On November 13th 1849, the felonious couple Frederick and Maria Manning were publicly executed at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Southwark, for the murder of Patrick O’Connor – an affair that became known as the “Bermondsey Horror.”
She, a Swiss born housemaid with a taste for luxury and dread of penury; he, a fabulist labourer with a penchant for the inside job, had invited the elder, wealthy Irish inebriate O’Connor to their home at 3 Minver Place, New Weston Street. Smitten by the stout redhead, O’Connor, had previously availed himself fully to her sexual favours. Maria, now motivated by pure greed, had hatched a plan to kill him.
The covetous popsy wounded the dupe with a pistol shot to the head, then Frederick finished O’Connor off by battering his head in with a ripping chisel (crowbar), burying the body in a pre-dug grave below the kitchen and covering it with plenty of quicklime to hasten decay.
Swiping the dead man’s shares and money from his Mile End lodgings, Maria absconded to Edinburgh where she was soon arrested for trying to sell some stock to a firm of Edinburgh brokers who were both aware that some had been stolen in London and suspicious of Maria’s foreign accent.
Concerns from two of O’Connor’s colleagues impelled police to Miniver Place where it was noticed that the mortar between two of the flagstones in the kitchen was still damp. The flagstones were lifted, and the beaten, bloody body of O’Connor was discovered. Maria was returned to London and Frederick, who had fled to Jersey, was arrested a week later.
Once in custody, he told police it was Maria who had shot O’Connor and that “I never liked him, so I battered his head with a ripping chisel.” Both were charged with murder and remanded to Horsemonger Lane Gaol.
At their trial Frederick and Maria each expected the other to shoulder responsibility but neither would. It took the jury 45 minutes to find them both guilty. Maria screamed at the group, “You have treated me like a wild beast of the forest. There is no law nor justice to be got here. Base and degraded England.”
Some 40,000 people attended the execution: some were selling snacks, drinks and execution broadsides – some 2,500,000 of which were printed for this noteworthy killing of the first married murderers to hang together since 1700. The gallows at the Horsemonger were erected on the flat roof above the main gate. It was described as ‘a huge, gaunt and ominous looking structure.’
At the gallows, the chaplain asked Maria if she had anything to say about her guilt. Unrepentant she replied “Nothing, but thank you for your kindness.”
The hangman was William Calcraft, estimated to have carried out 450 executions in his lifetime and notorious for his short drop method in which the condemned were slowly strangled to death. When he withdrew the bolt and the drop fell, Frederick died almost without a struggle while Maria writhed for some seconds. Their bodies were left to hang for the customary hour before they were taken down and in the evening buried in the precincts of gaol. It was rumoured that the black silk Maria wore for her execution went immediately out of fashion.
Charles Dickens,* who once wrote of ‘the secret nature of humans to have a dark and dreadful interest’, attended the execution and wrote a letter to the Times expressing his revulsion and condemning such public spectacles . “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun….thieves, prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, with every variety of offensive behaviour. Fightings, faintings, brutal jokes, demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged from the crowd. A man had cause to be ashamed.”
He would base one of his characters for his next book, Bleak House, on Marie Manning: Mademoiselle Hortense, maid to Lady Lovelock.
Dickens observed the hanging with the Punch cartoonist John Leech who sketched ‘The Great Moral Lesson’ which was remarkable for turning its gaze not on the scaffold, but on the unruly crowd beneath it , as if to stress it’s the spectators that are uncivilised, not the law that permits the hanging.
The Times itself described “the disorderly rabble smoking clay pipes and muzzy with beer, pickpockets plying their light-fingered art, little ragged boys climbing up posts, a ceaseless din of sounds and war of tongues.”
It would be another nineteen years before the age-old plebeian festival of public executions would end: a civilising moment in British history. Fenian Michael Barrett was the last. Reportedly his red hair and beard oddly turned black when lifted from the scaffold.
Horsemonger Lane Gaol was demolished in 1881 and the site is today the Newington Gardens public park. 131 men and four women were executed there between 1800 and 1877.
*Dickens was not the only literary big wheel in the crowd: Herman Melville was also in attendance.
Thomas Hardy wrote of the anguish and shame he felt witnessing the execution of 45 year old Martha Brown in Dorset when aged 16. It was to give a tinge of gloom and bitterness to his life’s work and inspire the hanging of Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Bailey, Brian. 1989. Hangmen of England. London: W.H. Allen & Co.
Borowitz, Albert. 1988. The Bermondsey Horror: The Murder That Shocked Victorian England. London: Robson Books.
Gatrell, V.A.C. 1994. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770 – 1868. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Heslop, Paul. 2009. Murderous Women. Brimscombe Port, Stroud: The History Press.
To cite this post : Gareth Miles, “There Together Be Suspended’”, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), November 10th, 2016.
Gareth Miles is a Museum Officer at the Old Operating Theatre. He is involved with the museum’s education programme and leads historical and medical walks around the local area.