THE STORY of George Smith, the Dudley Hangman, is one that never ceases to excite the imagination, a tale that is probably amongst the most extraordinary ever to come out of the Dark Region, and a story that not only tells how an ordinary Black Country bloke became one of the country’s leading hangmen, but also describes the state society was in during the mid 19th century, when folk would travel hundreds of miles and spend big money to have a ring side seat at a public hanging.
George Smith was born in Rowley Regis in 1805 and grew up in a rural community.
He later lived at Oakham.
According to census returns he was listed as either a hobnailer, a cattle dealer, or more commonly an agricultural labourer. The very fact that he became a hangman suggests he must have been an extrovert character, perhaps a showman, and this tends to be confirmed when we discover he once ran naked through the streets of Wednesbury, for which he was promptly thrown into Stafford Gaol, an institution that would become all too familiar to Smith in the years ahead. Life must have been very hard for the Smith family and the amount of money George earned working on the land would have been affected by the vagaries of the weather, and once again he ended up in Stafford Gaol, this time for getting into debt and failing to support his family. During these periods of imprisonment he may have witnessed a public hanging or two and possibly decided there was easy money to be made as a hangman’s assistant or even the hangman himself, an additional income that would help support his family back home in Rowley Regis.
Applicants History tells us there was no shortage of individuals during the 18th and 19th centuries applying for the post of hangman when it became available, and for whatever reason, whether it was because he was in the right place at the right time, or that he possessed the perfect countenance for the job, George Smith flipped a coin as a jailbird and landed the job of assistant to one of the most famous hangmen of all time, William Calcraft.
His first duty on the scaffold came in 1840 when at the age of 35 he assisted Calcraft at a double public execution outside the walls of Stafford Gaol, and his new career in the public eye soon blossomed to the status of legend.
Before the coming of trains, travel was difficult and hangmen were restricted as to where they could operate.
When George Smith carried out his duties between 1840 and 1872 he was based here in the Midlands, in particular at Stafford. His contemporary, William Calcraft, who as an official executioner ended the lives of between 400 and 450 wretched souls, worked for the majority of his career in London and the South East, whilst a chap called Thomas Askern took care of executions in Yorkshire and the North. But when travel by railway became more widespread, Calcraft in particular visited all corners of the country to conduct his grim business.
The first public hanging officiated by Smith, who by now had been dubbed the ‘Dudley Higgler’ (higgler being the slang word for hangman), was that of Charles Higginson in 1843, followed by two more the following year, Sarah Westwood and William Beard. Westwood was the only woman Smith hanged in his thirty-four year career.
Paul Downing, Charles Powys and John Brough were all hanged in 1845, and then there was a eight year gap before Smith hung Charles Moore in 1853. But by far the most famous execution carried out by Oakham neckstretcher took place in 1856 when one of Staffordshire’s most notorious murderers, Doctor William Palmer, met his grizzly end at the hands of George Smith.
Crowds It had been a very wet summer, but constant drizzle wasn’t about to deter thousands of people from descending upon the town of Stafford on June 14th 1856 to witness the event. The man destined for the drop was Dr William Palmer, who had been involved in several life insurance scams. He was in the process of taking out a policy on a local farmer with his associate John Parsons Cook, when doubts were raised by the insurance firm. On this occasion the application was turned down and shortly afterwards Cook took part in a drinking session at Palmer’s house, only to fall ill and die within a couple of hours. A subsequent inquest on the death led to Palmer’s arrest, and he was taken to London to stand trial at the Old Bailey, a trial that lasted an unprecedented 12 days.
Palmer was found guilty of administering poison to his associate Cook, though he denied any wrong doing, and he was duly sentenced to death.
At Stafford Gaol portable wooden gallows had been erected outside the main gates, and a huge crowd gathered in anticipation of a good hanging. A good hanging meant lots of fuss from the accused who they wanted to see put up a fight and die hard. The majority of the bloodlusting oglers were men, many of whom had travelled overnight on special trains from Birmingham, Stoke and London. In the vicinity of the gaol public houses had stayed open all night, as had many non-conformist chapels, and from midnight onwards the Wolverhampton Road had been packed with people and carriages. No less than twenty platforms had been built in sight of the scaffold, with a guinea charged for the best view, and to control this unprecedented gathering, over three hundred uniformed police were on duty.
Population According to the 1841 census the population of Stafford in that year was 9,245. There would no doubt have been an increase in that figure by 1856, but on the day of Palmer’s execution the population of Stafford probably trebled to an estimated thirty to thirty-five thousand, emphasising the popularity of public executions in the mid 19th century.
The stage was set for the Dudley Hangman to perform his duty, and at 8am on a rain soaked morning, George Smith pinioned Doctor Palmer’s hands, placed the noose around his neck- Dressed in his execution uniform of impeccable white, full length smock, and sporting a top hat, he tightly secured the knot. The crowd grew impatient and although there was a brief moment of silence, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction. It looked as though Palmer was going to meet his maker without a struggle. The pressure on Smith to make sure there were no slip ups must have been immense as the crowd of thirty thousand began to turn nasty. The air became filled with boos and cries of ‘Cheat’, but with a steady nerve the Dudley Higgler withdrew the bolt and dispatched the doctor to eternity.
After Palmer, Smith hanged eight more felons, including Samuel Twigg in 1861 for a murder he committed at Bilston; Charles Robinson in 1866 for a murder he committed at Wolverhampton, and Christopher Edwards, the sixteenth and last who was hanged in 1872 for the murder of his wife in Willenhall.
Not only had George Smith been one of the leading hangmen of the 19th century, he also officiated at the last public hanging outside Stafford gaol on 5th July 1866, which turned out to be rather a bungled affair. Eighteen year old William Collier was about to be hanged when the rope failed to remain on the beam and the poor lad had to go through the whole ordeal again.
In 1868 railway porter Thomas Wells shot his stationmaster in the head under tragic circumstances; a few months later he should have been getting married. Instead he was executed by the old partnership of Calcraft and Smith who joined forces once more to conduct the first ever official private hanging. At this time Parliament was determined to remove the spectacle of the public hanging, and introduced the 1869 Capital Punishment Within Prisons Act. For the record the Dudley Higgler officiated at two private hangings.
Payment Even though George Smith gained notoriety in his native Black Country as the Dudley Higgler, and no doubt earned a bob or two telling his Tales from the Scaffold, a first hand account’, he probably never earned a lot of money from his day jobs. This was brought to light during a recent search through copies of the Brierley Hill Advertiser from 1857 for more ‘News in Brief’ stories, whereupon an interesting, contemporary account of the hangman who became the legendary Dudley Hangman was discovered: “Smith, the executioner of Palmer, has passed through the Worcestershire Insolvent Court. Among the items credited in Smith’s schedule were the following. Money given for duties performed in a public execution, £5, and he credited himself with a further sum of £1 for a new smock-frock bought for the occasion of Palmer’s execution.
He appeared before the court in a garment of that description, said to be the same as that in which he officiated in the capacity of Jack Ketch at Stafford.” Jack Ketch was a euphemism used for the gallows in the 19th century, named after the notorious John Ketch, executioner employed by King Charles II in the 17th century.