William Birt was supposed to be the first person to be hanged on the gatehouse roof of the new Gloucester Prison, which opened in the summer of 1791. However, having been found guilty of murder and condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1791, he decided not to wait for the executioner, and took his own life in the condemned cell.
The charge of murder against Birt was far from being a straightforward case. Birt was a carpenter, 26 years of age, who lived in Tewkesbury. He had been ‘walking out’ with Sarah Powell, who was a servant maid in the household of a Tewkesbury family. In the spring of 1791, Sarah had discovered that she was pregnant, and William had given her a powder to take, in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. Unfortunately, the powder caused the death of both mother and child.
Sarah Powell had lingered on for eleven days after taking the powder, and so she was able to tell her doctor who had given her the substance and why. After Sarah’s death, William Birt was committed to Tewkesbury Gaol at first, then was removed by habeus corpus to Gloucester, to await trial at the Assizes. This was in April 1791, before the new prison opened, so he was held in the old gaol in Gloucester Castle, where the conditions were terrible. In the last week of July, although the building works were not entirely completed, the new prison was judged to be fit for occupation, and the prisoners were moved from the crumbling old castle keep into their new quarters, where everyone had their own cell in which to sleep. Birt was held in the gaol section of the prison to await his trial, which took place on Friday, 12 August.
Newspaper reports on the trial were not sympathetic to Birt. They said that he had ‘deluded the Deceased under a Promise of Marriage’. When she told him she was pregnant, he gave her a small quantity of a powder, telling her it would do her no harm, but rather would do her good, as he had taken twice as much in the past. Back at her home, she had taken the powder with some sugar, after which she was ‘seized with violent vomitings’, and after lying in agony for eleven days, she died.
It was clear that William Birt had never intended that Sarah Powell should die, so it might have been thought that he would have faced a charge of manslaughter rather than murder. However, the judge explained that, ‘having recommended to her a Medicine to procure abortion, and death ensuing, he was considered as guilty of Murder’. According to a well known principle of English Law, the judge said, ‘where Death ensues in consequence of an illegal Act, Malice is implied, and the offence, with its consequences, is deemed Murder’. Abortion was an illegal act, so Birt was considered to be guilty of murder. The judge added that although Sarah Powell ‘might be an Accomplice with him in the guilty Design’, her account of how Birt had encouraged her to take the powder was enough to ‘fix the crime upon the Man’. The source of the powder had not been discovered, nor exactly what it contained, but the surgeon who attended Sarah Powell was sure it was poisonous and had caused her death.
Birt was said to have remained calm during the trial and when receiving the death sentence, but when he was taken from the Bar, ‘his Confidence forsook him, and he fainted away in the Pen, and as he was conducting away from the Court, he dropped down again in a Fit’. That evening, when he arrived back at the prison, Birt was conducted to a condemned cell to await his execution, which was to take place on the following Monday, 15 August. As he was taken to the cell, he was said to have ‘wrung his hands as in the utmost Misery and Despair’. Next morning, when his cell door was unlocked, he was found hanging and dead. The prison surgeon made a brief note of the incident in his journal: ’13 Aug 1791. William Birt meant to hang on 15 August but hanged himself in cell.’
A Coroner’s Inquest was held later that day. It was said that Birt’s body had been ‘quite cold’ when the cell door had been opened. He had twisted the sheet of his bed and fastened it to the bars of the window, then tied the other end in a running knot round his neck, before throwing himself from his bedstead. The inquest jury returned a verdict of felo de se. This translates roughly as ‘felon of himself’, and the verdict had great significance, as it meant that Birt’s body was ordered to undergo the traditional fate of suicides who were judged to have been of sound mind at the time they took their own lives, which was to be buried at a crossroads, without any Christian service. The Gloucester Journal of 18 August 1791 reported that on that same Saturday, Birt’s body “was buried in a cross road, near Tewkesbury’. The treatment of the bodies of those buried at crossroads varied, but they were supposed to be ‘desecrated’ in some way, such as having a stake put through their body. The newspapers gave no details of what had happened in Birt’s case.
The authorities were keen not to disclose the exact burial places of suicides, so no details were given of the site of Birt’s burial. However, Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, published in 1830, gives some useful information on the subject:
‘The corpse was sent by order of the coroner, to the parish officers at Tewkesbury, and buried in the cross-road at the entrance into the lane which leads to the Lodge, near the House of Industry’.
The House of Industry, later Tewkesbury Workhouse, was south of the town, on Gloucester Road. An examination of a map of Tewkesbury from 1835 shows that the most likely place of burial is in the area with the lane leading to the Lodge (now Lincoln Green Lane) on the left and a lane to the right just before the House of Industry (which now leads to the cemetery).
The reason for burying suicides at crossroads has never been completely clear. The practice took place from at least medieval times, when crossroads were believed to be ‘otherworldly’, God-forsaken, places. (There is an interesting article about the subject here: www.oddlyhistorical.com/2015/09/27/crossroads-suicide-burials.) Whatever the reasons for the practice, it ceased with the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act of 1823. However, taking one’s own life continued to be a criminal act until 1961.
Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791
Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, 1830, p.214, note (via archive.org)
Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)
Gloucester County Gaol, Surgeon’s Journal, 13 Aug 1791 (Q/Gc32/1)
“A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads”, 27 Sept 2015, on http://www.oddlyhistorical.com. (Link in the main text above.)
Map of Tewkesbury 1835 from GENMAPS (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genmaps/index.html)
© Jill Evans 2017