Dun Cow – The Hangman’s Pub

his pub is probably the oldest in Durham. It was the scene of a nationally famous incident in August 1883 that is now all but forgotten in the city.


For about 160 years, from the early 19th century to the mid 1960’s the Dun Cow had strong connections to the gruesome practise of judicial execution by hanging. Prior to 1805 hangings too place in public at various locations between Durham and Framwellgate Moor, especially at Dryburn close to the site of University Hospital of North Durham. Here a Catholic priest was hanged, drawn and quartered for practising his religion in Tudor times. Other sites were the playing fields of St Leonard’s RC Comprehensive and Wharton Park. There is also a site called Gibbet Hill in Flass Vale close to the former County Hospital, where bodies were hanged in chains as a warning.

When the new prison in Old Elvet was opened hangings took place in public on the wall of the prison facing the Dun Cow, and the hangman enjoyed the hospitality of the inn until it was time to walk the short distance across the road to do his duty. It is clear from the records that the people of Durham regarded these executions as a fine entertainment and they drew considerable crowds.  For instance at midday on Monday 28th February 19-year-old Thomas Clark was hanged for the murder of 17-year-old Mary Ann Westhorpe at Hallgarth Mill near Sherburn before a crowd of about 15,000 people. Three doors up from the Dun Cow there is a white-painted balcony that was hired out so that people could get a good view.

The executioner was well paid for his services but often supplemented his payment by selling souvenirs, such as inch-long pieces of the rope used for the execution which were widely regarded as lucky charms. This was a practise that had been carried forward since at least Tudor times when body pieces from a hanged man fetched a high price as ingredients in black magic spells. The ultimate souvenir was the hand of an executed criminal that had been coated in tar prior to gibbeting. This was called a “hand of glory” because if a flame was applied to the fingertips they burnt like a candle and were believed to be particularly good as a source of light for secretive deeds like burglary.

Eventually the Dun Cow became the venue for bizarre parties on the evening before and after the execution, with the hangman telling his stories to an attentive audience and selling his inches of souvenir rope around a roaring coal fire. After the brutal hanging of infamous mass-murderer Mary Ann Cotton on 24th March 1873 executioner William Calcraft sold so many inches of rope that it was said that the pieces would have stretched from the Dun Cow to the Half Moon at the other end of Old Elvet, despite the fact that the rope he used was only about a metre long. Money for old rope indeed.

The brutality of Calcraft’s methods forced his retirement and the next hangman to stay at the Dun Cow was Britain’s most famous hangman, William Marwood. In contrast to his predecessor elderly Billy Marwood was a genuine humanitarian. He had witnessed a hanging as a young boy and it had shocked him so much that he was determined to make the process less painful.

 He developed the technique of “long drop” hanging (still used in many countries today) whereby the victim is subjected to a carefully calculated drop of between 1.5 to 2 metres which, in conjunction with a fast-running noose breaks the victim’s neck just below the base of the skull, destroying the lower part of the brainstem and causing instant brain death. In addition all of his hangings took place out of the sight of the public before a selected audience inside Durham prison.

Marwood’s humanitarianism did not prevent him from making a lot of money from his position however. He made frequent appearances at agricultural shows showing off his equipment. Madam Taussad’s Waxworks was tremendously popular and Marwood sold the clothes of his victims to cloth the waxwork figures that were usually displayed after the execution of a particularly notorious murderer. He was paid £10 per execution (a lot of money at the time) and clearly enjoyed the perk of free rail travel. Overall, it seems Marwood started off as a quiet unassuming man who eventually became overwhelmed by the fame and fortune that was thrust upon him. He enjoyed everything about the job except the actual process of killing, which he hated. There is evidence he began drinking heavily before executions.

 His parties at the Dun Cow came to an abrupt end however after the nationwide scandal following the infamous botched hanging of James Burton on Saturday August 4th 1883. Details vary according to the source but it seems that Burton stumbled just before the trap opened and bounced off the side of the pit as he descended. Looking down into the pit it was clear to Marwood that Burton was alive and struggling at the end of the rope. Marwood hauled the unfortunate man up by the rope and sat him on a chair while the trap was reset. Burton’s neck was broken and he was in tremendous pain. He moaned “God have mercy on me.” Marwood placed Burton on the trap still sitting on the chair with the rope around his neck and dropped him again. According to the results of an autopsy that took place the following morning Burton died of slow strangulation.

Click here to see the Illustrated Police News , 15 November 1883 with a picture of the botched hanging

Marwood had become famous (and made a lot of money) through his reputation of having been able to dispatch his 178 victims painlessly. The national newspapers, whose reporters had watched the execution had a field day over the unfortunate turn of events  and for two weeks the Dun Cow was the centre of national publicity  The Sunderland Echo alleged that Marwood was still too drunk to do his job properly that fateful morning after having taken too much Dun Cow hospitality. The 65-year-old hangman died two weeks later, devastated.

Within a very short time he was followed by his wife and having no children their property was auctioned off, including his dog. His fame continued to grow because of stories that the couple had been assassinated by the Irish terrorist group the Feenians in revenge for hanging some of their members. Another theory was that as he left the Dun Cow for his appointment with Burton he was tapped on the shoulder and cursed by a gypsy for some reason. 

Within a couple of years souvenir hunters chipped pieces off Marwood’s tombstone until it disappeared completely and had to be replaced. His fame lived on for years later in the children’s riddle

“If Pa killed Ma, who would kill Pa?     Marwood!

Strangely enough poor Jimmy Burton’s fame lasted even longer. Even today people talk about “going for a Burton” when they talk about a trip or fall, without knowing the origin of the phrase.

Eventually, after several other unfortunate incidents the conduct of the executioner was subjected to increasingly rigorous scrutiny. Around 1900 the overnight stays at the Dun Cow were stopped and the hangman and his assistant were required to report to the prison by 4 pm on the day before the hanging where they stayed until it was over. They were required to test the equipment rigorously and practise the execution over and over again. Eventually they became so efficient that the time between them entering the execution chamber and having the prisoner dead at the end of the rope was as little as 10 seconds. 

All this rehearsing was thirsty work and the hangman and his assistant were allowed a moderate supply of beer.  The condemned man was also allowed a quart of ale to steady his nerves if it was his last request on the eve of his execution.  All of this came from the Dun Cow, in a flagon, covered with a cloth.

The last hanging at Durham was the execution of army deserter, Brian Chandler, at 9.00 am on Wednesday 19th December 1958.  It was feared that this strapping six footer was not going to go to his fate quietly, but as it turned out he accepted his fate meekly, possibly as a result of the hospitable donation from the Dun Cow.

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