Crimes of Lincoln’s past: Lincolnshire’s final public execution

On August 5, 1859, thousands of enthusiastic onlookers gathered outside Cobb Hall near Lincoln Castle to witness what became the last public execution in Lincolnshire.

Henry Carey and William Picket were found guilty of murdering 64-year-old William Stevenson in the village of Sibsey, to the north of Boston.

Lincoln Assizes heard that Carey and Picket were two drifters, employed as casual labourers or involved in petty crime for most of their lives.

In March 1859, whilst drowning their sorrows in the Ship Inn in the village, they vowed to put an end to their misfortune.

Also in the pub was Stevenson, a respected member of the local community who had been in Boston during the day.

The pair singled out Stevenson as a potential target and left the Ship early, having made their plans to ambush him later that evening.

Carey had said to Picket: “Let’s kill the old bastard, I think he’s got some money.”

The two waited for Stevenson to leave the pub and as he walked by the Stone Bridge Drain, repeatedly struck him over the head and body with wooden stakes before throwing him in the ditch.

Remarkably, Stevenson was revived by the cold water and climbed out of the ditch groaning, forcing Carey and Picket to finish the job.

After the attack, the two searched the body, stealing a sovereign (worth around £1 today) and a knife before falling to sleep nearby.

Local woman Mary Semper found the bloody body the following morning and Sergeant James soon charged the two suspects.

In court, Picket said that he had been talked into taking part in the attack by Carey.

Evidence given by Picket also suggested that the murder was premeditated by Carey, who had made pocket handkerchiefs with holes for eyes, and had identified local hiding places to wait for Stevenson to walk past.

Picket’s defence also claimed that Stevenson had treated him harshly in the past.

For his part, it is said that Carey remained silent throughout the trial.

Prosecuting, Fitzjames Stephen said that they were equally to blame, and the court quickly found the pair guilty of the murder.

Both were sentenced to death, to be hanged by renowned executioner William Calcraft.

On the day of the execution, landlords of the Plough Inn and Yarborough Arms on Bailgate charged for customers to use their front yards as viewing areas.

Opportunist pickpockets were also in attendance, hoping to take advantage of the crowd’s excitement.

Before being hanged in front of the estimated 12-13,000 strong audience, it is rumoured that both Carey and Picket eventually expressed remorse for their actions.

This was the final time such an occasion was witnessed in Lincolnshire.

Three years prior to this final execution in the county, a Royal Commission recommended an end to public hangings, arguing that any benefits were outweighed by the social problems it generated.

The last public execution in England took place in Newgate on May 26, 1868.

The events of this story were researched and documented by Stephen Wade in Lincolnshire Murders.