George Smith the hangman

George Smith was one of the most notorious hangmen of the mid-nineteenth century, famous for executing William Palmer, also known as the Rugeley Poisoner.  A petty criminal himself, in and out of prison, Smith was a labouring man from Dudley and the Staffordshire hangman for sixteen years.

Until the last public executions in 1868, such occasions were a spectacle attracting large crowds with an expectation of a certain display.  The execution of John Tawell in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, drew crowds from London forty-five miles away, taken there by train, as well as people from the local area.  By the evening, farm labourers in their smock frocks and Jim Crow hats were described as streaming in to get a full view of the culprit.[1] In 1818 in Godalming, Surrey, farm labourers swelled the crowd who came to see the procession and execution of Chennell and Chalcraft, convicted of the ‘atrocious’ crime of patricide and murder of George Chennell, the correspondent commenting ‘we never observed so many smock-frocks and white hats in our life time’.  Chalcraft, who was convicted of murdering his master and a fellow servant, also wore a ‘new smock-frock’ for his execution, whereas Chennell, guilty of patricide, wore a black jockey coat, striped waistcoat and grey cotton pantaloons.[2]

At the time of William Palmer’s execution in 1856, as hangman Smith was described as a ‘respectable-looking countryman, about fifty years of age, dressed in a clean smock frock, such as drovers or farm labourers wear’.[3]  The fame that this execution brought him allowed Smith to trade on his reputation, acting as a ‘higgler’ or informal trader to sell himself essentially. [4]   However, he became insolvent, appearing in court in Stafford in the same smock frock he wore when acting as executioner, for which he had been reimbursed one pound.[5]  He was liable for the debts of a public house near Dudley where he had allowed his name to be used over the door, perhaps to attract custom as he had become something of a local celebrity.  The landlord absconded though, leaving him liable for debts he knew nothing about.[6]

Palmer’s execution was also re-enacted for travelling exhibitions using a tailor’s dummy, the proprietor boasting he had secured the services of the ‘real hangman’ although as Smith was at the time in prison for insolvency, this was carried out by an imposter much to the indignation of Smith.[7]  It seems that after the execution and bankruptcy, he traded on his notoriety, attracting customers to the Griffin Inn, Halifax, where he was a waiter. People came from Rochdale on special trains to see him in his white smock frock, and ‘receive their beer at his hands’.  He then went onto another pub in Bradford with other engagements afterwards.  In a court case at the York Assizes about the profits of the inn, one witness stated that he would not dine with the hangman, ‘as he did not like sitting down with a man who wore a smock frock’, whereas he wouldn’t have minded if he had been dressed as a gentleman, even if he was an executioner. The smock was here denoting a dubious character, partaking in blatant profiteering.  Smith was also described as a ‘chawbacon’, that is a yokel or bumpkin, so after the initial novelty, regular customers were driven away apparently disgusted, leaving the inn with further financial problems.[8]

Smith appears to have continued to act as executioner, carrying out the hanging of George Gardner for murder in 1862 in Warwick, the so-called Studley Murderer.  He again wore a long white smock, Gardner in a ‘short white slop’, though forgetting at first to put a cap over Gardner’s face, so he had to wait and face the crowd.[9] He also wore his white smock frock to carry out the execution of Samuel Griffiths in front of Chester Gaol in 1866,[10] and Hale and Brough outside Stafford Gaol, where he was described as looking ‘like one accustomed to the pursuit of farming’.[11]  Perhaps it gave Smith the air of a clergyman in a surplice.[12]  Perhaps it was just a cheap overall which he otherwise would have worn anyway but although common wear for many men during this period, the smock became associated with him as his particular dress.  One photograph of him in his smock survives in the Staffordshire Collections.


[1] Cambridge Independent Press, 29 March 1845.

[2] Westmorland Gazette, 22 August 1818.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 21 June 1856.

[4] Western Mail, 5 January 1883.  Charles Moore was executed for murder at Stafford in 1853, the executioner described as a big man ‘rather conspicuously attired’ in a white smock frock, so likely to have been Smith, see Staffordshire Advertiser, 9 April 1853 and The Era, 17 April 1853.

[5] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 23 January 1857; Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, and Penrith Literary Chronicle, 24 June 1856; Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857, the pound later appearing on his bankruptcy schedule.

[6] Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857.

[7] Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857 and Birmingham Journal, 3 January 1857.

[8] Westmorland Gazette, 25 July 1857, and Exeter Flying Post, 30 July 1857.

[9] Worcester Journal, 30 August 1862; see also Coventry Standard, 29 August 1862, where the prisoners dress is described as a white smock frock rather than a slop, showing the closeness of the definitions.

[10] Staffordshire Advertiser, 28 April 1866.

[11] Wellington Journal, 31 December 1864; the executioner of John Holden in Omagh was also an elderly man wearing a smock frock, see Morning Chronicle, 30 August 1860.

[12] Indeed, the surplice was compared to the smock frock, particularly the workmanship that went into both garments, see Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 September 1943, p. 8.