Execution of John Spershott, 1835
John Spershott was baptised in Mid Lavant, near Chichester, Sussex on 22 December 1816, the son of John and Susan Spershott (Parish Baptisms). (Most of the newspaper reports reproduced below misspell Spershott's name as "Sparshott".)
At the County Assizes for Sussex on 1 August 1835 he was condemned to death for sodomy; he was not quite 19 years old; he was executed on 22 August (Register of all Persons charged with Indictable Offences at the Assizes and Sessions held within the County [of Sussex] during the Year 1835, National Archives, HO27, piece 50, piece scope M-Y). Though the newspaper reports refer to "unnatural offence" and "horrible depravity", the legal records specify the crime as "buggery" and "sodomy". His partner or victim is given as "George Howard, the younger"; the crime is described as an "assault", though it is not clear what the circumstances were, and all cases of sodomy were always described as an "assault" even in cases of consent. George Howard was not himself prosecuted, and his name is never mentioned in the newspaper reports.
Spershott's hanging was perhaps the last occasion at which was performed the folk ritual of the hangman passing the dead man's hands over the neck and bosoms of young women as a cure for glandular enlargements. There had been an active reform movement advocating the abolition of the death penalty, and one newspaper that reports on Spershott's hanging takes the occasion to publish remarks by the Campaign against Capital Punishment. John Spershott's hanging is the next-to-last execution for sodomy in England. The very last execution, of James Pratt and John Smith, took place three months later. Spershott came from a respectable family, who took his body to Mid Lavant, where a stone marks his grave at the Church of St Nicholas. It reads:
He is gone, he is gone,
The dear Boy at whose birth
I hail’d as a Stranger, and pilgrim on earth
The sojourn is ended, the journey is trod,
We hope that his spirit is happily with God.
However much we may sympathise with this death of a young man, we should not claim John Spershott as a "gay martyr". Not only was his desire achieved by use of force, but it is possible his victim was an eight-year-old boy. A local family historian has investigated the records, and concludes that the most likely match for Spershott's victim named George Howard was a George Howard who was baptised on 17 September 1826 in Funtington, Sussex, whose father was also named George (cf. the reference to Spershott's victim as George Howard "the younger"), whose mother's name was Mary (the witnesses at the trial included one Mary Howard), and whose family lived only ten minutes' walk away from the Spershott fmaily home in East Levant. The parish registers for this area are fairly complete, and reveal no other George Howard son of George Howard who fits the bill. The records are not absolutely complete, however, and the name "George Howard" is quite common (e.g. there is a George William Howard baptised in 1820 in East Lavant whose father's name is not recorded); it also is not absolutely certain that Spershott's George Howard was a native of the Lavant area. Thus the view that George Howard was an eight-year-old boy at the time is ultimately an inference based upon circumstantial evidence.
There is some evidence in the published trial and newspaper reports that seem to undermine that conclusion. The newspapers lament that such a charge is laid against "so young a person" as nineteen-year-old Spershott, but they strangely do not mention the age of his victim. Though everyone is shocked by the "revolting depravity" of Spershott's crime, no one specifically alludes to the youth of his victim. Newspapers never report the indecent details of buggery cases, but one would expect some reference to the use of force upon a lad. The trial reference to "a venereal affair" is a very odd way to refer to the rape of a little boy. On the other hand, the reverse of the indictment indicates that one of the the witnesses was Abraham Duke, a surgeon, which suggests the medical examination of a youth for evidence of buggery.
The judge seems to have believed that crimes like those which Spershott committed were "alarmingly on the increase". I can believe that the seduction of young men, or indeed the commission of such acts by young men, or even assaults on fourteen-year-old lads, might have been perceived to be on the increase, but the rape of eight-year-old boys was not at all common. Further, one would expect the execution of such an object of public revulsion to have stimulated a large crowd of spectators, yet the number of people assembled "was less than on any previous occasion" in the area, and the spectators manifested no feelings of emotion at the event. Spershott's highly respected family provided a coffin, in which he was taken to be buried in the churchyard of St Nicholas, where he had been baptised, and which did not withhold permission for his burial. No one seemed to show feelings of execration or shame in the published accounts, and the sentiment on his headstone, perhaps erected soon after the death of his father in 1838, is a loving one.
One news report is particularly telling: Spershott "exhibited apparently no signs of contrition for the abominable offence of which he was found guilty. It is singular with what a hardiness this boy (for he could hardly be termed otherwise) thrust himself upon his fate; after the discovery by his master of the offence he had committed, he was not given into the hands of justice at once, but told that, if he would leave the country, nothing should be done to him. This he seemingly consented to do, and left the village of Midlavant, but, after a lapse of some time, returned, and was then apprehended". The fact that Spershott was given the opportunity to escape justice on condition he left the area, is remarkable for so heinous a crime.
Transcription of the Indictment
The jurors for our Lord the King, upon their Oath present, That John Spershott late of the parish of Mid Lavant in the county of Sussex, Labourer, not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, and not regarding the order of nature, on the Ninth Day of July in the Sixth year of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord William the Fourth, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, with Force and Arms, at the Parish aforesaid, in the County aforesaid, in and upon George Howard, the younger in the peace of God and our said Lord the King, then and there being feloniously did make an assault and then and there, feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature, had a Venereal affair with the said George Howard and him, the said George Howard, then and there feloniously wickedly diabolically and against the order of nature, did Carnally Know and that detestable horrid and sodomitical Crime called Buggery with him, the said George Howard, then and there feloniously wickedly and diabolically and against the order of nature, did commit and perpetrate to the great displeasure of Almighty God To the great Scandal and disgrace of all mankind against the form of the Statute in such case made and provided and against the peace of our said Lord the King his Crown and Dignity.
The reverse of the indictment lists the three persons who testified: "George Howard the yoer [sic], Mary Howard, Abraham Duke (surgeon)".
(BEFORE MR. JUSTICE PARK.)
His Lordship addressed the Grand Jury as follows on Monday morning at the opening of the Court: . . .
6 August 1835
. . . Most of the crimes were of daily occurrence; and it would therefore be superfluous in him to make long comments. There were two other species of crimes, which during the long time that he had had the honor to serve his Majesty and he had been a judge for twenty years and under three sovereigns had increased in an alarming and extraordinary degree. With respect to the first, when he was made a Judge, it was hardly ever heard of, but now it prevailed to such an extent that it appeared to be a common thing, when one man had a grudge against another, to resort for revenge to the crime of arson. . . . His Lordship then observed that the calendar contained offences of a very disgusting nature, and stated some recent alterations in the law relative to them. He also stated that the discussion of them in a Court of Justice must, unless a conviction followed, be very prejudicial to morality. The increase of crimes of this nature since he was called to the bar, 51 years ago, was most alarming. . . .
THIRD DAY, WEDNESDAY.
One of those cases adverted to in his Lordship's charge to the Grand Jury as being alarmingly on the increase, came on this morning at eight o'clock. The prisoner, whose name is John Sparshott, is a labourer, 19 years of age, residing at Midlavant. The evidence, which is unfit for publication, was so conclusive, that the Jury, without hesitation, pronounced a verdict of Guilty
His Lordship then passed sentence of death, remarking on the enormity of the offence; never, in the whole course of his life, had he met with so shocking a case. The prisoner must not indulge in any hope of mercy, for his Lordship could not hold out any.
The prisoner left the dock, apparently unconscious of his awful situation. (Brighton Gazette)
6 August 1835
HOME CIRCUIT. LEWES, WEDNESDAY, AUG. 5.
The business commenced this morning at eight o'clock.
John Sparshott, labourer, nineteen years of age, was indicted for having, on the 9th of July, at the parish of Midlevant, committed a nameless offence.
The evidence was of so horrible and disgusting a nature that the whole Court were shocked at such horrible depravity.
The Jury, with little hesitation, found him Guilty, and his Lordship proceeded to pass sentence of death. His Lordship said that in the whole course of his life he never met with such a horrible and depraved case, and it was impossible for him to hold out any hopes of mercy. Sentence was then passed in the usual manner.
The prisoner left the dock apparently unconscious of his awful situation. (Morning Post)
8 August 1835
At Lewes, yesterday, John Sparshott, labourer, aged 19, convicted of a nameless offence, and Richard Shepherd, a footman, found guilty of four burglaries in four successive nights, in houses in which he had lived as servant, received sentence of death without the slightest hopes of mercy. (Worcester Herald)
8 August 1835
LEWES. On Wednesday, John Sparshott, labourer, aged 19, was convicted of a nameless offence, under circumstances of revolting depravity. He was found guilty, and sentence was passed accordingly.
Richard Shepherd, a footman, was convicted of three burglaries, on three successive nights, on the premises of an old master. Mr. Justice Park passed sentence, and after adverting to the facts elicited in evidence, said that he could hold out no hopes of mercy. (West Kent Guardian)
8 August 1835
John Sparshott, labourer, age 19, was charged with having, on the 9th day of July, at the parish of Midlavant, committed an unnatural crime. Verdict Guilty.
The Judge, in pronouncing the sentence of death upon the prisoner, said that it was a most distressing and painful circumstance to pronounce sentence on so young a person, but the offence of which he had been convicted was so baleful, both to God and man, that it was impossible for him, as a Christian and as a Judge, to pronounce any other. In the whole course of his life he had never met with so shameful a crime, which raised feelings of horror in every human breast, and it was useless for him to hold out any hope of mercy. His Lordship then pronounced sentence of death upon the prisoner, and exorted him to apply for spiritual advice to the Rev. Gentleman whose place it was to perform the sacred functions of religion in the place where he was confined.
The prisoner did not appear much affected. (Brighton Herald)
24 August 1835
EXECUTION AT HORSHAM.
Saturday last being the day fixed for the execution of the two unhappy men Richard Sheppard, and John Sparshott, who were capitally convicted at our last Assizes, the former of burglaries of an aggravated nature, and the latter of an abominable offence, preparations were made at an early hour in the morning for carrying the sentence into execution, by the erection of the drop, &c. At eleven o'clock in the morning, the unhappy malefactors attended the chapel of the gaol, in the presence of all the prisoners confined therein, and at the conclusion of the service, the Rev. Mr. Torbutt, the Chaplain, administered to both the offenders, the sacrament. Shortly before twelve o'clock, the unhappy culprits were delivered over to the Sheriff, and his attendants, and appeared resigned to their impending fate, both praying fervently. The Executioner having performed the ceremony of pinioning, Sheppard fell upon his knees, as did Sparshott, and both prayed aloud, neither appearing to notice anything that was passing around; on rising from their knees, every preparation being in readiness, the Rev. Chaplain commenced reading the usual service, and the procession moved from the press-room, up the stair case leading to the scaffold, which the miserable men ascended with the utmost firmness, repeating the service after the Chaplain. Sheppard first appeared on the platform, and Sparshott imediately followed, both exhibiting the same fortitude and penitent resignation, as had marked their conduct from the commencement of the awful ceremony. Neither of the unfortunate men addressed the spectators, and the ropes having been adjusted by the Executioner, in the midst of prayer, the drop fell, and they were launched into eternity, and died apparently without a struggle. After hanging the usual time, their bodies were taken down and delivered to their friends, who were waiting with two neat coffins, covered with black cloth to receive them, and by whom they were conveyed away.
Sparshott was only 19 years of age, & appeared since his condemnation, and until within two or three days of his execution indifferent to his fate, but from that period he became truly penitent and resigned. He was a native of Midlavant, near Chichester, and of respectable connexions.
Sheppard, who was 33 years of age, after his trial, and up to the period of his execution, conducted himself with the utmost decorum, and appeared perfectly resigned to the awful fate which awaited him. He was a native of Wesburton, in the parish of Bury in this County, and had formerly lived in the service of a Dignatary of the Church, for fourteen years, who was so pleased with the correctness of his conduct, that he procured for him the situation of Verger in Salisbury Cathedral. Great interest was exerted to procure a commutation of punishment, for the unhappy man, which unfortunately was ineffectual. The spectators upon the melancholy occasion were fewer in number than we remember to have seen at former executions at Horsham, there not being more than 300 persons present.
The silly and superstitious custom of passing the hands of the dead men over the necks of two or three females, as a supposed cure for glandular enlargements, was upon this occasion had recourse to by the hangman, surely in the present enlightened state of society, the exhibition of such ribaldry at an Execution, ought to be prohibited by the proper authorities.
The following remarks on Executions are taken from an Address to the Public, by the Committee of the Society for the diffusion of information on the subject of Capital Punishments:
The arguments against taking human life for crime more especially for offences against property are too numerous to allow more than a concise allusion here. The penalty of DEATH excludes that which should be the immediate object of human punishment the reformation of the offender. As an example, it is momentary, and of no beneficial effect it disgusts the good and brutalizes the bad. When inflicted for offences of different degrees of malignity, "it confounds the gradations of guilty in the eyes of the muoltitude, and incites the commission of a greater crime to prevent the detection of a less." It moreover often produced impunity of crime, from the natural horror which is felt when the passions are not excited, to become instrumental to the violent death of a fellow-creature, and thus it defeats the end of all punishment, which is not the infliction of personal evil, but the repression of crime.
The experimental proofs of the inefficacy of capital punishments might be multiplied to a vast extent, would the limits of these remarks permit. Our own country affords its practical testimony against them. At what period of our history were life and property most secure, and that, too, with the least quantity of judicial bloodshed? Was it not during the reign of Alfred, whose laws were distinguished by their tenderness of human life? When, on the contrary, was England most afflicted with every species of violence and reason? Was it not while the apparatus of the scaffold was most busily engaged in the work of human extermination, in the time of Henry the Eighth, during whose reign 72,000 persons perished by the hands of the public executioner?
The Committee invite the attention of the public to the melancholy fact of the frequency with whcih the punishment of death is inflicted in Great Britain compared with other civilized countries. In France, with a population double that of England and Wales, only 25 persons were executed, while in the latter the number of executions in the same year (1831) amounted to 52, being therefore four times as numerous as in France. In Prussia during ten years ending with 1827, but 87 persons underwent this punishment, while the number of those who suffered in England and Wales during the same period was 806, or, allowing for difference of population, about eight times as many as in Prussia. In Holland and in Austria, as well as in the German States, sanguinary punishments are exceedingly rare; and in Belgium, since the years 1830, although some crimes are still nominally capital, the scaffold has been laid aside as a remnant of national barbarism.
If the people of England would have a more effective system of justice for the protection of both property and life, let them petition Parliament for such a full and complete revision of their criminal laws, as will be consistent with Christian civilization and morals, and will therefore instead of enlisting the sympathies of the public on behalf of the offenders obtain for the law itself the respect and voluntary co-operation of the people. (Sussex Advertiser)
27 August 1835
EXECUTION AT HORSHAM.
On Saturday last the two unhappy men, Richard Sheppard and John Sparshott, condemned to death at the late Assizes, underwent the extreme penalty of the law. Their conduct since their trial had, as we understood from Mr Dodswell, the gaoler, been good; and they appeared deeply impressed with a conviction of the enormity of their crimes. Sheppard, who age was 33, did not, from the first, entertain hopes of a reprieve of commutation of his sentence, although strong efforts were made for that purpose by his prosecutors and by many other persons of considerable influence in the county. He did not place any reliance on their exertions, but diligently used the portion of time which succeeded his trial, in preparing himself for another state of existence. His companion in suffering, till within a few days prior to the execution, did not seem aware of the awful nature of his situation, but he then became truly penitent. Both paid the greatest attention to the pious exhortations of the Chaplain, the Rev. Mr Tarbutt, who has been unremitting in his endeavours to awaken in them a due sense of their condition. The two brothers of Sheppard visited him on Friday, and his wife, from whom he had been separated for some years, on Saturday morning. Sparshott's friends visited him a week ago; but did not see him immediately before the execution, although some of them were in the town.
After divine service, which took place in the chapel at eleven o'clock in the morning, the culprits received the sacrament in the presence of their fellow prisoners. At about ten minutes to twelve they were conducted into the press room, where five or six persons, besides the gaoler, were assembled. Sheppard was dressed in fustian trowsers and flannel jacket; and Sparshott in drab trowsers and a sailor's jacket. Sheppard, on being pinioned, fell upon his knees, and appeared to pray very fervently; and Sparshott having undergone the same operation, followed his example. The latter was only (as appeared by the coffin) 18 years of age. After being thus engaged for two or three minutes, the Chaplain entered the room, and began to read the burial service. They then mounted the staircase with a firm step, preceded by the chaplain.
The necessary prepartions for the termination of their earthly career having been made during the reading of the service, the ejaculations and Lord's prayer, which were repeated with great fervour by both the prisoners, the bolt was withdrawn, and both instantly ceased to live. Sheppard, after having about half a minute, made a convulsive struggle, so slight, hwoever, as barely to be perceptible, and a similar movement took place in Sparshott after the lapse of about five minutes. The Chaplain, who, we understand, witnessed an execution on this day for the first time, was much affected, and being assisted down the steps was immediately conveyed to his residence by a friend. After hanging the usual time the bodies were placed in two neat coffins, provided by the respective friends of the parties; the body of Sheppard was removed to Bury, where it is understood that he formerly resided; and that of Sparshott to Midlavant, where his family, which is highly respected, resides.
The number of persons who assembled to witness this melancholy termination of the lives of two of their fellow-creatures, was less than on any previous occasion; not more than between 300 and 400 were present, and not the slightest manifestation of feeling was observed among the spectators.
An occurrence, which took place immediately after the execution, shews that there is yet work for the "school-master." Two young females ascended the scaffold for the purpose of having the hand of one of the criminals passed over a wen or glandular enlargement. One of them was a married woman of about 24 or 25 years of age, resident at Brighton; she stated that she had formerly been under the care of a physician at that place, who told her that the disease was incurable. She had subsequently been informed by "Dr Gilbert, veterinary surgeon," that this method would effect a cure! The other woman is, at present, a resident of Horsham.
Up to eleven o'clock, Horsham did not exhibit indication of any event out of the routine of ordinary daily occurences; it retained its usual quiet appearance, and but little interest was excited.
We add copies of the correspondence which has taken place on the subject of the petition from Brighton, praying for the commutation of Sheppard's punishment: . . . [omitted] (Brighton Gazette)
29 August 1835
EXECUTION OF THE TWO CRIMINALS, SHEPHARD AND SPARSHOTT.
The extreme sentence of the law was carried into effect on the above unfortunate men at Horsham, on Saturday last. The crime for which Shephard had been convicted was the committal of various burglaries of an aggravated nature; that of Sparshott, for an unnatural offence. Great effort had been made by many influential gentlemen to obtain a commutation of punishment in favour of the former. His situation in life had been respectable, he having lived in the service of a Dignitary of the Church for fourteen years; and through whose influence he obtained the situation of Verger in Salisbury Cathedral. These exertions, however, unfortunately proved fruitless. For Sparshott, the nature of his offence precluded all hope of intercession or a slighter punishment. He was only 19 years of age, and his connections, who reside at Midlavant, near Chichester, of which place he himself was a native, are respectable, and have always borne characters for honesty and integrity. Up to a period of two or three days previous to his execution, he had exhibited no signs of repentance, but his demeanour changed for the better as the moment approached when the term of his existence would expire. Shephard had through conducted himself with decorum and resignation. In fact, the appearance of this unhappy man at his trial had a prepossessing appearance; he was aware of the badness of his crime, and could hardly be persuaded by the Judge to deny his guilt. The conduct of Sparshott, on the contrary, was quite different; he exhibited apparently no signs of contrition for the abominable offence of which he was found guilty. It is singular with what a hardiness this boy (for he could hardly be termed otherwise) thrust himself upon his fate; after the discovery by his master of the offence he had committed, he was not given into the hands of justice at once, but told that, if he would leave the country, nothing should be done to him. This he seemingly consented to do, and left the village of Midlavant, but, after a lapse of some time, returned, and was then apprehended, brought before the magistrates, and committed to take his trial for that crime which he on the above day expiated on the scaffold. At 11 o'clock in the morning, the unhappy malefactors attended the chapel of the gaol, in the presence of all the prisoners confined therein, and, at the conclusion of the service, the Rev. Mr. Terbutt, the Chaplain, administered to both the offenders the sacrament. Shortly before twelve o'clock, the unhappy culprits were delivered over to the Sheriff, and his attendants, and appeared resigned to their impending fate, both praying fervently. The Executioner having performed the ceremony of pinioning, Shephard fell upon his knees, as did Sparshott, and both prayed aloud, neither appearing to notice anything that was passing around; on rising from their knees, every preparation being in readiness, the Rev. Chaplain commenced reading the usual service, and the procession moved from the press-room up the stair case leading to the scaffold, which the miserable men ascended with the utmost firmness, repeating the service after the Chaplain. Shephard first appeared on the platform, and Sparshott immediately followed, both exhibiting the same fortitude and penitent resignation as had marked their conduct from the commencment of the awful ceremony. Nether of the unfortunate men addressed the spectators, and the ropes having been adjusted by the Executioner, in the midst of prayer, the drop fell, and they were launched into eternity, dying apparently without a struggle. After hanging the usual time, their bodies were taken down and delivered to their friends, who were waiting with two neat coffins, covered with black cloth, to receive them, and by whom they were carried away.
After the execution, a circumstance occurred which excited much surprise that it should have been permitted to take place. This was the ancient and superstitious custom of passing the hands of the dead men, while yet warm, over the necks of two young females, by whose friends this form is considered as a remedy for the diseases (that of the glands) with which they were afflicted.
The spectators assembled to view the melancholy spectacle were fewer in number than it is ever remembered to have been seen on any previous occasion, there not being above five hundred persons present. This fact cannot arise from the frequency of executions in Sussex, for, happily, they occur very rarely, and, therefore, we are willing to believe that it arose from a more creditable and praiseworthy cause that of horror and disgust at seeing a fellow-creature launched into eternity in a manner not worthy of a dog. (Brighton Herald)
SOURCE: Various newspapers, dates as given. The hanging was widely reported in many newspapers, but I have transcribed only the most informative and interesting reports. there is also an interesting modern report in the West Sussex County Times for 6 July 2017.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Execution of John Spershott, 1835",
Homosexuality in Nineteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 29 April 2020, updated 10 May 2021