British Executions

John Harrison

Age: 31

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 24 Dec 1901

Crime Location: Rose Cottage, Bickerstaffe

Execution Place: Liverpool

Method: hanging

Executioner: William Billington


John Harrison was convicted of the murder of Alice Ann Wright and sentenced to death.

The evidence against him was entirely circumstantial.

John Harrison had married Alice Wright bigamously as she was already married. They had been living together for about five or six months and had gone through the ceremony of marriage in February 1901. Alice Wright was about the same age as John Harrison.

They had just moved to Rose Cottage in Bickerstaffe on 26 July 1901. They had made enquiries about the cottage, which was described as a lonely one, on the evening of 26 July. The following morning, at about 10am, 27 July, they saw the owner and took the cottage, it being noted that they had both appeared to be on friendly terms, with Alice Wright laughing and in good spirits.

The owner of the cottage left them at 10.15am and Alice Wright was never seen alive again.

The next day on 27 July 1901 a girl walked past the cottage at about 1.20pm and saw a broken window and when she looked in she saw the body of Alice Wright on the floor but thought that she was a drunk and had broken in to sleep.

Later that day at 9pm John Harrison went to Rose Farm and told them that he had just found his wife dead, saying, ‘My wife is dead and cold'. The farmer said he told him to go for a policeman  and noted that John Harrison was then excited and had had a lot to drink.

John Harrison then went to the policeman's house at 4 Lane Ends, arriving at 9.30pm, but he was not there and he spoke to his wife and told her that his wife was dead, and added, 'she seems as if someone had been messing with her throat'.

John Harrison then went the road in search of a policeman and later arrived at the Horse Shoe Inn where he repeated to a man there that he had found his wife dead and asked for a policeman.

He at last met a policeman between 10 and 11pm, and told him that he had found Alice Wright dead in a house on the Marsh, saying, 'I left her at 2 o'clock to go to St Helens and when I came back I found her dead'. The policeman asked John Harrison whether there were any marks of violence and John Harrison said, 'I do not know, I never looked, I came straight away'. It was later noted that that was different to what he had told the policeman's wife, to whom he had said, 'someone messing about with her throat'.

They then went to see a police sergeant and the sergeant asked John Harrison when he last saw Alice Wright and John Harrison replied, 'About 2 o'clock this afternoon. I left the cottage to go to Rainford to draw my money. I work at Rainford Sidings. She was well and hearty when I left home. I walked to St Helens and back. I do not know the time I got back it was near dusk'.

He later said to the police inspector, 'I left the house about 2 o'clock on Saturday and returned about 6 o'clock'. Again, that was compared to his previous statement in which he had said that he had got back at about dusk, which was at 9pm.

Further, with regards to John Harrison's claim that he had gone to Rainford to draw his money, the clerk of the colliery said that John Harrison drew his money last on Friday 26 July 1901 and that that was the last time he saw him.

It was further noted that his statement before the Coroner with regards to his movements was vague and that amongst other things he had said that he had seen a man whom under he worked, but the man denied that he had seen him on 26 July 1901.

When the police arrived at Rose Cottage they found that Alice Wright had been strangled but was also lying in a pool of blood from a wound to her hand.

They had arrived at the cottage between 1 or 2am and found Alice Wright lying in an inner room with her head resting on a step in a natural position and her legs crossed easily and her straw hat placed on her head with the hat pin going through the straw hat from side to side, but not passing through her hair. There were signs of a struggle in the room and traces of blood, and the police and doctors came to the conclusion that Alice Wright had been murdered in the middle of the room and placed where she was found.

They later found that John Harrison had blood on his shirt sleeve and his knuckles were bruised and the police found dry blood under the thumbnail of his right hand and also what appeared to be blood between the web of his fingers.

He said that he had left the cottage at 2pm and walked to St Helens where he had been drinking with a man in the Prince of Wales Inn. However, when the police checked his story the man he had referred to said that he had been in the pub all day but hadn't seen John Harrison. It was further noted that the girl had seen the body of Alice Wright at 1.20pm which was 40 minutes before the time that John Harrison had said he had left.

Another notable feature of the case was that the right hand pane of the window was broken from the inside and on the left hand or opposite pane was the impression of a left hand  imprint on the dust of the window, four finger tips, palm and thumb. It was further noted that Alice Wright had wounds on her right hand, right thumb and wrist, the inference being that she might have thrust her hand through the window in the course of the struggle.

Her arms were much bruised and in addition to the signs of strangulation, on the right side of her neck, there was a lacerated wound having the appearance of a wound coming from a man's thumb nail, and on the nail of the thumb of John Harrison's hand, the doctor found blood as well as underneath the nail and round by the quick.

The witnesses as to the events between John Harrison's presence at the cottage at 10am and his return at 9pm and other events in the intermediate time were as follows:

The 15-year-old girl that passed the cottage at 1.20pm and saw the glass of the window broken. she said that when she looked in that she saw a white straw hat and a dark covering and thought that it was a drunken man asleep. She said that she could only tell the time from the fact of the 1.17pm train passing, which was noted as being not an uncommon thing for the poorer people who did not carry watches to fix time by the passing of local trains. As such, it was noted that if her evidence was true that Alice Wright had been murdered before the time that John Harrison himself gave as to when he left the cottage, that being 2pm.

The 15-year-old girl's evidence as to the broken glass was also confirmed by another woman that had passed the cottage at about 2pm and noticed glass lying underneath the window.

One man however gave evidence stating that he saw John Harrison coming from the cottage and going towards Skelmersdale a little past one, however, he was severely cross-examined at the trial.

Another man said that he thought that he saw John Harrison at 2pm in the Fox and Goose public house and he also picked him out at an identity parade. However, it was further noted that it was curious that only he, out of all the people that had been in the pub, had recognised John Harrison, which was further highlighted by the fact that he said that John Harrison had been acting in an eccentric manner.

A woman said that she saw John Harrison on 27 July 1901 at 5pm when he asked her the way to Rainford.

It was additionally noted that if a map was consulted and the evidence of the three witnesses considered, that it was clear that John Harrison would have been going a long way out of the direct road to Rainford and St Helens.

It was noted that the evidence against John Harrison was wholly circumstantial and was described as of a negative  character, and to have born most hardly against him on account of the  conflicting statements he made both with regard to himself and also about his finding of Alice Wright.

John Harrison was convicted at the Liverpool Assizes on Monday 2 December 1901 and sentenced to death.

Following his conviction he sent up a petition which was mainly an attempt to account for the blood on his clothes.

It was noted that he gave no satisfactory story of his movements on the day of the murder in either the petition or in his letter to his sister.

There was also a petition put forward after his conviction by his solicitor, which was described as a many sided defence which submitted the following:

  1. First he disputed portions of the evidence as being insufficient to establish the crime.
  2. He next suggested that the act was committed in a struggle and that if committed by John Harrison, was manslaughter rather than murder.
  3. He also referred to the reports of the prison medical officer that showed that John Harrison was on the borderland of insanity.
  4. He finally claimed that the verdict was not justified by the facts.

It was also submitted in some quarters that John Harrison had been convicted on circumstantial evidence and ought not be executed. An article in the Liverpool Daily Post on 19 December 1901 recalled a case from the end of the eighteenth century in which a man was convicted of the murder of his brother, whose body was not found, and executed, on purely circumstantial evidence. It was narrated that the two brothers had lived together in a house not far from the Sussex coast and that one morning the brother who was executed woke up to find that his brother was missing and that his bed contained a quantity of blood and spots of blood were traced leading out of the house by the back door and down to the cliffs.

It was said that the brother, who had given the alarm, was unable to offer any explanation, and although he protested his innocence, he was tried and convicted and executed.

However, the brother who he was supposed to have murdered later showed up and said that he had been seized during the night with a violent fit of bleeding at the nose and had got up and gone outside towards the cliffs in the hope that the fresh air would relieve him. However, whilst there he came across a gang of smugglers who mistook him for a spy and, disbelieving his story, they carried him away on their ship which had been discharging contraband. He later found himself at the Barbados from where he took the first passage home, only to discover that his brother had been executed.

The writer then compared the case of John Harrison, noting that it had not been proved that John Harrison had murdered Alice Wright. The author noted that Alice Wright herself was a bigamist as she was already married in Yarmouth and questioned the evidence of the primary witnesses, including the girl who said she saw Alice Wright in the cottage at 1.20pm. The author also noted that it was not proven that the window was broken during the murder struggle. It was added that the fact that John Harrison had possession of Alice Wright's purse and money, which was otherwise considered to be common between them, or even John Harrison's own money, proved nothing as did the claim that they had been known to argue or the fact that John Harrison had been unable to prove his alibi, it being noted that he was poor and of low position. It was also said that if he had wanted to get rid of Alice Wright that he could have easily gone on the tramp.

The author noted the principles of the benefit of the doubt, stating that whilst he might be guilty, he had not been proven guilty and that whilst there was doubt that the jury had a duty to offer the prisoner the benefit of that doubt. The words of Erskine were also referred to, 'Before you can adjudge a fact, you must believe it, not suspect it, or imagine it, or fancy it, but believe it'. The author then noted the difference between material facts and evidentiary facts and the difference between murder and manslaughter and finally submitted that in the case of John Harrison that to execute him might be murder in itself and that for the sake of all that was respectable in English criminal justice that he ought to be reprieved.

However, the sentence was not interfered with and John Harrison was executed at Liverpool by William Billington on 24 December 1901.

He was said to have slept well and to have walked firmly to the scaffold and his death was said to have been instantaneous.

see National Archives - ASSI 52/57, HO 144/574/A63039

see Western Times - Friday 06 December 1901

see Lincolnshire Chronicle - Friday 06 December 1901

see Liverpool Daily Post - Thursday 19 December 1901

see The Scotsman - Wednesday 25 December 1901

see Dundee Courier - Wednesday 25 December 1901