Tragedy at an Execution

Elizabeth Godfrey (sometimes Godfry) took a room in a house ‘of ill repute’ in the Marylebone area of London just before Christmas 1806. Her room was next to Richard Prince who was living with a woman named Emily Bisset in a property owned by Mr William Scott.

Richard and Elizabeth had an argument, apparently due to him having sent for William Atkins, the watchman, to arrest her for having a man (possibly a ‘customer’) in her room the day before. It was alleged that Elizabeth’s hand was cut, by Richard, during the altercation. She was quickly freed without any criminal charges being brought.

It would seem that Elizabeth wanted revenge on Richard and she knocked on Richard and Emily’s door between 5pm and 6pm on the evening of Christmas Day. Elizabeth verbally abused Richard for fetching the watchman and subsequently stabbed Richard just below the eye with a pocket knife. Emily took Richard to a surgeon who decided that he needed immediate hospital treatment for what was considered ‘a dangerous injury’. He was admitted to the Middlesex Hospital under the care of Mr Barry, a surgeon, and survived in hospital until Saturday 18 January when he finally died from the wound.

Elizabeth had been arrested and originally charged with wounding, with the charge being upgraded to murder after Richard died. She came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 18 February 1807 before Mr Justice Heath. Emily Bisset, her landlord William Scott and William Atkins, the watchman, gave evidence for the prosecution. Mr. Barry told the court that he was certain that the cause of Richard’s death was the stab wound.

Elizabeth had no real answer to the charge of stabbing Richard. It was not possible to argue self defence as the reported incidents of Richard injuring her hand and of her stabbing him were separated by a considerable passage of time. The jury found her guilty of wilful murder after a brief deliberation and Elizabeth was returned to Newgate to await sentence at the end of the Sessions.

She was not the only person to have been convicted of murder at these Sessions. John Holloway and Owen Haggerty had robbed and murdered John Cole Steele on Hounslow Heath in Middlesex in November 1802. All three were duly sentenced to be hanged and their bodies delivered to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection with their executions to take place three days later, on Monday 23 February 1807.


Unsurprisingly, the hanging of these three murderers attracted enormous public interest and it was estimated that no less than forty thousand people had come to watch, with every inch of ground outside Newgate and the Old Bailey occupied. The sheer numbers and the pressure created by movements in the crowd quickly began to cause problems as people were crushed and trampled even before the execution preparations commenced.

As the three people died on the gallows above, more were being injured and dying in the crowd in the Old Bailey below. Women, children and men were being crushed and then trampled as they fainted and fell. It is reported that there were cries of “Murder, Murder” from some of the victims. It was impossible for the small number of officials present to do anything to help the injured as they were so densely packed in.

It was only after the bodies of the three murderers could be taken down and the gallows removed back inside Newgate that officials were able to clear the street and begin to attend to the casualties. There were a total of twenty-seven bodies recovered and some seventy or so casualties requiring treatment.  The site was strewn with hats, shoes and other personal effects of the dead and injured.

Most of the dead were taken to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital where a temporary mortuary was set up to enable relatives to come and identify their loved ones. An inquest into the tragedy opened at the hospital the following day which concluded on the Friday with a verdict “That several persons came by their death from compression and suffocation.” It is not clear what, if any, action was taken by the authorities to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy but no similar problems were reported subsequently.


Kirsty Gray

About Kirsty Gray

Kirsty Gray Managing Director: Family Wise Limited, Chair: Society for One-Place Studies, Director of English Studies: National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Author: Pen and Sword Books and freelance author for various publications across the globe.

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