Selina Wadge – Child murder in Cornwall!

Selina Wadge was one of only four women to be hanged for of the murder of their child during the period 1868 – 1899. (I have included Louise Masset in this figure as the crime and trial took place in 1899, although her execution was carried out in January 1900). They were Mary Ann Cotton who was a serial poisoner who murdered as many as ten of her children for the insurance money. Elizabeth Berry poisoned her daughter for the same reason and Louisa Masset who murdered her son because he was an encumbrance to her relationship.

Selina was very much at the bottom end of the Victorian social spectrum. She was a 28 year old unmarried mother of two illegitimate sons and due to her poverty and inability to get work whilst raising two small children, often had to ask for admission to Launceston Workhouse. This was a very stigmatising thing for a woman to have to do at the time.
Her sons were Henry aged two and John aged six. Henry who was always known as Harry was partially crippled and could hardly walk. Both boys seemed well cared for, however.

In the summer of 1878 she had taken leave from the workhouse to visit her mother at Altarnum, a village some 8 miles west of Launceston in Cornwall, accompanied by her sons.
Selina claimed to be in a relationship with a former soldier named James Westwood although it is not thought that he was not the father of the boys. According to James he had met Selina just twice previously, in December 1877 and again in March 1878. He had written her a letter telling her that they could meet in Launceston on Saturday 22nd of June and then another telling her that he would be unable to see her that day because he had to work that day. However on Friday the 21st June 1878 Selina and the children hitched a ride towards Launceston with a local farmer named William Holman. She told Mr. Holman that she was going to meet her boyfriend in the town before returning to the workhouse that evening.
Later on the Saturday morning Selina was recognised near Mowbray Park and by mid-day had reached the workhouse but by now only the older child, John, was with her. She told her sister who was also an inmate, in the presence of the Workhouse Master, Mr. Downing, that Harry had died at Altarnum. On the Saturday night John told the work house nurses that Selina had put Harry into a “pit”. Mr. Downing and his wife who was the matron questioned Selina about this on the Sunday morning and she told them that her boyfriend had taken Harry from her and drowned him in a well on the Friday evening and threatened to kill her and John.
Mr. Downing immediately sent for the police who despatched Superintendent Barrett from Launceston to investigate. Selina repeated the story to him under caution and directly implicated James Westwood in Harry’s disappearance. Barrett launched a search for Harry and found his body in three feet of water at the bottom of a 13 foot deep well shaft in Mowbray Park. The top of the well was covered so it would not have been possible for Harry to have accidentally fallen in. His body showed no signs of violence.
Selina was not in custody at this point but remained in the care of Mrs. Downey at the workhouse to whom she confessed that she alone had committed the murder and that only John had been present. Once Harry’s body had been found Supt. Barrett had sufficient grounds to arrest and charge Selina and remove her to Launceston police station. She told one of the constables that James Westwood had persuaded her to kill Harry on the promise that he would marry her if she did.

She came to trial at Bodmin before Mr. Justice Denman on the 27th of July 1878 and the prosecution outlined the story above, calling the workhouse staff as witnesses to the confession evidence and reading James Westwood’s letters out. James assured the court that he had no ill feeling toward the children.
Evidence of Selina’s previous good character and affection for her children was given by other inmates at the workhouse and by people from her home village.
It took the jury took 45 minutes to reach a guilty verdict to which they added a recommendation to mercy on account of the way she had previously looked after her children and that in their opinion the murder had not been premeditated. Mr. Justice Denman told her that she could not rely upon the jury’s recommendation and sentenced her to death whereupon she was taken back to Bodmin Gaol and placed in the condemned cell.
Here she received a letter from James Westwood asking for her forgiveness which, when it was read to her, she allegedly said “Yes, he needed forgiveness for many things.”
The judge prepared his report for submission to the Home Office and clearly did not concur with the jury as to mercy. This report along with the case papers were examined by the officials who did not recommend a reprieve to the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Assheton Cross. It seems probable that one of the reasons that Selina was not reprieved is that she had tried to blame the murder on John Westwood, a crime for which he would probably have been hanged if convicted. By this period most women who murdered their children, unless by poisoning were reprieved.

In the condemned cell Selina was guarded round the clock by teams of matrons (as female prison officers were known at this time) who would no doubt have done their best to comfort her and prevent any suicide attempts.

The High Sheriff of Devon had decided not to admit representatives of the press to the execution which was set for 8.00 a.m. on Thursday the 15th of August 1878. It had originally been intended for Monday 12th of August but William Marwood was otherwise engaged for the hanging of Thomas Chorleton in Nottingham on that day.
The gallows for her execution was set up outside a first floor door in the open air and attached to the four iron rings set into the wall. (see photo) The location of this was also the receiving area for food deliveries. To the left of the doorway is the civil wing and behind to the right is the naval wing of the prison.

Selina was close to collapse on her last morning. Her terror at the thought of her execution is not hard to understand. It is unlikely that she would have known about Marwood’s newly introduced method of hanging and probably expected that she would strangle at the end of the rope in front of witnesses as most people previously had. Hers would be the first private execution at Bodmin and also the first to employ the measured drop. William Marwood calculated her drop at eight feet.

The prison chaplain remained with her from 7.15 on that morning until the end and she was reported to have sobbed on her last walk from the condemned cell. Selina’s last words were “Lord deliver me from this miserable world”. She held a handkerchief in her hand during the execution although by this time would not have been expected to drop it as the signal that she was ready. Marwood made the usual preparations and operated the lever plummeting her down in front of the entrance to the tunnel where her lifeless body dangled for the next hour. After the formal inquest she was buried within the prison grounds. The Liverpool Post newspaper reported that those who witnessed the hanging, including the chaplain and the under sheriff of Cornwall were deeply affected by it. How they obtained this information is not stated. Their article also stated that she “died without a struggle” so even the press had not realised the change Marwood had brought to the process of hanging by this time.

What is unclear is why Selina harboured the delusion that James Westwood would marry her if she disposed of her children whom she seemed to love and care for. His actions and statements do not seem to indicate that he was deeply in love with her.
Whether she intended to kill John as well or whether, when it came to it, she could not bring herself to we will never know. Selina may have seen Westwood as a “good catch” – an ex soldier with a job who was at least somewhat interested in her.

Her ghost still haunts the prison and tries to reach out to small children and instil feelings of guilt and remorse on pregnant women. Mark Rablin, the paranomalist at Bodmin, reports that children have been known to ask who the lady in the long dress crying was and that pregnant women get very emotional on the 3rd and 4th floor. Selina’s ghost is seen as a full torso manifestation.

William Bartlett was executed on the same gallows some 4 years later on the 13th of November 1882. In 1897 an execution shed was constructed in one of the prison’s yards and this was used for the final two hangings in Cornwall in 1901 and 1909. Normally this shed was used to house the prison van, as at Exeter and Kirkdale prisons.
The prison is now a museum and the gallows in the execution shed have been recently rebuilt by my friend Gary Ewart. This is the only workable example of a Victorian execution shed and gallows in Britain.

To read more like this please head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org

22 Responses to 'Selina Wadge – Child murder in Cornwall!'

  • Hi,

    I visited Bodmin Jail yesterday (3rd April) and when I went downstairs into the main room with lots of cells coming off it I suddenly got a sharp pain in my neck. The pain was very sudden and ran down my neck and into my shoulders, it was quite sore and made me feel uneasy. It stayed with me for the rest of the day feeling like a trapped nerve in my neck, it stopped me from being able to turn my head or lift my arms too high.

    I found it really strange that this trapped nerve came on so suddenly when I went downstairs in the jail, and it made me feel so strange about being near the cells.Can you tell me if anyone else has ever experienced anything else like this in the jail?

    Thanks,

    Lisa

    Lisa
  • Hi , I’m 13 and recently visited the jail, I don’t remember what floor I was on but I was outside the room which shows the hanging film and I got a sharp pain in my back and it felt like someone had stabbed me and it hurt for about 30 minutes – 1hr. I just wanted to know if anyone has ever experienced something like this in the jail? I’m very curious because I always seem to be an easy target with spirits – I’ve been seeing a spirit regulary since I was 6-7 but no-one else ever sees it . So if anyone has any information , it’s very appreciated, Thank you.

    Sammie
  • Hi, I visit bodmin jail regularly, but it was last year that me, my partner and daughter Scarlett were walking around the jail, we had been on the floor that mentions Selina Wadge and we were walking away and at the time I could sense a presence near me! A ladies voice actually called out my daughters name a couple of times! I have a history of spiritual, mediums in the family but it’s the first time I have heard a voice I normally sense things.

    I had a very cold feeling and pain in my shoulders, lots of spirit activity. I love Bodmin Jail and will be back end of october as we have family coming to visit, the jail is first on my list for a fantastic adventure and great food with warm and welcoming feeling.

    Many Thanks,

    Jane

    jane stephens
  • I went to Bodmin Jail in 2009. Luckily, I did not hear any voices or feel any sharp pains, but at the time where they show you how the hang thing works, I felt uneasy as they let the hatch go, and when we went inside, at the cells, I felt as if something was in each cell.

    Alice Dunne
  • hi, i visited Bodmin Jail last year when i had just turned 14. me and my family was taken into the cells to learn a bit about them. on the left hand side about 4-5 cells down we got taken to that particular cell we was told that there was a homosexual prison officer in the door way which pulled men into th cells and pushed or hurt women. then in th corner was a guy. we stood there and you could feel heat and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. before all this we walked into the main cell area and we had our little jack rustle dog with us. when we walked in she completely freaked out, yet Me my mum and my dog all looked up to the left at the same time. is this a coinsidence? my dog wasnt her self all the way around the jail. the tour guide told us that he took a photo of the upper left of th cells a while back and you can see 3 men looking down on you. i will come back to bodmin jail yet not for a while! it freaked me out haha. though thankyou for an amazing experience!!! :)

    andi lucilla martin
  • Just reading up about Bodmin jail, And now Im freaked out lol, Went to Bodmin jail a few years ago with my two children I felt some different emotions when walking through the place,Not sure what floor I was on but one room felt really teary and could feel a women lloking at me and something to do with children not a nice feeling !!! Really quilty and upset. Now reading up on Bodmin Jail it tells me about the women and her children, Just thinking about coming to see you again and doing a ghost tore.:))

  • hey, well nothing has happened to me because i never been there but i think i know one of the men that might be there becaue at school i got told a poem and it is about this girl called Charlotte Dymond and tis boy called Mathew weeks and they were bofe walking and they were married and when they were holding handsh was limping because he had a razor (the girl did not see it) and it was not a shaving razor it was way different to that and they were at bodmin morre and he slit her throat with it because sheloved another if you want to see the poem you put in The Ballad Of Charlotte Dymond and my piont is matthew wees was jailed where you lot have had ur werid feelings !!!!!!!!!!!

  • hi i Went to bodmin jail about 2 years ago, i felt like somthing was watching me all the way around the jail. each time i looked around me there was nothing there. I got the uneasy feeling in the condemed cell, lie i was scared and very sick at the same time.

    Candice Roberts
  • I would like to say a personal ‘Thank You’ from me and my friends ( Friday 2nd March) to Mark (the curator) for being ‘around’ for our night with ‘Haunted Happenings’!!

    He was the only person with extensive knowledge of the property, a passion and sympathy for the people that had gone there before, and unfortunately, like you, maybe realise that the only way to make enough money for its up-keep is to have charlatans like HH exploit the misery of people that have ‘gone’ before..
    Thankyou, it was only him being there, that made our ‘ghosthunting’ weekend worthwhile…
    Kind Regards
    Rosie

    Rosie
  • I visited Bodmin Jail at the very beginning of January 2012 when I visited England. I’ve been to many jails around Australia, but nothing like this. I did not see, or hear anything, but felt an ever growing thickness in the air, a constant chill and the feeling of never being alone. I could not step foot in a single cell, a floor lower each time only made me feel worse, but as I progressed right up to the highest floor I felt better.

    Heather
  • I have visited Bodmin jail on three occasions with the first being many years ago when it was not so popular and with only a few people drifting around in the bowels of the jail.
    As we arrived the Bar tender pointed to a none discript door at the end of the bar and said see you tomorrow which puzzled me at the time.
    Immediately you start to descend the spiral staircase into the chilly cold dark depths you understand why . The jail takes the form of a rabbit warren with you never knowing if you will meet a real person or ghost behind each turn of the slippery walls .
    quite educational when reading about the different prisoners who were all housed in the formidable cells which have macabre scenes of the crimes committed by some of the inmates. thouroughly enjoyable but make sure you take a flashlight on your phone and a cross.

    Andy Mason
  • I have been to Jail , there’s nothin spooky about it , its just a building , its all in your imagination , yer mad , the lot of ya ! But Bodmin jail is still very interesting and an important part of our heritage , so look at it from the historical side , its vastly more interesting that way .

    philip giles
  • I went to Bodmin Jail back in 1998, I had a really uneasy feeling all the way round and was gripping my husbands hand (which was something we never really did). I felt very cold and like there was a presence there. The lights flickered and there were noises that we couldnt explain as nobody was there. I dont get spooked easily but this really freaked me out and it disturbed me for the rest of my holiday.

    Janine Barrett
  • Me & My partrner went to Bodmin Jail I felt it was interesting I did feel some sprits I felt someone go in my bag and touched a packed of crisps in my bag I knew nobody was behind me I suspect the was a pit pocket person who was killed there and also went slightly in to a prison cell can’t remember which one but felt a very nasty person in there who didn’t like women I felt very scared and unsafe. But enjoyed the trip would love to go again

    Tina Lay
  • we visited on saturday and we was lucky to meet a man and a woman who worked there and knew all the history they took us all around the building as they knew we were a bit scared to go on our own we felt a lot better with company especially as they had a huge dog with them although i did get really freaked out when we visited all the cells the women and children were kept in and the atmosphere seemed to change all at once in there we could here a child crying in agony which they said they hadnt heard before what made it worse was the dog started crying as well and legged it, left us on our own. We also noticed that the dog wouldnt go in execution cell either he just stayed at the door crying, They say animals sense things and this animal certainly did. Well worth a visit and will definatly go back again.

    julie
  • my husband ,son and his friend went there nearly two years ago we felt a presence we kept feeling a coldness in certain rooms . we took photos as we went round and when we got back we uploaded them on the laptop to be very shocked there was a photo of my son and his friend it was about 8.30pm and outside in the navel cells and they are copleatly surrounded bye orbs they are so clear , there was some orbs on other pictures taken in the jail , we are going back this year we loved it there

    mandy perry
  • i have an interesting family story which my dad heard from his grandmother back in the 1930.s. her name was ellen eddy, her great uncle was a petty criminal called james eddy. he was arrested following the robbery of a woman. he protested his innocence and even put forward the name of a man who looked very similar. the name was gudge or goudge. his plea was rejected and i think he was hanged in public about 1830. my great gran heard this story from her father when she was a young woman. i think it must have been a famous case and the family always thought he was innocent, as his previous convictions were very minor. whatever the truth, it was a brutal crime and i just hope they did not hang an innocent man. my dads family were all from the st austell area. my great gran lived from 1845- 1936 my dad lived from 1913-1995. he also lived in st. austell. my great gran married a man called best, which is where i get my name. any info from yourselves would be gratefully received. kind regards, simon best

    simon best
  • .my gr gr great uncle was james eddy, hanged in public at bodmin in 1827. often in trouble with the law as a young man, he finally paid the ultimate. price for the violent robbery of a woman near st austell. my family always believed him to be innocent, as his previous convictions were not violent, but looking at newspapers of the time, there can be little doubt my dad stanley best was a st austell boy, and his grandmothers maiden name was ellen eddy. her grandfather peter was an older brother to the unfortunate james. are there any earlier records of james at bodmin jail.?i am sure he served at least one previous sentence there .

    simon best
  • When I visited this jail I was with my brother who was only 2 at the time. He cried the entire time for no reason. He couldn’t settle at all, I cuddled him and took him out of the place. When out he was absolutely fine, he told me that a scary lady and man made him cry. Who knows maybe he did see something.

    Rebecca
  • Hello, I’m Paige and i visited Bodmin Jail on the 28th July. I had encountered many different things which happened to me and my mum. As for me as soon as i got in the jail it self i had a splitting headache as if someone had hit me on the right temple and as if I had a rope around my neck while my mum encountered something nudging her in the side and a feeling of something shooting down her back.
    I have been here once before many years ago when i was 8 and could sense a women following me since i was a small child which i believe could of been Selena Wadge. Please comment if anything like this has happened to you

    Thank you xxxx

    Paige Williams
  • Hello,

    I used to wake up as a child and open my bedroom curtains to see the sight of Bodmin Gaol (not Jail). I always found it to be an eerie place. My older sister did tell me once that pictures and plaques would be turned around during the night – whether this is true or not i dont know – she may have said it just to scare the living daylights out of me.

    I never actually visited the place until after i moved away from Bodmin – call me a wimp or whatever i dont mind. It wasnt until after i actually visited the place that i felt intrigued that so much petty crime deserved capital punishment such as hanging.

    I also find it fascinating that previous owners many years ago wanted to demolish the property and used dynamite to try and blow it up but found that its been built with granite and limestone which has fused together.

    As for spirits and ghosts – well i believe there is definitely something there, a chill and something (or someone) is watching you, i feel the naval block has the most activity (maybe because part is cordoned off) although the main cell block feels more oppressed (maybe thats because of the figures in the cells)

    I wish the current owners luck with such a historic and truly fascinating building, would love to do a ghost walk – sadly wrong time for me, and maybe hopefully you can get it back to its former glory. It would be great to get the old exercise yard back and the old governors and chaplains houses.

    The place is certainly well worth a look and i would recommend it to anyone.

    Daniel Walker
  • Have visited a few times, but only just realised that on my first visit that the records of offenses which were on the walls in the cafetieria, are now missing, what happened to them, and do you have any copies of same, I would readily pay for them. I hope to visit again soon, keep up the good work. Thanks Chris

    Christopher Simpson

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