Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Murder of John Johnston & The Execution of Susan Newell

In the twentieth century, only a couple of executions of women provoked outright public outrage.  Edith Thompson was one, Ruth Ellis, another.  But the execution in 1923 - the same year as Edith Thompson - did not bring very much public sympathy for thirty year old Susan Newell.  She not only callously killed thirteen year old newspaper delivery boy John Johnston, but then put his body in a small go-cart, and transported his body across town, in order to dump it somewhere.  She also took along her daughter, aged just eight.  Events began on June 20th 1923 in the small Lanarkshire town of Coatbridge.  Mrs Newell had strangled the young boy after he had called at her home.  Later, it was established that her daughter, Janet, 8, saw her mother truss up the boy`s body and put it in a go-cart, then cover it with a rug.  Her mother dragged the cart outside and started pushing it down the street.  Little Janet, oblivious to what was going on, sat on it.  A truck driver, Tom Dickson, stopped and offered to give them a lift to wherever they wanted to go.  He lifted the cart onto his truck, totally unaware of what was under the rug.  He dropped them off in Duke Street.

    However, a housewife, Helen Elliott, saw what looked like a foot, protrude from the rug.  She quickly told her sister who said they should follow.  She disappeared into a yard, so the girls informed two men, who went into the yard.  They saw a woman climbing a wall, but they detained her, and she was heard to say that her husband had killed a boy and that he was in the cart, covered in the rug.  Police were summoned, and the rug opened up, displaying the body of a young teenage boy.  Susan Newell was arrested and charged with the murder of John Johnston, along with her husband.  Her had a perfect alibi, attending a family funeral in Glasgow, and so was found Not Guilty on the direction of the Judge, Lord Justice Alness.  A post mortem established that young John had been strangled, had trauma to the head, and had burn marks.  This was thought to have been caused by him falling into a hearth during the assault.  Her defence was one of insanity, but this was destined for failure, despite the efforts of her defence counsel, Mr Gentles & Mr Fisher.  She was sentenced to death and hanged at Duke Street Prison in Glasgow on October 10th 1923 by John Ellis & William Willis.  Susan Newell screamed at Ellis not to put the white hood over her head, so was hanged glaring at the watching officials.  She was the first woman to be hanged in Glasgow since 1853 when Helen Blackwood stood on the scaffold.

    Why did she do it? A theory was put forward by authors Renee Hugett & Paul Berry in their book "Daughters of Cain" in 1956.  Susan Newell, in their view,was simply a stupid woman from a much lower class, living a day to day existence.  They state that her husband (actually her second) had decided to leave her not long before the death of John, and she was about to be evicted from her small home.  They believe she must have thought John had some money on him and tried to take it from him.  He had ninepence on him.  They believe he was knocked over, hence the burns and injuries to his head, then realising the consequences, strangled him.  They put it down to survival instincts, not even rationalising what she intended to do.  She had to have that money.  She paid for it dearly.