Surviving an Execution in Medieval England and Modern Ohio: Miracle, or Incompetence?

Posted by Sara M. Butler; 5 February 2021.

In Ohio, Governor DeWine’s landmark 8 December 2020 press conference has left the future of felony execution in the state up in the air. The indefinite delay in capital punishment announced back in 2018 has turned into what DeWine is referring to as a “de facto moratorium,” as he instructs lawmakers to find some method of execution other than lethal injection. Since 2015, Ohio, like twenty-eight other American states where the death penalty remains on the books, has been struggling to find an American pharmaceutical company willing to supply sodium thiopental. A nation-wide shortage of the drug springs from the reluctance of drug companies to be openly associated with the death penalty. Past boycotts of their products across Europe have demonstrated that it is bad for business. 

Those of us who are residents of Ohio, and not supporters of the death penalty, are heaving a sigh of relief. Ohio, in particular, has a gruesome history of botched executions by lethal injection. Sentenced to death for the aggravated murder of his cellmate, Christopher Newman was set to be executed 24 May 2007. It took them so long to find a viable artery, that he was permitted a bathroom break. In all, it took ten attempts and two hours to complete the mission.

Two years later, after eighteen failed attempts to insert an IV into the veins of Romell Broom, he was granted a reprieve. The pandemic forced a delay of his second scheduled execution to 2022, however, Broom passed away of natural causes 28 December 2020.

The most disturbing example of a botched execution took place in 2014. Dennis McGuire was subjected to a new combination of drugs, midazolam (a sedative) alongside the pain medication hydromorphone. Medical authorities warned the state that the combination might cause death by suffocation. Much to the sheer horror of those assembled at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, during 10 to 13 of the 24 minutes it took him to die, he gasped for air. Columbus Dispatch reported Alan Johnson stated: “He gasped deeply. It was kind of a rattling, guttural sound. There was kind of a snorting through his nose. A couple of times, he definitely appeared to be choking.”[1]

Finally, on 15 November 2017, executioners gave up after spending an hour trying to find a viable vein for Alva Earl Campbell, Jr. The state rescheduled his execution for 15 June 2019, although he passed away from natural causes in March of 2018.

With such an appalling track record, it does indeed seem as if it is time to abandon lethal injection! What was once touted as a humane and painless procedure has proven to be neither in these instances. Of course, as a medievalist and living in a highly religious state, I keep wondering: does no one see the hand of God in all of this?

If I learned anything from Robert Bartlett’s The Hanged Man: A Story of Miracle, Memory, and Colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 2004), it is that when a convicted felon survives execution, it is a miracle. The Hanged Man tells the story of William Cragh, a Welsh rebel, hanged outside Swansea in 1290. After his body was removed from the gallows and carted to the local church for burial, he began to show signs of life. Lady Mary de Briouze – wife of the very man who sentenced Cragh to death – declared that divine intervention brought Cragh back to life, thanks in part to her heartfelt prayers for intercession to Thomas of Cantilupé, soon to be saint, whose canonization trial provides the evidence for Bartlett’s book. William Langland’s Piers Plowman confirms that this interpretation of a failed execution was not simply an obscure Welsh custom. The author writes: “It is noghte used on erthe to hangen a feloun / Ofter than ones” (It is not used on Earth to hang a felon more than once). Piers Plowman, B text, 18:380-81.

Equipped with this knowledge, I was then astonished when I stumbled across the execution of Adam Trop, a felon hanged at Dublin in 1363, recorded in the patent rolls, whose botched execution was most definitely not interpreted as a miracle. On the assumption that he was dead, his body was thrown down from the gallows and carried to the church on a bier by a group of his friends and family. It was too dark to bury him at that point, so they left his body inside the church and planned to return the following morning to bury him in the churchyard. During the night, Adam revived. While Adam may have considered his own recovery a miracle, he did not wait around to make sure the local authorities agreed. Instead, he escaped by breaking down the doors of the church and fleeing on foot. He made the right decision. The sheriff also saw nothing miraculous in an escaped felon: he tracked Adam down to county Kildare, dragged him back to the gallows in Dublin where he hanged him for a second time, this time successfully. Neither did the king see a miracle in this failed execution: he fined the citizens and burgesses of Dublin 100 shillings for the escape, although he was eventually convinced to pardon them the exorbitant fine.[2]

Indeed, digging deeper into the calendars of patent and close rolls, I came across another twenty-three cases, dating to the years 1234-1381, of “hanged men” (and women) who rose from the dead, and only six of them were recognized as miracles.[3] More often than not, these botched executions were seen instead as we would see them today: an intolerable product of human error.

The crown’s more usual approach was to punish those whose incompetence made the authorities look inadequate. For example, in 1280, when the knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem prepared to bury hanged man John of Ellingstring in the churchyard of St James, York, they discovered the corpse was still in fact breathing. While the king saw fit to pardon the felon, he was not prepared to turn a blind eye to incompetence: he fined the townships of Ellington, Ellingstring, Fearby, and Witton 12 marks for John’s escape.[4]

Similarly, the failed execution of Walter Eghe in 1285 prompted the City of Norwich to stage an inquest to better understand where they had gone wrong. They pinned the blame on William son of Thomas Stanhard who took Walter down from the gallows (assumedly for having done so too soon): he was committed to jail. Walter was in the church of St George when he revived, where he immediately claimed sanctuary. He stayed there for fifteen days, guarded by representatives from the four nearest parishes (St Peter of Hungate, St Mary the Less, St Simon and Jude, and St George). Then somehow he escaped, making it as far as the church of the Holy Trinity, also in Norwich, where he again claimed sanctuary. At that point, the king decided to issue Walter a pardon, but not before the four parishes were fined for letting him slip by their watch unnoticed.[5]

In July of the same year, the sheriff of Northampton imprisoned the twelve men assigned to supervise the execution of Henry Cule and his sister Agnes, both of whom “escaped alive by a fortunate chance” after “they had long been hanging.” The king eventually showed compassion to them and ordered the sheriff to deliver them to bail.[6]

Why did so many convicts survive their executions? Were the medieval English just hopeless when it came to hanging?

At times, the equipment itself was faulty. In three instances, the rope used to hang the condemned snapped.[7] Investigations after the fact were keen to prove that it had not been helped along by those who sympathized with the plight of the accused. In 1334, when Felicia de Whichull’s rope split after she had been hanging “for a long time but was not yet dead,” the sheriff of Stratford certified that it did so “without the help of man or fraud.”[8] They had good reason to be suspicious. Peter Kyngesgrene (1374) was cut down by certain ministers of the friary of St John when he was only half dead. They took him to the precinct of the church of St Sepulchre to prevent crown officials from getting their hands on him.[9]

The method itself was problematic. Hanging in the Middle Ages was accomplished by slow strangulation – pulling the rope to raise up the accused – rather than the sudden drop intended to break the condemned’s neck associated with the trapdoor that was an invention of the eighteenth century. Exactly how long it takes for life to seep from the body was the question asked in each and every investigation. For Henry and his sister Agnes, the record notes that they were left hanging “a long time”; John de la Lynde of Hereford (1332) was hanging “for the great part of a day”; Ivetta of Balsham (1264) was hanging “from the ninth hour of Monday until sunrise of the Tuesday following”; John le Ropere of Warwick (1381) was hanging “for a longer time than another felon under the same judgment” whose hanging was successful; and yet each one of them lived to tell the tale.[10]

And what a tale that must have been. William de Briouze’s description of William Cragh after he had been removed from the gallows gives us a glimpse of the harrowing experience:

His whole face was black and in parts bloody or stained with blood. His eyes had come out of their sockets and hung outside the eyelids and the sockets were filled with blood. His mouth, neck, and throat and the parts around them, and also his nostrils, were filled with blood, so that it was impossible in the natural course of things for him to breathe air through his nostrils or through his mouth or through his throat … his tongue hung out of his mouth, the length of a man’s finger, and it was completely black and swollen and as thick with the blood sticking to it that it seemed the size of a man’s two fists together.

Bartlett, The Hanged Man, 6.

Regardless of what went wrong, or whether the condemned’s clinging to life was regarded as a miracle, the one factor that unites most of these cases is the outcome: all but one (poor Adam Trop!) of these individuals were permitted to go free. Some were outright pardoned; others were required to seek sureties for good behavior. One woman was so moved by the experience that she lived out the rest of her life in the leper hospital where she regained consciousness as they were about to bury her.[11] Even when the crown was frustrated with the glaring ineptitude of those who failed in their duty to ensure that justice was upheld, the king still saw fit to let the condemned walk free.

Presumably, the only thing worse than being executed is surviving a botched execution and knowing that you might have go through the whole thing all over again. The physical trauma experienced by these medieval men and women was certainly more horrific than that experienced by those who survive a failed execution in modern-day Ohio (although please note: Broom even had shunts inserted into his legs in an effort to deliver the drug). One suspects the degree of psychological trauma, though, is equivalent. The medieval inclination was towards mercy, recognizing that these individuals had suffered enough already. It is rare to find an instance in which the medieval period was more merciful than the one in which we live; but that would certainly seem to have been the case when it comes to botched executions.

Images:

Detail from a painting by Pisanello, 1436-1438. Public Domain. Wikipedia.


[1] Dana Ford and Ashley Fantz, “Controversial Execution in Ohio uses New Drug Combination,” CNN (17 Jan. 2014), https://www.cnn.com/2014/01/16/justice/ohio-dennis-mcguire-execution/index.html.

[2] CPR, Edward III, vol. 12, 430.

[3] Walter de Pyonne (1234), CCR, Henry III, vol. 3, 6; Margaret widow of Alan Everard of Burgh by Waynflete (1284), CPR, Edward I, vol. 2, 113; William Prest of Somercotes (1348), CPR, Edward III, vol. 8, 96; Geoffrey Cokerel, approver (1349), CPR, Edward III, vol. 8, 270-71; Walter Poynant of Hameldon (1365), CPR, Edward III, vol. 13, 60-61; Margery le Chaumberlein of Hope Woolworth (1372), CPR, Edward III, vol. 15, 214.

[4] CPR, Edward I, vol. 1, p. 396. Two years later, the king pardoned the townships the 12 marks. CCR, Edward I, vol. 3, 278.

[5] William Hudson, ed., The Records of the City of Norwich, 2 vols (Norwich: Jarrold & Sons, 1906-10), vol. 1, 221-22.

[6] CCR, Edward I, vol. 2, 330.

[7] William le Neweman of Steventon (1261), CCR, Henry III, vol. 11, 425; Philip son of Adam le Lechur of Botteworth (1279), CPR, Edward I, vol. 1, p. 327.

[8] CPR, Edward III, vol. 3, 5.

[9] CPR, Edward III, vol. 16, 51.

[10] CPR, Edward III, vol. 2, 308; CPR, Henry III, vol. 5, p. 342; CPR, Richard II, vol. 1, 623.

[11] CPR, Edward I, vol. 2, p. 113.

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