Did the last man hanged publicly in Suffolk really deserve to die?
PUBLISHED: 18:05 05 April 2019
He's already written about Suffolk's 'witch' trials. Now playwright Greg Hanson is taking a look at the last man hanged in public in the county
It’s one of many dozens of gravestones in Halesworth Cemetery. Standing among pale daffodils, it’s listing slightly. We can still make out the name – Ebenezer Tye – but other details are harder to crack because the stonework has been discoloured and worn by the elements. Not at all surprising. It’s stood here for nearly 160 years.
In the winter of 1862 more than 5,000 mourners reportedly went to the funeral of the young man. Among those paying their respects were eight police superintendents, three inspectors, a couple of sergeants and 42 constables.
Ebenezer Tye had himself been a police constable.
The 24-year-old had gone missing while on a police operation in Halesworth. His body was found in a brook. It appeared he’d been attacked with a cudgel.
Small-time miscreant John Ducker, who had been under surveillance in connection with a number of thefts, was later convicted of murder. He was the last man to be hanged publicly in Suffolk.
Next weekend, it will be 156 years since he was dispatched. Next weekend, a dramatisation invites us to think, and ask: Did John Ducker actually deserve to die?
Organisers of the annual INK Festival asked Bury St Edmunds-based Greg Hanson to write a short play about the murder. Reasonable Doubt will be performed in the town where the constable fell.
The playwright’s main sources of information were newspaper accounts of the trial in 1863.
Ebenezer was one of four children born in Hasketon, near Woodbridge, to Priscilla and William Tye. In 1861, when Ebenezer was 22, he was living in Alderton, near Hollesley, and looking to make a living as a journeyman blacksmith.
His lodgings were next-door-but-one to the police station. He soon became a constable and moved to Halesworth.
Even though he wasn’t very experienced, Ebenezer was described by police sergeant Daniel Taylor as “an active and zealous officer”.
In the summer of 1862 Pc Tye was praised at the Quarter Sessions (when legal cases were heard) for extraordinary bravery in a case of larceny (the theft of personal property).
Late the following November, Sgt Taylor had Pc Tye keep watch during the night on a house in Clarke’s Yard, Chediston Street, Halesworth. Well-known petty thief John Ducker was there. Police suspected he was behind raids on local properties.
When Sgt Taylor came back on duty the next day, he learned nothing had been seen of Constable Tye since the previous evening. Ducker was the prime suspect – most likely more so when he was found at home, nursing two black eyes and other injuries.
He said he’d been hit by a chunk of wood while chopping timber.
The constable’s body was later found during a search of reed beds and a brook near Ducker’s home. An old cap like the one Ducker usually wore was discovered nearby.
Protesting his innocence, he was remanded to Beccles police station.
The defendant appeared at the Suffolk Assizes (court hearings) in March, 1863. It was suggested that when he was confronted by Ebenezer Tye a fierce struggle had erupted and that Ducker had used a big studded cudgel to deal with the constable.
Wet clothing was said to have been found at the suspect’s home and was saturated with deposits like those on the officer’s clothes.
It was said Pc Tye had tried to question Ducker because he was carrying a suspicious-looking bundle. There had been shouting and the scuffle, followed by a chase alongside the river behind Chediston Street.
Ducker was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Scaffolding went up in an archway off St Helen’s Street in Ipswich, outside County Hall and the jail. A black blind was put up, too, to help shield his body.
Ducker was hanged publicly on April 14, 1863. Reports suggested a crowd of 4,000 or 5,000 people turned out and that he admitted his guilt on the gallows.
Ducker was the last person to be executed in public in Suffolk. His body was buried to the east of the prison.
John Ducker: the man
Suffolk Record Office has some interesting information about Ducker, who was born in Halesworth in about 1800.
A married man and the father of three children, he pops up in the Ipswich Gaol book for 1844 – accused of stealing beans from a barn in Blyford.
He’d been in trouble about 22 years earlier, when convicted of theft.
It’s interesting that, after his conviction for murdering Pc Tye, three of the jury members sent representations to the Secretary of State and hoped for a reprieve. They didn’t succeed.
The Beccles and Bungay Weekly News reported that, on the Monday before he was hanged, Ducker had admitted pushing the constable into the water but denied hitting him or holding him down.
The newspaper quoted the defendant as saying it was “not my intention to make away with the man. I wanted to get away from him”.
So what does Greg think?
It’s perhaps a bit unfair to put him on the spot, as it’s a mug’s game seeking to “re-try” a case from more than 150 years ago. Especially when we can’t guarantee the robustness of what we read.
Nevertheless, Greg’s happy to say what he thinks. The story was new to him, so he was grateful for the help from Halesworth Museum with historic material – mainly the newspaper articles of the day.
“What the play became about was the way in which he (Ducker) was treated and whether that was just. It touches on this idea that he wasn’t just randomly caught committing a crime, which led to a confrontation, which led to the policeman dying. He was being watched.”
From what you know, can you tell if Ducker was guilty of murder?
“I think it was he who killed Ebenezer Tye, but whether today we would call that crime ‘murder’, I don’t know. I’m quite uneasy about that.”
So, if not murder, perhaps manslaughter would have been a more appropriate charge – certainly today…
“Yeah. It sounds more like a crime of manslaughter. Unfortunately, it happened at a time when the law didn’t see it that way and the consequence was execution.”
I’m perhaps putting words in your mouth here, but it sounds as if you think it possible Ducker might have twigged he was under surveillance, felt the pressure, perhaps lost his temper and reacted in a violent way that wasn’t his normal behaviour…
“Quite possibly. Ebenezer Tye himself had a bit of a reputation of being very keen. He was known for being a very thorough and keen copper, and quite passionate about his job.
“I can kind of see how Ducker could have been pushed into a corner quite easily and just reacted in a way that maybe anyone might have in that situation. Particularly as the crime Tye had tried to apprehend him for – on suspicion of stealing a truss of hay from his employer – is a very minor theft, I think, even by the standards of the day.
“So to have leapt from that to ostensibly a murder and execution is quite extraordinary, really.”
What do you hope audiences will take from the play?
“Specifically, when it comes to the Ducker case, I’d like people to be reflecting on whether the story is as cut and dried as has been presented to us: Nasty Ducker. Dodgy. Killed a policeman.
“Then, in more general terms, to think – in the era of fake news and misinformation – how we tell stories about each other and what consequences that might have.”
I understand the murder was, not surprisingly, the subject of considerable speculation, rumour and innuendo at the time, too.
“It was actually in the accounts of the trial. The judge made a point of saying this has been a case which has been gossiped about and developed quite a reputation.
“He was at pains to say to the jury they should put that aside and make a dispassionate judgment based on the evidence.”
That sounds quite an impressive and “modern” outlook.
“We often assume our legal system in the olden days was a bit weak and feeble, but even when we went back to the 1600s and looked at the trials where hundreds of men and women got accused and convicted of being witches, we did still find examples of judges saying that the practice of ‘swimming’ was illegal. (If you floated, you were guilty of witchcraft. If you drowned, you were innocent.)
“At a trial that took place in Bury St Edmunds, the judge made a very strong statement that this practice was illegal and anyone caught doing it will be tried for murder and they will be found guilty.
“So you go back and see there was some robustness to our legal system.”
So perhaps one of the play’s messages, then, is: Don’t leap to conclusions and pre-judge people…
“It’s an interesting one. You think of the #MeToo movement, where people were saying, very admirably, that we need to listen to those who have been saying, for a long time, things about men perpetrating horrible crimes against women. But, at the same time, do people sometimes get unjustly caught up (in it)?” As in: virtually branded as guilty before the legal system has tested any allegations. “It’s good for us to be thinking about that kind of thing.
“The story is told through the mouths of three characters referred to as The Gossips. In a way, they are the social media of their day – you can have a network of people spreading rumour and misinformation, and the story can become more dramatic because people like dramatic stories that shock and excite and frighten, and that’s why these stories can get a little out of hand.”
INK Festival is on April 12, 13 and 14.
Reasonable Doubt is one of the new short plays, from writers with an East Anglian connection, being staged.
It has eight performances over the three days.
It’s being staged at Halesworth Museum, at the railway station.
Audience capacity there is about 30, Greg says.
The play runs for 25 minutes.