A Parade of Shadows
A man condemned to die in London's last public hanging
Michael Barrett was born in 1841 in Drumnagreshial in the Ederney area of County Fermanagh, Ireland. At the age of 27 he joined the Fenians – an Irish anarchist group, which gained heavy popularity in the 1860s, because it defied the Catholic Church and middle-class nationalists who advocated milder approaches to reform. Thousands of Irishmen in both Ireland and Great Britain were recruited into its ranks around this same time.
The bombing of Parliament was the most infamous action carried out by the Fenian Anarchists in Britain. The events that led up to the bombing started with the arrest and execution, in November 1867, of Richard O’Sullivan-Burke – a senior member and spokesman of the Fenians. The Fenians felt that O’Sullivan had been wrongly executed. In retaliation, they planned the bombing of Parliament.
Things went wrong from the very start. The explosion was seriously misjudged; it demolished not only a large section of Parliament’s construction site, but also a number of temporary workers’ houses adjacent to the site. Twelve people were killed and over fifty suffered a range of injuries.
The bombing had a traumatic effect on British working-class opinion. The people of London had, until that day, shown great sympathy towards Ireland and its plight. The National Reformer called the bombing an act “calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes”.
The day before the explosion, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, had banned all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of the Fenians. He had feared that the ban might be challenged, but the explosion had the effect of turning public opinion in his favour.
When it came time to find the culprits, Barrett appeared on the scene, seemingly from nowhere. Months earlier, Barrett had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm, at which time his political affiliation became public knowledge. When he was later arrested as a likely suspect in the bombing of Parliament, he was able to produce witnesses who testified that he had been in Scotland on the date of the incident.
The main case against him rested on the evidence of Patrick Mullany – a Dubliner who had been proven to give false testimony in other cases. He told the court that Barrett had informed him that an accomplice by the name of Murphy carried out the explosion. Strangely, Mullany disappeared to Australia a few days later, with passage that he proudly called “free of charge” to any who would listen.
While the jury took a two hour recess to decide Barrett’s fate, one of the trial lawyers by the name of Montagu Williams gave a small interview to the Morning Post. He was quoted, “On looking at the dock, one’s attention was attracted by the appearance of Barrett, for whom I must confess I felt great commiseration. He was a square-built fellow, scarcely five feet eight in height and dressed like a well-to-do farmer. This resemblance was increased by the frank, open, expression on his face. A less murderous countenance than Barrett’s I have not seen. Good humour was latent in his every feature and he took the greatest interest in the proceedings.”
The Post also reported Barrett’s last statement before the sentence was passed: “I am far from denying, nor will the force of circumstances compel me to deny my love of my native land. I love my country and if it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer. If my life were ten times dearer than it is and if I could by any means, redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so.”
The next day the Daily Telegraph reported that Barrett had: “… delivered a most remarkable speech, criticizing with great acuteness the evidence against him, protesting that he had been condemned on insufficient grounds, and eloquently asserting his innocence.”
Many people were swayed by his statement, and even pressed for clemency. In Fermanagh, Barrett’s aged mother walked several miles in the snow to appeal to the local politicos, but was strongly rejected.
On the morning of June 21st, 1868, Barrett was executed outside the walls of Newgate Prison before a crowd of two thousand who booed, jeered and sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Champagne Charlie’ as his body dropped.
On June 22nd, following the execution, Reynold’s News commented, “Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”
Barrett’s execution was the last public hanging to take place in England. His executioner was the famous Englishman, William Calcraft. He hung Barrett with the controversial use of the short-drop method of hanging, Instead of having his neck snapped, Barret slowly suffocated over the course of several minutes. To hasten his death Calcraft at first pulled on his legs, and then climbed on Barrett’s shoulders in an attempt to break his neck. Calcraft’s antics on the gallows may have been intended to entertain the crowd gathered there, but was looked down upon as barbaric by the more genteel side of society.