Flaring oil lamps illuminated costermongers stalls, and to the music of itinerant organ-grinders in Wentworth Street, off Commercial Road in Londons East End, passers-by were dancing. It was the evening of August 28th, 1902, and everyone was having a good time. But the music and dancing stopped abruptly just before 8 oclock when a piercing shriek startled the crowds of shoppers.
In the midst of the throng, a tall man staggered a few yards and fell to the ground with a knife through his throat. A costermonger cleared his barrow, lifted the wounded man into it, and set off at a quick trot for the London Hospital.
Four other costermongers seized the assailant, John McDonald, a 24-year-old Scotsman, and held him until two policemen arrived. The head of the victim, an Irishman named Henry Groves, had almost been severed from his body, and he was dead when he reached the hospital 10 minutes later.
It transpired that both McDonald and Groves were petty thieves. McDonald had stolen a sum of money, which in turn was stolen by Groves. So McDonald had sworn revenge, and after his arrest he told a constable: That is the knife I did it with, and I did it intentionally.
He was duly convicted of murder and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. There was nothing particularly memorable about the case, so why recall it more than a century later? At the end of his short life, John McDonald achieved a distinction. When he was hanged by William Billington and Henry Pierrepoint on SEPTEMBER 30th, 1902, he became the first person to be executed at Pentonville Prison.