A mysterious pair of boots and one of England’s most prolific hangman create an intriguing Glasgow mystery.
On 28 July 1865, Edward William Pritchard was hung for the crimes of murdering his wife and mother-in-law by poisoning them.
The execution took place at the Saltmarket end of Glasgow Green at 8am in front of a large crowd, in those days hanging was as much an entertainment business as a legal racket. A cap was placed over Pritchard’s head and then the executioner released the trap door. The hangman rushed down below the gallows to pull on Pritchard’s legs to ensure strangulation. There were cheers and screams from the crowd as his body spun slowly. Pritchard was the last person to be publicly executed in Glasgow.
Pritchard was buried in the South Prison’s ‘Murderers’ Graveyard’ where the plots were only identified by the initials of the dead. Accounts differ, and even contradict each other, as to what happened next.
The first account suggests that when the city mortuary was being built near the site in around 1910, workmen found Pritchard’s skeleton with a small headstone marked E.W.P. He was still wearing his new pair of patent leather boots, which were promptly stolen and sold. It would be interesting to know if they fetched a higher price for the talismanic nature of a dead man’s shoes. The same account also says that his skull was stolen and sold to a collector – to add to the other genuine Pritchard skulls now known to exist.
Donald Fraser gives another account in Glasgow Mysteries. A tunnel used to run from the scaffold to the prison in the High Court next to Saltmarket. In 1985, it was decided to fill in the tunnel which had lain unused since the death of Pritchard. In a niche they discovered a pair of leather boots and, inside the boots, some black human hair – hidden there but why and by whom?
The answer goes back to the man who rushed to pull down on Pritchard’s legs, the prolific hangman William Calcraft.
William Calcraft – official executioner
William Calcraft was one of England’s most prolific hangman, carrying out an estimated 450 executions during his 45-year career. He was first employed at Newgate to flog juvenile offenders. In 1829 he was sworn in as the official Executioner for the city of London and Middlesex. He was paid one guinea a week plus an additional guinea for each execution. Calcraft also received an allowance for cats o’ nine tails and birch rods, and supplemented his income by selling sections of the rope used to hang his victims.
Those being hanged had their arms pinioned to their sides with leather straps before being walked to the gallows, where they were placed on a trapdoor and their heads and faces covered with a white cap, or hood. It was not always a quick death.
Despite his long career, Calcraft came to be regarded as incompetent, frequently having to dramatically pull on legs or climb on shoulders in an effort to break a victim’s neck.
Calcraft used the old-fashioned short-drop method of execution, in which the drop through the trapdoor might be around 3 feet (0.91 m) or so. That was often insufficient to break the prisoner’s neck, and therefore death was not always quick, typically occurring slowly by strangulation.
Some historians have suggested that Calcraft’s methods allowed time to entertain the large crowds that sometimes attended his public executions. Others suggest that he was simply following the methods of hanging at the time, and it was only towards the end of his career that the long-drop method began to be considered.
Calcraft’s bungling became the subject of a popular ballad. His appearance may not have helped. As a young he was considered genial but in later years he was described as “surly and sinister-looking, with long hair and beard, in scruffy black attire and a fob chain”.
Calcraft didn’t just work in south England – the emerging railways allowed him to travel round the country. In 1873, the Times newspaper reported that when Calcraft arrived in Dundee he was greeted as a man of eminence. He only had one piece of hand luggage and it contained “a new rope, a white cap, and some pinioning straps”.
Money for old rope – the hangman’s mementos
The hanging rope played a prominent part of British folk medical and magical tradition. People came to hangings to feel the touch of the hanged man’s hand for swellings. Bits of rope could be sold as cures of ague, epilepsy and other ailments. People desired hanging rope for any number of reasons – luck, superstition, channelling the power of death, a grisly souvenir.
In Paris there was huge demand for hanging rope as a lucky charm. As hanging was less common in France. French gamblers and the superstitious had to rely on suicides for pieces and whatever could be imported from England, being one of the countries more keen on the hanging business.
Rope used in the hanging of a particularly notable criminal could be sold for good money – up to 5 shillings or 25p an inch, hence the expression , “money for old rope”. The trade, of course, was open to abuse and fraud.
Nor was it just hanging rope that could fetch some income for the hangman. Calcraft was allowed to keep the clothes and personal effects of the condemned which he could sell afterwards to Madame Tussauds for dressing their latest waxwork. There were bitter accusations that personal possessions wanted by families seemed to disappear. Some suggested Calcraft also had his own personal collection of mementos.
Dead man’s boots
Once Pritchard had been hung, his beard and hair were shaved so that the Royal Phrenological Society could make a death mask. The magistrates ordered all the hair to be burnt except for a lock of hair for Pritchard’s eldest daughter. Calcraft tried to hide the hair but was forced to hand it over when it was discovered to be in his possession. To avoid further problems, he may have hidden the boots and some remaining hair he had managed to keep.
If so, he intended to go back and retrieve them at a later date as lucrative souvenirs. He never had the chance to return to Glasgow.
Calcraft was reluctantly forced to retire from office in 1874, his methods combined with old age increasingly causing comment in the press. He died at the end of 1879.
An obituary published in The New York Times on 1 January 1880 reported that “Several so-called biographies of Calcraft were published during his lifetime, but all are notable for a narrow stream of fact meandering through a broad meadow of commentary.”
This was the last public execution in Scotland. In the wake of a Royal Commission report, from 1868, all executions in Great Britain were carried out in prison.
As for Pritchard’s boots, the two accounts of Pritchard’s boots were written decades apart. It shows how a city can generate its own myths and symbols for us to choose which ones to adopt for our entertainment and beliefs. Just like our ancestors with public executions and hanging rope.
The Guide to Mysterious Glasgow – Geoff Holder