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For the “run-of-the-mill” capitally convicted criminals, hanging was seen to be sufficient, however, in 1752 the “Horrid Act of Murder” was approved where those convicted of murder were not only hanged but had an additional ‘punishment’ inflicted. After hanging, “the body shall be given over to the surgeons for dissection and a body shall not be suffered to be buried until it has been dissected or anatomised.” This was particularly gruesome in that the crowd consisting of men women and children, who had just witnessed the execution were entitled to follow the cart carrying the remains of the victim back to the Shire Hall (built 1659) in St. Mary’s Gate. There they could actually watch the body being taken asunder by the surgeons! After this had taken place, the mutilated body then had to be exposed to full public view on the steps outside of the Hall for two full days in order that those who were unable to attend the execution and dissection could satisfy their morbid curiosity. This punishment was decided on in an effort to dissuade would-be murderers from carrying out their deeds. The belief at the time was that after death, one had only to wait for the Day of Judgement when all souls would be resurrected for life everlasting. The fear was that if a body had been dismembered, there would be no resurrection as the body parts had been dispersed far and wide and people had visions of odd limbs, heads and torso’s wandering aimlessly for all time in search of the rest of the body! The punishment was handed down to several victims, both male and female, in Derby Gaol.

Interestingly, it was not usual practice for “Irons” or “Fetters” to be placed on the arms and legs of prisoners in the Gaol unless there was a particular risk of escape. Certainly, those due for execution were “Ironed” but all other inmates remained relatively free to wander the corridors and yards. This would be infinitely more welcome than being confined within the filthy prison cells which, until a visit to Derby Gaol by the prison reformer John Howard in October 1787, were never cleaned out. John Howard had made it his personal crusade to inspect and report on the state of the prisons in the whole of Great Britain as he was appalled at the amount of mortality suffered by the inmates. Gaol fever raged through the prisons on a regular basis and it was believed to be caused by the bad air. It was in fact, a virulent form of Typhus spread by body lice. Following Howard’s intervention the law decreed that scraping and lime-washing the cell walls once a year should be sufficient!


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Various attempts were made to escape from Derby Gaol and, on 14th January 1778, a plot was uncovered where several prisoners had hoped to effect their escape whilst the Court Sessions were under way. The Gaoler, Blyth Simpson, spoke to a prisoner involved in the escape bid who lost his nerve at the last minute and confessed all. He showed Simpson where the attempt had been made to break through the door of the Dungeon. Although heavily barred, the inmates had managed to saw through the bars and their leg irons so that the break-out could take place with all speed. As a result, the prisoners involved, whose names are not revealed, were double-ironed and removed to another, more secure, cell. In 1782, Thomas Shaw was successful in his attempt but was soon apprehended and returned to the gaol to face the ultimate penalty. It has to be borne in mind that any prisoner escaping from Gaol and subsequently recaptured, would be hanged, regardless of the original offence for which he had been imprisoned!

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