In the days when the Earls of Derby were Lords of Man, Manx law dictated that the sentence of death could be imposed for a very wide variety of offences.
These ranged from minor thefts to murder or treason – the only form of differentiation was in how painful, prolonged and humiliating the particular death sentence was that could be meted out.
In the Isle of Man, traitors of both sexes were hanged, drawn and quartered and the English law that female traitors should be burnt at the stake was never part of Manx law.
Felons, however, were treated differently in the Isle of Man according to their sex: males were hanged, as in England, but women condemned of this offence were ordered to be sewn into a sack and then hurled into the sea to drown, a form of punishment which is most likely to have come to the Isle of Man from its late 13th-century period under Scottish law.
By the mid-17th century this drowning of women felons, though still on the statute book, had in practice been abandoned and replaced by hanging, though – in that age when King James VI of Scotland and I of England had written a tract about the evils of witchcraft and notorious witch trials took place in the Earl of Derby’s home county of Lancashire and in Salem, Massachusetts – Manx men and women condemned of witchcraft could be burned at the stake, as in the 1617 execution of Margaret Ine Quaine and her young son recently dramatised in Manx language film Solace of Wicca and commemorated by a plaque in Castletown square.
For most other capital offences hanging was the mandatory punishment, but courts could differentiate between degrees of severity of offences by recommending those convicted to death to receive a conditional or unconditional pardon from the Lord of Man.
This helped to restrict the actual number of executions to just a small proportion of those cases in which a death sentence had initially been ordered.
A death sentence could also be commuted to a less severe one, as in the famous case of William Christian, or ‘Illiam Dhone’, in December 1662. The initial sentence was for ‘a most haynues (heinous) and ignominious death, being hanged and quartered & his head smitten off, & afterwards drawn with wild horses. And ye quarters of his body severed and sett one on one of the towers of this castle and soe in the severall market townes as is recorded in an ancient Statute of this Isle for Treason’.
However, Illiam’s wife Elizabeth became so distraught in the courtroom that Deputy-Governor Nowell felt moved to compassion and ordered the Manx patriot hero’s eventual fate of death by firing squad at Hango Hill.
This was perhaps fortunate for Charles Stanley, Earl of Derby, at whose behest Illiam’s trial had taken place. King Charles II was so furious when he heard that his orders that Civil War vendettas should be forgotten had been flouted in this way that he ordered all those involved in condemning Illiam to death to attend a hearing at Whitehall Palace in his presence to account for their actions.
Moving forward a century, following the 1765 Act of Revestment the prerogative power to decide whether death sentences should be carried out in the island passed directly to the British sovereign as Lord of Man.
For a while this meant there was some unity between capital punishment in the Isle of Man and in England, as it was the responsibility of the Home Office in Whitehall both to administer the island and to recommend mercy where applicable.
As in England, many criminals condemned to capital punishment instead had their sentences commuted to transportation to the colonies – meaning a long voyage to Botany Bay in New South Wales, or Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), in Australia after 1788.
In 1817 a major landmark in Manx law took place with the adoption of a new Criminal Code in which all the various forms of execution that could be ordered by the courts were unified into the single penalty of death by hanging.
However, the courts could distinguish between the severity of offences by making a ruling on what would become of a condemned person’s body after execution.
For treason the penalty was now death by hanging followed by decapitation and then ‘disposal of the body at the will of the Sovereign’. In that period this could mean the body being handed over to surgeons for research by dissection, as was common practice in England and Scotland.
For murder the penalty was hanging and then disposal at the will of the sovereign, and for lesser capital crimes the condemned could be hanged but the body would then be returned to the unfortunate family for burial.
Soon after the new code was introduced, however, when Tynwald tried to reduce the number of offences for which capital punishment could be meted out, the British Government decided to flex its colonial muscles by vetoing such changes.
Capital punishment in the Isle of Man was the grisly subject of a well-attended seminar at the Manx Museum, Douglas, on Saturday. It was staged by the Centre for Manx Studies and welcomed Prof Peter Edge from the School of Law at Oxford Brookes University, whose talk was entitled ‘Colonialism, capital punishment and failing to amuse Queen Victoria: Manx capital punishment 1800-2000’. In the first of a two-part feature, Simon Artymiuk takes a look back at the history of the death sentence and how it was meted out on Manx shores
Next week: Queen Victoria is not amused as shortcomings of Manx law are exposed