compliments – I only want the truth and that you reporters don’t want!” Replied Calcraft. “Why if you chaps wasn’t to lie so, I could often give you information; but I won’t.”

The reporters kept up their line of questioning.

“Now, Calcraft, were you nervous at Chester, as the papers say?”

Calcraft the executioner spat back.

“What?! Nervous? No! Never! You want to know too much you do; but you won’t get anything out of me.”

The reporters weren’t finished.

“Well…one question more, and I have done: Which was the worse case of the two; the young girl a few years ago, whom you murdered – no, hanged, I beg your pardon, at Bristol, or the girl, the other day, at Chester?”

Calcraft feigning surprise…

“Oh, you recollect that Bristol case do you? Why, bless you, there wasn’t no comparison; why that Bristol gal wouldn’t go under the gallows. She screamed and kicked and hollered, and we was obliged to hold her under the drop – and she died hard too, and all her own fault. But the Chester gal, why she were in a hurry, she were; she says she, more than once, ‘make haste, make haste’ and the drop wouldn’t drop; certainly it were awful; but people as has the care of the drop should see as all’s right. Don’t you think so? But why the lying press should blame me, I don’t know.”

The Bristol case was that of 17 year old Sarah Harriet Thomas (scroll down to the end) – Bristols last public hanging. Shortly after, a prison officer calls over the executioner to despatch John Green. The article states:

“Hastily seizing a compact leathern portmanteau, Mr Calcraft opened it and, supplying himself with the contents, viz a halter, some leathern harness, and a rope for the due fastening of the legs, not forgetting a clean white night cap carefully washed and mangled for the occasion, Mr Calcraft proceeded to the culprit and, within six minutes of his being called, John Green had added another laurel to the broad brow of Calcraft, whose experience in his profession no Reporter “nor any other man,” has a right to question. If he do, let him personally test it, and, forming our own judgement of Calcraft, we should say he is just the man to accommodate him. He is proud of his expertness, and he has a right to be; a bungling hangman would be a national disgrace” 

Interestingly, there is an intervention of Mr Keed of the Zion Chapel. This being the Rev John Keed who came to Cambridge in 1857 according to the Zion Baptist Church’s website here. I wonder if the church knows that one of their early preachers was with the last prisoner to be publicly hanged in Cambridge in the week leading up to the execution. Rev Mr Keed states that John Green listened to his exhortations with great attention, and evinced great concern for his soul’s salvation; that he had even given way to tears and joined him in prayers most fervently.

At the same time, the Cambridge Independent Press stated that John Green committed such acts against his victim prior to her murder were as such that ‘they cannot be explained in a newspaper’. In a damning conclusion, it stated:

“The world is now rid of as great a ruffian as ever was shaped into humanity”

Interestingly, later on in the paper in the full ‘review’ article the Cambridge Independent states that it hoped to see the last of the public executions in Cambridge. Two reasons are given:

The first reason given is that if there is a case of new evidence proving the convicted innocent, execution cannot be reversed. Given that this was a time of rapid development in the sciences and detective work, this became a more and more compelling reason. The other reason was of public order. Cambridge’s population in the mid-1800s was somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 people. For John Green’s execution, a further 10,000 people rocked up in the hope of seeing the execution. As the local constabulary stated, they had never seen so much drunkenness. The police simply did not have the capacity to cope with what were football-sized crowds in various states of intoxication.

At the time the movement to restrict capital punishment had grown. William Ewart MP tabled a bill in Parliament attempting to abolish capital punishment altogether. He had the support of the Western Daily Press.640224 William Ewart MP Bill to abolish death penalty capital punishment

Four years after John Green’s execution, Parliament passed the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act 1868 abolishing public hangings. It would be another century before capital punishment for all bar three offences were abolished. There were three offences that remained:

  • High Treason
  • Piracy with violence (though I like to call it ‘piracy on the high seas’ because it sounds better)
  • Arson in the Royal Dockyards (or Arson in Her Majesty’s Shipyards).

The Criminal Damages Act 1971 repealed the third of these – Arson in the Royal Dockyards that had been on the statute books since the American War of Independence. The punishments for High Treason and Piracy were commuted to life imprisonment with the enactment of the Human Rights Act 1998.


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