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The Wombwell Murder
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: June 6, 1903
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: 1861
Victim profile: William Swann (her abusive husband)
Method of murder: Beating
Location: Wombwell, South Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Executed by hanging on December 29, 1903

1903: Emily Swann and John Gallagher, the Wombwell murderers

On December 29, 1903, a 42-year-old mother of 11 was hanged side by side with her 30-year-old lover for murdering an abusive husband in the small South Yorkshire town of Wombwell.

That June, Emily Swann had shown her outgoing boarder and lover John Gallagher (together with some neighbors) the results of William Swann’s latest beating. John returned to the house and repaid the injuries in kind — and with interest.

After some minutes of fighting audible to the neighbors, Bill had been beaten to death.

Emily’s battered-wife situation might cut a lot more ice today, but by the jurisprudence of the day it was a fairly straightforward case, especially since all kinds of incriminating remarks were attributed by the neighbors to both Emily and John — “Give it to him, Johnnie, punch him to death,” for instance, and Gallagher’s own mid-bout respite at a neighbor’s house where he reported having broken four ribs with plans to break more. Both illustrated a level of intent among both parties beyond the heat of passion.

And you wouldn’t say the authorities were disposed to sympathize with Emily’s situation in general. They rather viewed her immorality — with John and otherwise — as the cause of the thrashings William gave her.

Fortified by a stiff drink of brandy, Emily Swann glided onto the platform at Leeds’ Armley Prison beside her already-trussed defender and delivered the somewhat famous greeting, “Good morning John.” Gallagher managed to return the salutation, and a few seconds before both were launched into eternity, she replied, “Good-bye. God bless you.”

It was an unusual exchange because the English execution protocol did not solicit remarks from the doomed prisoner, and in the occasional double hangings,* most participants were too frightened, awed or preoccupied to make small talk with their fellow-sufferers in the few seconds available.

* England would soon do away with double hangings altogether. Subsequent convicts to be hanged “together,” like Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, were in fact executed simultaneously but at different prisons.


Emily Swann & John Gallagher - the Wombwell Murder

It is amazing what a glass of brandy will do! A few minutes before 8 o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, December 29th 1903 Emily Swann was in a state of virtual collapse, moaning pitifully on the floor of her cell and yet after a drink of brandy she was able to regain her composure and walk to the execution room where she said "Good morning John" to her hooded and pinioned boyfriend, John Gallagher, as she was brought up beside him on the gallows in Leeds' Armley prison. He wasn’t aware that she was there and was completely taken aback by this but managed to reply "Good morning love." As the noose was placed round her neck, she said: "Good-bye. God bless you."

The crime

Emily was a 42 year old mother of 11 children. She was described as a stumpy little, round-faced woman, 4 ft 10 in tall and 122 lb. in weight and from a "respectable" background. She was married to William Swann who was a glass-blower and they had a lodger, a 30 year old miner called John Gallagher who was living with them at Wombwell in Yorkshire.

It is probable that Emily and John were having an affair and it was common knowledge to their neighbours that William beat Emily up at times although whether this was because he felt she was too friendly to John or for other reasons is not known. Domestic violence was not uncommon at this time anyway. Attitudes to extra marital relationships and wife beating were very different 100 years ago and it is probable that William felt well within his rights to lay into Emily over her liaison with John.

There had been lots of quarrels and John had decided to leave the Swanns' household, although he was still a regular visitor. His visits always seemed to provoke another fight so he had resolved to leave Wombwell for good in June 1903 and move to Bradford.

Things came to a head on the afternoon of 6th June when Emily went into her neighbour's house with a shawl over her head. She removed the shawl and showed the neighbour her two black eyes and facial bruises, saying: "See what our Bill's done!"

On seeing Emily's injuries, John, who was also at the neighbour's house, became instantly enraged and said "I'll go and give him something for himself for that." Another neighbour saw him dashing into the Swanns' house, followed closely by Emily. John was shouting, "I'll coffin him before morning." The neighbours heard the sounds of a struggle from inside the house.

The noises of fighting went on for some ten minutes, at the end of which John came out and went back to the neighbour's house.

"I've busted four of his ribs and I'll bust four more," he announced. A few minutes later he told the neighbour "I'll finish him out before I go to Bradford." As he went back into the Swanns' house he said "I'll murder the pig before morning. If he can't kick a man he shan't kick a woman." Another fight ensued and the neighbour heard Emily say "Give it to him, Johnny."

Ten minutes later Emily and John emerged from William's house holding hands and being described by neighbours as showing "every sign of affection". Behind them in the shambles of the house William lay dead. John and Emily calmly went over to their friends house and told them the situation.

The police had been sent for and when they arrived they immediately arrested Emily. John however, had escaped and went on the run for two months before finally being tracked down to the house of a relative in Middlesborough, having spent some time living rough.


John and Emily came to trial in October 1903 at Leeds Assizes. Their barrister admitted that the relationship between them was "of a misdirected order" but contended that John had merely gone to the house to remonstrate with William for his brutal treatment of Emily. Their defence insisted that neither John nor Emily wanted William dead.

However the judge advised the jury that John' remark "I'll finish him out before I go to Bradford" showed that there was intent. This remark had been allegedly made between the two fights, after which he had gone back into the house and carried out his threat.

"As for the woman" continued the judge, "it is my duty to tell you that one does not commit murder only with one's hands. If one person instigates another to commit murder, and that other person does it, the instigator is also guilty of murder."

Not surprisingly they were both found guilty of William's murder on what was very clear evidence, the jury taking only an hour in their deliberations.

Emily remained calm as the foreman of the jury gave the guilty verdict and when asked if she wanted to say anything before sentence of death was passed told the judge "I am innocent." "I am not afraid of immediate death, because I am innocent and will go to God." Both she and John were then formally sentenced to death.

The judge was aware of some more evidence which it had been decided would not be put before the jury because it would prejudice Emily's case. After the sentencing and before he discharged the jury the judge told them that when Gallagher was taken into custody he had told the police that Emily hit William and beat him with a poker, and that he (Gallagher) did not touch the dead man, although he was present. "That statement was not direct evidence against the woman but from the proved position of the poker I am convinced that the statement was partly true and that Mrs. Swann did really take part in the actual killing." Understandably this caused quite a stir. It was held up as an example of the fairness of the judicial system which declined to take unfair advantage of an accused person. It was also a matter for satisfaction to the prosecution that even without that vital evidence the jury had still been convinced of the woman's guilt.

After she was sentenced to death Emily seemed quite unperturbed and smiled and kissed her hand to someone in the gallery as she was led down from the dock.

They were taken from court to Armley prison, Leeds and lodged in separate condemned cells.

Both their appeals were turned down and they were informed that would be no reprieves and that their executions would take place on the 29th of December, 1903.

Apparently John had not expected to be reprieved but Emily had hoped that she would be and had had major mood swings in the condemned cell where she was guarded by pair of warderesses 24 hours a day.

Emily was greatly distressed and in a state of near collapse when the governor informed her that there would be no reprieve. Emily told her warderesses repeatedly that she was very worried about the disgrace she was bringing on her family. Emily's family made a last, forlorn appeal to the King for clemency but this was, as usual, ignored.

The only time Emily and John saw each other between sentence and execution was at the prison chapel service on Christmas morning where they were kept separate and not allowed to speak. It is reported that they both ate a substantial Christmas dinner.


At this time double (and even treble hangings) were still allowed and it was decided to execute them together. William Billington was the principal executioner assisted by John Ellis.

They went first to John Gallagher who was quite calm and pinioned his wrists behind him. He was then led forward to the gallows by warders, while Billington and Ellis pinioned the now much recovered Emily whom they escorted into the execution room flanked by two male warders.

John was already on the trap, surrounded and supported by warders, with the white hood over his head when Emily was led in. She would have been able to see the two nooses dangling from the beam. As she came onto the trap Billington drew the white hood over her head and then she made her famous remark. A moment later the lever was pulled and they plummeted down through the trap together. The autopsy found that death had been "instantaneous" in both cases.


This was very much an "open and shut" case where the evidence against both defendants was strong and one which involved the doctrine of Common Purpose that was part of English law in 1903 (and still is now). The law states that if two (or more) people commit a crime they can be held equally responsible where there was common purpose, i.e. they both intended or could have reasonably foreseen the outcome. This seems to have been true in this case - if Emily's words were accurately reported by her neighbours it is clear that at that moment, at least, she wanted John to kill William and therefore would be equally responsible for the outcome. Her precise role in the actual killing is unclear although it is probable that she did in fact take part as John had claimed.

It is unlikely that either John or Emily intended to kill William because he was in the way of their affair but rather because John lost his temper when he saw Emily's injuries and between them things went too far in the "heat of the moment." Today Emily might be seen more as the victim than she was then but they would almost certainly still both be found guilty of murder because she played an active role in the killing and did nothing to restrain John.

The factor that makes this case unusual is the behaviour of Emily on the gallows. Normally not a word was spoken by the prisoner in this situation. They were not invited to speak and many were probably paralysed with fear or had retreated into a world of their own by the time they were pinioned and hooded.

Double hangings were ultimately abolished because they took longer to carry out and this was felt to prolong the suffering of the first prisoner especially. After about 1920 where two or more people were to be executed for the same crime they could be hanged in separate prisons at the same moment in time, as happened with Edith Thompson and her boyfriend, Frederick Bywaters. In this case it was probably far less cruel, especially to Emily, to allow her to die beside John rather than make her suffer on her own. Edith Thompson may well have held up better if she had been allowed to be hanged with Bywaters.

This was the first of a trio of female hangings that John Ellis was involved in and all three had unusual features. Susan Newell refused the white hood and Edith Thompson's was very unpleasant and also involved the killing of the husband by the boyfriend. John Ellis had a very strong dislike of hanging women.



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