During my research for Vote for Murder, I came across the following extract in a letter from P Jones to his friend and cousin Major Jones in which he mentioned murderess Mary Emily Cage, my inspiration for the book. The letter entitled, The brutality and cruelty of the British people , describes several British murders during 1851 including two Suffolk murders & the Chelmsford poisoning. He claims that “such occurrences are seldom or never heard of in our southern states”.
A HIGH-SHERIFF IN DIFFICULTY; OR, A HANGMAN WANTED
“It will no doubt be in the recollection of many persons that the High Sheriff of Suffolk, in March last, was placed in no very pleasant position in consequence of the services of a hangman not being obtainable to carry into execution the last sentence of the law upon Maria Clarke, for the murder of her illegitimate child, by burying it alive in the parish of Wingfield. The high-sheriff, however, on that occasion, was spared an unpleasant duty by a reprieve coming down for the condemned woman two days before that on which her execution was to have taken place. At the assizes held at Ipswich, on the 2d inst., Maria Emily Cage was found guilty of the murder of her husband, James Cage, at Stonham Aspel, by administering to him a certain quantity of arsenic. Her execution was ordered to take place on Saturday (Aug. 16), in front of the Ipswich county jail, but the same difficulty was again presented as in March. Calcraft, the hangman, on being applied to, could not attend, as he had promised to perform a similar office the same morning at Norwich. An application was next made to the hangman at Warwick jail, but that functionary could not attend, as he would be similarly engaged at Shrewsbury on that day. A messenger was then despatched to the Secretary of State’s office, who explained the unpleasant position in which the high-sheriff of Suffolk was placed, and requested that the execution of Mary Emily Cage might be postponed. The answer from the Secretary of State was to the effect that no alteration as to the day named could be made; thus leaving the high-sheriff to get out of the difficulty in the best way he could. To have had the law carried into effect on Saturday would, in all probability, have been repugnant to the feelings of the high-sheriff, for, as no person could be found to supply the place of Calcraft, the high-sheriff must have performed the horrid duty himself. To avoid doing that, the high-sheriff has, on his own responsibility, ordered the execution to be delayed until an early day in the ensuing week. The condemned woman’s demeanor is becoming her awful position. She appears to be resigned to her fate, but protests that she is innocent. The unpleasant position of the high-sheriff, not only on this but on a former occasion, may be attributed to the usual course not being adopted—the making sure that Calcraft can attend before any day be appointed for the execution.”— The Times, August 17th, 1851.
It must have been rare for an execution to be delayed for want of an executioner, but there were an unusually high volume of death sentences that year. Somewhere in the region of 50 death sentences were handed out in 1851, resulting in the public hanging of 3 women. Despite the delay recorded above, Mary Cage was ultimately executed by William Calcraft – the longest serving executioner. Calcraft executed approximately 450 people, 34 of whom were women.