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 eight 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 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 photo, right, is of Susan at her trial.
On the evening of Wednesday, June the 20th, 1923 around 6 45 p.m., 13 year old newspaper boy, John Johnson, (see photo) 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 downstairs and put it in an old pram, which she had found, still covered by the rug. With Janet perched on top of the bundle, they set off together on foot towards Glasgow. Several people noticed 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 her 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.
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 stepfather 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. The wording of the Scottish death sentence was quite different to the English version. Lord Alness told her “In respect of the verdict returned in your case, I discern and adjudge you, Susan Newell, panel, be carried to the prison of Glasgow, therein to be detained until the 10th day of October next, and on that date between the hours 8 an 10 o’clock forenoon, within the walls of the said prison at the hands of the common executioner, to be hanged by the neck on a gibbet till you be dead, and you body thereafter to be buried within the walls of the said prison, and your whole moveable goods are discerned to be escheat and forfeit to His Majesty’s use. And I pronounce this for doom.”
No woman had been hanged in Scotland since 1889 (Jessie King) 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 William Willis. (Ellis heartily disliked executing female prisoners and there was some sort of incident at each of the three he did. The other two were Emily Swann and Edith Thompson) 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 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 loose 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.
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 9 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 a “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.