The Execution Of James Simms

One of the major reasons for murders being committed in Britain, and in particular London, during the 19th century was drunkenness. Many a drunken brawl escalated into fatal violence when one or both of the participants were under the influence of drink.

The Leytonstone Express and Independent, on Saturday 29 March 1879, reported on one such case:-


James Simms, an American seaman, aged 43, has been executed within the walls of the goal of Newgate, for the murder of a woman of bad character in a public-house in Shadwell on the 12th of last January.

The prisoner was tried before Mr. Justice Hawkins at the last session of the Central Criminal Court, and the facts proved were that the prisoner, who had just returned from a voyage, had made the acquaintance of the deceased, and there was no doubt that for several days he had been plied with drink and robbed of the greater part of the money he had received for wages, either by the deceased, who was known in the neighbourhood where she plied her miserable vocation as “Big Annie,” or by some of her companions.

A photograph showing the exterior of Newgate Prison.
The Exterior of Newgate Prison


The cause of the murder was the refusal by the deceased to return the prisoner any portion of the money of which he had been robbed.

He repeatedly threatened to murder her if she did not do so, and the murder was committed in the most deliberate manner, for while the prisoner was standing at the bar of a public-house where they had been drinking together, he drew a razor from his pocket, and cut her throat almost from ear to ear, causing immediate death.


The prisoner appears to have stated all along that he was maddened with drink at the time, and did not know what he was doing, and a petition was sent to the Home Office asking for a remission of the capital sentence on this ground, but a reply was received stating that the circumstances were of such a nature that the Home Secretary did not feel justified in interfering with the sentence.


The prisoner himself seems from the moment of his apprehension to have been quite prepared for the result, and when he was informed by the sheriffs of the day fixed for his execution, he exhibited no emotion, but merely asked as a favour to have some tobacco to chew, which request was complied with.

Mr. Sheriff Burt and Under-Sheriff Baxter arrived at the prison a few minutes before eight o’clock on the morning of execution, and shortly afterwards he was pinioned.


He walked to the scaffold with a firm step, and after the rope had been placed round his neck he said. he wished to say a few words, to thank the Governor and the officers for the kindness he had received from them.

The drop then fell, and he appeared to be dead in an instant.

The usual inquest was held by the coroner in the course of the day.