CASE STUDIES


THOMAS WILFORD - THE MURDER ACT'S FIRST VICTIM

On 25 June 1752, Thomas Wilford was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey for the murder of his wife, whom he had married just four days earlier. He was the first person to be sentenced and executed under the recently-passed Murder Act. As such, after execution his corpse was dissected and turned into a skeleton for display in Surgeon’s Hall. But if the Murder Act was designed to heap further shame and ignominy on murderers, it’s first victim in fact drew pity and compassion....


HALF HUNG MACDONALD

MacDonald was soon arrested and sentenced to execution on Newcastle’s Town Moor, to be followed by dissection, making him the first man to suffer this post-mortem punishment as dictated by the 1752 Murder Act, in Newcastle. MacDonald refused to go quietly, reports of his execution on Newcastle’s Town Moor, on 28th September, 1752, stating that he threw the executioner from the ladder.  But something even more remarkable happened in this case. Or did it?  It is here where the story becomes more-cloudy.


ALEXANDER GILLAN - AN EXECUTION AT ELGIN

When passing the death sentence, the Lord Justice Clerk stated that the magnitude of the crime required an exemplary response and added that the location chosen for the offence was remote and well calculated due to the ample concealment it offered and thus it was his duty to make the area “as safe as the streets of the most populated cities.” Therefore, Gillan was to be executed upon the spot where the body had been found and his body was to be hung in chains to act as a constant warning of the fatal consequences of murder...


THE GIBBETING OF JAMES STEWART

The case of James Stewart in 1752 occurred in the wake of 1745 Jacobite Rebellion and embodied tensions still evident in the political management of parts of Scotland. The highest legal authorities in Scotland, as well as those in London, monitored its progress from his apprehension to his trial and subsequent execution. Despite deficiencies in the case against him there was an evident determination to see him receive swift and exemplary punishment.


HANGING & DISSECTING THE BODYSNATCHER BURKE

“Such was the intense anxiety of the public with regard to the execution of Burke, that, at a very early hour this morning, people from very remote distances came in crowds to the Lawnmarket. Never, we believe, was such an assemblage seen....the crowd assembled, which could not be short of 30,000 souls, rent the air with shouts of exultation when the monster appeared on the scaffold; and the same cheers were renewed at every striking feature of the terrible tragedy”...


CHARLES SMITH & THE HUMAN SKIN BOOK

“An eminent collector and antiquarian of Newcastle is possessed of a piece of the skin of the late Charles Smith, executed near that town last year for the murder of Charles Smith, which he had tanned and dressed for the purpose of binding a large paper copy of the murderer’s dying speech!!!"....


THE MANY AFTERLIVES OF WILLIAM CORDER & THE RED BARN MURDER

In the Moyes Hall Museum of Bury St Edmunds there is a curious and macabre collection; an ear, skin from the side of a man’s head and a book bound in the same man’s skin. They are all taken from the body of William Corder and are artefacts from one of the nineteenth century's most notorious criminal cases - The Red Barn Murder. The crime and subsequent trial and execution sparked the national imagination and spawned a veritable cottage industry of trinkets and collectibles depicting key crime locations, protagonists and details of the crime and even relics of the criminal, William Corders’ body....


THE LAST MAN GIBBETTED - THE CASE OF JAMES COOK

Cook’s final words on the gallows were reported in The Times as “Lord remember me when thou comest to Judge the World.” After execution his body was taken to the junction where Saffron Lane met Aylestone Road In Leicester. There it was placed in a gibbet cage and suspended from a large wooden post.  However, unlike most gibbets, it only lasted a matter of days...


THE BOTCHED EXECUTION OF ROBERT JOHNSTON

In November 1818 Robert Johnston was convicted by the High Court in Edinburgh for assault and robbery. Along with two accomplices, who were transported for their parts in the crime, he attacked Mr John Charles, a candlemaker in Edinburgh, on the new road leading from St Patrick Square to Arniston place. He threw him to the ground and stole £360 in bank notes along with a watch, a key and a chain. He was sentenced to be executed at the ‘common place’ of execution in Edinburgh, in front of the new county hall at the Lawnmarket, on 30 December 1818....


BANNER IMAGE: William Hunter (1718-1783) in his museum in Windmill Street on the day of resurrection, surrounded by skeletons and bodies, some of whom are searching for their missing parts. Engraving, 1782. Wellcome Images V0010453