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The grim history of capital punishment in Suffolk and the stories of those sentenced to death




A 10-year-old boy who murdered a girl half his age after an early morning quarrel. A mother who buried her own newborn baby alive. A young man who drowned his love as part of a suicide pact but was unable to follow through with his side of the deal.

These are just a few of the around one thousand people who were sentenced to death in Suffolk over the 170 years up to 1900.

It wasn't difficult to be handed the death sentence 300 years ago. Many crimes which are considered 'petty' ones today, including theft and breaking an entering, could result in you being sent to the gallows.

The history of capital punishment in Suffolk is a dark one, with thousands having been sentenced to death.
The history of capital punishment in Suffolk is a dark one, with thousands having been sentenced to death.

By around 1830, though, the number of capital offences declined until only 12 called for the death penalty but it was rarely handed out for anything other than murder, arson and sodomy - which was referred to as 'an unnatural offence'.

The Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1861 reduced the offences even further to just murder, treason, mutiny and piracy.

A big part of capital punishment was the publicising of the event. Hangings were often held on market days to draw the biggest crowd possible to witness justice being carried out firsthand.

A picture of a public hanging Picture: Death Recorded by Pip Wright
A picture of a public hanging Picture: Death Recorded by Pip Wright

Even criminals who escaped the noose by committing suicide were paraded through the streets on a cart before being buried with a stake through their heart.

And although many were sentenced to death, few actually hung for their crimes, with many having been reprieved and instead sentenced to life imprisonment.

One of those to have escaped the hangman's noose was Maria Clarke, of Wingfield near Eye, who admitted to having buried alive her six-week-old baby.

Clarke had been proposed to by a young man in the village and, with the baby having been illegitimate, she feared that he would rescind his offer of marriage if he were to find out about the child.

Prisoners watiting to be transported to Australia to carry out their sentence Picture: Death Recorded by Pip Wright
Prisoners watiting to be transported to Australia to carry out their sentence Picture: Death Recorded by Pip Wright

In 1851, the Bury and Norwich Post reported that Clarke had 'no idea of murder' until she found a shovel. It said she then 'dug a hole and laid the child in it, she then sat down and cried, then covered the infant up'.

Despite attempts at Clarke's trial to prove insanity, the 22 year old was found guilty and a date was set for her execution.

A petition requesting her death to be postponed was signed by almost 1,800 and, by a stroke of luck, executioner William Calcroft was unable to attend on the selected date.

As a result, Clarke was never hanged for her crime but instead she was sentenced to 'life imprisonment' - which actually saw her transported to Australia to work.

Some of those sentenced to death were reprieved and instead given life imprisonment
Some of those sentenced to death were reprieved and instead given life imprisonment

James Rutterford was another who escaped the death penalty despite having blugeoned an 18-year-old man to death with the barrel of a gun.

It came after Rutterford and his friend David Heffer set out to poach game from the estate of Maharajah Dhuleep Singh at Elveden, near Thetford.

The pair were discovered in Eriswell by John Hight, an 18-year-old gamekeeper, who confronted the poachers before he was attacked and killed by Rutterford.

Hight's body was discovered around 24 hours later and all signs pointed to Rutterford and Heffer as the likely murderers.

Both men were arrested and invited to testify at the inquest, which saw Heffer distance himself from the murder and turn Queen's evidence - meaning he agreed to give evidence against Rutterford to lessen his own punishment.

Pentonville Prison, London. Picture: Google
Pentonville Prison, London. Picture: Google

Heffer was released and served as the main witness for the prosecution at his friend's trial in 1870, at which Rutterford was found guilty and sentenced to death.

In a court report from the time, the Bury Free Press reported the judge to have said: "You must prepare to follow your victim into the other world."

Rutterford would have been the first person to be executed in private in Suffolk since public executions were stopped just three years before, but just 36 hours before he was due to hang, doctors and the hangman announced it would be 'unsafe' to go through with the punishment.

They said the prisoner had a 'malformed neck' which meant there would be a 'risk of failure or prolonged suffering' if the hanging was to go ahead.

Instead, Rutterford spent the rest of his life in Pentonville Prison, London.

An illustration of William York murdering his victim Picture: Death Recorded by Pip Wright
An illustration of William York murdering his victim Picture: Death Recorded by Pip Wright

The life of 10-year-old William York, who lived in a poorhouse in Eyke, near Woodbridge, was also spared.

He was sentenced to hang in Ipswich after he confessed to murdering five-year-old Susan Mayhew in May 1748.

William said that an argument between the pair had resulted in him hitting her. She started to cry and left the house but William followed her with a knife and cut both her arms and her thigh to the bone.

He then tried to conceal his crime by washing the blood from the girl's body and burying her in the dunghill. He also washed the knife and his own clothes and hid the dead child's clothing before going for breakfast.

His execution was postponed a few times before he was eventually pardoned due to his 'tender years' and ordered to serve the king 'on board his fleet'.

But not all those who were ordered to hang were so lucky.

Sarah Lloyd's plaque in The Great Church Yard Bury St Edmunds. Picture by Mark Westley
Sarah Lloyd's plaque in The Great Church Yard Bury St Edmunds. Picture by Mark Westley

In 1763, Margery Bedingfield was hanged and burnt to death on Rushmere Heath in Ipswich after she and her lover Richard Ringe plotted and carried out the murder of her husband John.

At that time, a husband being murdered by his wife was looked on as one of the worst crimes - even considered 'petty treason' - and often saw the murderer suffer a particularly cruel form of execution.

The pair were carted through town on a sledge before being hanged for their crimes.

The law said that Bedingfield - an unfaithful wife - must suffer more for her crime and so a fire was lit beneath her while she hanged by the neck.

The crime of George Carnt - who was the last person to be hanged in Bury St Edmunds in 1851 - has been described by Suffolk historian Pip Wright, who wrote a book on capital punishment called Death Recorded, as a 'love story that had gone terribly wrong'.

It is said that Carnt and his girlfriend Elizabeth Bainbridge, who was separated from her husband and living with her brother in Lawshall, made a suicide pact after it became obvious that her marriage would prevent the couple from being together.

Sarah Lloyd was given her a proper burial at St Mary's Church in Bury. Her funeral was attended by around 1,000 people.
Sarah Lloyd was given her a proper burial at St Mary's Church in Bury. Her funeral was attended by around 1,000 people.

The pair exchanged love tokens - Carnt giving his watch and taking Elizabeth's wedding ring - before Carnt drowned Elizabeth in the village pond. He apparently then tried to drown himself but was unable to.

Carnt's hat was found nearby Elizabeth's body while his watch was on a chain around her neck. Her wedding ring, which she had given him shortly before her death, was also found in his purse.

Carnt was charged with his lover's murder and sentenced to hang in front of a crowd of 4,000. From the gallows, shortly before the floor fell from beneath him, he is said to have shouted 'Lord! Have mercy upon my soul."

One of the more famous Suffolk executions is that of teenager Sarah Lloyd, who received the harsh punishment due to her crimes having been carried out against her employer.

She was arrested in 1799 for her part in a plot to steal from Mrs Syer, an elderly widow who lived in Hadleigh and to whom Sarah was a maidservant.

Sarah and her lover Joseph Clarke stole a number of items from Mrs Syer's house and, in order to cover their tracks, set fire to the building staircase leading to the mistress' bedroom and fled. Fortunately, the fire was quickly spotted and extinguished and no one was harmed.

Sarah and Joseph were arrested and sent to Bury St Edmunds jail to await trial for burglary and stealing in a dwelling house items valued at more than 40 shillings. Joseph was acquitted on both counts but Sarah was found guilty of the latter and condemned to death.

Many at the time thought Sarah would be spared an execution and would instead be sent to Australia, but despite a campaign for a stay of execution by her barrister Capel Lofft, Sarah would become the first woman to be hanged in the county in 15 years.

After she was hanged, Lofft paid for her body and gave her a proper burial at St Mary's Church in Bury. Her funeral was attended by around 1,000 people.

Lloyd's story at the time was, and still is, viewed as a tragic one of a young girl being led astray. A plaque installed in Bury's Great Churchyard conveys this, describing her case as 'the fall of unguarded youth by the allurements of vice'.

It adds that her last words before being hanged were: "May my example be a warning to thousands."

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