Monday, 8 December 2014

Susan Newell, The Last Woman Hanged in Scotland

Susan McAllister was born into poverty in Oban in 1893, and poverty is a constant feature in the sad story of her life. After completing school she worked in a series of low paid jobs before moving to Glasgow in 1910 at 17 years old. She again worked in a series of low paid jobs before meeting and marrying John McLeod, a 24 year old from Lewis, who, like Susan, had moved to Glasgow for a better life. With the outbreak of war in 1914 John signed up and was sent abroad, leaving Susan pregnant and alone. She gave birth to their daughter Janet in 1915.

Within weeks of Janet’s birth Susan received the news that her husband had been killed in the trenches of Northern France. He never met his daughter. 
Little is known of Susan and Janet from 1915 until 1922 where the story restarts. In 1922 Janet had grown into a mischievous 7year old and Susan was approaching 30 when she fell in love with a 29 year old tubeworker named John Newell, the pair were married. For a period they lived happily until just after Christmas 1922 John was layed off from his job at the British Tubeworks along with many others. With so many workers unemployed and positions scarce, John was out of work for a whole six months. During this time tempers became frayed between the pair, they were arguing constantly, and they both began to drink heavily.

In one particularly heated exchange in 1923 Susan attacked her husband, not for the first time, and left his face bloody and bruised. He reported the assault at the local police station, but due to lack of evidence and perhaps a reluctance to get involved in what was deemed a domestic dispute, the police didn’t ever speak with Susan Newell about the allegations. Following this incident John Newell packed his bags and left his wife and stepdaughter. In a further blow to Susan she was given notice by her landlady to quit her lodgings citing unreasonable behaviour as the reason.

The following day, Wednesday the 20th of June 1923, was carnival day in Coatbridge. 13 year old John Johnson was a street newsvendor and he saw the increased activity of the carnival as a way to increase his sales. He began calling at houses hoping to sell his papers, at 6.45pm he called at No. 2 Newlands Street and knocked on door of Susan Newell. He was invited in and once inside Susan Newell took a newspaper from him, however, she made no attempt to pay for it and an argument ensued between the pair. During the disagreement John Johnson was strangled by Susan Newell.

Just after 8pm that evening Janet returned to the flat from playing out with friends. She was confronted by the scene of John’s body lying dead on the couch with his newspapers scattered over the floor. Her mother swore her to secrecy and made her help her roll the body in a rug.

Sometime before 8am the following morning Susan Newell and her daughter were seen pulling a child’s go-cart in nearby Dundyvan Road. The cart appeared heavy and laden with clothing. There were no more reported sightings of the pair until 9.30am at a junction in Bargeddie. Thomas Dickson, a delivery driver, saw a woman and a child walking along the road, the woman asked if he could give her, her child, and the go-cart, a lift into Glasgow as they were looking for digs. He agreed and helped load the cart onto the lorry before heading into the city.

Dickson let the pair off on Duke Street, but while helping unload the cart it almost turned over and fell to the ground. Dickson managed to catch a hold of the cart to stop it falling completely but it’s burden became partially dislodged. John Johnston’s head protruded from under the thick quilt-like cover, while his left foot jutted out the bottom, hanging over the edge of the cart. Susan managed to quickly shroud her sinister cargo and thanked Dickson with a terse, ‘I’ll manage it. Leave it alone.’ Susan and Janet then walked off along Duke Street but the incident had been witnessed by and alert resident who had been looking out her window. She decided to discreetly follow Susan and Janet.

Coincidentally the resident met her sister in the street and explained to her what she seen. They both began to follow Newell and her daughter as they pushed the cart along Duke Street and then pulled into an access lane next to No. 630. One of them decided to fetch the police while the other continued to watch the tenement building. Robert Foot, a local resident, came out of a newsagents shop when one of the women shouted to him: ‘There is a woman away up that entry and she is carrying a dead body.’

Newell had reached the end of the lane and found herself in the backcourt of the tenement, there was no exit save the way she had come in or climbing a six foot wall that separated the backcourts from each other. Newell had been aware of the suspicion she had aroused since the incident the lorry and panicked as she saw Robert Foot walking up the lane. She immediately let go of the cart, abandoning Janet, and began climbing the six foot dividing wall.

However, a passing police officer, Constable Thomas McGennet, had been alerted and appeared in the backcourt as Newell was half way over the wall. He managed to take hold of her, pulled her off the wall and placed her under arrest. Word has spread like wildfire and Duke Street became a heaving  mass of curious onlookers who hung their heads in a show of respect as the body of John Johnston was carried out by two constables.

Newell was taken to Eastern Police Station in Tobago Street where she was interviewed. She told the detectives that it was her husband John that had killed the young boy and then left the house, leaving her with the problem of how to dispose of the body. Janet was also interviewed and gave a similar story, she had been primed by her mother on what to say if they were ever arrested.

A post-mortem was carried out on the body of John Johnston. It confirmed the cause of death as strangulation. The pathologists also noted that there had been recent burning to the boys scalp and to the sides of his head. Both of his ears had been completely burned off. It was unclear whether these injuries were caused in an attempt to destroy evidence.

A search began to trace John Newell, descriptions of him were passed to newspapers who printed them on their front pages. On the 22nd of June, John Newell walked into a police station in Haddington, West Lothian and handed them a copy of that day’s newspaper, telling them he was the man they were looking for. Newell found himself under arrest and in a cell.

Both Susan and John Newell went on trial at Glasgow High Court at the start of September 1923. A plea of insanity was entered for Susan and John claimed a special defence of alibi. The two sat together in the dock but not once did the look at one another.

Susan Newell’s landlady testified that she saw Johnston enter the Newell house, Dickson the lorry driver testified as did other witnesses who saw Susan and her daughter with the cart in various streets. But the star witness turned out to be Janet Newell, she told the court of how she entered the flat in Coatbridge to see the dead body of Johnston sprawled on the couch with her mother leaning over it. She told the court of how she had helped wrap the body and how her mother constantly reminded her what to tell the police should they be caught, which was that John Newell had murdered the boy.

John Newell’s defence counsel were able to show that he was not at home at all one the evening of the murder and all charges against him were dismissed. Without looking at his wife, Newell stepped down from the dock to freedom.

Susan Newell at her trial

The trial continued. Susan’s defence attempted to introduce evidence that showed that she was insane at the time of the offence but this was rebutted by expert medical witnesses who interviewed and examined her while she was in custody. The counsel then tried to argue that the murder of John Johnston was not premeditated but a spur-of-the-moment act in the midst of an argument. They also made great play out of the fact that the prosecution could not provide a motive for the crime. The court heard that John had no more than 9d (4p) on him at the time of calling at the Newell’s.

The jury adjourned to make its verdict. It took them 37 minutes to find Susan Newell guilty. They recommended that the prisoner be shown mercy. But the judge had no say in this matter for Newell had been convicted of murder, for which the only punishment was death. Susan Newell showed no emotion as she was led from the dock and taken back to Duke Street Prison to await execution.

An appeal against the sentence was launched and received considerable public support. The appeal was refused and Susan as heard to cry out in her cell when she learned the news. Just before 8am on 10th October 1923 the executioner entered Susan’s cell and pinioned her arms by fitting a belt around her waist which had straps designed to tie elbows to her body. However, in his haste, the execution failed to secure the straps around her wrists.As she stepped on the trapdoor of the gallows, her legs were strapped together, and the noose was placed around her neck and tightened. As the hood was placed over her head Susan managed to free one of her arms and pull it off, she threw in the direction of the executioner and said, ‘Don’t put that thing over me.’

The executioner pulled the trapdoor and Susan Newell fell to her death, her unsecured arm flailing wildly and her eyes wide open, staring at the assembled officials to surrounded the gallows. The executioner, John Ellis, later wrote that Susan Newell was not only the calmest person he had ever executed but also the bravest.

John Ellis

After the execution Ellis resigned as the country’s executioner-in-chief. He began to drink heavily, and within 10 months of Newell’s execution he attempted to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head but failed in the attempt. Eventually he did kill himself, cutting this throat with an open razor in full view of family members.



  1. Susan McArthur McAllister
    born 27th October 1891 in a field near Glenshellach Road Oban Argyll Scotland.

  2. This is a tragic story- she was probably drunk and at the end of her wits from her sad life, although my feelings of concern are more for her daughter and the poor boy. And for the hangman. I find myself wondering why he took that job? Also it shows a disturbed mind to kill oneself in front of family.