Photo Of The Day

Passing the sentence on Frederick Seddon, March 15, 1912.  Mr Justice Bucknill, wearing a black cap, passes a sentence of death on a convicted murderer in the only known photograph of the death sentence being passed in an English court. Yet even with the black cap on his head, the judge — a Freemason to whom fellow-initiate Seddon nakedly appealed in open court, “before the Great Architect of the Universe,” for remission of the penalty — couldn’t really articulate exactly what Seddon had been convicted for.

Passing the sentence on Frederick Seddon, March 15, 1912. Mr Justice Bucknill, wearing a black cap, passes a sentence of death on a convicted murderer in the only known photograph of the death sentence being passed in an English court. Yet even with the black cap on his head, the judge — a Freemason to whom fellow-initiate Seddon nakedly appealed in open court, “before the Great Architect of the Universe,” for remission of the penalty — couldn’t really articulate exactly what Seddon had been convicted for.

The Seddon Trial

In 1911, Frederick and Margaret Seddon were tried for the murder of Miss Eliza Barrow, their wealthy lodger. Miss Barrow’s death was originally certified as being due to natural causes. No suspicion was aroused until relatives enquired about her property and the money she was known to have had in her possession. Seddon explained that she had parted with her property to him for an annuity, and that he had found a sum of only 100 pounds in her possession. Two months later Miss Barrow’s body was exhumed, and it was found that arsenic was present in the remains.

What would be the greatest trial in London since Dr. Crippen stood in the same dock ensued. It went on for ten days at the Old Bailey. The defense–led by formidable Sir Edward Marshall-Hall–claimed arsenic came from her medicine, while Seddon maintained that Ms Barrow might have drunk water from the dishes of flypaper placed in her room to keep away flies.

The jury convicted Seddon and acquitted his wife, although the evidence against him pressed just as heavily upon her. It was one of the few cases where one of the defendants was acquitted while the other was convicted on the same evidence. The deciding factor was the arrogant behavior of Frederick Seddon displayed in the court. A member of the Masons, Seddon appealed to Justice Bucknill who was a Grand Master Mason. Bucknill, moved to tears, said that the Masons will not tolerate murder, and to try to make his peace with God.

One of the consequences of the case was a law banning photography in the courtroom. During the trial, several photographs were taken of Mr. Seddon and his wife. One in particular, showing Mr. Justice Bucknill, with black cap on and his chaplain at his side, condemning the prisoner, was printed on the cover of the Daily Mirror on March 15th, 1912. The sensation caused by it led to questions in the House of Commons and a promise by the Home Secretary to change the law.

The Sentence

Before sentence was passed, Seddon was asked if he had anything to say, and according to the records gave ‘a carefully and well prepared speech, during which he appealed to the judge, as a brother Mason, for a reversal of the jury’s finding’. Bucknill suddenly looked utterly bewildered, and staring straight at Seddon, broke down completely. Seddon concluded his speech with the words; ‘I declare before the great Architect of the Universe I am not guilty’ and at this point he raised his arm and gave a Masonic sign.

The report continues ‘The silence which followed these most unusual events was total and seemed to last forever when … Mr Justice Bucknill, in a stilted and emotional manner, pronounced sentence of death’. When, some half an hour after the Court had been cleared, the Clerk to the Court went to meet the Judge in his chambers, he found that Justice Bucknill, fully robed, was sitting at his table and ‘his eyes were red with weeping’. No reprieve came and Seddon was hanged by John Ellis and Thomas Pierrepoint at Pentonville Prison, just a short walk from his home, on 18 April 1912 with over 7,000 people assembled outside.

The crowd would undoubtedly have been larger, were it not for the fact that news of the sinking of the Titanic three days earlier was uppermost on everybody’s mind.

Iconic Photos
http://murderpedia.org/male.S/s/seddon-frederick.htm
 


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  • Nic C

    Can anyone tell me why the judge was ‘weeping’??

    Was it because he was struggling with the weight of sentencing another human being to death, or was it because he was sentencing a fellow Mason to death and he couldn’t do anything to the contrary, due to the very public forum in which he was presiding??

    • peterwn

      It would not be surprising if some judges were overwhelmed when required to pass the death sentence especially when a death sentence almost invariably meant just that. This would be only human. In the past some judges like Jeffries seemed to have reveled in it describing in detail the hanging, drawing and quartering that the prisoner was going to receive. In the dying days of the death penalty, judges could don the black cap with the knowledge that the prisoner was unlikely to be hanged. Lord Chief Justice Goddard apparently did not believe that Bentley would actually be hanged in 1953 after being convicted of the murder of a police officer and sentenced to death (Craig pulled the trigger but was not sentenced to death being underage). A new Home Secretary however was in no mood to commute the death sentence in that instance.

      • Nic C

        Thanks for that Peter… very interesting and worthwhile info.

      • Nebman

        And that’s precisely why Albert Pierrepoint became so adamantly opposed to the death penalty at the end of his professional execution career.

        While politicians retain the ability and frequently abused the right to commute or confirm the sentence depending on the mood or want of the public at the time, the death sentence as worked in almost all western sphere’s could never hope to attain the deterrent effect those who endorse it claim.

        It’s the ultimate state sanction against it’s citizens and if you’re going to apply it, then politicians need to be removed from the process and that’s never going to happen.

  • Orange

    Sounds similar to the last capital punishment here in NZ. I wonder how many people were falsely convicted of arsenic poisoning back then?

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