10th February 1854

Guernsey’s last execution didn’t go according to plan

John Charles Tapner’s execution was the last hanging carried out on Guernsey. A Londoner who had moved to St Martin, taken a job as a clerk at Fort George, married and had three children, he had been convicted of knocking unconscious 74-year-old Elizabeth Saujon, stealing her belongings and setting fire to her St Peter Port house. Saujon, who was Tapner’s mistress’s landlady, died in the resulting fire (see 19 October). Some of her belongings were found in Tapner’s home. He admitted being in St Peter Port on the night of the murder, too, but denied his involvement.

His denials failed to save him, and Tapner was sentenced to death. 600 residents signed a petition to the British Home Secretary, Lord Palmerston, for clemency, but it wasn’t enough. Tapner was hanged after three stays of execution.

A ghoulish execution

It was a messy, drawn-out execution. Tapner was led to the prison courtyard wearing a brown coat and an old pair of slippers. An audience of 200 ticket-holding spectators was already waiting to watch him die. The executioner – a novice – was visibly nervous, which likely explains what happened next. The noose was places around his neck, a nightcap pulled down over his face, and the trap door fell open, causing Tapner to drop through.

The rope wasn’t long enough. He didn’t fall fast enough, and didn’t break his neck. Tapner’s legs started twitching, and then to swing about. The ropes that bound his arms together unravelled and Tapner grabbed the trap door, pulling himself back up.

The executioner managed to get Tapner’s hands off the edge of the door, but it wasn’t enough. Tapner was still dangling, slowly strangling. The anonymous executioner got down through the opening and hung on to Tapner’s legs. Their combined weight was on Tapner’s neck, but it still took 12 minutes for him to die.

He was left on the rope for a full hour to make sure he was dead, then his body was laid out on the ground for the rest of the day. Victor Hugo, an opponent of the death penalty, documented the hanging in a letter to Palmerston on 11 February. Although he was not present himself, he quotes an eye witness’s retelling of the event.

Guernsey didn’t hang anyone else after John Tapner, and abolished the death penalty in 2003.


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Other events that occured in February

Mail ship wrecked on Black Rock 1st
Oil rig stranded at Grandes Rocques
Birth of Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann 2nd
Death of Sir Charles Hayward 3rd
St Martin’s parish church consecrated 4th
Guernsey suffers its worst storm in 35 years 5th
Guernsey watchmaker helps Stone of Scone manhunt 6th
Guernsey Language Commission formed 7th
Queen Mary executed while wearing Guernsey stockings 8th
Guernsey gets its first postbox
Guernsey Society celebrates its 70th anniversary 9th
Guernsey’s last execution didn’t go according to plan 10th
The last issue of GUNS was distributed 11th
Alderney gets its first full-time radio station 12th
Guernsey’s last duel 13th
Specsavers’ Mary Perkins was born 14th
Blue Islands takes to the skies
Guernsey gets its own flag 15th
Birth of concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houedard 16th
HMS Guernsey launched in Aberdeen 17th
Guernsey’s first Methodist minister arrives 18th
Aurigny Air Services founded 19th
Guernsey Railway Company runs its first services 20th
The Channel Islands were cut off from the outside world 21st
St Sampson was ordained a bishop 22nd
Death of Thomas Fiott de Havilland 23rd
Murder inquiry ends with suicide 24th
Death of occupation resister Marie Ozanne 25th
Guernsey’s first banker dies 26th
Release of Reverend Harry Samuel 27th
Plans for St Sampson power station approved 28th
Second World War bomb detonated 29th