Turn around and return the way you came, back down Eastgate Street and through The Cross, however this time keep right and continue onto Watergate Street.
Keep walking down Watergate Street, and when you reach the road crossing cross safely over it at the lights and continue straight ahead onto Watergate Street.
Take a right onto Stanley Street, and follow it until it curves left. Turn right onto City Walls and Queens School will appear in front of you.
You have found your next location.
You are now standing in the bloodiest, and most deathly part of all Chester, as you look upon the prestigious Queens School , which stands proud over the River Dee. This now beautiful school was formerly the Chester City Jail from 1808 – 1872, and place of hangings for all those sentenced to death within these walls.
From the dark and distant Norman time to the latter part of the Victorian age Chester had its own peculiar ways of disposing of criminals condemned at the Assize Court.
For more than 500 years the County rulers simply could hand over a miscreant to the City. Who, due to a now obscure medieval tradition; were duty bound to hang the prisoners on their behalf. However, as ever in life; this came with a price. Hanging people was not cheap and the costs of these executions were taking a deep toll in the pockets of the City’s Fathers. So, what did they do? They decided to make the public hangings a form of tourist attraction. One Earl of Chester established a jail in Northgate, and why put it there you may ask?
Well in a 1391 document, there is a reference to an agreement that the Chester City Fathers had a right to impose a toll at the north gate which was previously owned by the Earls. So, the jail and gallows were built at North gate so they could charge an entry toll for people wishing to attend the executions. A good death means good business. Between 1750 and 1866 there were over 100 executions in Chester. Think of all the money made from these poor, departed souls.
Crowds would gather in their 1000’s to watch the death penalties be bestowed. In Chester, they favoured the short drop for hangings. This meant that the body would only fall a short way; and not far enough for the neck to snap. This meant they would not suffer instantaneous death; however writhe in breathless agony like a worm on the end of a fishing line until death came to slowly draw their last breath from their limp body.
One notable victim was Mary Heald from Mere, a 45-year-old Quaker, mother of 5 who was burned at the stake in 1763. She allegedly poisoned her husband by mixing arsenic into his lunch. The couple had grown apart and she wanted to resolve the situation. Historian, Derek Yarwood uncovered a document detailing the bill for the burning. The bill included such items as a cartload of faggots, the erection of the stock and hiring wardens to ensure nothing was stolen; G4S would have made a killing back in the day. In total, it cost nearly 13 pounds to burn Mrs Heald at the stake, which in today’s money equates to nearly £3000. In comparison, an ordinary hanging would only have cost about 4 pounds. The reason; if a wife murdered a husband, it was considered more than just murder as a husband was then lord and master and the crime was recorded as petty treason which meant burning at the stake. A man could be hung drawn and quartered but burning was described to be more suitable for a woman.
The execution was initially to take place three days after sentence, however, sensing a marketing opportunity it was put back a few extra days so more people could be present on a Saturday. Yet, the justice system were not completely insensitive to the condemned woman. In fact, they did offer her a polite courtesy in that they often got the executioner to strangle her first before she was set aflame. How noble.
When a woman was convicted of a capital crime they would often be asked if there was any reason why sentence of death should not be passed. She could at this point “plead her belly”, which would mean she was pregnant. She would then be kept in prison to be examined by matrons to ascertain if she was lying or telling the truth. If she was found to be “quick with child” her execution was delayed until after she had given birth, or her sentence changed to a trip across the world; as they were sent to Australia. Anecdotal evidence suggests women prisoners would try and get pregnant whilst in prison to save themselves from the gallows. They would offer sex to their jailers or to visitors for this purpose as the law did not permit the execution of pregnant women.
The last execution to take place was in Chester in 1883.
The last woman to meet her fate at the gallows was Mary Gallop in 1844. The 21yr old was sentenced to death after her father was poisoned. Gallop shared her house with her father, his stepdaughter and a lodger called Frazer. The court heard how Mary had a relationship with a man from Liverpool whom her father disapproved of. Between October 11 and November 2 Mary bought copius amounts of arsenic from a man only named as Thomas for the supposed purpose of killing rats. When officers searched the house after her father’s death, arsenic was found in various foods and also in its unused form. It was said Mary was unconcerned at her father’s death and was planning to go to Liverpool. The defence argued that her father self-medicated and would have mixed the arsenic into his own food despite him having no medical experience. A second argument was put forward regarding her sanity in that her mother had been deemed insane whilst she was pregnant with Mary and died by suicide. Insanity was thought to be hereditary and could have been the cause of Mary’s actions. Her defence appeared to be futile as the jury did not even retire to consider the evidence but found her guilty. Despite an appeal she was hanged until dead. To save her soul, moments prior to the execution she admitted her guilt.