Updated: Apr 13
A killer's fate: To be hanged and dissected; Black Country murderer of pregnant wife and child who met a grisly end.
Borrowed from The Free Library.
ABEL Hill, who coldly murdered his pregnant wife and their 16-month-old son, slumped ashen-faced in the dock at Stafford Assizes as the judge announced his terrible fate.
On that July day in 1820, the jury had taken only two minutes to find the Bilston killer guilty. The death sentence was assured.
But Hill's execution was to go way beyond the snap of the noose.
The judge leaned forward and told the condemned man: "You, Abel Hill, be taken hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence, Thursday the 27th of July, to a place of execution, and that you be hung by the neck till you are dead - and that your body, when taken down, dissected and anatomised.
"And may God, in his infinite mercy, have mercy upon your soul."
In short, Hill was to be hanged, chopped up and then the corpse experimented on.
Those experiments often included firing electricity through severed limbs.
No wonder the Stafford Advertiser reported Hill "made use of many horrid expressions" when he returned to his cell.
No wonder Stafford Gaol's chaplain failed in his attempts to "tranquilise" the condemned man's mind and "prepare him for eternity".
Hill's murder of pregnant wife Mary, only 22, and their child by drowning them had enraged the public. The bodies were found floating in a section of Bilston canal on March 3, 1820.
Mary Jeavons, the dead woman's mother, kept a pub in nearby Bradley. She admitted the prisoner had supported her daughter's child and seemed fond of him. Mary and child left her home at about 6pm on February 23. It was the last day of their lives.
Another witness revealed Hill had earlier tried to make Mary abort the child she was expecting "by giving her a powerful medicine, but it did not produce the intended effect".
On the night of the murder, he had asked Mary to meet him in Bilston with their child. He said he wanted to buy the infant a hat and frock. Many people saw the three walking towards the canal.
A crowd shrieked "Murder!" when the bodies were found. Both were covered by "marks of fingers and nails", indicating they had been forced underwater.
Tellingly, witnesses had seen Hill without shoes and socks and his clothes "wet a considerable way up his body".
According to The Advertiser, the 23-year-old colliery worker had composed himself when the time came to climb the gallows - and even managed a joke. It was, quite literally, gallows humour.
The newspaper reported: "At five minutes before nine o'clock he ascended the scaffold, quite undismayed, and made a spring up the steps. When the halter was placed round his neck, he asked if he could kneel and pray and did so with the Chaplain.
"In this posture the rope became rather tight and Hill said, somewhat jocosely, 'It will throttle me'. While the clergyman read a prayer suitable for the occasion, Hill turned his head towards the spectators, nodded to more than one, smiling at the time, and was regardless of the prayer.
"He soon sprang up with great agility and, the executioner having adjusted the halter, Hill pulled up his trousers, skipping at the same time. He shook off his shoes, saying 'I won't die with my boots on: I'll make liars of 'em'.
"So anxious did he appear to look at the crowd that he wanted the cap taken from his eyes and 'the drop' fell while he was asking to have it removed. He struggled much, but was dead in two minutes.
"After hanging the usual time, his body was cut down, and delivered to Mr Best, surgeon, who had him packed up and conveyed to Bilston, to be there dissected and anatomised, according to the sentence."
Dissection was given the green light by the 1752 Murder Act which allowed prisoners to be "hung by the neck until dead and then to be dissected and anatomised (a body cut open to be studied)."
There was morbid rationale behind the move. Hanging alone had failed to stem the tide of violent crime. Playing on the popular belief that dismembered individuals could not enter heaven might prove more of a deterrent.
It was also seen as a way of curbing the growing popularity of bodysnatchers: unscrupulous individuals who dug up bodies and sold them to science. Huge crowds assembled at places allocated for dissections. There are newspaper reports of 10,000 people walking with the body to the place where it was to be cut up. The mob pushed and hassled each other, anxious not to miss any punishments done by the surgeons.
And they ghoulishly hoped the unfortunate soul might not be dead.
A crowd of 7,000 watched the August, 1828, execution of William Corder for shooting his lover Maria Martin after they argued over how to bury the body of their illegitimate child. The prisoner's body was placed on a table in the local court, "outward integuments" (skin and hair) removed and displayed to the crowd. The body was then taken to a hospital "to be dissected and anatomised according to the sentence". A plaster cast was taken of the face and the head underwent a critical inspection by a physician before a galvanic battery was brought from Cambridge to perform experiments upon Corder's body.
It twitched, and "gasped for breath", the fingers jerked straight and the eyelids opened.
The macabre experiment was described by one writer as "an anthem of the heart, an anthem of the mind, a funeral dirge for eyes gone blind".
The newspaper report added: "It is a disgusting fact that persons were found who gave a guinea an inch for the rope with which the criminal was executed. The eagerness with which the accounts of his trial have been bought up, exceeds belief. Of the many murders that have disgraced the annals of crime during the last eight or ten years, the present one is of the most base and atrocious."
It was the hangman at Corder's execution who profited from selling the rope - plus his fee, of course