My lunch in the shadow of the Coventry gallows

I’ve been having a lot of lunches with my mother recently. The one before last was in a recently-opened place in Coventry with the rather grand name The Establishment Bar & Grill.

Main talking point about this place? Apart from the £3.95 happy hour cocktails and iced tiramisu parfait at £4.95 - it’s the fact that it’s a converted court and jail (known as County Hall) and there was a public hanging there in 1849.

Yes, a public hanging. A 31-year-old woman called Mary Ball was hanged outside the court on 9 August 1849, with an estimated 20,000 gathering to watch her death. (Actually, I know this spot in Coventry quite well and I’m doubtful that so many people would have fitted into the area nearby but never mind ...).

Ball’s death was apparently the last hanging in Coventry. Nineteen years later the last public execution in the UK took place (the Times reported in detail on the “wild, rough crowd” - including children and “hordes of thieves and prostitutes” - that watched this hanging of the “Clerkenwell bomber” Michael Barrett). Just under a century later the last executions of any kind took place on British soil, when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged in 1964 (surprisingly recently I always think …).

As I’ve said before, capital punishment is a relic from the past. We should be glad that for nearly 50 years in Britain there hasn’t been the grisly spectacle of putting a person on trial for their life. Elsewhere, albeit in a dwindling number of countries, the gruesome business continues. Gambia’s President Yayha Jammeh has been threatening to completely clear Gambia’s death row by around this time this month, while Iraq has actually gone one better (ie worse) with a full-on judicial killing spree - around 100 people have already been executed in the country so far this year.

Meanwhile, just this week two men were beheaded in Saudi Arabia for armed robbery (yes, robbery, not a crime involving loss of life), with two others also executed for murder. As in so many countries that still cling to the death penalty, capital trials in Saudi Arabia are shockingly sub-standard and there’s every possibility that these four executions were preceded by shoddy interrogations and haphazard trial procedures.

Then again, I'd say it’s never possible to have watertight capital trials - even in supposedly “advanced” countries such as the USA. Look no further than the infamous case of Troy Davis, executed in the state of Georgia almost a year ago despite huge doubt over his guilt (check out this upcoming Amnesty photographic event by the way), or indeed the Reggie Clemons case in Missouri, another deeply troubling affair (look out for a piece on Clemons on Guardian.co.uk this Sunday).  

For how much longer are we going to be talking about cases where people are put on death row in such dubious circumstances? Actually, I know how long - for as long as a group of die-hard, pro-death penalty countries insist on retaining this cruel punishment ….

Meanwhile, to go back to my strange lunch in Coventry. Eating a veggie burger at a table absolutely adjacent to the old court cells (still with their black iron grilles) was a slightly jarring experience. It felt as if I was eating in the shadow of the Coventry gallows. Mary Ball was a working-class woman from my home town of Nuneaton (like my own mother, Ball was a ribbon weaver). She was convicted of poisoning her reportedly violent husband Thomas with arsenic. She probably wouldn't be convicted of murder today and certainly wouldn't be hanged (in public or otherwise). That’s progress at least … 

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