Famous Prisoners

As with most old prisons, Bodmin Jail has a dark history.  55 executions took place within its formidable walls, for crimes ranging from arson to murder.

Visitors to the new Bodmin Jail attraction will be introduced to some of the more famous inmates who met their end at the jail; their stories are detailed below.

Elizabeth Osborne – 1813

On the 28th May 1813, Elizabeth Osborne went out at night to exact revenge on her former employer, John Lobb. She had been discharged from his employ three years earlier, and on this night, she decided to set fire to his mow of corn. She then told several people what she had done, showing no remorse whatsoever.

Elizabeth was remanded at Bodmin Jail to await the trial for arson. Arson was a capital felony at that time, as a serious fire would lead to major consequences for the owner of the property. She was tried before the Grand Jury on August 16th with Judge Sir Robert Graham, one of the Barons of the Court of the Exchequer, presiding. There were many witnesses, and she readily confessed to her crime. The jury found her guilty and she was sentenced to death.

Her cause was certainly not helped with US grain imports halted at this time owing to the War of 1812-15.

On the 6th September 1813, Elizabeth Osborne paid the ultimate penalty of the law for her crime when she was hanged in public before a large crowd of people.

Sarah Polgrean – 1820

Sarah Polgrean was convicted of causing the death of her late husband, Henry Polgrean, by poison on 10th August 1820. She was executed at Bodmin Jail on Saturday 12th August 1820 in front of a large group of spectators.

Sarah, born of poor parents and deserted at only four months old, lived a vagrant life working as an apprentice. She lived in London with her first husband, before settling in Cornwall where she met Henry Polgrean and married him. This was not a happy marriage and Sarah confessed to the court that on Saturday 15th July 1820, she went to the apothecary in Penzance to purchase arsenic, allegedly for poisoning rats in the house.

Instead she mixed the arsenic in with a piece of butter and spread the butter on her husband’s bread. He fell ill immediately, and she called the ‘barber’ to bleed him, which was the preferred method to cure ails during this time. But Henry died from the poison and Sarah was sent to Bodmin Jail, where she met her fate; in a further twist at the end of a sad life, the judge also sentenced her to dissection in furtherance of the medical profession, thereby denying her remains the hope of everlasting peace and resurrection.

Lightfoot Brothers – 1840

23-year old James and 36-year old William Lightfoot were two brothers hanged side by side on the 13 April 1840 for the murder of Mr Nevell Norway, a local merchant.

The Clerk of the Arraigns read the indictment:

‘James Lightfoot, and William Lightfoot: you are indicted for feloniously murdering Nevell Norway, of the parish of Egloshayle, on the 8th February, by striking and beating him on the head with a pistol, and a stick, giving him several mortal wounds of which he died. In another count, you James Lightfoot are indicted for murdering the said Nevell Norway, and you William Lightfoot for aiding and abetting in the murder. In another count, you, William Lightfoot, are indicted for murdering, and you, James Lightfoot for aiding and abetting.’

The execution, carried out by Mr George Mitchell from Ilchester, attracted a large crowd exceeding 25,000 including 1,100 occupants of train carriages that had stopped on the railway line running alongside the jail.

Selina Wadge – 1887

Selina Wadge was one of only four women to be hanged for the murder of their child during the period 1868 – 1899. Selina was at the bottom end of the Victorian social spectrum, a 28-year-old unmarried mother of two illegitimate sons, one of which was partially crippled.

Selina claimed to be in a relationship with a former soldier named James Westwood, although it is not thought that he was the father of the boys. They had allegedly agreed to meet in Launceston on Saturday 22nd June 1877, and Selina and her two children hitched a ride with a local farmer to get to the rendezvous. However, later on that day Selina returned to the workhouse with only the older child, John. When questioned, she said her boyfriend had taken her younger son, Harry, from her and drowned him in a well, also threatening to kill her and John. John, however, told the workhouse nurses that it was Selina who had ‘put Harry in a pit.’

The police launched a search for Harry and found his body in three feet of water at the bottom of a 13-foot well shaft in Mowbray Park. His body showed no signs of violence. Later on, Selina confessed that she alone had committed the murder, but that James Westwood had persuaded her to kill Harry on the promise that he would marry her if she did. He strenuously denied this. Selina came to trial at Bodmin on the 27th July 1878 and it took the jury only 45 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. Although there was a recommendation to mercy on account of the way she had previously looked after her children, she was sentenced to death at Bodmin Jail by Mr Justice Denman.

Hers would be the first private execution at Bodmin and also the first to employ the measured drop. Selina’s last words were ‘Lord deliver me from this miserable world.’

Learn more about these prisoners and those who were incarcerated here on Bodmin Jail’s Guided Heritage Tour. It is one of our most popular tours, steeped in history and suitable for the whole family, including kids, to enjoy.  They run every day at 9:30am and 4:30pm - advanced booking is essential.

Book a Heritage Guided Tour