The West Auckland Poisonings: Execution of Mrs. Cotton

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The West Auckland Poisonings: Execution of Mrs. Cotton

Prisoner in the Condemned Cell

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, March 25, 1873) p. 3

The conduct of the unfortunate woman since her condemnation has been, it is perhaps unnecessary for us to say, as singular as it has been remarkable. Though at times much depressed, and lamenting her fate, and occasionally writing letters to her friends, urging them to do all in their power to get her reprieved, she has never forgotten the kindly ministrations of the Rev. J. C. Low, chaplain, and the Rev. W. Stevinson, B.A., a Wesleyan Minister, the latter of whom had been called upon to visit her at her own request. But whilst showing a spirit of repentance, her demeanour has not been altogether satisfactory. She has preserved, so to speak that stolid and determined expression of countenance so apparent to all on the occasion of her trial, and judging from the tone of more than one of her letters, and some observations she made respecting the evidence which had been adduced against her, she seems to have been particularly incensed against one or two of the witnesses. She also felt slighted at the non-appearance of her third husband, Robinson, whom she had written in the hope that he would visit her, and would do all in his power to get up a petition to save her life, To almost all she has been reserved and indifferent, and her peculiar and determined manner has led her to be perhaps more closely watched than she would otherwise have been. In the early part of last week week a singular incident occurred, and the circumstances connected with it have given rise to the most extravagant rumours as to the intention of the prisoner. The soap having been missed from Mrs. Cotton’s room, the culprit was asked if she had seen it, and she replied she had not. A search was made for the soap, and as it was nowhere to be seen, she was again asked if she knew anything about it. She stated she did not, but on being searched by the female attendant the small piece of soap which had been missed was found up her sleeve on the inside of her arm at the elbow. A rumour was afterwards current that she intended to give the infant a doze of the soap, but that story, of course, must be taken for what it is worth. During one of the visits of the Rev. Mr. Stevinson, who has been attending her twice each day since Friday last, the culprit asked him if he would procure her a Wesleyan Hymn Book. Mr. Stevinson handed over to her his own, and the fact of there being many hymns in the book appropriate for one in the position of the prisoner, it would no doubt prove a source of some consolation to the prisoner. On Sunday afternoon prayers were offered in the Cathedral far the soul of the doomed woman. Before the prayers for all conditions of men, the Rev T. Rogers said that the prayers of the congregation were desired for a person at the point of death. There could be little doubt in the minds of those present as to the person referred to, and what doubt did remain was dispelled when the Bishop of Dover, in the course of his sermon, alluded to the infinite mercy of God towards sinners, who all on account of their transgressions, might be said to be under sentence of death. This reminded him, he said, that her for whom they had been requested specially to pray that afternoon was in more than an ordinary sense under sentence of death, and yet it was not impossible that forgiveness might even be extended to her by the Conquering King, who should eventually trample under his feet all evil. The culprit has been attended in her cell night and day by three female warders, to whom she latterly became much attached, and on Sunday she requested their presence at prayers, and prayed with them and for them. Her conduct during the time she has been under the care of the Rev. Mr. Stevinson, viz., since, Friday last, has to all appearance been that of a thorough penitent; but up to the time of her retiring to rest on Sunday evening she continued to protest her innocence of the murder of her stepson Charles Edward Cotton. She remained, however, calm and composed, and evidently reigned to her awful fate. From what we ascertained at the gaol this morning it seems that she passed on the whole a comfortable night. She slept soundly at one time for not less than three hours. She retired at half-past ten o’clock, and rose at half-past three, and partook of a cup of tea at half-past five. This was all she desired in the shape of breakfast.The site chosen for the execution was the same as that used for the hanging of the Spennymoor murderers. It is situated in the southeastern area, adjoining the shot drill ground, and the cavity necessary for the drop remained as it was on the 13th of January.


Judging by the number of reporters who surrounded the door of the county gaol at Durham yesterday morning at half-past seven o’clock, the grumbling of Calcraft at the execution of the Spennymoor murderers, when he took occasion to complain of the numerous assemblage of representatives of the press as having a tendency to unnerve him (a hangman made nervous by honest, men, forsooth!), had not had the effect of diminishing the number of witnesses. True, there was an entire absence of private individuals, but upwards of a score of professional men were rather a formidable phalanx for Calcraft to look upon as he entered the gaol, accompanied by his burly assistant, and was curiously scanned by the dozen loungers who had gathered about the prison, determined, if they could not see the hanging, to have a good star (sic) at the hangman. On Calcraft being admitted within the doors, the reporters were so requested to enter. They immediately did so, and having passed through the outer door, were about to proceed into the yard through a second entrance, when Calcraft, who was walking the van, suddenly turned round upon them, and in a crabbed tone of voice which sounded like the snarl of a dog, spit out the words, “Shut the door, and keep them out.” The door was not closed, but the reporters drew back for a short time, and then advanced to the Governor’s office, which looked out into the quadrangle in which the scaffold was situated, It soon became apparent that the pinioning was to be performed privately. Doubtless the Governor of the gaol had some special reason for this alteration, but it should not be forgotten that this is the very time when a resolute culprit, faced by the immediate preliminaries of death, will almost involuntarily yield to the dreadful feelings of the moment, and being at last convinced of a certain approach of death, will make a confession. Now, should this ever occur, how can the public, deprived of their representation by the exclusion of the press, be assured of the accuracy of any report? But the arrangement in this instance were altogether of unusually strict character, for great care had been exercised to prevent any newspaper obtaining more than one order of admission, and a proposition had even been entertained that even these should be limited. In reference to the pinioning, also some fear existed that the prisoner would swoon or become helpless, and a chair had been prepared to meet this emergency had it arisen. To this chair she would have been strapped and conveyed in it to the drop, where both would have been allowed to fall on the withdrawal of the bolt. Fortunately this I paragon proved to be unnecessary, for we were informed that the prisoner submitted quite passively to the operation of pinioning. Indeed the whole of the morning after the arrival of Rev. J. M. Mountford, Wesleyan Minister and Superintendent of the District, the Rev. W. Stevenson (sic), and the Rev. J. R. Bennett, all of whom entered the cell about six o’clock, had been employed in endeavouring to produce in her a solemnity of mind and a corresponding calmness of demeanour befitting her awful situation. These efforts were not fruitless. The prisoner was evidently deeply impressed with the terrible nature of her position, and prayed most fervently for the welfare of her husband Robinson and her little child.

At ten minutes to eight o’clock the muffled sound of the dead bell rung through the building – the death knell of a living woman. As its tones reverberated through the air, the occupants of The Governor’s office, who were to be spectators of the dreadful scene, walked to the gateway whence the prisoner was to proceed to the scaffold. There they fell into a column four deep, and awaited the arrival of the procession which they were to join. Precirely (sic) as the clock struck the hour the prison and her attendants were seen to leave the part of the building containing her cell. The Under-Sheriff (Mr. J.R. Bowser, of Bishop Auckland) preceded with his Wand of office, accompanied by Mr. Pyle (sheriff’s officer), Mr. Boyd, prison surgeon; the Rev. Canon Lowe, chaplain; the Rev. J. M. Mounteford, the Rev. J. R. Bennett, at the Rev. W. Stevinson; whilst Calcraft and his assistant, with two female warders, brought up the rear. The prisoner was supported on each side by a male warder; but though her step was firm, and her body erect, there was deep emotion observable in her lace, which had grown so pale, wan, and worn, ever since her trial, that she was scarcely recognisable. She was dressed in a black stuff gown, which hung loosely on her now slender form; the half of her black and white check shawl was thrown over her shoulders, and so fastened in front as to hide the pinioning straps. Her head and throat were bare, and her hands convulsively clasped in front. As she left the cell she said “Heaven is my home,” and on her way to the scaffold was continually moaning and muttering prayers. When she reached the yard where the reporters were stationed she glance hastily and wildly at the little crowd, opened her hands as if in mute amazement, and then knit them tightly together again, uttering an exclamation like “Lord have mercy.

Steadily pursuing her course to the south eastern quadrangle, she never diverted her attention from the prayers. She murmured the whole of the way; and when she reached the drop Calcraft immediately stood before her, and covered her face with the white cap. She trembled perceptibly, but never ceased her devotions. Calcraft’s assistant then put the rope round her neck, and worked it round to the proper place, at which the prisoner visibly shuddered. Calcraft then strapped be legs together, and when he had finished this saw that the rope was duly adjusted, and withdrew to the place where the handle of the bolt was raised above the ground, whilst the two male warders retained their positions on the planks on each side of the prisoner. She clasped her hands close to her breast murmured in an earnest tone, “Lord, have mercy on my soul,” and in a moment the bolt was drawl from behind by Calcraft’s assistant. The body of the prisoner sank about three feet, the head suddenly dropped to one side, “the silver cord was loosed” and the subsequent heaving of the chest and twitching of the hands were but the involuntary action of the muscles. All present were deeply moved, particularly the Under-Sheriff, who was so overcome with horror at the sight that he fainted away.

Immediately after the execution, the Deputy-Governor, Mr. Young, addressed himself to Mr. Mountford; and on a request being made that the reply should be given openly, if it affected a confession!, Mr. Mountford said: In the presence of Mr. Bennett, Mr. Stevinson, and myself, I was impressing upon her the great importance of making a fall confession before there could be true faith in Christ. I had seen her on Saturday, and discovering some discrepancies in a statement she then made, I brought them before her. She stated that she believed she had been the agent (she did not use the word, agent, but she meant it) and that she had been the poisoner of this child, but not intentionally. She made that statement this morning, a little after six o’clock.

Some discussion arising afterwards as to what the discrepancy was which had been referred to, a question was asked about it, and Mr. Mountford replied that he said to her it was strange that months should pass between the deaths, and yet the persons whose deaths she was charged with causing should die in almost the same way. He added, on another allusion being made to the child. “You admit having done it, but you say that you had no intention to cause the death of the child, and that it was done without your knowing it.” She made no reply to this, end although Mr. Mountford pressed her in the hope she would make some further admission, she declined to say anything more on the subject. She seemed very penitent, and on Sunday she asked to have all the female warders present, and prayed very fervently with them. On Mr. Mountford visiting her this morning, he found her quite quite (sic) resigned. In the course of her interview with the rev. gentlemen she wept bitterly about her child, and also seamed somewhat annoyed respecting her husband, Robinson, to whom she said she had written three times, and be declined to visit her.

The usual black flag was hoisted immediately after the execution, and was witnessed by a very large crowd, who had collected outside the gates.

After hanging the usual period of time, the body was cut down: an inquest was held; and then the corpse was buried inside the gaol.

In the afternoon Calcraft and his assistant left Durham Gaol for the South by the train due at Darlington at 3.5. At Durham Station the hangman was escorted to his carriage by a crowd of sightseers, who watched “the little old man with the white hair; not him with the lazy hat, but the little ‘un,” until he escaped from their gaze behind the curtains of the carriage. At Darlington he excited almost as much curiosity as that much less reputable individual, the Claimant. He was sitting at the window talking to his assistant when a shout was raised, “Here’s old Calcraft.” Instantly a rush was made to the door. Calcraft drew up the window pettishly, and pulling the curtains forward, screened himself from the impertinent gaze of the curious.