When police headed to Nathan Quigley’s shoreline cottage to investigate reports that his wife had disappeared, they expected to be given a plausible explanation. When they arrived to find Mr Quigley stuffing bloodstained bed sheets into a bag, they approached the situation with a little more gravity.
Quigley explained that his wife had run off with her lover. He had come home to find her in the bedroom packing her clothes and he had tried to stop her leaving by blocking the door. She came at him to try and barge past and they struggled. She tripped over her suitcase and fell, splitting her head on the drawers. He had tried to stem the bleeding but she rose again to leave and as they struggled they fell onto the bed, where she had lain sobbing and bleeding onto the sheets. Finally her lover had burst in brandishing a length of wood and threatening to dash his brains out if he didn’t let her go. They left together and that was the last he had seen of his wife.
The police offered their own version of what they believed had happened. They suggested he had killed his wife and then dragged her body out to his fishing boat and dumped it at sea. To his utter disbelief and despite a complete lack of physical evidence, Quigley was charged with the murder of his wife.
At his trial the main thrust of the prosecution’s case was this: If your wife is still alive, as you say, then where on earth is she? Surely she would have seen a newspaper report of this matter and come forward. It had been headline news. This factor told with the jury because they found him guilty and he was sentenced to death.
In the condemned cell Quigley protested his innocence throughout. On the outside a huge campaign got under way to demand a reprieve. Even those newspapers that endorsed capital punishment questioned the safety of a verdict brought in on the back of such flimsy circumstantial evidence. But the law must take its course.
On the eve of Quigley’s execution, the hangman, Kennedy, and his young assistant Robert Hawes arrived at the prison. Kennedy did the usual preliminaries of taking a sly peep at the prisoner to gauge his build so that he could work out the length of the drop he should be given. Then, while the condemned man was away for his daily exercise, the executioners attached a rope to the beam and then went down into the pit below the trap where they tied several sandbags to the rope in order to stretch it overnight.
Quigley spent a restless last night and he was up and about before five. He refused breakfast but took a cup of tea, although his hand trembled as he held the cup. Next door, in the execution chamber, young Robert Hawes was assigned to remove the sandbags from the rope while his master enjoyed a huge plate of bacon and eggs. After Hawes had carried out his task he went up onto the scaffold, where he looked about to make sure he was alone.
For young Robert Hawes had been swayed by the tidal wave of protest about the safety of this execution, and he decided to take action. He climbed up to the beam and pulled a razor from his pocket. He sawed through the rope, leaving only a few thin strands to keep it together. On returning to Kennedy, Hawes reported that all was correct and the pair waited for the chiming of the town clock that would signal the start of the dread proceedings.
Quigley was chatting about football to one of the warders when the door burst open and the execution party entered. As his wrists were pinioned, the terrified prisoner repeated, almost inaudibly, “I didn’t do it,” but whether or not this was true, the wheels of justice had been set in motion and could not now be stopped.
A door was slid open and Quigley saw the noose only a few steps away. He had to be supported from his cell and he was placed on the trap. Hawes pinioned his legs while Kennedy pulled the white cloth hood over his head. With Quigley uttering a final plea of his innocence, Kennedy removed the pin from the lever and pulled it with great purpose. The trap opened and Quigley shot from view and, to the complete horror of all present (bar one), the rope snapped. With great anxiety Kennedy and a warder approached the open trap and peered down into the pit. They saw the bound and hooded Quigley writhing and moaning in pain. “Do something, man,” Kennedy roared at a warder. The commotion had attracted the attention of other warders and three of them hurried down into the pit where they removed the hood and straps from Quigley and brought him up onto the scaffold. He was clearly badly injured and so was taken to the prison hospital to see if, as they suspected, he had broken his ankle.
Quigley had been in the hospital for precisely half an hour when the governor hurried in, panting and with a face drained of colour. He brought the news that the Home Office had just received a telegram, purportedly from Quigley’s wife. As far as he could gather Mrs Quigley and her lover had gone to France to start a new life on a farm belonging to the latter’s mother. She had only found out that her husband was going to hang that very morning when she came across an old English newspaper in a café. She telegrammed immediately and made arrangements to come to England to clear the matter up. “But the telegram would have come too late,” the governor said, “had it not been for this… this.. divine intervention.”
But it was not divine intervention, as Kennedy discovered after subjecting young Hawes to intense interrogation. The tearful lad admitted he had cut through the rope. “Then you saved this man’s life,” Kennedy said, “you’ll be a national hero.”
Kennedy and Hawes were called to the governor’s office later that morning. A police officer was present. Kennedy had expected the governor to heap praise on his assistant but the stern atmosphere inside the office suggested otherwise.
“A serious incident occurred in this prison this morning,” the governor said, “and there will be a full inquiry. However, the few facts we have thus far indicate that you, lad, were responsible for the rope being cut.” Hawes reddened and nodded. “I must warn you,” the governor continued, “that a charge will be brought against you for interfering with the course of justice.” Kennedy was outraged.
“But he saved that man’s life. That is an unequivocal fact.”
“That may be so, but it is also an unequivocal fact that this youth tampered with the machinery of justice and we cannot ignore that.
“This is an absolute disgrace,” Kennedy said. “What on earth will they charge him with?”
“Causing a fray,” the governor said.