Triple Execution

Our previous blog told the gruesome story of the murders of John Levy and Annie Gale, which took place in Turner Street, Whitechapel on the 4th April 1896.

William Seaman was subsequently found guilty of the murders and, at his Old Bailey trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

You can read about the murder in this article.


He was executed on the 9th June 1896, alongside two other murderers – Alfred Milsom and Henry Fowler, who had been found guilty of murdering Mr Henry Smith at his home in Muswell Hill in February 1896.

The newspapers were intrigued by the fact that this was to be a triple hanging, not least because of the animosity that had been demonstrated by Fowler towards Milsom at their trial when, at one stage, he rushed across the court, grabbed him by the hair and threw him to the floor.

Newspaper sketch of Fowler and Milsom.
Alfred Milsom (left) and Henry Fowler (right).


The Illustrated Police News in its issue of the 20th June 1896, reported in detail on the last moments of the lives of the three men and, in so doing, the paper provides us with an indispensable  record of how an execution was carried out at Newgate Prison in the latter years of the 19th century.

Despite the fact that public executions had been abolished in 1868, the party like atmosphere that accompanied a hanging was evidently still very much in evidence.

But the article also make an intriguingly fascinating, though somewhat grim, read, as it enables us to view the circumstances and customs that accompanied Victorian executions.

The headline that accompanied the Police News headline.
The Headline From The Illustrated Police News article.


“It was the first time for many years that three murderers had met their death side by side upon the same beam.

They were Alfred Milsom, aged thirty-three, labourer, and Henry Fowler, thirty-one, labourer, for the murder of Mr. Henry Smith, at Muswell Hill; and William Seaman, forty-six, diver, for the murder of John Goodman Levy and Sarah Gale, his housekeeper, in Turner Street, Whitechapel.

Billington, the executioner, and his assistant, Wilkinson, of Bolton, slept in the prison and were astir at six o’clock.

He was to have had the help also of Wade, of Accrington, but at the last moment the latter telegraphed that he was unable to attend.


With the view of preventing any of those distressing mishaps which have occasionally added needless pain at the last moment, the executioner on the previous evening tested the arrangements that had been made in the presence of the governor of the gaol and the under-sheriffs.

Sacks of sand were employed to represent the convicts, and these remained suspended during the night to prove the efficiency of the ropes.


During the night the sleep of the condemned men was somewhat broken.

Milsom betrayed apparent anguish of mind by incoherent sounds repeated at intervals.

Fowler, before retiring to rest on Monday night, said to his guard, “I am told that the people outside think I am going to ‘cut up rough’ to-morrow morning. They’re mistaken. I am satisfied. Milsom’s a dirty turncoat, but I know I shall meet him level in the morning, and I am satisfied.”


The usual breakfast was given to the condemned men, but only Fowler ate at all heartily.

They were all dressed in their own private clothing, which they had worn since sentence, and not in prison uniform, and received the
chaplains, who arrived soon after eight to administer the last consolation.


The Rev. Mr. Merrick, chaplain of Holloway, who acts as ordinary of Newgate, visited and spoke to each unhappy man in turn; but no doubt his assistant, the Rev. Mr. Ramsay, on whom had fallen the principal work of preparation, was the most welcome to all.

Naturally no one could tell what passed between the convicts and their ghostly comforters, but it is certain that all three were resigned, while one of them, Seaman, was in a distinctly devout condition.

He was the only one who prayed aloud when he was led out to execution, and his last words -“Lord receive my Spirit” – were perfectly audible to all present.


A photograph of James Billington.
James Billington (1847 – 1901)

By the judicious plan adopted the convict Fowler was the first to receive Billington’s attentions.

He was the first pinioned (both arms being fastened to his side, and, his hands behind his back), the first sent out to the scaffold.

Two warders escorted him with orders to place themselves on either side of him and watch his movements closely.

Whatever might have been his attitude last week towards Milsom, it was clear from his quiet, unimpassioned look, his downcast eyes and pale, calm face, that vindictiveness no longer possessed him; he looked neither to right nor to left, but took his post submissively as directed.


In the space of one short minute he was followed by Seaman, also pinioned and under escort, but of one officer only, as no fears were entertained of his behaviour.

A sketch showing the murderer William Seaman.
William Seaman, The Murderer. From Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper,19th April 1896

Seaman’s face was also pale, but it was a freckled, rather ruddy face, and the reddish – grey whiskers kept up the notion of colour; his eyes were quite steady and unfaltering, upturned for the most part, in consonance with the heartfelt prayer he was uttering, his whole manner was rapt and abstracted.


Milsom came last. He had been brought over only a short time previously from his more distant lodging, and for the last half-hour occupied an ordinary cell hard by.

Milsom’s demeanour can hardly be called cowardly, but he was evidently much broken and unnerved.

His character came out in this crucial and supreme moment; his weak, shifty eyes, his rather small, feeble face, his hesitating steps, all betrayed the weaker man.

He might be quick at contrivance, an adept in the preliminaries of his desperate profession, but he would waver in the face of danger, and in the extreme case would leave others to bear the brunt.

Now, just for one moment, despite the pious professions he has been making, it was clear that his mind was not absolutely at ease.

He, too, was escorted by a couple of warders, and they, with the others present, would have more than sufficed to protect him from his implacable foe, yet he cast one brief and uneasy glance towards his companions already placed on the gallows, and seemed relieved when he found that he was not to be actually alongside Fowler.


The scaffold is not an elevated place, as people are apt to imagine, but the plain board floor of a shed, practically level with the ground, and in no marked way distinguished from it.

At each end of the shed is a thick post of oak.

Connecting these is a cross beam of oak 8 inches square.

Between the posts is the drop, a long narrow trap, like a double cellar-flap, hinged front and back longitudinally, and parting in the middle when the bolts which hold it in its place are withdrawn by the pressure of the executioner’s hand on a powerful lever at the left of the scaffold.

Round the upper beam are bolted collars of wrought iron supporting short lengths, perhaps six links, of steel chain.

There are six of these chains, and to every chain may be attached the rope to hang a murderer.


Fowler was set beneath the left hand or easternmost chain, his feet across the fatal crack in the boards, his back to the wall, his face to the open yard and the white-faced group of official spectators, who were dressed in mourning.

Rapidly the pinions were buckled about his knees and ankles, the rope, already attached to the chain, was adjusted to his neck, and the noose set.

The white cap, a loose bag of heavy material, was drawn over his face, and, with warders prepared to support him if necessary, he was dressed for death.

Seaman came next through the door in the brick wall which is the back of the shed, and was placed beneath the fourth chain.

Then Milsom, already looking more dead than alive, and with the horror of death in his eyes, was silently placed on the western end of the drop.

A glance at the two strapped and hooded figures on his left, and he, too, was blinded, the assistant executioner had his legs strapped and had stepped clear.

Billington gave the last comprehensive look round of the skilled workman, saw that all was ready, looked to the sheriff for the silent signal, and with a touch of his lever precipitated three wicked men into eternity.

The trap fell true, the bodies dropped like plummets to the extent of the ropes, and three dull, sickening cracks and the quivering jar of the three swaying ropes were all that told of three instantaneous deaths.


Those who must, glanced down into the pit to see that all was over; those who could, turned away with shaking limbs, and the horrible nausea which even the most callous must feel at seeing men calmly, silently slaughtered by machinery.

The bodies were left to hang the regulation period, and the black flag was sent up from the roof close above the scaffold to tell the world that the law had avenged three murders.

Milsom and Seaman weighed each 1381b, and they were allowed a drop of between 6 1/2ft and 7ft, and Fowler, who weighed 1561b, a drop of about 6ft.

It has been stated by a gentleman who witnessed the execution that Fowler went to the scaffold with the same bold demeanour that he had shown throughout, and that Seaman betrayed no fear.

Milsom, however, was shaken with agitation, and as he stood trembling on the drop he ceaselessly gabbled, “Lord, have have mercy on me! Lord, have have mercy on me! God bless my poor wife!”

Seaman, the Whitechapel murderer, told one of the prison officials whom he had known many years while undergoing ireprisqnment, and with whom he shook hands, bidding him goodbye, that he would be very glad when it was all over.


Some unusual scenes distinguished the inquest, which was held at eleven o’clock in the new court of the Old Bailey.

There had apparently been some competition for places on the jury, although it has twenty-four members, which is twice as many as suffice for an ordinary case,

Mr. Fielder was nominated for foreman. Mr. Tomlin promptly objected on the ground that Mr. Fielder was not a ratepayer, so they nominated Mr. Tomlin, whereupon the ward beadle, with much dignity, protested that Mr. Tomlin himself was “not one of our inhabitants at, all,” and had not been summoned on the jury.

The difficulty was got over by electing a third gentleman, and the jury went off to view the bodies, which were lying in three plain shells across the drop.

The deceased looked quite calm and peaceful, and there was nothing about their appearance to indicate that they had met with a violent death.

Colonel Milman, the governor, produced the warrants for the execution of the three men, and further added that the executions were carried out satisfactorily.

Dr. Scott, the medical officer of the prison, proved that death in each case was caused by dislocation of the neck, and that it was instantaneous.

This was all the evidence that was offered, and the jury at once brought in the usual verdict according to the evidence, adding a rider that they were of opinion that the execution had been humanely and expeditiously carried out, and it was in all respects satisfactory.


As soon as the inquest was over the shells were filled in with unslaked lime and placed in the graves prepared in the dismal flagged passage which is the prison burying place.

Here water was introduced through perforations in the lids of the coffins, and the lime was left to work.

Fowler and Milsom were buried one on top of the other in the-grave of O’Donnell the Fenian, who shot Carey, the informer against the Phoenix Park murderers.

Seaman is buried by their side.


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

There was a great crowd outside the prison as early as seven o’clock in the morning, and it grew, to such large proportions before nine o’clock that the police had some difficulty in regulating the traffic.

The public-houses in the vicinity were crowded, and appeared to he doing a roaring trade.

In fact very few of those present seemed to pay much attention to the solemnity of the scene which was being enacted inside the gaol.

There was a great deal of chaff and rough horseplay, and the whole scene led to the reflection as to whether Newgate was the best or most seemly place to carry out the extreme penalty of the law.

The abolition of public executions has not, even after the lapse of more than a quarter of a century, done away with the morbid interest which people take in great criminals.


At a quarter to nine the bell of St. Sepulchre’s began to toll, and this added to the excitement of the crowd.

Then the chapel bell within the gaol began to toll, and at five minutes to nine there were speculations as to whether another “scrap” was going on at the gallows between Fowler, and Milsom.


The former seemed to be almost regarded as a hero, but the remarks about the latter were emphatically not fit for publication.

Slowly the minutes wore away, and the crowd grew silent when St. Sepulchre’s clock began to strike the hour.

Almost before the echoes of the last stroke had died away a dismal square of black bunting was seen slowly ascending the pole over the prison. This was an intimation that the law had been vindicated, and a hoarse roar of cheering from the crowd seemed to drown the noise of the traffic for a moment.

“A cheer for Fowler!” someone cried with an empty laugh, and the crowd responsively shouted, ” – ray !”

“A groan for Milsom” the wag resumed, and the crowd immediately booed, and with a simultaneous impulse split up in every direction, pushing and struggling as roughly to get away as it had pushed before for a view of the flagstaff.”


The executioner, James Billington, became something of a local celebrity when he left Newgate Prison having performed his grisly task.

According to The Sheffield Evening Post in its edition of the 10th June 1896:-

“A remarkable scene was witnessed in the Old Bailey when Billington left the gaol after the execution.

The execution, emerged with a brown paper parcel under his left arm and carrying an umbrella.

Someone immediately recognised him. and a cry went up, “It’s Billington.”

Then some cheers were raised, and an old woman, running after him and touching him on the shoulder exclaimed, ”Mr. Billington, do tell us how they died. there’s a good man.”

Billington smiled, but vouchsafed no reply.

He walked quickly away toward Smithfield, followed for some distance by a curious crowd.”


Th site of Newgate Prison is now occupied by the Old Bailey.

There is a fascinating article that shows the interior of the prison – or at least what little of it remains inside the Old Bailey courthouse –  as it appears today. Click here to read it.