Victorian hangman’s letter up for auction

James Laverack with the letter from Victorian hangman William Marwood.
James Laverack with the letter from Victorian hangman William Marwood.

An extraordinary letter written by Victorian hangman William Marwood agreeing to execute a police killer a week before Christmas has been discovered by Market Rasen woman sorting through her late granny’s papers.

“The find came as quite a shock; she told us she actually found it quite scary,” said James Laverack, saleroom director of John Taylor’s, which will be including the letter in its annual Lincolnshire Sale at Louth next Tuesday, October 8.

Marwood letter

Marwood letter

The letter was sent at the end of November 1876 to the Governor of the Lincoln Castle Prison in response to an enquiry about his availability to hang William Drant who had battered a Parish Constable to death in Horncastle.

Marwood assured the Governor that he would carry out the hanging on the 18th December, although he explained that he would have to leave as soon as possible after the execution because he was already engaged to hang another man in London the following day.

He did not mention the fact that he was also engaged to hang the wife murderer John Green at Leicester the day after that and William Flanagan, who had murdered his girlfriend, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester the day after that.

“Why it (the letter) was there is a complete mystery,” added Mr Laverack.

Marwood letter

Marwood letter

“As far as is known, the family has no connection with Marwood, the prison governor nor any of the people involved in the Drant case.

“Valuing the letter is an interesting challenge - it is obviously extremely rare.

“Although he hanged 176 men and women between 1872 and his death in 1883, the official letters he wrote that have survived are now buried in official archives or in museum collections.

“It goes into the auction with a modest pre-sale estimate of £50-£100, but given the fact that it is likely to interest such a wide range of collectors - from people interested in crime, through local historians to autograph enthusiasts - it might surprise us.”

And for the record, the hanging under consideration in the letter did not take place.

Drant was declared insane and reprieved, ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Marwood did though go on to carry out the executions in London, Leicester and Manchester in the following three days.

“Away from the macabre world of executioners, the Lincolnshire Auction will see some terrific county antiques and collectables going under the hammer ranging across paintings, books, postcards, silver and more,” added Mr Laverack.

“There will be a particularly fine selection of Victorian bottles and flagons from brewers, spirit merchants, soft drink manufacturers and chemists from towns and villages right across the county; they have a particularly strong specialist collector following.”

Viewing sessions for the sale are on Sunday, October 6, from 2pm to 4pm, Monday, October 7, 2pm to 4.30pm and on the morning of the sale from 8.45am, until the auction gets underway at 9.45am.

The sale catalogue is available at and the auction will be live on line via www.the-saleroom. com .

William Marwood (1818-1883) was a Horncastle cobbler and boot maker by profession.

He is generally acknowledged to be the world’s first ‘scientific’ hangman, pioneering the introduction of the long-drop method of execution, which resulted in the neck of the condemned person being broken rather than their being strangled on the end of the rope.

He may have been the best hangman of his day but, judging from his letter, he was not a great chap with a pen.

The finer points of grammar and punctuation were clearly something of a mystery to him.

Marwood’s Letter to the Governor of Lincoln Castle - as it was written:

Dear Sir

Pleas this is to inform you that I have recieved your kind letter this Morning in regard to a prisoner under the sentance of deth at the castle the time appointed for the Execution to take place on Monday the 18th day of December i will engage with you to execute the prisoner at the time you have appointed I will arrive at Lincoln on Monday and i will go direct to the Black Boy inn neir the castle you may depend on me to be there


Pleas I return so maney thanks for your kindness to me I shall always be at your service where wanted


Hafter the execution is over I shall go by the first train I can to London to execute a prisoner at Horsemonger Lane prison on teusday morning 19th all well

Remaine your Humble Servant

Wm Marwood