SO FAR: 23rd April, 1862, rural Warwickshire, and a 21 year old ploughman, George Gardner, employed by farmer Davis Edge at Outhill Farm, near Studley, has shot 24 year-old Sarah Kirby, employed by Edge as a domestic servant. Gardner’s peculiar state of mind before killing Sarah Kirby could almost be described as existential, in that it seemed to recognise neither logic nor the law – just his own obsession. He did, however, seem to have acknowledged the presence of chance. He had been uncertain that morning about killing Sarah Kirby, so he adopted a rural version of tossing a coin. Ploughmen used a hand-tool known as a “spud”. It was basically a flat blade, usually mounted on a wooden handle, (left} and used for clearing earth from the blades of the plough. Gardner decided to toss the tool in the air, and if it landed blade first, then Sarah Kirby would die. It did, and so did the young woman.
Garner needed to escape, and for that he needed protection from his pursuers – and money. He smashed open Davis Edge’s bureau, but found only small change. He took this, as well as the gun, the powder and the *shot flask.
*This was in the days before shotgun cartridges. There were three elements to a shotgun load. (1) the gunpowder tamped down via the barrel (2) the lead shot, likewise loaded from the muzzle, and (3) a small primer, known as a primer cap. This, when ignited by the gun’s hammer, would set off the powder which would, in turn, expel the shot.
Leaving the scene of his crime, Gardner set off to put distance between himself and the police. He managed to get to Stratford, where he sold the gun, powder and shot. Meanwhile, he was a hunted man:
“The police joined the villagers and gamekeepers, scoured the woods and surrounding country, and got upon the track the fugitive, whom they traced to Wootton, and thence to the Stratford Railway station, and ultimately to the junction of the Stratford branch with the West Midland main line at Honeybourne, where the police captured him.”
Gardner’s brutal nature was only matched by his stupidity. Waiting in Honeybourne to catch the next train to Oxford, he decided he had time for a drink, and went into a nearby inn, where he was later found by the police, almost unable to walk due to the amount of cheap gin he had drunk.
Gardner’s subsequent trial at Warwick Assizes was something of a formality. His defence barrister made a half hearted attempt to prove that the gun had gone off by accident, but the jury knew a killer when they saw one, and the judge – Baron Pollock – duly donned the Black Cap, and sent Gardner back to the condemned cell. His execution was set for Monday 25th August. A newspaper report described the days leading up to the Gardner’s appointment with the executioner:
“Exactly a fortnight has therefore elapsed before the sentence was enforced. During his incarceration in Warwick Gaol Gardner has learnt to write ; and since receiving sentence has spent good portion of his time in both reading and writing. There is really no condemned cell in the gaol, and the one occupied by Gardner after condemnation differed in no respect from the others except that it was larger, and situated in that portion of the building nearest to the sleeping-rooms of the turnkeys, two of whom attended him day and night.
Since condemnation, he has dined on the usual prison fare, which consists of ½lb. of mutton chop, 1lb. of potatoes, 11b. of bread, and a pint of ale. He has slept well every night, and conducted himself altogether as well as could be expected. Mr. Carles, the chaplain, has afforded him what consolation of spiritual nature his state required, and latterly he appeared to be very penitent, and made a confession to the following effect:”
Gardner had one further misfortune. His executioner was none other than George Smith (right), a former criminal and noted drunk, known – with rough humour – as The Dudley Throttler. This was to be a public execution, and a perfectly respectable form of cheap entertainment at the time. A reporter described the scene:
“At precisely eighteen minutes past ten the prisoner appeared upon the drop, attended by four warders, and Smith, the executioner. The clergyman did not, as is customary now, make his appearance upon the scaffold, and this, coupled with the absence of any tolling of the bell, robbed the ceremony of much of its impressiveness. The prisoner was dressed in the same clothes wore the trial—a short white smock and fustian trousers. The executioner also wore long white smock frock. After he had removed the prisoner’s neckerchief, and adjusted the rope upon his neck, Smith shook hands with the wretched man, and left the scaffold to draw the bolt.
A murmur of horror ran through the crowd, it being evident that the hangman had forgotten to place the cap over the culprit’s face in the usual manner. There the poor wretch stood, pinioned, the rope around his neck, facing the crowd. Everyone who saw him expected momentarily see him plunge downwards, and the horror of witnessing the wretched man’s death-agonies depicted in his face, unmasked, caused those who were even accustomed such scenes to turn away. The omission was noticed by one of the warders upon the scaffold, who called the executioner back, and he then produced the cap from his pocket. Altogether the wretched culprit must have stood face to face with the crowd for the space of ten minutes – to him it must have been a century of agony.
The bolt was drawn immediately afterwards, and the prisoner being a heavy man, the body fell with immense force, sufficient, we should imagine, if the rope had been properly adjusted, to have caused dislocation of the neck and a very speedy death. As it was. however, life was not pronounced extinct for at least twelve minutes. The body was afterwards buried within the precincts of the gaol. Owing to the position of the scaffold persons standing in the road can see very little of what takes place, and after the drop nothing but the cap of the culprit was visible. The number of spectators was between twelve and fourteen hundred, of whom least one third were women and children.”
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