Tale of Isle of Man’s last execution

The only non-public execution ever to take place under Manx law at Castle Rushen was that of John Kewish in 1872. Below, John Kewish pictured during his trial and Queen Victoria, who was not amused

The only non-public execution ever to take place under Manx law at Castle Rushen was that of John Kewish in 1872. Below, John Kewish pictured during his trial and Queen Victoria, who was not amused

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The Victorian era, and particularly the year 1872, proved to be a significant one in the story of Manx capital punishment.

During the 1860s and 70s the Isle of Man gained greater rights of self-determination and regained control over its own customs revenues, under the governorship of Henry Brougham Loch.

As regards legislation and the courts, there was now only one capital punishment permitted, that being death by hanging with the body then to be disposed of according to the order of the court.

The main reason for this was that, with the building of more adequate jails, the majority of cases could be dealt with using the penalty of imprisonment and there was no longer any need for there to be differently-graded executions.

Instead the length of imprisonment could be used to show how seriously the courts viewed a particular offence.

There was one crime for which the death sentence was madatory, however: murder; and in that very year a case took place which vividly highlighted the shortcomings of the system.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

On March 28, 1872, an elderly man named John Kewish, a father of seven, was found killed at the small farmhouse home in which he lived with his wife, eldest son and a mentally disabled daughter.

John’s wife and neighbour discovered the body, but instead of informing the authorities they moved the body, washed it and then prepared it for burial.

It was not until two days later that someone thought to notify the police and when a police doctor examined the body on March 31 he noted there were six wounds - four on the body’s back and two on the chest - which he felt had been caused by thrusts from a small pitchfork.

When one of the victim’s younger sons, Thomas, revealed that there had been a long-running dispute between his eldest brother, also named John, and their father, an arrest of John Kewish junior soon followed.

John junior - who had a history of such crimes as sheep stealing - was charged with patricide, even though it became clear that he, too, was mentally disabled.

He ended up facing two trials. At the first his only defence was that he had not committed the crime and after 14 hours of deliberations the jury were unable to reach a verdict. A new trial then had to be ordered when the jury foreman was taken ill. One of the jurors, Thomas Kelly of Marown, later revealed that seven out of the 12 jurors believed Kewish to be not guilty.

At the second trial, Kewish’s advocates added the additional plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The claim of insanity was supported by a physician but despite this, after only an hour’s deliberation the new jury convicted Kewish of patricide and deemster William Drinkwater imposed the only sentence available to him after such a verdict: death by hanging.

Kewish hoped for leniency with an appeal to the Lieutenant Governor, and Loch received several sworn statements from people urging clemency, including jurors at the first trial, the examining physician and others.

Meanwhile, Kewish seemed unable to get his story straight: at one point he admitted to his jailer that he had accidentally shot his father with a birding gun which was later found in the thatch of an outhouse, and at other points he repeated the claim that he was entirely innocent.

No pitchfork was conclusively identified as the murder weapon.

In these circumstances the decision over the eventual sentence landed at the door of no less a person than Queen Victoria, who at that stage was still in a semi-reclusive state of mourning following the death of Prince Albert just over a decade before.

The Home Secretary told her that he could not recommend mercy in the case as he felt the crime had been premeditated and carried out through greed, and he added there had been no recommendation for mercy at the trial by either the jury or the deemster.

The Queen, as Lord of Man, was ‘not amused’ to find that under Manx law she had to make an actual order for Kewish’s execution to be carried out, and she wrote to the Home Secretary in terms that left him in no doubt just how displeased she was about it.

He apologised and promised to bring Manx law into line with England’s. Although indicating that she had serious doubts about the matter, the Queen then took the Home Secretary’s advice and gave her consent for the execution to go ahead.

Back in the Isle of Man, public feeling over Kewish’s conviction led to a general reluctance to be part of the execution, even to the extent that those tasked with building the gallows initially laid down their tools and refused to carry on.

In the end an executioner, William Calcraft, had to be brought over from England and Kewish’s hanging - the last to be carried out on the island - was the only non-public execution ever to take place under Manx law at Castle Rushen.

Kewish was buried within the castle walls but that was not the end of the matter for Queen Victoria, who to her embarrassment found herself being petitioned by Manx residents to put an end to the death penalty in the island.

Her Imperial Majesty declined to take such a step - and the death penalty remained on the Manx statute book as mandatory for murder until the late 20th century, even after the death penalty had been abolished in the UK.

Even as late as the years 1973-1992, five people were sentenced to death for murder by the Manx courts - but no executions were ever carried out because in each case the UK Home Secretary commuted the sentence to life imprisonment under the crown’s prerogative of mercy.

Even so, it was not until 1993 that Tynwald finally abolished capital punishment to meet European Court of Human Rights requirements and under pressure from the UK Government.

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