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
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