The (Even!) Darker Side of Styal Part II: The Execution of John Henshaw

Were you gripped by the first instalment of The (Even!) Darker Side of Styal? Grant Collier now completes the tale…

On Saturday, October 3rd, 1829, John Henshaw awoke in his cell to face his execution. He had been convicted of assisting a violent attack on Lord Stamford’s gamekeepers during a chance expedition with some poachers, and had been sentenced to death despite never having held a gun or fired a shot. In the neighbouring cell was another man, similarly sentenced to death that day – Joseph Woodhouse, a forty-year-old man from York, convicted of the rape of his own ten-year-old daughter.

Rev. Hoskins, the reverend of the gaol, had visited the two men regularly during their confinement to educate them on the conditions of their souls. During John’s confinement, one last plea was made for the mercy of His Majesty to commute the sentence. Nothing is known about the man who formally raised the case, but it did manage to reach the attention of Home Secretary Robert Peel, who refused to recommend John to the King for a pardon.

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The note refusing John Henshaw the mercy of His Majesty. No reason is given for Secretary Robert Peel’s decision. (Source: Findmypast, © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England.)

On Friday morning, the day before the execution, Rev. Hoskins gave the men their ‘condemned sermon’, “Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh” (Matthew 24:44). During the sermon, John wept bitterly, deploring his sinfulness and praying for forgiveness. Throughout the night, John and Joseph prayed and sang hymns, and John engaged so earnestly in this that his voice could be heard echoing throughout the prison.

Following that agonising night came the day of the execution. At four o’clock on Saturday morning the two prisoners were moved to a lodge for breakfast where they were given coffee, a small luxury for their final meal. After more hymns were sung, the city sheriffs arrived and escorted them to the city boundary. The entered ‘the black cart’ without assistance, and were transported by cart to a room near the hanging place. It was reported that a ‘vast number of persons’ turned out to escort the procession, despite the early hour.

Two more reverends then attended the prisoners to administer ‘spiritual comfort and consolation to the unhappy men’. Their chains were removed, and both instantly dropped to their knees and prayed. Woodhouse, the rapist, admitted that he was a great sinner but avoided any reference to his crime, pacing the room and smoking his pipe instead. John solemnly admitted to being a great sinner, ‘getting drunk on a Sunday, cursing and swearing, and not obeying my parents, for which I hope God will have mercy on me’. However, he repeated that he had not touched a gun that fateful night, nor had he ever poached before in his life, and protested that he should not be hanged.

At nine o’clock, the two criminals were visited by family. Somewhat surprisingly, Woodhouse received a visit from his wife, a ‘poor woman, almost distracted,’ with an infant in her arms. There was no mention of his young daughter, the victim, in the accounts. John was visited by his father and brother, and the parting scene was described as ‘most effecting.’ The Sacrament, a final act of penance, was then administered to both of them and the reverend left them to their final moments.

At noon, the fateful hour of his execution, John asked for a few moments longer to beg God for forgiveness. He threw himself to his knees and prayed aloud for mercy for himself and Woodhouse, concluding with the Lord’s Prayer before finally accompanying the executioner. Woodhouse did not kneel, but joined the prayer with a ‘cold formality’ that, according to the reporter, proved his heart had not been touched in the same way as John’s.

As John was led up to the scaffold, the executioner (a dour and serious professional with great experience of his grim work) was overcome by the moving scene and began to weep. Similarly, two sheriffs who had attended to the men while imprisoned were so overcome that they could not bear to watch the final act. The rope was tied, and for three or four more minutes John called upon Christ to receive his soul. Many in the gathered crowd sobbed and, when the final bolt was drawn, there was a collective shriek of horror.

Public opinion was very favourable towards John Henshaw, and it was said that the crowd at his hanging were as sympathetic towards him as they were horrified by Woodhouse’s crime. At his home of Northenden, a large service took place, attended by his (‘almost heart-broken’) mother, father, three sisters, several brothers and around five hundred onlookers. The extent of the grief and distress displayed at the funeral was described as ‘uncommon.’ During the burial, the coffin of John’s grandfather was lifted up, and he was buried underneath it to prevent any attempts to remove the body. A small sum of money was raised for John’s family by the assembled crowd.

The distress caused by John’s death was made more acute by the sense of injustice surrounding his conviction. While John was hanged for providing ammunition, it was reported with disbelief that Joseph Fenna, the man who actually fired the wounding shot, was acquitted! Some reporters saw John’s death as an example of the failures of the criminal justice system and urged a review of the Game Laws, which had only recently reiterated that crimes such as the one John committed should be punishable by death in all circumstances. The Chester Chronicle protested that ‘it is impossible not to feel that the justice of the case would have been abundantly satisfied, by sending this young man out of the country, instead of sending him out of the world’.

Surely, the journalist argued, all of the circumstances should have been taken into account when deciding to put a young man to death. It seems that some expected the landowner, Lord Stamford, to intervene on John’s behalf, and his refusal to act was described as a source of ‘universal disappointment and regret’. The reporter insisted that faith in the law of the land relied on it being seen to be fair and just, and that unfortunate episodes like the hanging of John Henshaw undermined the legitimacy of laws administering this ultimate form of punishment.

To some, the controversy of John Henshaw’s trial and execution created an opportunity to put pressure on those involved to look again at laws which demanded execution under all circumstances. Others expressed their hope that this ‘miserable end to his young life’ would serve as a deterrent to poachers and other criminals. His death, picked up and noted down by a Styal resident sometime in the mid-1800s, may have been the talk of the village. It certainly suggests that residents of Styal took a keen interest in local affairs, and John Henshaw – or the poachers he encountered – may have been well known locally. His story also shows that people were grappling with enormous questions concerning morality, justice and the soul, issues that are just as important and contested today.

Over to you…

Do you think John’s punishment fit his crime? What about Joseph Woodhouse? Was the death penalty appropriate for either of the two men?

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