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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