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‘The Tailor of Diss’
Jenny Jenkins

Public executions in England, as in other parts of the world, were a staple form of entertainment from the earliest times until the 19th Century. It was a good day out, attended by thousands, rich and poor alike. The executions were usually held on a market day. People would walk for miles to be part of it or travel by train from the mid 19th century. Vendors hawked their wares while the ale and gin houses and stalls catered for the thirst of the crowd. The carnival had come to town. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t resist going to watch a public guillotining in Rome in 1846.

Execution was the penalty for no end of crimes, homosexuality being one of them. Robert Carlton was a tailor in Diss. Apparently a very good one which may be the reason why everybody turned a blind eye to his homosexuality. In 1735 he took in as a lodger John Lincoln, a handsome young man, with whom he began a relationship which lasted for six years until 1741 when Lincoln fell in love with a young woman, Mary Frost from Redgrave.

The middle aged Carlton, who had been financially supporting John Lincoln, according to some accounts, was consumed by jealousy and his rage became even more inflamed when Lincoln brought Mary to the house on a couple of occasions. Carlton confronted Lincoln and there was an angry scene where Carlton threatened to poison the couple if Lincoln ‘brought his whores to the house’. Carlton used all sorts of arguments against Lincoln’s intended marriage but it was all to no avail. He was desperate and hatched a scheme. On the pretence that he was reconciled to the relationship, he invited Mary and her landlord Samuel Fuller to his house for a meal and to be merry, on the 25th November. Prior to the dinner party Carlton had purchased a small quantity of mercury sublimate. He combined an ounce of this with some salt and laced Mary’s portion of boiled mutton with it then encouraged her to eat heartily. After six hours she became extremely ill. Her stomach swelled and she vomited profusely. Her friends called for assistance and Mary was blistered and purged but all was useless and she died on the 27th November. When doctors performed a post mortem they found that all her entrails had been affected by the poison. Carlton was arrested and imprisoned.

At the Thetford Assizes in March 1742 he was found guilty of Sodomy and the murder of a young woman by poison.

The Ipswich Journal recorded on 10th April that Carlton had been brought from Norwich Castle prison on the Saturday and on Sunday afternoon was carried to church “where an excellent sermon applicable to the criminal’s condition was preached before the largest congregation ever seen here. The next day he was executed upon our common and afterwards hanged in the gallows and afterwards hanged in chains. He behaved to the last with very little shew of remorse and although he acknowledged the sodomy, yet when the rope was around his neck at the gallows, he denied he was guilty of the murder”. It was estimated that there were between 15,000 and 20,000 people present at the execution.

Before his execution Carlton sent for John Lincoln. They drank two pints of ale together and parted friends. It was said that Carlton gave Lincoln his shears, scissors and a thimble, together with two sixpences, and told him that ‘although he died for him, he loved him to the last’. After Carlton’s body was taken down it was carried to the house where the murder was committed and hung up in the middle of a room, where people could pay two pennies to view it. Next day it was taken back to the gibbet to be displayed as was usual then. John Lincoln escaped prosecution by giving evidence against his former friend. It seems that he was considered a victim of Carlton rather than a willing participant. He went on to marry a widow in October 1742.

The last public hanging in England was on May 27th 1868.

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Page last updated: 10 Nov 2021
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