‘A Short Film About Killing’: The movie that brought an end to the Polish death penalty

The most intellectually challenging film I have ever seen about capital punishment. Definitely a must-see. DPN review and YouTube trailer available in our 'Films & Documentaries' section — DPN editor As far as European cinema goes, there are few figures quite admired in critical circles as the inimitable Krzysztof Kieślowski. Known for his Dekalog series of 1989, as well as The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy, Kieślowski embodied everything so extraordinary about the power of European cinema and that of his native Poland in turn.

London, 1835 | James And John: A True Story Of Prejudice And Murder

Doomed to hang: At Newgate prison, 17 condemned men knelt in a circle waiting to learn their fate. But for James and John - the only ones accused of 'the detestable crime' of being sodomites - there was no mercy. 
Chris Bryant's haunting new book: "A True Story Of Prejudice And Murder"

There was barely time to register what the Recorder at the Old Bailey had just said. With evident relish, he’d condemned James Pratt and John Smith to death – and now, still reeling, they were being herded through a narrow passageway known as Birdcage Walk.

With iron crossbars overhead – to prevent any desperate attempts to escape – it led straight back to the notorious Newgate Gaol, where all executions took place.

For James and John, it was a particularly hideous journey. As warders were only too keen to point out, the letters carved into the walls of the passageway were the initials of those who’d been hanged.

Worse, their remains lay beneath the flagstones on which the two men were walking. They must have wondered if they’d soon be buried under these themselves.

Their ‘crime’? Unaware that they were being spied on through a keyhole by a suspicious landlord, James and John had had consensual gay sex in a first-floor rented room.

‘Sympathy towards persons for such offences cannot be expected to be shown,’ the Recorder had boomed in court, ‘for they are offences, which, in a British country, mercy can never be extended to.’

The year was 1835. It was barely a month since a policeman had been summoned by the spying landlord on August 29 and had taken the two men into custody. Since then, for most of that time, John and James had languished in Newgate.

James, aged 32, had spent most of his working life as a groom and footman and was married with a 10-year-old daughter. His wife, Elizabeth, had visited him regularly in prison, while John, who’d worked as a labourer, had received no visitors at all.

They were now returning to Newgate as condemned prisoners, which meant they were consigned to the ‘press-yard’, named after one of the gaol’s grisliest practices. Criminals who refused to enter a plea would be tied down on a press, then gradually loaded with weights on their stomachs, until they were ‘either brought to compliance or expired’.

Although this particular barbarity had been abolished, the press-yard’s reputation lingered on. Consisting of a long, narrow courtyard, two dark and dank ‘press-rooms’ for the prisoners to gather during the daytime and a suite of 15 condemned cells, it was the 19th Century equivalent of Death Row.

Twelve others were incarcerated with James and John, eight of whom were aged between 13 and 20. They too had been condemned to death, for crimes that included stealing 30 shillings’ worth of handkerchiefs, filching four cigar tubes and grabbing half a crown at knife-point.

Yet nearly all of them were oddly cheerful. They gambled on cards or games of shove ha’penny, they played blind-man’s buff and leap-frog and they entertained prostitutes (who gained admittance by pretending they were wives or sisters). But then these prisoners knew the rules of the game.

With reform of the justice system in the air, successive governments had baulked at the sheer number of death sentences – so the vast majority were later downgraded to spells of imprisonment or transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Indeed, Charles Dickens, who visited Newgate while James and John were there, questioned whether there was a man among those he saw ‘who did not know that… it was never intended that his life should be sacrificed’.

But James and John were an exception. And Dickens, then a 23-year-old journalist, noticed that the two men ‘were as motionless as statues’.

One of them, he wrote, was stooping over a fire, with his arm on the mantelpiece and his head sunk upon it, while the other was leaning on the sill of the farthest window.

Dickens noted: ‘The light fell full upon him, and communicated to his pale, haggard face and disordered hair, an appearance which, at that distance, was ghastly.

‘His cheek rested upon his hand; and, with his face a little raised and his eyes wildly staring before him, he seemed to be unconsciously intent on counting the chinks in the opposite wall.’

The two men’s doom, he added, ‘was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world’.

As Dickens left the dimly lit press-room, the turnkey whispered to him: ‘The two short ones [are] dead men.’

Through prison chatter, James and John – 5ft 1in and 5ft 3in tall respectively – would have learnt that, in the past 25 years, there had been 15 guilty verdicts for sodomy and ten hangings. That meant they had a two in three chance of dying on the scaffold. Sharing the press-yard with men who had every expectation of reprieve was therefore a cruel, added punishment.

The others repeatedly goaded the two men, poked them, pushed them, called them names and tried to start fights. It was even worse at night, when John and James had to share a dank stone cell with them.

The taunts, abuse and innuendo continued until dawn, and they lay awake almost as frightened of their companions as they were of the hangman.

On Tuesday, September 29, they had their first visit from the Reverend Horace Cotton, the ‘ordinary’ of Newgate, whose name was so synonymous with hangings that it was said the condemned died ‘with Cotton in their ears’.

But if James and John had been hoping for compassion from the portly, red-faced minister, they were disappointed. Cotton had attended their sentencing ‘for the detestable crime of sodomy’ – as he put it in his notebook – and been duly impressed by the Recorder’s moral outrage.

Nonetheless, he was the men’s only contact with authority and they poured out their hearts to him. Sharing cells at night with the other men, they said, was unbearable.

Cotton was appalled – not for their sake but for the sake of the prisoners forced to share cells with such abominable sinners. So he quickly arranged to have John and James moved away from the burglars, robbers and thieves.

In their new cells, the only furniture was a barrack bedstead without bedding. Beside it was just a Bible and a prayer book. During the day, they were allowed exclusive use of the lower press-room, where condemned prisoners were prepared for their ordeal on the day of their execution.

They were now, quite literally, the lowest of the low. But neither James nor John had yet given up hope.

Back in 1835, no execution could take place until King William IV and his privy counsellors had examined reports – compiled by the Old Bailey Recorder – on each case. Many held the ‘Recorder’s Report’ in open derision. Twenty cases could be dealt with in less than an hour, and the King was known to fall asleep while his Ministers discussed them.

At one meeting of this so-called Grand Cabinet, both the King and the Duke of Wellington had nodded off, at another it was obvious the King was heavily dosed with laudanum (an opium-based tincture).

For James and John, however, the Grand ‘Hanging’ Cabinet would be their last chance of a reprieve. Meanwhile, they could petition both the Home Secretary and the King.

John appears to have had no one to help fight his corner, but James’s wife, Elizabeth, was indefatigable on her husband’s behalf. She set about gathering signatures for a general petition for mercy, and the document she submitted is impressive.

Fifty-five householders and tradesmen not only signed it but testified robustly to James’s ‘moral character’. Remarkably, the first two names on the petition were those of John and Jane Berkshire – the landlord and his wife who’d spied through a keyhole on John and James’s assignation.

We cannot know the Berkshires’ motives. Perhaps they regretted bringing the prosecution. Maybe they’d never thought it would come to this. Whatever their reason, it was rare for a plea for mercy from a prosecutor to be ignored.

Equally impressive, at the bottom of the petition, was a plea for ‘a respite from so awful a sentence’ from a professor of law and former Tory MP, who’d known James when he worked for several years as a groom for his son.

Elizabeth also wrote a letter, copied professionally and signed in her own hand, pleading for mercy. But the most striking letter the Home Secretary received came from Hensleigh Wedgwood, the magistrate who’d committed the men’s case to trial at the Old Bailey.

‘I feel so strongly that death is not the punishment for their offence and the dreadful situation they are in shocks me so much that I cannot neglect a chance of saving them,’ wrote Wedgwood, a grandson of the famous potter and a cousin of Charles Darwin.

Rich men, caught in similar circumstances, had never been convicted, he pointed out. It was an elegant and authoritative letter, and the bravest sent in a contemporary sodomy case. Yet, shockingly, it had no effect on the Home Secretary. Nor did Elizabeth’s exhaustive petition, let alone her own letter.

Everything now depended on the Grand Cabinet. For this, James and John had to wait 52 days after being sentenced, when the King travelled to Brighton and decided to hold court at the Marine Pavilion.

On November 20, the privy counsellors – who included the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and the Lord Chief Justice – assembled in an ornate room with gold cornices and an 18 ft chandelier to consider 17 appeals for mercy.

Charles Law, the Recorder who’d sentenced John and James, sat on a small stool by the King’s side and the other Ministers stood behind the monarch. Law’s report on the two men was appallingly brief.

It made no mention of Elizabeth’s petition, signed by all those tradesmen and householders. Nor did it include Wedgwood’s letter or mention that the chief prosecutors, the Berkshires, had been among those petitioning for mercy.

Even the Government Ministers known to be generally lenient could see little reason to commute the death sentences. Furthermore, they may have calculated that raising any objections would merely delay the sumptuous dinner awaiting them with the King. The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, would certainly have insisted that the sentences stand. Having signed off 164 executions during his four years as Home Secretary, he was proud of his lack of squeamishness.

Then there was the Recorder himself, who was keen to secure his first hanging – as everyone he’d previously sentenced to death had later been reprieved.

As for the King, he was in no mood for debate. He was fuming because he felt the current Whig Government had been foisted on him and consequently, according to the privy council secretary, abhorred ‘all his Ministers’.

And, so, in the twinkling of an eye, the Grand Cabinet made their decision: James and John’s appeals were denied. They were to hang.

ON SATURDAY morning, on November 23, the Newgate turnkeys gathered all 17 condemned men into the upper room of the press-yard, where they forced them to kneel in a circle with their heads bent. Then the Rev Horace Cotton came in, dressed in his long black gown and preaching bands.

This was his moment. Looking straight at James and John, who were kneeling next to each other, he said: ‘I am sorry to tell you it is all against you.’ He then told the rest their lives had been spared.

There was an eruption of joy in the room, but James and John were thunderstruck. One of them – probably James – actually collapsed. Cotton then asked everyone present to recite a general thanksgiving to God and the King before they could have their breakfast.

The following day, the prisoners and paying members of the public gathered in the Newgate chapel at 10am for the ‘condemned sermon’. Such was the excitement about setting eyes on James and John – sitting in the oval-shaped ‘condemned pew’ – that tickets had gone for a shilling apiece. Elizabeth Pratt was almost certainly there, possibly with her daughter.

Dressed in a black cassock, and with his knuckles covered in rings, Cotton ascended the pulpit and stared down at James and John. Slowly and deliberately, he took a large helping of coarse snuff before he started on the ‘condemned sermon’. It was a routine he’d gone through many times – and many thought he enjoyed it too much.

In his sermon, Cotton pontificated for 40 minutes on the evil of sin and the vengeance of the Lord of Hosts. Finally he conducted the service for the dead.

When it came to the responses, Cotton said: ‘From the gates of Hell’, and the congregation replied, ‘Deliver their souls, O Lord’. James and John were participating in their own funeral.

On Thursday evening, Cotton paid them a visit in their condemned cell, keen on a last-minute confession. According to what he later told the Press, James finally admitted his guilt ‘and the justice of his sentence’ for an ‘abhorrent’ crime.

Whether this happened at all is a matter for conjecture. As for John, said Cotton, he’d never really denied what he’d done.

Early on Friday morning, the gallows was assembled in front of the gaol. In the middle was a platform measuring ten feet by eight, where the condemned men would stand. When the hangman pulled out a lever, the platform would give way.

James and John had just had a cup of tea when the Rev Cotton arrived at their cell at 7am. They seemed so completely exhausted, he said later, that he ordered them some warm wine, which they drank.

They were then taken through to the press-room to meet the hangman, William Calcraft, and his assistants. Also present were a small group of gawping spectators who’d paid for the privilege.

Newspaper reports suggest that both men were weak and dejected, and that when Calcraft’s assistants started pinioning John, James ‘appeared to suffer dreadfully’ and his groans could be heard throughout the gaol.

Soon John’s hands were tied in front of him (in a position so that he could pray), and a second loop was passed around his elbows. Then Calcraft’s assistants started on James, who repeatedly collapsed and had to be held up.

Finally, Calcraft placed a noose round each man’s neck, with the loose end wound around his waist.

James and John then walked through the prison, while Cotton recited prayers and biblical texts. As they emerged outside Newgate, a crowd of spectators immediately started hissing.

At precisely 8am, two sheriffs in ceremonial robes and gold chains marched John up the ten steep steps to the scaffold and placed him under the wooden beam. Next, they came back for James.

The two quaking men could not avoid seeing their own coffins, which had been laid out on the scaffold. Nor could they block out the words of the burial service, which Cotton was already reciting, or the remorseless tolling of the great bell of St Sepulchre’s church.

As the spectators continued hissing, Calcraft passed each rope over the beam and tied it back on itself. Next, he tied handkerchiefs around the men’s eyes and placed white caps over their heads – lest they jump when they saw him pull the lever that released the trapdoor.

When all was ready, Calcraft looked towards Cotton, who started reciting the Lord’s Prayer and waved a white handkerchief. The hangman pulled the bolt. The drop fell.

An hour later, the bodies were taken down. One of the Newgate wardsmen reported that ‘some effect continued on a few [prisoners], but the majority went to their breakfast immediately after it was over as if nothing had happened’.

The hanging itself had been a money-spinner. Piemakers and pickpockets had plied their trade around the crowd. The hangman sold pieces of the noose.

A day later, John was buried on unconsecrated ground, as bodies were no longer consigned to Birdcage Walk. Elizabeth Pratt, however, once more set to work on her husband’s behalf, persuading a minister to give him a Christian burial at St Paul’s, in Deptford, the following Friday.

She would be married again five years later, to a bricklayer. But for the second time she outlived her husband, before dying of ‘paralysis’ in 1873 at the Union workhouse in Greenwich, aged 76. It seems that her in-laws, who were wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper and housemaid, had not been prepared to support her.

Most newspapers covered the execution of John and James. None named their ‘heinous’ crime.

There was just one newspaper that refused to jump on the self-righteous bandwagon. Bell’s New Weekly Messenger said that ‘no man of sense and humanity in the present age will venture to say it ought to be punished with such dreadful severity – severity exercised, I believe, by no civilised nation upon Earth but our own’.

The law under which the men had been convicted and executed was not repealed for another 25 years. Yet no one else convicted of buggery during that period was hanged.

James Pratt and John Smith, victims of an era of spectacularly cruel and bloodthirsty prejudice, were the last to be judiciously murdered by the state for such a ‘crime’.

👉James And John: A True Story Of Prejudice And Murder, by Chris Bryant, to be published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC on February 15 at £25.

Source: Mail Online, Chris Bryant, February 10, 2024. 



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