1841: Last Man Hanged for Attempted Murder – his final hours

The Victorian newspapers didn’t hold back from the grim and gory details, they relished it and so did their readers, so when an execution was on the cards it always a good time to deploy their dark arts! The graphic execution of Josiah Mister proved the perfect foil for it.

Josiah Mister | Worcestershire Chronicle | 9 September 1840

One tale that gripped the country in 1841 was the shocking attempted murder of William Miller Mackreth (pictured below). Someone tried to cut his throat in the night while the lead trader was sleeping. The attacker had been hiding under his hotel bed in Ludlow. Amazingly he survived. The man arrested and subsequently convicted was Josiah Mister. He professed his innocence throughout, and up to and even after his death.

(Read the full story of the crime here https://newsfromthepast.blog/2018/01/15/1841-the-atrocious-attempt-at-murder-at-ludlow-did-they-get-they-right-man/ )

His final hours were documented extensively in the Salopian Journal.

Here is that account word for word…

WARNING – THE WRITTEN DESCRIPTIONS CONTAINED WITHIN IT ARE GRAPHIC AND NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART.

EXECUTION OF JOSIAH MISTER. (From the Salopian Journal of Wednesday.)

On Saturday, Josiah Mister paid the penalty of the heinous crime he committed, and was executed in front of Salop County prison. Up to Friday, it was thought possible that the extreme sentence of the law, which doomed him to a shameful death, might be commuted. But this was considered more of a possibility than probability,— considering the strength of the whole chain of evidence against him ; the certainty that Baron Gurney’s opinion was known to be decidedly against the prisoner ; the melancholy fact that, throughout the country, there has, this Assizes, been exhibited considerably more than the average quantity and degree of crime ; and the circumstance of man” having been left for execution at Stafford (for the murder at Newcastle) who had also been con- vie ted upon circumstantial evidence, upon which convicted, too, Josiah Mister had been convicted. It had been decided that mercy could not be fairly extended to the murderer at Stafford, and, (it being considered that the non-completion of murder at Ludlow was not owing to any forbearance on the part of Josiah Mister,) it was determined that capital punishment should be inflicted.

An illustration of a public hanging at the Dana Prison from Shropshirehistory.com

On Saturday morning, notwithstanding the prevalent belief that neither respite nor reprieve would be given, there was some anxiety for the arrival of the London Mail in Shrewsbury, and very speedily was public curiosity set at rest by the announcement that no official letter had arrived. Mr. Peele, the acting Under-Sheriff, and Mr. John Dawson, Governor of the Gaol, were at the Post Office before the arrival of the mail, although neither of them anticipated that mercy would be extended to the prisoner. But the idea had seized many that, even at the eleventh hour, a respite would arrive, and neither turnkey nor policeman could leave the prison without being surrounded and followed by crowds of persons asking “Has the respite arrived?”—None of the authorities expected that it would.

Immediately on ascertaining that no orders had arrived to countermand or postpone the execution, Mr. Dawson proceeded to the condemned cell and informed Mister that he must dismiss all hopes, if he entertained any, and prepare to meet his end a few hours. It is said that the prisoner did not exhibit any remarkable emotion on hearing this announcement. Indeed, from the first, he appears to have had little if any expectation of commutation of punishment.

Mr. Mackreth’s appeal to the judge was unsuccessful. Anticipating that it would be so, addressed a petition to the throne, supplicating mercy for the man who had nearly murdered him.

The victim William Miller Mackreth of Bristol.
The scar of the attack clearly still visible on his cheeks.

To this, on Friday last, he received the follow reply :—

 “Whitehall, Ist April, 1841.

“Sir,—l am directed the Marquis of Normandy to acknowledge the receipt your petition in behalf of Josiah Mister, a convict under sentence of death in the gaol of Shrewsbury; and to inform you that he has received from Mr. Baron Gurney a report the trial, which he has carefully considered, and his lordship is concerned to find that guilt the prisoner so clear, and the crime one of such atrocity, that he would not feel himself justified in recommending the prisoner for the Royal mercy.

”I am, sir, your most obedient humble servant, “S. M. PHILLIPS.

“Mr. W. M. Mackreth, Bristol.”

 The prisoner’s demeanour from the time of his conviction is stated to have been decorous and firm. He by no means shunned the subject of his trial, but occasionally commented with shrewdness and at some length, upon the evidence which had been adduced against him. He constantly maintained that was innocent of the the crime with the commission of which had been charged.

Home Secretary in 1841 who received the appeal to spare the life of Josiah Mister.
The Most Honourable
Constantine Phipps
1st Marquess of Normanby
GCHPC
(1797–1863)

At half-past nine o’clock on Friday night he wrote a document which he anxiously requested the authorities to make public after his death. As the best way of doing this, Mr. Peele had copies of it taken immediately after the execution, which were handed to the reporters, for publication. The prisoner made two copies of this document. He gave one, we believe, to Mr. Hopewell, the turnkey, the other in the possession of Mr. Peele. The two documents are substantially the same, except that the one which the turnkey has contains some harsh expressions (imputing perjury, we are told, to some of the witnesses) which the revised copy does not contain.

During the whole of Friday night, the prisoner’s rest was broken. To him might be applied the language which the poet puts into the mouth of Manfred :-

 ” My slumbers—if it be slumber—are not sleep,  But a continuance of enduring thought,

 Which then I can resist not: in heart

 There is vigil, and these eyes but close

To look within.”

Early on Saturday morning, the chaplain of gaol visited him. At the earnest entreaty of this reverend and exemplary gentleman, that he would, as an act of justice to society, whose laws he had broken,—and to the jury, who had condemned him, —make a confession of his guilt, he earnestly repeated that although, as a sinful man, he had much to repent of, had nothing to confess, as was entirely innocent of the crime for which he had been tried and was about suffer. He returned the same answer to every entreaty which was made to him on this head.—lt is a painful thing to think or say, but there is not a shadow of doubt that the verdict was a just one,—for, as the judge said, if Mister did not commit the crime, who could have done it ? —and it follows, that the wretched and guilty man has gone out of the world, into the presence of his God, a lie upon his lips.

Sir John Gurney.  (1768-1845), Judge. The man who passed sentence on Josiah Mister.
National Portrait Gallery.

After learning from Mr. Dawson that he had nothing to hope for in this world, Mister threw himself on his knees, and, with great fervour and much force of language, offered up extempore prayer to his Maker. And here we may remark that, particularly since his conviction, he had bestowed a considerable portion of his time to the perusal the Holy Bible.

About a quarter past ten o’clock, the Rev. J. Colley joined the Chaplain in the prisoner’s cell, prayed with and for the wretched criminal, and affectionately admonished him to repentance. The prisoner’s last hour approached, and the Sacrament the Lord’s Supper was administered to him about half-past eleven o’clock. He then, in the vestry of the prison chapel, awaited the moment when would be delivered up from the custody of the Governor of the gaol to that of the High Sheriff’s representative.

Meanwhile, at an early hour in the morning, the drop ‘ had been erected upon the platform which forms the roof of the porter’s lodge in front of the prison. Around the iron railing which surrounds this platform a drapery of black cloth had been fastened. This increased the funeral aspect of the place,—but, in truth, the execution appeared more an object of curiosity than a theme for solemn thought in the minds of the thousands who witnessed it.

 Early in the morning of Saturday, all the entrances of the town where crowded with vehicles of all sorts conveying the curious to what they evidently considered rather a shew than a solemnity. The spectators came from all parts of the county, and there were many from the adjacent counties of Wales, as well as from Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire. In fact, an immense concourse of people assembled to witness the execution. The works at Ketley and Wellington sent out their hundreds of spectators. About ten o’clock there was but a sprinkling of people in front of the prison—about eleven o’clock, that immense area was half full,—at half-past eleven the town, usually crowded on a market day, was comparatively deserted—and a few minutes before noon there must have been, in all places that commanded a view of the execution, some thousands assembled. Among the spectators in front of the prison were many respectable and  well-dressed inhabitants, —but the great majority consisted of persons from the agricultural districts. Indeed, we heard that the farmers had generally been favoured with entreaties from their servants, to let them “have a holiday on Saturday, to see the hanging at twelve and go to the Circus at two!”

At a quarter before twelve, the executioner was brought from the porter’s lodge into the space in front of the governor’s house. This “finisher of the law” (an old man, slightly made, with rather a mild expression of countenance,) wore a smock frock over his clothes, and an oiled-skin hat slouched over his face. We believe it was stated in one of the papers of the day, that the executioner was to be “brought specially from London,” —the man who usually officiates being required at Stafford.

The executioner Thomas Taylor later took Josiah’s clothes, and arrested for being drunk in Bridgnorth.
Dublin Morning Register | 12 April 1841

It happens—like many of the statements issued from the same quarter,—statements in which fiction supplies the place of fact—that this information is not correct. The man who executed Mister has been in the habit of performing the same functions for the last twenty-four years, in Shropshire, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Monmouthshire.  He was “retained” to execute Frost, Williams, and Jones, at Monmouth. An executioner from London “goes this circuit” as far Oxford, and the old man who officiated on Saturday, takes the other places above-named. He resides in Worcestershire. Exactly at ten minutes to twelve, he was conducted from the turnkey’s lodge to the vestry, where the prisoner was seated, awaiting his arrival. The door was then closed, (Mr. Winstone and Mr. Dawson also being with the prisoner) and the irons were taken off. When this was done, the executioner proceeded to pinion his arms with a very slight cord. The prisoner, in a rather low voice, requested him not to bind him too tight, as it pained him.

Immediately outside the vestry in which the prisoner sat, Mr. Peele, and several gentlemen of the town stood, awaiting him. As the door opened once or twice just for a second, we had a casual glimpse of the prisoner.— He wore the same attire he had on during the trial. He turned his face to the door each time that it was opened, as if wished to see who or how many persons were outside. We thought him very little altered in appearance since his trial. His complexion, which then was a clear olive, had grown very sallow. The muscles under his eyes were swollen, —we presume from weeping, he held a handkerchief in his hand, which he applied to his eyes at intervals. His hair, which wore combed very much one side, had strayed out of place, and nearly covered his left eye. His countenance had a very sad expression—it was comparatively calm, but it was the calmness of despair.

At five minutes to twelve, the prison-bell pealed death-toll. Exactly at one minute before twelve the prisoner left the vestry, supported by two of the officers of the prison. His shirt-collar was turned down, the fatal rope was round his neck, and his arms were pinioned. He was in tears, but appeared quite conscious of all that he saw and heard. To the earnest demand on the part of the Chaplain, whether he believed in the promises of salvation through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, he replied, in a low but audible tone “I do.”

Shrewsbury’s new gaol. 1796 Illustration by John Ingleby.

In passing from the vestry to the entry of the turnkey’s lodge, the wretched man’s funeral procession was formed. It was headed the Rev. Mr. Winstone, who was immediately followed by the prisoner, supported two turnkeys. He walked with a firm step, and appeared very attentive the exhortations of the Chaplain. Immediately behind him walked the executioner; many gentlemen followed.

At twelve o’clock the procession emerged from the porter’s lodge, and the Chaplain commenced reading the funeral service, ” I am the Resurrection and the Life.” When the party came the porter’s lodge, through which is the passage to the scaffold, the prisoner paused, looked at the gentlemen who surrounded him fancying he saw the Jury, asked “Are these the Jury?” Receiving an answer in the negative, he said, in a low voice, “I freely forgive the Jury.”

He then was assisted up the stairs, walking with a firm step, and followed Mr Winston into a small room, near the head of the staircase. He knelt down and prayed, Mr Winstone alone being present. He remained here a very brief time, took his leave of the Chaplain, and then ascended the few remaining steps which led to where the drop had been erected.

Hopewell then came down- the executioner pulled the bolt- the drop suddenly fell with a loud crash – and Josiah Mister was launched into eternity at three minutes past twelve.

A view over Shrewsbury from the Severn in the Illustrated London News – July 12th 1845

When turned off, he had a white handkerchief in his hand, but, in the first convulsive motions, this dropped down. He struggled violently for about two minutes,- the first convulsive motions of the muscles bringing the hands nearly together at the front. The next carried them a little backward;- the third brought them up in the air as far as the pinioning permitted, – and the last left them firmly clenched, and nearly pendulous by his side. The medical gentlemen who noticed these movements, said, that the flexor muscles were stronger than the extensor muscles.

 The culprit’s stomach heaved strongly, three or four times, as if the truck was about separating from the extremities. Whatever might appear at this man’s death, it was the opinion of the medical men, on examination of the body, that these muscular motions were involuntary, and that, the rope crushing the thyroid cartilage, almost instant suffocation was caused. When the body had hung for five minutes, and all struggles had been over for some time, pulsation was yet faintly perceptible at the wrist.

St Mary’s Church 1931

After hanging for an hour, the body was taken down by the executioner and one of the prisoners.

A smart shower of rain had come on, and fallen heavily for about half an hour before this was done, and dispersed most of the crowd in front of the prison. Neither when the prisoner was executed, nor when he was taken down, was there the slightest popular expression of the horror which the atrocity of the prisoners conduct had created, far and near.

When the body was taken down from the drop, it was removed, through the porter’s lodge, to the cell adjoining one of the courts at the left, and extended upon a bedstead. On removing the cap, the features were found not at all distorted. The face was nearly the natural colour, —little paler, perhaps than in life. The eyes were closed, and on the lids being raised it appeared that the pupils had considerably dilated. The lips, which had their natural hue at first, soon grew livid. The expression of the face was stern, —precisely what has been well described, “unrelenting, dark and passionless”.

It had been expected that his neck would have been broken by the fall from the drop, but, on examination, it appeared that there was only a slight red streaky mark round part of the throat, which was most decidedly on the left side. The rope had got fixed upon the thyroid cartilege, (immediately under the lump in the neck commonly called the pomum Adami,) and pressing on with much force had crushed it in and caused instant death by suffocation. Such was the opinion of the medical gentlemen whom we heard speak upon the subject. At seven o’clock on Monday morning, the body of Josiah Mister was buried on the north side of St Mary’s churchyard, next the railing.

Hereford Times – Saturday 10 April 1841

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