My father told me that my grandmother’s people owned a pub in Ballybricken, from which there was a clear view of the old gaol. At this time in the late 1800s the custom was that criminals would be hanged publicly and Waterford gaol was the scene of many such hangings and so the pub did good business on those occasions.
The Waterford gaol is long gone, replaced by municipal buildings now. But in its day it had a very imposing cut limestone front which housed a massive arched door about twenty feet high, above which there was a superstructure rising to perhaps fifty feet which framed an arch with an opening some eight feet high.
When a hanging was to take place a platform and a gibbet emerged from this archway and the unfortunate criminal would be dropped through a trapdoor in the platform in clear view of the assembled gathering. This of course was a horrific sight and was meant to be a lesson to all would be wrongdoers.
The last hanging at this site was witnessed, I am told by my grandmother and her story as passed onto my father is as follows:
The man to be hanged was convicted of killing a relative and the family was well known in the area but as the date of the execution drew near the official hangman refused to do the job and the authorities were forced to hire an out of town hangman. This man, however, was killed, being hit by a brick on the back of the head while walking up a dark alley in the city and the hanging had to be postponed pending the appointment of a substitute.
For some unknown reason another professional could not be found and the job was on offer to anyone who would take it. In the event a man was given the job as a once off and he agreed provided he wore a hood and thereby remained anonymous, but he was not a professional.
Now I should tell you that the rope at the gibbet was secured to a drum, which had a stop mechanism, allowing a selected length of rope to run off when the weight of the man came on it.
On the day however, this inexpert hangman, neglected to check the stop mechanism, which was ‘off’ and when he shot the bolt opening the trapdoor, the rope paid out without stopping and the unfortunate man fell down into the street. At this point the hangman, not to be outdone, operated the drum manually and winched his victim back up through the trapdoor and declared him dead.
A sequel to this story occurred, when my father was a boy and happened to be in my grandfather’s shop one day when a rough looking old man came in for some bread. One of the shop hands, whose name was Neddy Eustace, had some words with this man and a fierce altercation erupted between the two. It ended abruptly when Neddy shouted. “Who shot the bolt?” and then ran down John Street with the man in hot pursuit. Neddy however, being the younger, soon lost him by running up Crossbottle Lane and down the back lane
Later on Neddy told my father that the old man was the one who did the last public execution in Waterford. The secret was not as well kept as it might have been.
About Geoff Cronin – 1923 – 2017
There were few jobs that Geoff could not turn his hands to, and over the years he mastered an impressive number of professional undertakings. Master baker and confectioner, mobile cinema operator, salesman, band leader, senior executive and master wood turner, storyteller and writer.
Geoff Cronin published his first book in 2005 at age 82. The Colour of Life is a collection of stories of life in Waterford during his childhood and early adulthood in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This was followed by two further books that related tales of further adventures in Waterford and Dublin.
Thank you for dropping in today and you can read The Colour of Life and the previous chapters of The Black Bitch in this directory: