British Executions

John James Thornley

Age: 26

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 1 Dec 1915

Crime Location: 140 Devonport Street, Macclesfield

Execution Place: Liverpool

Method: hanging

Executioner: John Ellis


John James Thornley was convicted of the murder of his former sweetheart Frances Johnson 24 and sentenced to death.

He cut her throat in Devonport Street, Macclesfield in the early morning of 18 September 1915.

Frances Johnson had worked at a cotton mill.

John Thornley was a railway lampman employed with the North Staffordshire Railway Company and had been walking out with Frances Johnson for two and a half years, however, they had a quarrel and Frances Johnson gave John Thornley back her engagement ring.

He was later heard to say that if he could not have her, that no one else should.

John Thornley went to her house on the night of 17 September 1915, her parents having just gone off to holiday the day before in Cleethorpes, and broke in. It was thought that he had gone round the back and scaled the wall and broken in via the back window.

He was seen going upstairs by another girl going up the stairs, but it was said that he was only in the house for a few minutes.

Frances Johnson was later found dead in her bedroom with her throat cut, her arms gashed and a cut in her head. She had a shoemaker's knife clasped in her hand which it was thought to have been the murder weapon.

During the week, another 17-year-old girl had been sleeping at the house with Frances Johnson. They had been sleeping together until the Friday night when Frances Johnson asked the girl to sleep in the front room whilst she would sleep in the back bedroom.

On the evening of 17 September 1915, Frances Johnson and the 17-year-old girl had spent the evening at the theatre, and on their way their they saw John Thornley standing by the post office at Park Green. They also saw him in the theatre and then again saw him again on the way home in Brook Street.

The 17-year-old girl said, 'We went to bed about 10.40pm on Friday night, Miss Johnson sleeping in the back room and myself in the front. During this morning, between midnight and two o'clock, I heard a rattling of the windows, and I thought somebody was breaking in. Something told me it was Thornley, and the next I heard was the table bang. I then heard the kitchen door rattle, followed by a creaking on the stairs. I jumped out of bed, looked over the banisters, and by the reflection of the gas lamp outside I saw Thornley coming up the stairs. I rushed back into bed and listened. A moment later I heard the deceased girl give three screams, and the last words she uttered were, 'Oh, father!' Later I heard the man go down the stairs, as though out of breath, and he lit the gas in the kitchen. I was terrified and covered myself up in the bed clothes. I heard his footsteps over the top of the shed. When it came daylight, which was about five o'clock, being curious as to what had happened, I opened the window and shouted to a young woman across the road to fetch somebody quick. Three young fellows came in, including my brother-in-law. He shouted to deceased, and receiving no answer, peeped into the bedroom and found her lying on the bed covered with blood. Her throat had been cut and a pillow was thrown over the face'.

It was later determined that she had been attacked whilst she was asleep.

When Frances Johnson was found, a note was also found in her bedroom addressed to Frances Johnson's father and stepmother that read, 'Dear Pa and Ma, I told you I would kill or cure Frances, and have done it. I hope you will forgive me for breaking God's holy law'.

John Thornley was seen shortly after jumping into a canal and his coat was found on the canal towpath near the Buxton Road bridge. The licensee of the Puss in Boots Inn which was near the canal said that he saw a man in the water at about 5am but said that he saw him get out again. It was thought that he was seen shortly after by a boatman from Droylsden who saw a man walking along the tow path in the direction of Hertsfield Bridge. He said that the man was hatless and had not been wearing a coat or waistcoat.

John Thornley was arrested two days later at a farm in High Poynton where he had begged for food.

Frances Johnson's parents were informed by telegram.

John Thornley appealed his sentence on 16 November 1915 saying that although his defence had put forward a plea of insanity, which they thought was the only defence that they could raise, that he had in fact not committed the crime. However, the appeal judges stated that there was no doubt that he had written the letters and said that he had had a fair trial with all that could be urged in his favour having been said and his appeal was dismissed.

He was executed on 1 December 1915 at Liverpool Prison along with Young Hill.

see Chester Chronicle - Saturday 30 October 1915

see Birmingham Mail - Wednesday 01 December 1915

see Staffordshire Sentinel - Saturday 18 September 1915

see Birmingham Daily Post - Tuesday 16 November 1915

see Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer - Tuesday 21 September 1915

see Dundee Evening Telegraph - Wednesday 27 October 1915

see Manchester Evening News - Monday 15 November 1915

see Western Times - Tuesday 28 September 1915

see National Archives - HO 144/1441/302303