When the Gaol of Down opened, temporary gallows had to be erected for executions outside the front gate. It wasn’t until 1815 that permanent gallows were constructed above what is now the entrance to Down County Museum. You can still see the outline of the doorway lined by red bricks.

One of the most well-known and perhaps the most famous inmate of the Gaol to be executed was Thomas Russell. He was a founding member of the United Irishmen but played no part in the 1798 rebellion as he was imprisoned in September 1796.  He was released from Fort George in Scotland in June 1802 under the condition that he was exiled to Hamburg. However, Russell was executed by hanging on 21st October 1803 at the Gaol of Down for his attempt to raise support of Robert Emmet’s rebellion. His co-conspirators, local men, James Drake and James Corry were also executed on 24th October at the gaol. Unlike other criminals who were executed the rebels were beheaded afterwards. In 2003, 200 years after his death, a plaque was erected on the outer wall of the museum to mark Russell’s place of execution.

Although many crimes carried the death penalty not all those sentenced to death would have been executed. The exact number of executions at the gaol is unknown, but we do know of some stories that have survived. One of the Gaol’s most notorious criminals was William Gaddis, who was hanged on 28th March 1818 for murdering Adam Heslip. Gaddis and his accomplices broke into Heslip’s residence via the roof to rob him and when Heaslip confronted them they attacked him with a gun and bayonet. On display in the museum is a copy of William Gaddis’s last speech just before he was executed. Documents like this were mass produced to be sold at executions and claimed to be the last words of the condemned prisoner.

The last person to be executed at the Gaol may have been Margaret Cleland who was executed in 1830, the last year in which the Gaol was open. She was executed for the murder of her sister-in-law, Sarah and there was a huge amount of interest in the case with the execution reportedly attended by a large number of young women. Public executions were a popular public event with people selling food, drink and souvenirs like the Last Speech of William Gaddis.

By 1837, the number of ‘capital’ offences, those that came with a sentence of death, had been reduced to 16. By 1861 this was further reduced to 4; murder, high treason, piracy, and arson in a royal dockyard. The death penalty was abolished in 1965 except for treason and piracy with violence although these were finally abolished in 1999.

The above illustration is of the execution platform at the Old Gaol by Steve Murphy (2003)