The hanging of William Hales
Public hangings were still a common occurrence in Jersey at the beginning of the 19th century, although few could have been as dramatic an affair as the execution (or rather failed execution) of William Hales.
On the night of 10 March 1807 Hales was accompanied by three garrison soldiers of the 34th Regiment of Foot (the Cumberlands), George Barnes, Steven Saunders and Henry Fisherman when he broke into Peter Poignard’s shop in St Helier.
The regiment had only arrived in the island a few days before. The four men stole several watches and a silver spoon, some of which ended up with other members of the garrison or their families.
Garrison soldiers were always suspected when there was a robbery and a search of the barracks by the Constable of St Helier the following day soon located the stolen property and soldier’s wife Hannah Houghton identified William Hales as the source of a watch found in her possession.
After being held in prison for ten days the four soldiers were brought before Lieut-Bailiff Sir Jean Dumaresq and Juurats Philippe de Carteret, Thomas Pipon and Jacques Hemery in the Royal Court on 21 March.
Saunders gave evidence against his co-accused, as did soldier William Webb, who had been found with a stolen watch, and Hannah Houghton.
On 2 April the Court sat again with Jurats Jacques Hammond, Charles de la Garde, Francois Valpy did Janvrin, Pierre Mauger and Jean Poingdestre added to the Bench.
The evidence given at the previous hearing was repeated and further witnesses for the prosecution, Jacques Raynell, James Burke, Elizabeth Hales, the wife of the accused, and Mary Webb were called to testify.
Steven Saunders was discharged and freed because he gave evidence against the others. Henry Fisherman turned King's evidence at the next sitting of the Court on 4 April, when a jury was empanelled, comprising George Frederick Ord, John Toy, James Bown, Samuel Wood, William Mord, Henry Joyce, Charles Matthew Mauger, Samson Pickett, Philippe Nicolle and John Green.
Hales named ringleader
Fisherman gave evidence for the King and identified Hales as the ringleader and the man who had arranged the sale of the stolen items. He was released by the Court, which adjourned for another three days, when the two remaining soldiers were found guilty.
A new jury comprising Thomas Falle, Josue Lerrier, Edward Renouf, Francois Le Sueur, Philippe Mauger, Philippe Le Vavaseur dit Durell, Thomas Payn, Jean Mathews, Josue de la Croix, Elie Neel, Michel Quenault, Francois Balleine and Nicolas Galley found Barnes "guilty in a degree less atrocious than Hales". The two men appealed against the verdict and were allowed a final trial one week later.
On 14 April 1807 the Full Court comprising Jurats Thomas Hamon, Jacques Hemery, Thomas Anley, Philippe Winter, Aaron de Veulle, Jacques Thoreau, Matthew Amiraux and Philippe Journeaux sat as a Grande Enquete, with two juries, one from St Lawrence and the other from St Saviour.
St Lawrence was represented by Philippe Marett, Jean Edouard Luce, Jean Poingdestre, Richard Le Feuvre, Jean Langlois, Gideon Delane, Francois Payn and Edward Gibaut. St Saviour by Jacques Lempriere Hamon, Charles Le Hardy, Philippe Le Vavaseur dit Durell, Jean Durell, Abraham Aubin, Daniel Le Geyt, Jean Pelgue and Philippe Labey.
They found both men guilty and although they recommended clemency for George Barnes, both men were sentenced to death; hanging being a common punishment for crimes of this nature at the time.
However, George Barnes’ sentence was suspended, pending an appeal to the King, but William Hales was ordered to be hanged on 2 May 2.
Submission to the King
Despite the sentence they had imposed, the Court recommended that the King exercise clemency in their submission of 3 June.
- "The Court considering the whole circumstance of the case and the recommendation of the Grand Enquete, came to the resolution of suspending the execution of the sentence against the said George Barnes and to recommend him to Your Majesty's most graceful clemency."
- "It did not appear during the trial that the said George Barnes had been an active agent in the said robbery."
- "He has been represented by the Officers of his regiment as being a good soldier and bearing a good character and the court, from these circumstances, would have been induced to admitting him King's evidence in order to lead to the conviction of the rest, had he or his council proposed it, when he was first called upon by the Court to plead for the accusation."
- "He is a young man not without hopes of reform and if his life was spared, he might still serve Your Majesty in such situation as to Your Majesty might seem meet. Therefore the Court most humbly begs leave to recommend the said George Barnes under all the circumstances of his case, as a fit subject for Your Majesty's most gracious pardon."
- "He will serve Your Majesty as a foot soldier during the term of his natural life in such regiment or corps as Your Majesty shall be pleased to direct."
King George III agreed with the recommendations of the Royal Court and the pardon was granted.
While all of this was going on, the Cumberlands left Jersey and were involved in a successful expedition against the island of Madeira before returning to Jersey in May 1808 for a short time, before serving under Sir Arthur Wellesley in the Peninsula War.
The execution of William Hales was set for 2 May 1807, in advance of which wooden beams were erected on the four granite pillars on Gallows Hill – Le Mont es Pendus, as well as a scaffold and ladder.
These executions were always witnessed by a large, unsympathetic crowd, who would hear the Viscount read the judgment before ordering the executioner to pull a plank from under the victim’s feet, allowing his body to drop through a gap, leading to his rapid death.
Hales was marched from the prison, accompanied by the Deputy Viscount, the Greffier and the executioner, with a guard of 60 halberdiers. The Chronique de Jersey reported that Hales told the watching crowd that he recognised “the justness of the situation, nevertheless he was not so guilty as the rogues who had committed many thefts for which he was going to die". He asked for God's Mercy and forgiveness from all present and hoped "My terrible end will act as a deterrent to others".
When his was covered with a black bonnet and the plank was swiftly removed he had been suspended for almost a minute before the executioner realised that he was still alive. He grabbed hold of Hales' legs, trying to pull him sharply downwards, but the loose rope slipped off Hales' neck and he fell to the ground.
To begin with he was unconscious, but he came round when the hangman tried to drag him back to the scaffold and broke free.
By this point the crowd’s sympathise had switched to Hales and, according to the newspaper report, they called form his to be spared, jeering the executioner and shouting "this is nothing but legalised murder". This was an entirely new experience for the Court officials and after being booed for several minutes they decided to march Hales back to prison. He needed support on the return journey, weak from his ordeal.
Petition to King
The following week the Royal Court decided that Hales should remain in prison while the case was put before the King. Their Petition was presented on the same day as George Barnes' case was heard.
The report on the attempted hanging by John Winter, the Deputy Viscount, ignored the part played by the crowd on the day, as reported earlier in the Chronique.
"About half past two in the afternoon William Hales was delivered into the hands of the executioner who put the halter around his neck and conducted him to the place of execution. Hales, having passed some time in prayer, mounted the scaffold and about a quarter after three the executioner caused the platform to fall and he was suspended by the neck for more than half a minute. The executioner, with a view to terminate as soon as possible the suffering of the said Hales, pulled him by the leg with force and, by some accident, the knot of cord loosened itself so that the legs of the said Hales touched the ground where he remained some moments without moving."
- "Having then directed the Hangman to get upon the shoulders of the said Hales, I was surprised to see the latter make a few convulsive efforts to raise himself up and disentangle himself, even struggle with the executioner. Seeing the impossibility under these circumstance of executing then the sentence, I ordered the Hangman to desist.
- "The executioner was so much agitated as to not be able to do his duty now, made more painful and difficult by the distressing and extraordinary circumstances which had occurred. The said Hales was beside so weak that he could not keep his feet and would not have been able to reascend the scaffold without assistance."
- "Finding that it was impossible to proceed any further, I took upon myself to direct that the said Hales should be conducted back to prison where he is at present in a very weak condition."
In the meantime sympathy for Hales had grown in Jersey and a petition launched by some who had witnessed the failed execution had been circulated for signature. It was sent to the King along with a second petition from the Island’s clergy pleading for mercy.
As in the case of George Barnes, the result is recorded in the Orders of Counsel preserved in the Public Registry in Royal Square.
- "His Majesty, having taken the said report into consideration, was pleased with the advice of his Privy Council to grant his most gracious pardon to the said William Hales for the said offence and such pardon is hereby granted on condition that the said William Hales do serve His Majesty as a foot soldier in any regiment of corps to which his Majesty should be pleased to direct that the said convict shall be sent. Whereof the Bailiff and Jurats, His Majesty's Royal Court of Jersey and all other persons who it may concern, are to take notice and govern themselves accordingly."