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The hangman and the electric chair - Part 2

By Bernie Matthews - posted Friday, 29 July 2005

In March 1950, Timothy Evans was convicted and hanged in England for the murder of his baby daughter, Geraldine. The court did not proceed with a second charge of the murder of his wife. During the trial, the dull-witted Evans insisted his wife and daughter had been murdered by "the other man" living in the house at 10 Rillington Place, London.

"The other man" was John Reginald Halliday Christie, one of the main witnesses for the prosecution. The trial judge complimented Christie for "his clarity of evidence" during the trial. Three years after Evans had been executed, Christie confessed to murdering eight women in England between 1940 and 1953. One of them was Evans’ wife. Christie was convicted and hanged at Pentonville Prison on July 15, 1953.

In 1966 the British Government granted Timothy Evans a posthumous pardon in recognition of his innocence. But the Evans case is not the only miscarriage of justice under British law where an innocent man has been executed.


In 1819, Thomas Harris, landlord of the Rising Sun Inn, on the York-Newcastle road, was executed for murder. It was later established that the barman at the inn and chief prosecution witness was the actual killer, and Harris had been innocent. The posthumous pardon awarded to Harris did not ameliorate the travesty of justice.

In March 1835 an Irish peddler, Daniel Savage, was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife 10 years earlier. After having his beard shaved off to "make the hangman's job easier", he was allowed a final visit from his sister.

The woman looked at the condemned prisoner, completely baffled, saying, "He's not my brother ... he doesn't look anything like my brother!" There was not enough time to investigate the woman's claim before the man was led to the scaffold and hanged. The sister had been correct. The man who had gone to his death was innocent. His name was Edmund Pine. Not Daniel Savage.

In the same month, another innocent man was executed in England.

Edward Poole Chalker was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a gamekeeper. He was led to the gallows protesting his innocence. Seven years later another man confessed to the crime. Chalker, like Pine, had been innocent.

Unlike Harris, Pine and Chalker, William Habron survived the death cell and the gallows. Habron was sentenced to death in 1876 for the murder of a London police officer, but because of his youth the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Three years later, while Habron was serving his life sentence, a notorious criminal, Charles Pearce, confessed to the murder. William Habron received a pardon and £800 compensation from the British Government.


In 1909, Oscar Slater was sentenced to death for the murder of an elderly woman in Glasgow but like Habron, had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. After he had served 19 years in prison, it was established that Slater was completely innocent. He was reprieved and awarded £6,000 compensation.

Another Englishman who cheated the gallows, some claim by divine intervention, was John Lee.

"The miracle in triplicate" occurred in Exeter, England, on February 23, 1885, when John Lee mounted the scaffold to be executed for the murder of Emma Keyse, one time maid-of-honour to Queen Victoria. The trapdoor under the scaffold failed to open. Three times John Lee mounted the scaffold. Three times the trapdoor did not function. After the third attempt, Lee was returned to the condemned cell, and his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. John Lee served 22 years in prison. After his release from prison he emigrated to the US, where he married and never re-offended. He died in 1933.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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