A hanging in Guernsey in 1854 turned out to be the last public execution on the island and it was so botched that it was just as well. The condemned man was saved from the traditional parade through the streets of St. Peter Port, the island capital, followed by a seafront hanging, by the intervention of the French novelist Victor Hugo, then in exile on the island.
Hugo wrote to the Home Secretary protesting against the ritual of public executions, and as a result it was decided to hang John Tapner in a garden next to the prison, and to limit the audience to 200.
What they saw was horrific. Tapner had managed to untie his hands after they were pinioned in the death cell. When the lever was pulled and the trap-door opened, the aperture of the drop turned out to be too small, and he clutched its sides, literally hanging on to life.
To kill him, the executioner pulled on his legs, and the hanging, which should have been over in seconds, took 15 agonising minutes, with Tapner screaming and his white hood turning blood-red.
Tapner was executed on Friday, February 10th, 1854, for killing his former landlady, 72-year-old Elizabeth Saujon, at her home in the village of Canichers. He had come to her house to buy some of her furniture, but an argument developed, and he attacked her with a club he had hidden under his cloak.
When she collapsed he dragged her to her bedroom and took money and jewellery from the drawers. Assuming she was dead, he doused her with white spirit, put wood on her body, and set it alight. But he left before the blaze got a grip, and in locking the only outside door and all the windows he starved the flames of oxygen and they were extinguished by smoke.
The prosecution of John Tapner was based entirely on circumstantial evidence, resulting in his 13-day trial becoming at that time one of the longest in British criminal history.