Executions at Bodmin
Between 1735 and 1909, there were 60 executions in Bodmin including eight females. The early execution took place on the edge of the town on Bodmin Common. From 1802 to 1828, a drop gallows was used in the field outside the front of the gaol. A new drop over the main gate was used between 1834 and 1856.
When the new gaol was built the drop was placed over the main gate which now pointed to the North-East. This was declared illegal by the Inspector of Prisons on the grounds that it was not public enough. The drop was moved to the south wall in a similar position to that of the old gaol. This allowed very large numbers of people to witness the executions from Asylum Hill, also known as the Bodmin Highlands. There was a major change in 1868, when a new law declared that executions had to take place in private. The hangings in 1878 & 1882 used the same site but shielded the event from view with a canvas shield. Only the 1901 & 1909, hangings were truly in private. They were the first executions inside the gaol. The new execution shed and pit were built sometime after 1882.
Details of an Execution (Lightfoot Brothers, Bodmin 1840)
By 9 o’clock, several thousand people had taken their places in the valley near the railway and in the adjoining fields. Soon after, the executioner, Mr George Mitchell, a respectable dairy farmer from Ilchester, Somerset, came out on the drop and fixed the ropes, which passed over hooks in two cranes, branching from the wall. A portion of the raised path, immediately in front of the gaol, was very judiciously barricaded, not only to prevent any rush or pressure at the gateway, but also for the purpose of enclosing the place of burial appointed for the criminals, and of avoiding any unseemly disturbance near them in their last moments. A police force was stationed near this spot, consisting of the captain and sixteen other members of the Sheriffs troop, eight other constables of Bodmin and a policeman of Wadebridge. These arrangements were all conducted under the direction of the Acting Under Sheriff, Philip Protheroe Smith Esq., of Truro, aided by the Mayor of Bodmin, C. Coode Esq.
In accordance with the usual practice, a divine service was held in the Chapel. At ten o’clock, the condemned criminals entered the chapel, each stooping and lifting with his hand, the burden of the massive fetters in which his legs were bound. They took their seats together, in a recess which was screened from the view of all others in the chapel, except the Clergymen when standing at the altar. Presently, the body of the chapel was filled with male prisoners, in their prison dresses, of dark brown and yellow. In the gallery were the debtors, some inmates and part of the Sheriff’s troop. In the centre of one side of the gallery is the reading desk, where the Chaplain Rev. Francis Kendall, took his place. He was accompanied by the Rev. W. Molesworth, Rev. Francis Cole, Rev. Nicholas Kendall and Rev. N. Kendall, jur. The Acting Under Sheriff, the Coroner and the Governor of the Gaol, John B. Everest. The service concluded at about half past eleven, after the chapel had emptied, the two Lightfoots approached and knelt before the altar to receive the Sacrament.
By the time of the execution, the crowd had grown to an estimated 20,000- 25,000. This included trains which were halted below the prison wall so that the passengers, estimated at 1,100, could watch the hangings without leaving the wagons.
Just before twelve o’clock, the prisoners were brought to the place of execution. The executioner then proceeded to place the ropes and put the caps on the prisoners. William Lightfoot then asked for the Rev. Francis Cole, who was in attendance with some other Clergymen, to come near, and spoke to him as follows: Tell my wife and family that I die happy, beg them to go to Church and keep the Sabbath; not to go in the way that I have gone, and brought myself to ruin. Tell them to avoid idleness, and get their living honestly, and pray that they may meet me in Heaven. After which Mr. Cole turned to James Lightfoot, and asked him if he had anything more to say he, following up his Brother’s words, answered, Say that I am happy. They (meaning his wife and child) must pray to God that we may meet in Heaven.
Immediately after, the Drop fell, and their souls were launched into eternity.