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Old Bailey

[Old Bailey, Spectacle]

Yesterday morning, before 8 o'clock, an immense assemblage of spectators, in numbers equal to those who witnessed the fate of Fauntleroy, crowded the Old Bailey, from one end to the other, to witness the execution of Charles Thomas White, late a bookseller in Holborn, for the crime of arson, and Amelia Roberts, for an aggravated robbery. The unfortunate man White had excited an extraordinary interest.

The young woman, Roberts, who was convicted of robbing Mr Austin, of Red Lion-street, Clerkenwell, with whom she lived as cook, of property to the amount of £400 and upwards, and Patrick Riley, her sweetheart, was convicted of the same offence. The conduct of this unhappy creature has been such, during her confinement, as to excite the respect, pity, and commiseration of those who visited her. She has been extremely attentive to her religious duties, and the principal thing that engrossed her attention relative to this world was to exculpate Riley, and hear that he was converted from what she deemed Papistical errors. On the evening of Sunday she was amazingly cheerful, and said, as her punishment was just, she would rather undergo it than return into a world of temptation.

The conduct of White was very different, the bare contemplation of the awful moment of execution unmanned him. He totally disregarded religious exercises, and sat day after day brooding over his past life, and occasionally starting upon his feet, bitterly inveighing against his sentence. Immediately after his trial, and for a long time subsequent, the unfortunate young man persisted in his entire innocence, and strove to convince others of it, by that sort of sophistical reasoning of which his defence consisted. He has asked over and over again what could have been his motive to commit so flagrant a crime, when his circumstances were not embarrassed, and his prospects flattering?

At length, however, he confessed his guilt, but in excuse pleaded that he was of unsound mind at the time. Finding, at length, that in all probability the door of mercy would be closed against him, he had recourse to many ingenious measures to effect his escape; and it appears quite clear, that he must have some powerful auxiliaries, both among his fellow prisoners and outside of the prison.

When the warrant of death arrived, which included his name, the wretched man at first raved like a maniac, his fondly cherished hope being cut off, but when he regained composure, his thoughts and conversation were again engaged upon an attempt to escape. A few days before that fixed for his execution, he said, "I know that I am a sinner, but God is merciful, and I hope to go to Heaven. I know, too, that I must suffer, but I never allow myself to think of the day."


White ascended the platform with an unsteady and tremulous step. Slark, the Sheriff's attendant, with a black wand, accompanied him, and said something to the executioner, who called his assistant, and they immediately conducted White to the west end of the platform, and while one adjusted a rope through the chain attached to the beam, the other held his hands and arms. White trembled, and his agitation seemed to increase; he raised his arms, and extended his chest, as if desirous of bursting the cords, and by the effort loosened his wrists. The cap was drawn over his eyes, but the restlessness of the unhappy man seemed to increase; and, just as the woman was ascending the steps, he bent his head down, and pushed off the cap, accompanying this action by a violent movement of the body, as if to break or get his head out of the fatal noose. The action was made with so much strength and violence, and his struggling appearing to increase, that a dreadful yell, and cries of the utmost horror burst from the crowd. The two assistant executioners were called to ascend the platform, and they held the unhappy man while a handkerchief was tied over his eyes. They endeavoured to draw a cap over his face, but he struggled hard with the executioner, and repeatedly forced it off. The executioner seized the unhappy man with some violence, to induce him to desist from proceeding to loosen his hands, and the crowd renewed their former cries and yellings.

Amelia Roberts was then brought upon the scaffold, and a cord having been tied round her lower garments, the rope was adjusted round her neck. White again got the handkerchief off, and turning to the woman and crowd alternately, by his gestures, appeared as if desirous of exciting universal sympathy. The arrangements of the executioner being complete, he removed the woman to a position immediately under the fatal beam, and then placed White by her side; but the unhappy man gradually moved forward, until he gradually got his toes upon the ledge, where Mr Cotton and Mr. Baker were reading the Burial Service. The handkerchief was again placed over his eyes, but it was evident, from the fineness of its texture, and what occurred soon afterwards, that he must have seen through it. At the moment Mr Cotton drew a white handkerchief from under his surplice, he leaped upon the platform and by sinking his head was able to grasp that part of the cord which was affixed round his neck under his chin. It appeared to be a desperate effort to prolong that life which he so fondly clung to. At this moment the spectacle was most horrifying — he was partly suspended, and partly standing on the platform. During the violence of his exertions, his tongue was forced out of his mouth, and the convulsions of his body and contortions of his face were truly appalling. The cries of displeasure from the crowd were again renewed, and they continued till the executioner had forced the wretched man's hands from the cord, and moved his feet from the platforms, when in an instant the rope had its full tension ; and, by pulling the man's legs, he ceased struggling, and in a few minutes was dead. It is thought, that if his arms had not been fastened by a cord, the handkerchief would have given way, and the most painful consequences would have resulted. As it was, his sufferings were considerably protracted. The distortions of his countenance, in the agonises of death, could be seen by the crowd; and, as he remained suspended without any covering to his face, the horrible spectacle was most terrific. The shrieks of the woman and the cries of the men, rendered the scene more painful than any one we had ever witnessed before; and but for the wise precaution of erecting extra barriers across the street, much mischief would have been done in the confusion.

The sufferings of the poor woman were momentary. — When she was brought into the dock, at the bottom of the stairs leading to the scaffold, she took a seat on a bench. Mr. Baker attended her, while Mr. Cotton attended White on the scaffold. Her eyes were closed, and her resignation was surprising. She ejaculated, "Into thy hands oh Lord! I commit my soul ;" and just before she ascended the scaffold, she said, "God have mercy, save my soul! and pity and pardon my poor friend Patrick" (alluding to Riley). Whilst on the scaffold, she continued praying, in which she was in some degree disturbed by the extraordinary conduct of her fellow culprit. The crowd were greatly affected by the horrid sight which they had witnessed, and we trust that this example will have its due effect upon the minds of the thoughtless and wicked.

J. Catnach, Printer, 2 and 3, Monmouth Court.

SOURCE: Curiosities of Street Literature, London, Reeves and Turner, 196, Strand, 1871.