Palmer’s executioner – George Smith, the Dudley hangman

An early photograph of George Smith taken It can be seen in the County Museum, Shugborough in the Palmer Display. Property of the Staffordshire Arts & Museum Services
An early photograph of George Smith taken It can be seen in the County Museum, Shugborough in the Palmer Display. Property of the Staffordshire Arts & Museum Services

The hangman who hanged Palmer was George Smith from Dudley. He had been a nailer (a nail-maker) but other accounts say that he was a hob-nailer (a shoe maker), before he became an apprentice hangman in 1840. He once was put in gaol for running naked through the streets of Wednesbury. Another time he was in Stafford Gaol for debt for failing to support his wife and family.

In 1840, at the time that George Smith was in Stafford Gaol, the regular hangman was a man called William Calcraft. He charged the standard fee of £10 for hangings and he also performed the floggings. Calcraft was due to be the hang two the men who had been found guilty of the Christina Collins murder (a crime committed on the canal near Rugeley and known as the ‘Bloody Steps’ murder). His assistant then was a man called Mr. Cheshire nicknamed ‘Old Cheese’. On his way to Stafford, Cheshire stopped at Rugeley to visit relatives but they would have nothing to do with a hangman’s assistant. So instead he visited the Shoulder of Mutton where he became so drunk that he forgot the time and never arrived in Stafford.

Calcraft became more and more agitated waiting for his assistant to arrive. In desperation he approached the prison governor Thomas Brutton and asked if he knew of anyone who could assist him. The governor did not but said that if he paid off the debt of a prisoner in gaol for owing money then they could assist him. So Calcraft paid Smith’s debts and Smith was released in time to start a new career as an assistant hangman.

Smith learned his trade from the famous hangman Calcraft who was also from Dudley. Smith as apprentice hangman would have to wait below the trap door of the gallows through which the condemned prisoner would drop. Sometimes the prisoner could take up to five minutes ‘dancing on the rope’ before they finally choked to death. If they were taking too long to die Calcraft would stamp on the platform and Smith would have to hang on their legs to speed up the process.

It is believed that Calcraft was originally to have hanged Palmer but George Smith offered to do the job for less money in order to enhance his reputation.

It was Smith’s habit to wear a white smock and a top hat upon his head when he was ‘working’.

Smith was often bought his in favourite drink in local public houses by patrons eager to hear his stories of the men he had ‘sent to meet their maker’.

George Smith himself died on Good Friday 1874.

If you wish to read more about the life of George Smith I would recommend that you read the first chapter of ‘A Memorable Medley of Great BLACK COUNTRY CHARACTERS’ by Aristole Tump a Bugle Publication. The cover of the book bears an incredibly well preserved photograph of George Smith which is in far better condition than the picture above.

Palmer’s Clothes

In the 1912 booklet Palmer the Poisoner Full and Authentic account I found the story that at 6 o’clock on the morning of his execution Palmer requested that he be brought a suit of prison clothes. the reason given in the booklet was that the clothes worn by a prisoner who is executed became the property of the executioner, however if the condemned person wore prison clothes the executioner could not claim them as they were government property. I find the next part of the booklet’s story a little far fetched when it says that when questioned Palmer said,

“Am I within my rights in demanding the clothes?”
“Yes, I believe you are,” replied the Governor.
” Then sir, my reason is that I do not want my clothes to fall into the hands of Madame Tussaud and be exhibited,” was Palmer’s surprising reply. The Governor hesitated, and then ordered a suit of prison clothes to be brought. The first suit Palmer rejected , saying they were too worn, and when fresh ones had been procured he dressed himself with great nicety.

The Rope

The rope used to hang Palmer was made by a man called Daniel Coates of 12 Friars Terrace, Stafford,and his workmates who worked as porters at Stafford Railway Station. They made the rope an extra 30 yards too long and then, after the hanging, sold off two to three inch pieces of “the rope that hanged Palmer” for up to half a crown (two shillings and sixpence) each. It is also claimed that 10 years after the execution George Smith was still trying to sell bits of rope “that hanged old Palmer”.