First Published: Alive Magazine: Literature & Ideology No. 45, November 1975
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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[Author’s Note]This story, based on the hanging of a seven year old girl for the theft of a few shillings worth of lace (does the value matter?) at the turn of the last century, was inspired by the words of prime minister Wilson in a speech to the House of Commons... That... “The laws of this country, however oppressive, no matter how unfair, must be obeyed until legislation alters them.” For this, in what must have been a mutually gratifying experience, he was applauded by the opposition. They could not have more precisely expressed the spirit of the establishment of that infant-hanging time when my lords, my lord-bishops, parliamentarians and wealthy industralists expressed outrage at the suggestion that the hanging age should be raised to fourteen, while at the same time they demanded that something be done to correct the impertinent disregard of the law shown by some juries who refused to sentence obviously guilty children.
These juries were drawn from a class that had only just been put on the jury list by legislation that required any citizen with a property value of 10 pounds, to attent for jury duty. This class, the first with compassion enough to acquit children who might otherwise be hanged, or, at best transported, was the working class. Craftsmen, artisans, bricklayers, carpenters: from which it may be deduced, rose the impulse to relax the viciously harsh laws that made petty crime a capital offence, and legalised the most enormous crime considerable: the hanging of little children.
Bourgeois historians and biographers love to claim for particular reformers of their class and of the aristocracy, the prerogative of responsibility for legislative changes for the better through their Christian qualities of conscience and compassion. But the fact is that these reforms were due to political conflict between the politically entrenched bourgeoisie and the aristocracy which was trying to re-emerge as a main political force by competing for the support of the recently enfranchised upper strata of the proletariat.
They saw how the voting wind blew, and had they had amongst themselves, ten times more reformers with ten times each a greater portion of conscience and compassion, and there been no pressure of political capital from below, have been no reform. This was something they understood; this was worth conceding that not hanging little be a good thing after all.
* * *
The difficulty of explaining to a seven year old infant that about she is to be executed, though not insuperable would certainly be harrowing for any many of feeling, and the minister of Christ appointed to that task by the state which had through one of its indubitably honourable judges, sentenced the child to be hanged by the neck until she was dead, faced the task with the fortitude that comes from faith and the familiarly that comes from experience. It was not his first child and would by no means be his last, but he did find seven years old a problem; especially girls, for they tended to weep more piteously than boys; but then he had tended always to be too tender hearted in such things.
It was seven a.m. when he passed through the small door of the great gates of Strangeways gaol, which gave him an hour to help her make her peace with her maker, for she to was be hanged at eight. She sat with her hands in her lap, legs dangling from the edge of what was for her a massive chair of solid deal before a chunky table of the same solid wood structure. On it was her last breakfast, and not one of the proverbial select plentitude, but a bowl of porridge, a piece of thick bacon sousing in a wash of pale beans on a tin plate, a cob of bread and a mug of water; and again unlike proverbial report of the condemned man eating a heart appetite. she did not, but sat staring at the wall.
She had not yet been told that this was the day. but she knew from the change in the behaviour of the two warders on death watch, (guarding this dangerous little criminal), and this day had an ominous and sinister portent relating to what the judge had said that day when he had donned the little black cloth and pronounced sentence of death. The woman who had daily attended to her bodily needs was this day absent and that, by its very breach of routine, had a significance that might not otherwise have added to the somber atmosphere pervading a death cell, even more so when the sun shone and the birds sang, but the day before she had both sharper and more considerate than usual, and she had left she had been obviously disturbed; and this remembered.
The prison governor greeted the chaplain from the desk where he sat sipping his third large brandy. Not that it was his habit to drink so early in the morning, except you call drinking on the morning of the execution of a child a habit. Not that there was any doubt in his mind that the execution was just. The child was a thief, and the law decreed that thieves should hang, and it was his duty as administrator of the Law’s decree to see that the sentence was carried out. And yet he had to fortify himself against the coming ordeal. The chaplain had no such need; he had Christ for comfort and Christ to help him ease the child’s last hour. The governor’s good morning was gruff in contrast to the chaplain’s which was almost cheerful as he remarked on the beauty of the morning on such a sad occasion.
The subject of the occasion was sitting as she had been staring still at the wall, but rocking to and fro as if by that she might find some self-comfort, when the chaplain entered. He took her by the hand and led her to the bed where he knelt and asked her to kneel. “This morning Mary you will be in the arms of Jesus if you kneel and humbly pray to God to forgive you for your sins.”
“Can I see my mother?”
“No Mary, you will not see your mother again but you will see Jesus; but only if you search your heart and confess that you are a miserable sinner and ask Christ to receive you–”
“Why can’t I see my mother?” She began to cry softly and to grasp her dress and roll it up between her hands and then to wring it in the way that anguish has of manifesting itself through this action of the hands. “Stop it Mary!” The chaplain, not too harshly, slapped her hands down. It is indecent to so expose yourself and on such a morning. “Don’t you realise; haven’t I explained to you again and again that you were soon to meet your maker? Well, this is the morning. Now, you must kneel with me and pray–”
“I want my mother.” She was crying now in earnest but she knelt in obedience and clasped her hands in the traditional praying gesture. “Now, you know the Lord’s prayer which I taught you. Say it with me. You cannot say it if you continue to weep in this uncontrollable manner. Our Lord Jesus who was as innocent as a lamb was crucified, and you were guilty of a grave crime for which you must pay the penalty. But Christ Jesus is compassionate and loving and he will overlook your sins if you will only pray; and especially in that you are a child, for did he not say, ’Suffer little children to come unto me’’ He is waiting for you; but first you must pray–”
“I only want my mother–”
“Child!” He sighed with impatience and closing his eyes asked God to forgive her and to give him patience to deal with this intransigent child. “Very well, if you will not pray I will pray for you.” And so he did, while the child wept. Almost an hour later, when the governor, slightly drunk, and the doctor who had earlier certified Mary fit to be hanged came to the door of the cell, she was still weeping and the chaplain was still praying with a spiritual intoxication that was the just reward of those who prayed for others. At the door of the cell the doctor parted company with the governor, the first to go to the drop beneath to be ready to certify death, the second to enter the cell where he mumbled the ceremonial announcement of the execution.
Apart from the litanous supplications of the chaplain these were the last words Mary heard, for with professional expertise the hangman swooped into the cell from a side door, the purpose of which she had once asked the warders who told her it was a door that just happened to be there and was rarely used. In between two sobs her hands were tied behind her back, and since she was but a child the ceremonial pacing into the gallows was dispensed with. He simply picked her up and carried her to the trap door where he had no sooner slipped on the noose than he was at the trap release and it was sprung, and no sooner sprang than he was off down below, for it was not quite enough to just hang a child, the weight was not enough guarantee of execution, so out of mercy, he grasped the legs and added his own weight until all movement had ceased.
While the doctor was certifying death and the chaplain was still invoking the mercy of God, and the Governor was anticipating another brandy to dull the intensity of the emotional upheaval, the two warders, their death watch ended still sat, although they now could leave, their duty done. One the younger of the two, had not before been on death watch, and now he was a matter of concern for the other, for he was twitching and grimacing in the most intense effort to control his emotions; but they would not be contained and he broke down in the most complete and utter abandon of coherence and control so that whatever he was saying as he sobbed was just a babble. The older one just sat there patiently, waiting for the moment of emotional exhaustion which, when it came, gave the opportunity to say, more with resignation than any attempt to comfort. “She was indeed a lively child. I could see you growing overfond of her This is something you will learn not to allow yourself But so happens, you’ll get used to it. Who would do it? But a man must eat. Come now, make yourself presentable before we leave.”
On opening the door, the uproar of the prison inmates which the death watch had been barely conscious of as much by habituation as through their preoccupation with the emotional effect of the execution, rampaged down the catacombs of tiered cells in an uproar that made further talk impossible without shouting. Tins, chamber pots, shoes and anything that could be used to make the utmost noise against doors and across bars kept the sound at a crescendo accompanied by a human roar of inarticulate protest that made it seem that no one stopped to take a breath. None of the warders on landing duty made the least attempt to quell it. This was the one noise that appalled and frightened them by the intensity of fury and frustration that reverberated with shock-force from wall to wall, from floor to roof and back again. As was their custom, they merely waited until the noise ended as abruptly as it began. And how it began was for them, an aspect of the experience that added to its intimidating nature. No one, outside the execution chamber could hear the drop; and yet, on the instant of the drop without benefit of clocks or any means of precisely knowing when, then precisely they began the uproar.
The chaplain dabbed his eyes, wet with the emotion of his hour-long prayer, and feeling certain that if the child had repented in her heart, he had not prayed in vain, he looked toward to the hearty breakfast God provided for those who lived a God-fearing life. It was a beautiful morning, and he breathed a few deep breaths of God’s summer air on his way to the gate where he enquired of the gate-keeper if his carrage had arrived. The affirmation that it was waiting he acknowledged with a gentlemanly nod and smile and stepped through the small door which closed behind him before he could step back from the distressed approach of a woman with eyes so red, and hair so disheveled he concluded with distaste that she was drunk or had been drinking and was suffering the well deserved ill-effects.
He froze. These lower classes. What could these possibly have to do with God? They were another species.
“Oh sir –”
“I do beg your pardon, but I have just been through quite an unpleasant experience. You will forgive me but I must be on my way –”
“Madam” His hands were held up in defensive protest as she, having taken a step forward compelled him with an expression of the utmost distaste to step back and to the side and then to hurry round her as he continued. “If there is one thing I never do it is to sully charity by acceding to the soliciting for alms by one who would obviously squander it on alcohol. Be off with you or I will see to it that the law will deal with you.” He was by now at bus carnage door, to which the woman had followed him with a cowed, beseeching look and posture. “Oh sir, I want nothing from you but news of my little Mary. Though God knows what there can be to tell.” She shook her head and stepped back, her arms dangling loosely, her shoulders bowed, and turning away she said, “What is the good now. My Mary is no more. They say I cannot have her body. Which is as well from what I hear. I have no more tears. I wish I was dead.”
“Madam!” The chaplain halted her with an imperative tone that had in it the stridency of anger which compelled her to turn again to protest that she wasn’t begging, but the fury on his face so astonished and intimidated her she backed away without a word. He followed her, pointing a wagging finger as he accused. “Woman of shame! Shame on you that you should rear a child to come to such an infamous end! Shame on you that you should have been drinking spirituous liquor on the very night that ought to been on your bended knees beseeching God to accept the soul of your wicked child! –”
“But sir! How can a child of seven be wicked? She was just seven and –”
“And she stole madam! She was a thief! And the penalty for theft as well she knew, for she was of the age of understanding, is death by hanging. Go, wicked woman, and repent, and pray that God ,” his infinite mercy will not cast you into the fires of hell, which is an end you deserve no less richly than the end met by your child for her wicked crime.” And she went away believing she was indeed a wicked woman because a man of God told her so. And he in his carriage rode away thanking God he was not one of those.
The hangman wrote in the hangman’s log where it may be read to this day, the epitaph for both mother and child.
“She wept piteously for her mother.”