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Stories of Strand-Aldwych

The execution

Execution of Bishop and Williams.[1].Execution of Bishop and Williams.[1].

The Leicester Journal describes the morning of the execution:

‘The Burkers whose appalling crimes have created such a sensation of horror throughout the kingdom were hanged in front of the gaol of Newgate in the presence of a larger assemblage than has ever been congregated within the memory of any person who has been in the habit of attending for the press to witness such revolting spectacles (…) There were 2,060 reported persons in attendance from 2am a crowd which continued to grow in size until 8am when the execution took place (..) As far as the eye could see one dense mass of human beings and amongst them were vast numbers of females … (by 7am) the whole line of streets being so entirely filled that by no possibility did it appear that another person could find standing room and the windows and roofs of all the houses from which a view of the place of execution could be commanded were completely occupied. Not only in the crowd were numbers of the fair sex but the windows filled chiefly with them. On the roofs of the houses persons of both sexes had placed themselves in situations of such danger as to excite a strong apprehension for their safety - many having no other safeguard than a hold of the chimney-pots to prevent them from rolling down the sloping roofs.’[2]

The night before had been one of restlessness and feverish anxiety for Williams. He reflected on the murder of Carlo and of the other two victims. He told the two guards of his prison-cell the following:

‘The second boy, the son of a poor widow ‘Cunningham’ occasionally got jobs in Smithfield as an assistant to the drovers. Williams said, ‘the boy was got hold of in the same way as the other boy’, but he was not as easy a victim as that boy. He was remarkable strong and muscular and although a quantity of rum and an infusion of laudanum was given to him it did not produce so strong an effect as was desired. After he had fallen asleep, they shook him and believing him to be in such a state of stupor as not to be capable of offering resistance they dragged him by the arms to the fatal water barrel. The narcotic had taken stronger effect by exposing him to the air and he appeared to be sufficiently stupified for the horrible purpose which the murderers had contemplated. When, however they thrust his head into the water the poor boy seemed suddenly to recover his senses and struggled desperately and having his head out of the water he kicked and fought violently. Bishop made use of a horrible oath and getting the boy by the legs held them in an upright position while Williams took him by the neck and shoulders and held his head under the water till life was extinct.’[3]

The woman was less trouble and was killed in the same manner as to the two boys. ‘They kept her in the house until the laudanum had completed stupified her and they dragged her to the water and put an end to her existence.’

While Williams confessed that further murders were contemplated, two old pauper men from the workhouse were earmarked as potential victims, but they had managed to escape destitution. Ultimately, Williams resolved that ‘he deserved to die.’[4] Whilst Williams wrestled with his guilt Bishop slept soundly through the night.

On the morning of their hanging, as the two men were brought together Williams spoke to Bishop and told him that he hoped he had repented and made preparations for his speedy death. Williams remarked, ‘I have made my peace with God and am prepared to die.’ The conduct of Williams and Bishop was remarkably different - Bishop did not respond.

As Bishop was led up the steps of the scaffold it was observed ‘that he was finally susceptible of the common feelings of human nature, and that he had some dread of the dreadful transaction that was, in a moment, to take place.’ Soon Williams was also led up to the scaffold and tied down. ‘As soon as the awful preparations were completed, the drop fell; and, in proof of the horror in which the offences of the culprits were held, the extinction of life was marked by the people by a loud and long “hurra.”’ The size of the crowd was so great that one of the barriers gave way leading to the death of a man and a young boy who were trampled and the injury of nine other persons. The Leicester Journal went onto report how ‘Bishop appeared to die instantaneously, but Williams struggled for several minutes and until he had ceased to breathe the crowd continued their yellings and vociferatious; indeed, no one appeared to lament their fate.’[5]


[1] Execution of John Bishop and Joseph Williams, [Accessed July 2022].

[2] Leicester Journal, 09 December 1831.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sligo Journal, 09 December 1831.

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