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William Calcraft -


Over the centuries Durham Prison has contained some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Many, such as the Kray twins, Frankie Fraser, John Vicar, Myra Hindley, and Rose West, are still household names. What many people don’t know is that between 1800 and 1958, over a 100 men and women were hanged there. Ninety one of them took place at the prison or nearby courthouse, and eighteen in public. Out of the 95 men who were hanged in Durham Prison, only five died for crimes other than murder.

In 2002, I visited this well-known establishment, which was then a Category ‘A’ prison for men and women. Built in 1819, and located in the Old Elvet area of Durham, this Victorian building is certainly not for the faint hearted. Women prisoners were moved in 2005 due to overcrowding and suicides. On my visit to the gallows room – where prisoners were held the night before they were executed – I was intrigued to learn more about these poor unfortunates. One of them, William Waddle, was sent to the gallows for the brutal murder of a woman in 1888. At the time, the whole country was captivated by the Whitechapel murders. A fellow author has since claimed the real killer may have been the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper. If this is true, then it begs the question was Waddle innocent?

Executions have always had a dubious hold on people’s imaginations, but when Mary Ann Smith met her squalid ending in a run-down tenement at Pipewellgate, Gateshead, the hangman’s noose was awaiting husband. Charles Smith, who had been drunk at the time, never admitted to his crime – not until the hangman entered his cell on the day of his execution that is.

Today, most of their names have been lost in time. However, the last person to be hanged at Durham was Middlesbrough-born Brian Chandler, a 20-year-old Army deserter. Desperate for money after running away from Catterick Camp, he bludgeoned an 83-year-old woman to death in 1958.

Like many of the older prisons, famous executioners have also played a major role in the prisons history. Amongst them was the notorious 19th century executioner William Calcraft. Thought to have carried out over 450 executions, to be hung by Calcraft invariably meant slow strangulation. In the case of Mary Ann Cotton’s barbaric execution, in an enclosed courtyard, her death was typical of Calcraft’s bungling’s. After placing a white hood over her head, he then attached the rope to her neck and pinioned her ankles with strong leather straps. When the pin was finally released and the trapdoor sprung open, Mary Ann’s head suddenly jerked to the left-hand side of her body. Her legs still kicking, her arms were desperately trying to release the leather restraints. Swinging from side to side, she did not die instantly as Calcraft had planned. The truth was he had bungled yet another execution. With a drop of barely two feet, Calcraft actually leaned down to Mary Ann’s shoulders and pushed down on them in an effort to speed up her death. Dearly clinging to her life, she still refused to die. Such was this barbaric spectacle that her body continued to twist and writhe for nearly three minutes whilst enduring a slow agonising and painful throttling. Twenty minutes later, and her lifeless body could still be seen swinging in the morning mist. Those present that morning, were forever haunted by the outline of her face through the damp white hood.

Following Calcraft’s bungling; William Marwood was the pioneer of the ‘long-drop,’ ensuring his prisoners’ necks were broken instantly at the end of the drop. However, Bartholomew Binns executions were a classic example of how not to carry out this gruesome task. One of the executions that Binns seriously botched was that of Henry Dutton in 1883. Dutton was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife’s grandmother. He weighed just 128 pounds and was given a drop of 7’6″ using an over-thick rope with the eyelet positioned at the back of his neck. As a result, Dutton’s death was another slow strangulation. Dissatisfied with the way Binns had conducted the hanging there followed a public outcry. The truth was, and there was no getting away from it, Bungling Bartholomew Binns had been drinking heavily beforehand.

Well that’s it for now –there’ no time to hang around!

Catch up with you later. Michael.

Durham Prison

Durham Prison

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