Public executions were for centuries one of the most popular forms of entertainment in England and Dorchester as an assize town certainly witnessed its fair share. Lurid descriptions of these spectacles abound in the literature, with immense crowds of rich and poor alike jostling to obtain the best view-point, their mood varying according to their sympathies with the criminal.
Maumbury Rings in Dorchester had been used as the site for public executions for centuries. Originally a Neolithic henge monument, but adapted by the Romans as an amphitheatre and finally used as a fort in the Civil War. The arena with tiers of seats on all sides provided everyone with a good view and allowed a large crowd to be kept under control – as was the purpose of the amphitheatre in Roman times. It was still in use as a place of execution until as late as 1767.
In the 18th century a new prison was built on the site of the medieval castle and public executions from that time on were performed outside of the prison gates, on what is today the prison car park in North Square. It was here that the young Thomas Hardy witnessed the first of several public hangings when he arrived in Dorchester after leaving school in 1856, and was articled to John Hicks, a Dorchester architect whose offices were also on North Square.
The memory of his first public execution (Martha Brown who killed her husband in a crime of the heart) undoubtedly inspired the novel “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. His morbid fascination with public hangings also seems to date from this time and he seems to have made great efforts to attend subsequent executions and get a good view. He was therefore almost certainly present in 1858 for what turned out to be the last public hanging in Dorset.
Twenty-three-year-old Sara Guppy was not very tall, and although slightly deformed, was said to be a quick, lively, and intelligent person. She and her mother lodged with a labourer called James Seale in one of a pair of cottages in Anchor Lane, Stoke Abbot. The other cottage was occupied by Seale’s landlord, a man called John Hutchings.
On Friday, 30th April 1858 neighbours became aware that Sara’s cottage was on fire. The fire was quickly extinguished but Sara’s body was discovered in the kitchen with her throat cut. Suspicion quickly fell on the another James Seale, a young relative the houses occupier who lived about a furlong away, who had already served a four month prison sentence for robbing a child. He was arrested, tried and found guilty. He was hanged at the gates of Dorchester prison on 10th August 1858.
The Victorian Age had just begun and the era of public executions in England had run its course, The morality of the age deeming that the spectacle of executions as a public entertainment could no longer be justified. (Although it would be over a hundred years later before the death penalty was finally abolished). Thus James Seales’s name went into the history books as the last man to be hanged in public in Dorset.