The Hanging Judge

Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'

It was a humid afternoon, and I had been fanning myself with a copy of The Times in Sidney Wainwright’s Greenwich studio after the most gruelling court case I had experienced in my time as a lawyer. For myself, there was nothing more to be said on the matter—and the murderer Fredericks had been my client. I still remember how much more uncomfortable I became when Sidney Wainwright turned to me from his typewriter with such disappointment in his eyes.

“Revenge, Jerome,” he said after a long moment. “Barbarity.”

Sid was of that generation that still referred to almost everyone, even those they knew well, by their surnames. “Is it not but a blood sacrifice upon the public altar of paranoia? He maintained his innocence to you all along, did he not?”

“Of course, most do.”

“And it was up to you to make sure that he had every chance of avoiding that cruellest of fates. What if he were innocent?”

“Innocent? You have not seen the evidence, Sid. What his victims went through! I would have sat in the presiding chair myself if I could have.” I knew calling him ‘Sid’ annoyed the old man, but over the time we had known each other he had begrudgingly accepted the fact that that was what I liked to call him.

“Yet we both know that wrongful convictions, even in murder trials, can eventuate.” Seeing my discomfort, the old man leaned across his desk and opened the windows to give us some ventilation. “Dear me, we are a very judgmental species.” Turning himself in his chair he considered the disquiet of his temperamental young lawyer friend.

“Well, say something, Sid. Tell me how ignorant I am,” I fumed. Wainwright just smiled. He had those eyes now, the same eyes he always got. I knew he was going to tell me a story.

“Let me tell you of Justice Fletcher Roberts,” Wainwright began. “He was from a similar vein as Baron Jeffreys, and he had earned himself the very same nickname, ‘The Hanging Judge’. He was too quick to forget the lessons of history, the lesson of William Harrison, the Campden Wonder. Now you know of that one don’t you, Jerome?” I nodded, and so Sidney began to relate to me the events of the year without summer. He knew I loved a ghost story, but this was something else entirely.

*

In the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and sixteen Elijah Hamill disappeared on the Gloucester Road. A young man had been brought before the Oxford Assizes to answer for what crime there was perceived to be. Martin Wood claimed no knowledge of the crime, and said he had found Mr Hamill’s purse, his hat and his cane by the wayside.

“But there is no body, M’Lord,” the jury had said, echoing the well-established legal precedent of the time that without a body there can be no murder. With Justice Fletcher Roberts, however, such an inconvenient fact would provide no obstruction to the harsh justice for which he was well renowned in many counties. The lessons of history to him were just that, history. And today there were several interested parties watching on, for Elijah Hamill had been a gentleman of some standing, and the sinister nature of his disappearance had alarmed his peers, people with whom the Justice felt he should be better acquainted.

They wanted revenge to make them feel safe in their beds.

“Then tell us if this man hath robbed his victim,” he said. And he led the jury to the only conclusion that he had ever had upon his mind. “The scales of justice must, and will, be balanced.” And so it was that Fletcher Roberts went about his work, with an evangelical fervour, to see that the lower classes knew their place. For those who did not understand how the delicate fabric of society was to be kept from being ripped apart, as it had been in Europe, there was the persuasion of the rope to help them see sense.

“Guilty” was how they found the scrawny young fellow. The harshness of prison, or worse, his transportation, should have awaited the accused, but Fletcher Roberts would not be satisfied with any but the ultimate sanction which the law allowed him. The onlookers that day, and even the jury themselves were horrified at the prospect, but so it was that the unfortunate verdict of the court was to hang poor Martin Wood.

“Spare the lad!” they had called on hearing the dreadful sentence. “Save him!” they had cried as he was led to the scaffold. “Pity his poor father! Oh, pity his poor mother,” they had beseeched their children when the young man, barely of age, was put to death.

Martin was resolute for all to see—a lamb, just as the lamb of god had been put to the slaughter.

“Our father in heaven,” young Martin had begun, as he was made to mount the scaffold. “Hallowed be thy name,” he stammered, finding the unblinking eyes of Justice Roberts on a balcony beyond the gathered crowd. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Yet in that final moment, the lad who knew his conscience was clear faltered to tears as the noose was tightened around his neck. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Fletcher Roberts did not even blink. “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Martin had huffed and puffed those final few breaths, his body trying in vain to use up the heartbeats of a lifetime. “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever—” But the trap door had opened and his feet had slipped into nothingness before Martin Wood could utter his “Amen.”

Such a scene, even for the hardy crowd that witnessed it, was not easily forgotten. The sad affair, the final moments of poor Martin Wood, would live forever etched in the minds of all who were there that day. It would visit them at night, it would cause them to stir, the way in which so easily a young man who had his whole life ahead of him could be slaughtered. They dreaded to think of him now, disposed of as rubbish, in an unmarked grave in the confines of the prison, like so many other unfortunate victims of Fletcher Roberts.

Perhaps you have heard of the year eighteen hundred and sixteen? It is famous as “the year without summer”. Britain and Ireland saw a failed harvest from the cold and the rain. Famine hit hard in Wales, driving many on great ventures for some simple sustenance. Some say such weather was from the great eruptions of volcanoes in the most distant and exotic parts of the globe. Others called it an act of God, to punish an ever more depraved society.

The wonders of Galvani’s discoveries of animal electricity and the work of many others to understand the invisible forces at play in our world were all the rage at the Royal Society. The questions of science and of the divine seemed to intersect more believably than ever before.

Those who had sparked this revolution were unaware of the consequences of their exploits, both for science, and the imagination. For amongst the rain and the cold came the storms. Thunder and lightning echoed the shades of Waterloo, then but a year prior, and you will no doubt know of those creations of Shelley and Byron that came from such darkness.

Eighteen hundred and sixteen was also the year that Fletcher Roberts would decide to make an apology. For anyone who knew the man, or his reputation, it would have been quite an unexpected event, and perhaps they would have put it down to such unusual weather.

Of all people, it was a gravedigger at the nearby cemetery that Fletcher Roberts would feel he had aggrieved, for he had, upon reflection, behaved in a most despicable manner to the poor man. Such folk needed encouragement in their honesty, and an honest apology from a Judge would set the proper example.

That day the rain was tumbling upon the Justice’s umbrella as he went out. The drops splashed on the road, wetting the legs of his breeches and he shivered uncontrollably as he touched the wrought iron gate to the graveyard. Pushing it open he could just make out the diggers working on the very crest of the hill, beside a small mausoleum. With a tinge of guilt and an unfamiliar feeling of embarrassment, Fletcher Roberts recalled the incident of fifteen days before for which he had to make amends.

The incident weighing on his mind occurred three months after young Martin Wood had been publicly hanged. During that time, thoughts of the young man had not troubled Fletcher Roberts in the slightest. The scales of lady justice had been balanced and he had hanged many an “unfeeling miscreant” in his day. It had been one evening in July, and the old Justice had been content to be reading in his armchair by the fire, pipe in hand. The famine and the suffering were very far away indeed as he read his book. From his very comfortable apartment in town Fletcher Roberts was able to contemplate the unusual summer at his leisure, with very little inconvenience or suffering on his own part, except perhaps a lack of the best produce for his kitchen.

This particular night, however, Justice Roberts was not to be left in peace. The housekeeper had given a knock on the door.

“Beggin’ ya pardin, sir, but there’s a workman ’ere t’ call on ye’ an-”

“I am not to be disturbed, Jones!”

“He says it’s urgent sir, it cannot wait. He says it’s about the last assizes.” Poor Mrs Jones stood trembling in the spidery shadow that Fletcher Roberts, in his high-backed chair, cast from the firelight. She was a kindly woman but lived in fear of her master. She above all others knew how harsh he could be. Allowing a fire in her own quarters was simply out of any economic reckoning to him. She could bear it now, even if it was a much colder summer than usual, but come each winter her room was always an ice box.

“I provide you with more than enough shawls and blankets out of my own generous pocket already!” Fletcher Roberts would say, were Mrs Jones ever to bring up the topic. And were she ever to light even a small warming blaze in the dusty hearth and he found out, she dreaded to think…

As for Fletcher Roberts, he really felt he had impressed upon Mrs Jones enough times how important it was to his reputation that riff-raff be kept out of any part of the house where guests could be entertained. How otherwise could he possibly hope to ensure a place in those more illustrious spheres of the best and brightest of high society?

But with his wide-eyed servant standing there the Justice gave a great sigh and thrust his book down in resignation.

“Send him in then,” he condescended with a wave of his hand.

A moment later a very scruffy man, exceedingly out of place in such surroundings, had come into the Justice’s opulent parlour. He was a man whom Fletcher Roberts would have passed many a time, as he worked not a mile distant at the cemetery as a gravedigger.

The fellow was only in his late thirties but could have been twenty years older. He had such a bald patch that it had grown shiny amid small tufts of what little hair remained around the sides of his scalp, and his face was covered in warts and boils. The man’s clothes were little more than loose rags, although this did not deter him from straightening them as he had entered the room. Indeed the Justice would have passed him many a time, but hardly noticed him.

“G’ev’nin’, m’lord! Do forgive m’ intrusions!” said the fellow, cap in hand.

“Be quick and sharp about your business man,” was his only welcome.

“Well, m’lord, of course, I wouldn’t be disturbin’ ya’ if it weren’t of supreme importance to ya’ reverence.”

“Quite!”

“There’s a man I know, ya’ see, sir, I’ve been nursin’ ’im back to ’ealth these past weeks.”

“Very noble of you, I’m sure,” said Fletcher Roberts, his thumb and forefinger rubbing his eyes in boredom.

“He keeps mentionin’ ya’ name, though, sir. He says you’ll reckon ’e’s dead when he ain’t ya see.”

“What?” Fletcher Roberts almost choked as he drew in too harshly on his pipe.

“He wants to speak with ya, says you need to know somethin’, it seems very important to ’im and—”

“Out with you!”

“But sir—”

“OUT, I SAID! Before I have you in irons!” And so it was that the justice, furious at his housekeeper for letting in such a crackpot in the first place, with walking cane brandished overhead, chased the poor gravedigger right out of the room, down the hall and kept on his tail until he was well out in the street.

That was the last that Fletcher Roberts heard from the gravedigger. For the housekeeper was very careful from that night onwards to see the man chased off whenever he came back to try again. Her master’s wrath had created a new-found diligence in such matters, and the Justice need never know that the fellow was still calling upon the house. In any case, he soon forgot about the whole incident, until a fortnight later.

The Justice brought his focus back to the present. For a long moment, Fletcher Roberts hesitated at the entrance to the graveyard, his hand still resting upon the cold iron. He almost thought the better of making the slimy trudge up the hill when one of the gravediggers looked up from his work. It was the man who had come to the Justice’s house.

The gravedigger waved towards the Justice. There was no getting out of the meeting now. He only hoped he could find the words without appearing foolish. With most of Fletcher Roberts’ lower half already soaked, he thought less of the amount of water his shoes would throw up at him and he paced through the puddles to meet the gravedigger.

Roberts soon came to the muddy hill and it was no time at all before he and the gravedigger were huddling under the same umbrella. The gravedigger seemed to be quite startled by the gentleman’s generosity in letting him share the small amount of canvas cover. The Justice supposed the man hadn’t expected to see him ever again.

“I’ve come to apologise my good man!” said Fletcher Roberts. The gravedigger blinked the rain from around his eyes.

“’Tis alright sir, I know it’s a strange business indeed.” The gravedigger shivered violently. It rippled up his body in such manner as only the hardiest of men could have kept smiling as he did.

“Indeed it is, but you tried to tell me.”

“I only did as I saw fit ’n’ proper m’lord. The poor fellow, ’e’s been through terrible much ya’ see. Everyone thinkin’ him dead too, that woul’ do to kill off my soul certain sure. He kept on going on about bein’ wronged, but I s'pose anyone would feel that way. Must ’a’ b’in some misunderstandin’, I did say!”

Fletcher Roberts fumbled with his purse and produced a small amount of coin for his sheltering companion. “Please do buy yourself and your men a warming drink when at last you finish your day’s work.”

“Tha’ I will, sir. Tha’ I will!” said the gravedigger, now with the wide grateful grin of a man of his station for whom the simple pleasures in life were enough.

“I shall be going then, I bid you good day!”

“Good day t’ ya’, sir, but, may I ask, how did y’ lordship know I’d b’in tellin’ the truth?” Fletcher Roberts had already turned to retrace his steps when the gravedigger’s question brought the previous evening’s events to his mind with vivid clarity.

It had been the shouting and commotion coming from the entrance hall that last night that had caught his attention. Alarmed by Mrs Jones’s shrieks, Fletcher Roberts rose from his chair, glass of port still in hand, and hurried out to the hall. When he found her by the front door apologising to a very well dressed and respectable looking gentleman, the Justice gave a very curt inquiry into the meaning of the disturbance.

It turned out that the housekeeper, so willing to please her master, and so annoyed at the gravedigger’s persistence, had shouted her threats upon opening the door without checking first to see who the occupant of the doorstep was.

A vein almost popped in Fletcher Roberts’ temple as he wished to admonish the silly lady then and there. Given the appearance of their company, however, he thought the better of it.

The gentleman before them was obviously of very high standing, with a feathered tricorn hat and the finest navy-blue jacket the Justice had ever seen. The golden lining was of the very highest quality and yet was not too overpowering. “Do forgive my maid, sir!” said Roberts, brushing Mrs Jones aside. “Please do come in.”

The gentleman’s reaction, although difficult to discern in the darkness and behind his large spectacles, appeared to be one of impassivity. His flesh had a strange coldness behind it, as if the vitality of the man within had somehow been drained away. Fletcher Roberts’ nerves were running high as he saw his guest through to the drawing room, not knowing at all what his caller’s thoughts were on his unsavoury welcome.

A softly spoken “Thank you” was floated as the gentleman took in his surroundings, then warmed himself by the fire. As he stood in front of the flames he removed his hat and placed it on the mantel-shelf.

“Will you take wine, sir?” The gentleman simply stared into the flames in front of his feet, seemingly not having heard his host. “Do-forgive-the-welcome-again-sir,” Fletcher Roberts blurted out with a speed not half the force of the anxiety he felt. “I will speak to Mrs Jones later. She has been under considerable stress of late. How is it that I could help you this evening?”

“I beg your pardon,” the gentleman began. “I don’t know where to begin.” Those words had been how his previous caller, the gravedigger, had also begun to explain his business. A knot twisted in the Justice’s stomach, and he thought it best he at least pour himself another large glass.

“Why don’t you begin at the beginning?” he said. “It is the way we in the legal profession conduct things. Every detail is usually then in its proper place, you see.”

“Perhaps that would be for the best then,” said the gentleman, for the first time, looking Fletcher Roberts in the eye. “I think sir, that perhaps, you had better sit down.”

Now Justice Fletcher Roberts was not at all one for taking orders. But the troubled state in which he now found himself, and to which he was completely unaccustomed, made him think the better of doing anything else other than sitting in the very nearest armchair.

“It was some months back,” the gentleman said, introducing what was evidently going to be a tale of the utmost importance. “I was travelling, you see. I was off on business. In the twilight I found myself walking along the road towards three men. They were coming towards me, but other than the fact that they were tall, I could tell nothing about them. They were hooded, you see.”

“Hooded?”

“Indeed, cloaked, and full of intent. A short distance before they would have passed me by, they stopped. They just stood there, perfectly in tune with each other, and my curiosity at this was enough of a distraction for one of them to produce something, I have no idea exactly what, with which to strike me down.”

“And where, pray, did this act take place?” The Justice already knew the answer to this question, before he had even asked it.

“It was on the Gloucester Road.”

Of course it was. Fletcher Roberts examined the gentleman from head to toe, his features carved by the firelight as he stood leaning against the mantle. Now he thought about it, the figure before him matched the description he’d been given entirely. Was this an imposter? Surely not. What could be gained from such a quickly discoverable dissimulation?

It had to be him. It had to be Elijah Hamill.

The dead had come back to the world of the living, or so it was officially at least. For Elijah Hamill was presumed dead by all records, and it was now that he would tell the truth of that night. “I didn’t know where they had taken me,” Mr Hamill continued, “not at first, but I woke up in a room that seemed to be by a dock, as the air smelt salty.”

And so he went on, to tell Fletcher Roberts about his kidnappers and how he had been left for dead. Much of the tale, it seemed, was too painful for the man to recall. He was, however, clear upon one point. Elijah Hamill did not know his kidnappers, but they had all revealed their faces to him. “The young man you hanged, sir, Martin Wood, he was, to my knowledge, in no way a party to any of it.”

Mr Hamill was quiet for some time after he had finished his tale, and he examined the flames blankly, with no more life in him than clockwork still waiting to be wound up.

There was little more for either man to say that evening, except for the pleasantries that each would exchange to clear the air a little. The Justice simply sat for a while, reflecting upon the revelation. The prospect of one day hanging an innocent man had never frightened him, and now that he had done it, he felt it less than he knew he ought.

It was as Mr Hamill was leaving that Mrs Jones had had the courage to confront her master. Once they had shown the gentleman out it was she that insisted he make amends for his rudeness to the gravedigger, who had only wished to resolve the situation faster. In all rights, she should come out into the cold too, thought Fletcher Roberts to himself, for in all probability she had caused the gravedigger as much distress.

Fletcher Roberts became aware of the long pause that had been caused by his wandering thoughts. The graveyard around him was grim and he now simply wanted to be rid of it. The gravedigger though stared at him. The man was intent upon his question. He wanted to know what had caused Fletcher Roberts to know he had been telling the truth. Fletcher Roberts stopped in his retreat down the hill and struggled with his umbrella a moment.

“I met him, of course, last night,” the Justice called. “He paid me a visit and explained the whole affair.”

“But he couldn’ ’ave sir, ’e was with me all that time.” The gravedigger’s remark was met with an uncontrollable shudder by Fletcher Roberts in the cold.

“It be not the same Elijah Hamill that you speak of?”

“The murdered man, wasn’ he? He’s dead sir is he not?”

“Indeed, he isn’t. He paid me a call not twelve hours ago.” Fletcher Roberts could only watch as the gravedigger’s expression shifted several times in the space of a second.

“I had no idea m’lord, that the man was alive. You don’t know then.”

“Know what?”

“Follow me, y’ lordship!” The gravedigger beckoned Fletcher Roberts over a short way from where he was filling in several plots to an open grave on the crest of the hill. A tall lifting frame with a block and tackle had been set up over it. A rope was suspended from the frame which dropped into the grave and a simple wooden cross marked the head of the trench.

Fletcher Roberts knees were all of a sudden as liquid as the water all around them. “Martin Wood hanged!”

“That ’e did sir and survive he did too, by the grace of God ’e did. The storm itself, it hit the coffin, y’ see…” The gravedigger realised he’d have to backtrack a little. “Wood’s family put in some coin with the guards for ’im not to be buried in prison walls, so we were to put ’im in ’ere. But when the storm it struck, an’ the light’nin’ flashed ’pon the hill, the box it started to thump from inside!”

“How is that possible?”

“We were too scared at first ya’ see, me mate ’n’ I, to open the coffin.” The gravedigger began hauling upon the rope. “But when we did ’e had awoke. Young Martin sir. ’Is neck weren’t broke by the rope. If he weren’t quite dead then ’e woke up again. If ’e were, then the Almighty brought ’im back!” The gravedigger stopped talking, seeing the effect his word’s had on the Justice. He continued slowly with the rope, hand over hand. The other gravediggers had downed tools and come over to witness what it was that their mate was raising.

“And you came to my house to tell me this?” said Fletcher Roberts at last, his eyes fixed upon the rope as it raised. The gravedigger nodded and took a deep breath as if the rain itself would see them go under. The other workers removed their hats.

“Aye, sir, for you see, he’d like to meet with you. ’E’d like you t’ balance the scales of justice.” The gravedigger stopped hauling. He had raised a noose from the trench. His eyes though were not upon Fletcher Roberts’ twisted expression any longer, but on the man walking up just behind him.

“Our father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The Justice turned to see the white face of the man he had put to death.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” A woman’s voice this time. From among the workers came Mrs Jones.

“Give us this day our daily bread,” the rest of them had joined in now. Two of the workers began manhandling Fletcher Roberts towards the makeshift scaffold. “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Fletcher Roberts’ feet fell away from under him but he was lifted up again as the noose was placed around his neck and tightened. The corse rope gripped his neck, biting into the skin.

“Say it with us,” said Mrs Jones.

“For may the Lord have mercy upon your soul,” added Martin.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” they all said. Fletcher Roberts huffed and puffed those final few breaths, his body trying in vain to wake up from a dream. “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever-” The faces staring back at him did not falter as he felt a shove at his back, forcing him into the air over the six-foot-deep drop. “Amen.”

By the time the rain had cleared that day the grave had been filled in and the lifting frame had been removed. Just a mound of earth was left behind, and a simple wooden cross marked with the name Martin Wood.

All Sidney Wainwright correspondence should be marked "Care of the Curious Caretaker" at the following address: 

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