Monday, March 30, 2009

Lewis the Hangman

A chance find from August 1884 in the microfilm files of the Auckland Star at the City Library yesterday has now educated me in part of the ways of executing criminals in 19th century New Zealand. It led me on a hunt in Papers Past to try to learn more about a rather colorful criminal turned executioner-for-hire named Henry Howard Heyman or Lewis.

When he arrived here is unknown, but he was described, in an account of the earliest execution he is credited for (if “credited” is the word to use here) – that of James Walsh, 19 February 1879, in Invercargill.
“The execution of Walsh, who murdered his wife at Waikawa, the particulars of which will still be fresh in the memory of as the first execution of the kind, a good deal of morbid curiosity was manifested by the public, and about 300 persons gathered outside the walls of the gaol, from whence, however, nothing more than the upper part of the scaffolding was visible.

“The proceeding commenced shortly after seven o'clock; when the executioner, a German Jew of the type frequently to be met with in the low parts of large cities, with one or two assistants, made the final preparations at the scaffold.”
(Evening Post, 19 February 1879)

Lewis was apparently a forger, and was serving a three-year sentence when the offer of commutation in return for service as an executioner was made to him. The task was a paid position on top of the bonus of freedom – for Lewis, looked down upon by some sections of the community as a German-Jew in the days when character was increasingly measured against a person’s race and background, the notoriety of the position may also have appealed.

His next execution was that of Ah Lee, executed for a murder at the Kyeburn gold diggings, 5 November 1880.

“The last act in connection with the Kyeburn murder took place at eight o'clock this morning (says yesterday's Evening Star) when the execution of Ah Lee was effected …The executioner is a recent arrival from Southland, and at one time acted an assistant to Calcraft. He wore a white mask which completely covered his face, and a blue jacket.”
(North Otago Times, 6 November 1880)

William Calcraft was said to have been the most famous hangman in England in the 19th century. Whether any of the New Zealand executioners were assistants of his is unknown. It’s likely that Lewis wasn’t.

Wiremu Hiroki, 8 June 1882, was said to be another of his executions. Then came one which proved to be more infamous.

Winiata was executed this morning …The executioner was a convict about 24 years of age, of short stature and stout build. He is said to have executed Hiroki, Walsh, and Ah Lee in this colony, and three murderers in New South Wales.”

“The accounts given of the final scene of Winiata's execution appear to show that it was badly bungled. When Winiata disappeared from view, the executioner, running nimbly down the steps, entered by a small door below the scaffold, and the novelty of this proceeding caused a number of the spectators to approach close to the foot of the scaffold. The sounds which met their ears were horrible. The drop had failed to cause instantaneous death, and the deep and stifled breathings of the half-strangled convict were distinctly audible. Through the crevices, the executioner could be plainly seen engaged in the horrible task of tugging at the hanging man's legs for the purpose of completing the strangulation, while Winiata writhed and twisted in a sickening manner.

“Gradually, the sounds of choking and stifled breathing died away, the violent vibrations of the rope ceased, and ten minutes after the rope was pulled the executioner came forth from his ghastly hole and slipped away. The whole proceedings were of a most barbarous and scandalous character. After hanging for an hour the body was cut down. It was then found that the noose, instead of being behind the ear, was immediately under the chin, and was not drawn tightly round the neck. It is evident, from the position of the rope, that the sufferings must have been prolonged and painful. The rope which was used was far too thick and coarse for the purpose, and, altogether, the execution of the unfortunate man was a shockingly bungled and mismanaged affair. The scene enacted below the scaffold was brutal and revolting. One of the medical men who witnessed the execration remarked to another spectator, after viewing the body, "Well, I don't think this any improvement on the last hangman."
(Evening Post, 5 August 1882)

In August 1884, Lewis found himself in legal strife. He was convicted of “having secreted certain newspapers, letters, tobacco and other articles” to the prisoners employed at the construction site of Mt. Cook prison in Wellington. It appears he had been tried and found guilty for another crime at some point between the Winiata execution and June 1884, when he was released to serve as a hangman again, this time for the executions of John Donohue, 11 June 1884, at Hokitika, and Rowland Herbert Edwards, 15 July 1884, at Napier. Lewis returned to Wellington, and spent time hanging around the Wellington prison site, however. He was found guilty and sentenced to a month’s hard labour. (Evening Post, 7 August 1884)

At this point comes the Auckland Star article on “The New Zealand Hangman” which drew my attention to Lewis and his gruesome sideline.

“It will be remembered that Lewis was liberated from prison, where he was serving a sentence, on condition that he should act as public executioner, and for the last few years he has acted in the unpopular capacity of hangman for New Zealand. When he was on the West Coast, after drawing the fatal bolt, he appeared in the streets dressed up as a great “swell”, and put up at a hotel kept by a well-known Jewish Boniface. He was asked if he would take coffee, but replied that he could only drink a particular mixture, and asked for cocoa. While this was being made, a journalist well-known in Wellington entered the room. The hangman at once ranged up alongside Mr. McCarthy, or “Mac” as he is generally called, and asked him to wine.

“Mac scowled at him, and the hangman said, “You don’t appear to remember me.”

“Oh,” said Mac, “don’t I; who hung the man?”

“By this time a crowd gathered round, and in the meantime the hangman beat a retreat. Several publicans hunted for him, and at last found him sitting on an empty dray smoking a havannah. One publican, more enterprising than the rest, offered him £1 if he would stand behind his bar for an hour to draw custom, but the offer was declined with thanks.

“The next thing he did was to wait on the sheriff, and hinted to that gentleman that it was his custom to receive £5 as a professional fee. The sheriff being new to the job, handed out five £1 notes, and has since applied to the Government for a refund of the sum, but has been told that the £5 has already been paid.

“The hangman then struck out across country, and at last landed in Nelson. The first person he met there was Mr. Inspector Atcheson. “How do?” said the disciple of Calcraft.

“Halloa,” said Atcheson, “what brings you here?”

“Oh,” cried Lewis, “I’ve just run off O’Donaghue on the Coast.”

“How did he take it?” said the Inspector.

“Well, “rejoined Lewis, “while standing up on the scaffold he said ‘God, bless Ireland,’ and I said, ‘God d---n Ireland,’ and pulled the drop.”
(Auckland Star, 16 August 1884)

Having served his time of hard labour, one would have thought Lewis would have kept himself out of trouble – but no. In December, he was before the courts again, on two charges: breaking into the offices of the Brunner Coal Company in Wellington, and inciting another (a fellow crim named Pekaru Apurone) to break in and murder Chinese jeweller James Campbell. The cases ran from 5 December to the 19th of that month – eventually, Lewis was cleared of all charges. (Evening Post)

The next two executions were part of a double event in Auckland, 21 February 1887, when John Caffrey and Henry Albert Penn were hanged for an infamous murder on Great Barrier Island. Once again, Lewis was on the job.
“As the visitors entered this yard the first object that met their gaze was the executioner, who stood immediately behind the tarpaulins and midway between the gallows and the rear wall. Some of the party immediately recognised him as the man who had been employed in a similar capacity on the occasion of Winiata's execution. He is a young man of middle height and of powerful build He stood, bareheaded, with his coat off, his hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets, and a bandage of black crepe tied round his face, but not so thickly as to altogether hide his features. His preparations were evidently complete, and he was standing at his ease, exhibiting no sign of impatience or of nervousness.”
(Te Aroha News, 26 February 1887)

Soon after the double hanging, and once he was paid £40 for his time, Lewis left Auckland bound for Sydney. (Evening Post, 25 February 1887)

Now, the authorities needed to find another hangman to do an unpopular job.

“Here was a pretty state of things! — an execution fixed to take place at 8 o'clock next morning and no hangman to carry out the law. The police instituted enquiries as to where a suitable man could be found, and were successful in their efforts. A man was procured, and, for an amateur, ho carried out the execution remarkably well. He was of course disguised, and the spectators were in the dark as to his identity. The whole affair went off without a hitch, and all concerned were not sorry when Haira [Te Piri] paid the penalty of his crime. The executioner was incarcerated in the Napier gaol some time ago for an offence which was fully reported at the time. He was released after the execution, and also received a certain amount of money. "
(Evening Post, 15 May 1889)

This executioner was, according to the Poverty Bay Herald in June that year, one Frank (or William) St. Clair, “an acrobat, who was sent to gaol from Wairoa for wife desertion and cruelty, and who is known in Gisborne. On being released from custody after the execution he joined a lady who walks the tight rope, living in Woodville, but will be brought to court by his unfortunate wife.”

And so, the story continued …

Update on Lewis here.


  1. Surely Lewis was too large a personality to disappear into the wilds of mediocrity in Sydney?!

  2. I'm hoping he wasn't -- but until the Sydney papers make their way online for that period, he's disappeared into question marks.

  3. Have you tried this site?
    It's only in Beta so far and they're uploading the files.

  4. Yeah, Jayne, that site's been on my bookmarks since way before Timespanner was a glimmer in my eye, so to speak. A lot of posts I do use it -- but it's sparse for NSW when it comes to the 1880s to 1890s, just when any shenanigans Lewis may have got up to would have occurred.

    Here's hoping they get the SMH on there sometime soon!

  5. I have been researching old Henry. My great granny (Sarah Eliza Gatten) claimed to have been married to him. The story is all twists and turns and I have yet to make sense of it. Henry's father was Augustus Heyman wholesale merchant, mother Esther. He was born in London. He married 26 July 1884 to Sarah Elizabeth Gatthon. There was a son Reuben Augustus Heyman.
    Henry's surname may have been Herrmann.

  6. Thanks, Alison. He is certainly a mystery, is Henry. If you do find out anymore, please do pop back and let us know.