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Susan NEWELL

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Susan made no confession and gave no reason why the boy had to die
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: May 20, 1923
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1893
Victim profile: John Johnston, 13 (newspaper boy)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom, USA
Status: Executed by hanging at Duke Street Prison in Glasgow on October 10, 1923 (the last woman to be hanged in Scotland)
 
 

 
 

Susan Newell (1893–1923) was the last woman to be hanged in Scotland. She killed newspaper boy, John Johnston during a petty squabble, having failed to obtain a newspaper without paying for it. She killed her victim via strangulation on 20 May 1923.

Newell was caught after she and her daughter made an attempt to dispose of the body. She tried to implicate her husband for the crime, but he had a solid alibi as he could prove he was at his brother's funeral at the time of the murder. Her daughter Janet, testified against her, describing how the body of the paperboy had been wheeled through the streets on a pram.

At the trial her defence put forward a plea of insanity, but she was convicted on a majority verdict with one juror against.

Newell was executed on October 10, 1923 at Duke Street Prison, Glasgow.


Susan Newell - A senseless murder

Background

Susan Newell was born in 1893 and had lived a hard life in constant poverty. In June 1923 she was living in a rented flat in Newlands Street, Coatbridge, a suburb of Glasgow, with her husband John and 8 year old daughter, Janet McLeod, from her previous marriage. John was apparently a drunkard and a womaniser. After just three weeks their landlady, Mrs. Young, had become fed up with their rows and had given them notice to quit.

Susan was noted for having a bad temper and also had some history of violence. On June the 19th 1923 she had assaulted her husband, John, beating him round the head, which he reported to the police. The following day they had another violent argument and he left home going to his sister's house that night.

The crime

On the evening of Wednesday June the 20th 1923 around 6 45 p.m. 13 year old newspaper boy John Johnson knocked on Susan's door to see if she wanted the evening newspaper. She told him to come in and took the paper from him. However John insisted he had to have the money for it. At this Susan lost control of herself and strangled the poor little boy. Her daughter was to see the boy's body when she came in from playing lying on the settee. Janet had to help her mother wrap it in an old rug. Susan had the age old problem of what to do with John's body. She slept on this problem and by the morning had decided how she would dispose of it.

Susan and Janet carried John's body down stairs and put it in an old pram, which she had found, still covered by the rug. With Janet perched on top of the bundle and they set off together on foot towards Glasgow. Several people were notice them as they walked along the roads towards Glasgow. A passing lorry driver offered them a lift which Susan accepted and dropped them off in Glasgow's Duke Street. As the pram was being got down from the truck the bundle containing John's small body came undone and a foot was seen sticking out of one end and the top of his head at the other end.

Apparently the lorry driver failed to notice this but a lady, who was looking out the window of her house nearby, did before Susan could cover up the body again. She decided to follow Susan and Janet and enlisted the help of her sister. They met a man and asked him to fetch the police while they continued to follow Susan. The man was able to keep up with her and saw Susan leave the bundle containing John's body at the entrance to a tenement. Susan attempted to escape over a wall and was immediately arrested by a policeman waiting for on the other side.

Susan had already worked out her story if she was caught and had primed Janet as well. She told the police that her husband had killed the boy and that she had tried to stop him. He had then forced her and Janet to dispose of the body for him. John was now also arrested and they were both charged with the murder.

The trial

Husband and wife came to trial in Glasgow on the 18th of September 1923, before Lord Alness. The case against John collapsed as he could prove that he was not in the house when the murder took place. He was able to produce several witnesses to prove his whereabouts. The judge freed him immediately saying that he should never have been brought to trial. He left the dock without even a glance at Susan.

The main and most compelling evidence against Susan was given by her daughter Janet. She told the court how she had come back to the flat from playing outside to see the body of John lying on the sofa and how she had helped her mother wrap it up. She also related to the court how she had helped her mother try to dispose of the body and what her mother had told her what to say if she was questioned by the police. Susan had given Janet a full story that she was to tell of how her step father had killed John.

In her defence it was argued that Susan was insane although this was rebutted by the prosecution's expert witness, Professor John Glaister who had examined her while she was on remand. Her counsel pointed out that the killing was not premeditated and had no obvious motive.

The jury retired and reached their verdict in 37 minutes. Somewhat surprisingly in view of the weight of evidence Susan was only convicted by a majority verdict. At least one of the jurors believed her defence of insanity. The jury unanimously recommended mercy for her.

Upon receiving the guilty verdict Lord Alness sentenced her to death and she was taken back to Duke Street (yes the same Duke Street) where Glasgow's prison stood at the time. Here she was examined by psychiatrists and found to be legally sane.

Execution

No woman had been hanged in Scotland for over 50 years and there were considerable efforts made to secure a reprieve for Susan. However the application of the law in Scotland had to be seen to be in line with that in England where Edith Thompson had been hanged for what most of us would regard as a much less serious crime only 10 months earlier.

The Secretary of State for Scotland therefore decided that she could not to be reprieved and her execution was set for October the 10th 1923. Susan showed emotion for the first time when told by the Lord Provost of Glasgow that there was to be no reprieve. She cried out for her daughter and then fainted.

She was to be hanged by John Ellis, assisted by Robert Baxter, who together had also hanged Edith Thompson. (Ellis heartily disliked executing female prisoners and always seemed to have some sort of incident). He was noted for the speed at which he conducted executions and it is perhaps for wanting to get the procedure over with quickly and not wanting to hurt Susan he did not pinion her wrists properly. Ellis decided to use the leather body belt that he had had made for Edith Thompson which had an additional strap to go round the thighs. This was necessary because as skirts had got shorter over the years there was concern that they would billow up as the prisoner dropped.

On the gallows Susan allowed Baxter to strap her legs and thighs without protest but was able to get her hands free from the lose wrist straps on the body belt and defiantly pulled off the white hood, saying to Ellis "Don't put that thing over me". Rather than risk another trying scene Ellis decided to proceed without it, as the noose was already in place and so he simply pulled the lever and Susan went through the trap with her face in full view of the small number of officials who were present. She became the last woman to hang in Scotland and was said to be the calmest person in the execution chamber accepting her fate with both courage and dignity although she never admitted her crime.

Comment

There seem to be few mitigating factors in Susan's case - both she and John Johnson were the victims of her violent temper. The evidence against her was clear and overwhelming.

There is the question of motive. John's father had told the court that his son wouldn't have had more than nine pence on him at the time of the killing. So it seems doubtful that Susan killed him for money and rather more likely that she simply could not control her temper.

Perhaps John was somewhat cheeky and said something to Susan when he asked her for the money that made her snap. She was already in an "wound up" state after the rows with her husband and it is quite possible that, unwittingly, young John just pushed her over the edge.

Undoubtedly there are a significant number of murders committed due to temporary loss of control by people who are sane on normal definition of that term. The M'Naughten rules, which came in to being in 1843, were the basis of the legal definition of sanity. They required that, for a person to be found insane, it had to be shown that they were, at the time of the crime, suffering from such defect of mind that either they did not know what they were doing or that what they were doing was wrong. Clearly Susan at least knew what she had done was wrong.

One wonders whether it was Susan's natural defiance that made her refuse to admit her crime, at least in public. Some people who have committed a dreadful crime go into denial and are unable to admit it even to themselves. Some know in their own hearts what they have done but see denial as the best way forward. Perhaps because they think it might win a reprieve or because they want their loved ones at least to believe they were innocent.

CapitalPunishmentUK.org


NEWELL, Susan (England)

A woman who committed an inexplicable murder in 1923, and the hangman who executed her attempting to commit suicide ten months later, proved to be the news headlines of the decade.

Susan was charged with murdering John Johnstone, a 12-yearold schoolboy who delivered newspapers for pocket money, a crime that seemed totally motiveless.

It all started in June 1923 when Mrs Helen Elliott was about to leave her house to go shopping. A lorry had pulled up a little further along the road and she noticed the driver climb out and help a woman lift a small handcart out of his vehicle. He then drove away, but as the woman manoeuvred the cart on to the pavement, Mrs Elliot noticed something else, something that made her gasp in disbelief, for from the wrapped-up bundle in the cart protruded a head and a foot. Hardly believing her eyes, she called to her sister who was nearby and, at a discreet distance, they followed the woman as she went down a narrow alleyway, to see her dump the bundle in a corner. Fortunately a policeman was passing by and, summoned by the two sisters, he proceeded to arrest the woman, a Mrs Susan Newell. On unwrapping the contents of the bundle he found that it contained the doubledup and mutilated body of the aforementioned newsboy.

Subsequent forensic examination showed that the boy’s body had been burned while he was still alive, and then violently throttled.

Susan, her husband John and their eight-year-old daughter Janet, lived in a Glasgow lodging house, and on the morning of 21 June 1923 the landlady not only noticed that the front door was open, but also that the handcart she owned was missing. At about the same time, a lorry driver along the street had noticed a woman pushing what was obviously a heavy cart and offered to give her a lift; further into town she asked him to stop, saying that she did not have much further to go. Had she waited a mile or so before speaking, Helen Elliott would not have had such a horrific story with which to regale her neighbours for months to come, and the police would have been faced with an unsolvable crime. As it was, Susan was questioned, her only explanation being that she was disposing of the body to protect her husband, who had actually committed the murder. That this was a falsehood became clear when John was able to prove that he had been away in another town during the two days previous to his wife’s arrest.

The prosecution at this stage faltered for the lack of evidence; Susan Newell could have been charged with being an accessory to a murder, but nothing more serious than that. But then Susan’s young daughter provided the evidence, if not the motive, for she recounted how she had seen the boy arrive to deliver the papers but had not seen him leave. She had then been taken by her mother to a nearby public house, and on returning with her later, saw him lying in a chair. Little realising, at her age, that what she was saying virtually condemned her mother to death, the girl described how she had helped to wrap up the body, and had watched her mother lift it into the cart.

Despite a plea of insanity, Susan Newell was found guilty by the jury on a majority verdict, albeit with a recommendation for mercy. The judge agreed with the first decision but rejected the adjunct, and sentenced her to death.

Susan made no confession and gave no reason why the boy had to die, and on 10 October 1923 in Duke Street Prison, not far from where she had attempted to leave the corpse of her victim, she came face to face with John Ellis, the executioner, as he drew the hood down over her head and positioned the noose.

Unresisting, her hands and ankles pinioned, she stood motionless as he moved to the lever, her body falling through the aperture, death coming within minutes.

As for the hangman himself, although he always denied that that particular execution had affected him in any way, in the following December he resigned, having been executioner for 23 years. Shortly afterwards, apparently suffering from depression, he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself.

In the years that followed he appeared on the stage in the role of a hangman and also gave talks about his experiences on the scaffold, but in September 1932, by then a sick man, he killed himself by cutting his throat.

The profession of executioner was generally regarded with revulsion and disgust, hangmen being frequently abused, even violently assaulted. This irrational attitude of the public was challenged by the late French executioner Henri Anatole Deibler, who wrote sarcastically: ‘To kill in the name of one’s country is a glorious feat, one rewarded by medals. But to kill in the name of the law, that is a gruesome, horrible function, rewarded with scorn, contempt and loathing by the public.’

Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott



John and Susan Newell at their trial.

 

Newell Indictment 20.06.23
(Image courtesy of Glasgow University Archive Services)

 

 

 
 
 
 
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