A Murder at Birtle and a Hanging at Lancaster

'Hanging Corner', Lancaster Castle.
There are some misconceptions about hangings in Heywood. One of these includes a claim made on Rochdale Council’s website about a 19th-century murder at the Pack Horse Inn, Birtle:
'It was for killing a man in the Pack Horse, so the story goes, that the last man ever hanged on the public gallows in England went to his fate.'
The last man ever publicly hanged in England was actually Michael Barrett, an Irish Nationalist who was executed in 1868 for a bombing in London, but there was another murder committed in Birtle a few years earlier that did result in a hanging. It was a brutal and senseless crime that, if committed nowadays, would have people reminiscing about the 'days when you could leave your doors open'.

The victims were Benjamin Cass (aged 65) and his wife Alice (75), who lived alone at Marr Crofts, Birtle-cum-Bamford, overlooking Ashworth Valley. This is now the site of Marcroft Farm. The Casses owned several cottages in the area that they rented out. On the wet and stormy Saturday night of 1 October 1825 they were visited by Benjamin’s brother Joseph, who left them around 10 p.m. He returned very early the next morning and found Benjamin sat in his chair facing the fire place, with Alice sat with her arms clasped around her husband's neck and her head on his shoulder. Joseph called out in the darkness “Hallo, are you asleep?” but got no answer. He then stepped closer and discovered a horrible sight.

Map of Birtle showing Marr Crofts, 1840s.

Benjamin and Alice were both covered in severe wounds and the floor around them was ‘deluged with blood’. The back of Benjamin’s head had been split wide open by the edge of a shovel, and his face had also been attacked and the end of his nose cut off. Alice’s skull had been crushed to pieces by a poker. Not much seemed to have been stolen from the house, as money and a watch were still in the house and some documents from their Will were scattered around the floor. The bloodied murder weapons were also left behind. The only things missing were some clothes.

That Sunday night, a 26-year-old local man called John Diggle sold some clothes that he claimed to have bought earlier that same day. These included a waistcoat that still had a pair of spectacles in the pocket. Diggle, who had been seen near the Cass cottage on the afternoon before the murder and again shortly after the discovery of the bodies, became a suspect. At an inquest a few days later it was proved that the clothes and spectacles belonged to Benjamin Cass, and Diggle was committed for trial.

He was tried for wilful murder at the Lancaster Assizes in March 1826. The courtroom was packed as the sheer ferocity of the murder had stirred up considerable interest. Diggle was described in the Manchester Guardian as “stout, healthy, and active man of about 30 or 35; he has sandy hair, blue eyes, fresh complexion, and is altogether well looking. His demeanour, from beginning to end of the trial, was perfectly calm.”

His motives for the crime were never really clear, and although the evidence against him was circumstantial (but strong), Diggle was resigned to his fate. When asked to speak in his own defence, he could only say “I have no occasion to say anything, that I know of”. The jury took just 15 minutes to find him guilty, and the judge passed the sentence of death, which Diggle apparently heard with “great composure and firmness”. After being taken to the condemned cell he confessed to the crime, and was hanged four days later at ‘Hanging Corner’, within the grounds of Lancaster Castle.

On his last morning Diggle would have been taken into the 'Drop Room' on the ground floor of the building in this picture to be pinioned before being led through the French windows onto a balcony-style gallows. These gallows would have been erected during the day before, and consisted of two upright posts that were placed into holes in the courtyard flagstones. A heavy gallows beam ran between these posts. The trapdoor platform beneath this was draped in black cloth to hide the legs of the prisoners.

A huge crowd had gathered to watch Diggle die. Many were in the courtyard, the front of the mob standing only few feet from the gallows, separated from them by high railings. Others crowded onto the opposite bank to get a better view.

Diggle was penitent and delivered the following words to the watching crowd:

After this the white cap was placed over his head, the trapdoor sprung, and he fell to his death. Executions in those days used the ‘short drop’ method, meaning that prisoners only dropped a short distance and so were usually strangled to death on the end of the rope. Not a pretty sight. Longer drops, as used in later years, were more likely to break the neck and bring a quicker death. Diggle would have been left to hang for one hour before his body was removed and handed over to surgeons for dissection and anatomical research. Such was the fate of executed prisoners at the time.

Benjamin and Alice Cass were interred at Ashworth Chapel, where many other members of the Cass and Diggle families also lie.

Graves at St Jame's Chapel, Ashworth (Bill Boaden)

As was common with murder cases at the time, pamphlets were written about the sensational events, and James Taylor, ‘the Royton Poet’, also penned the following lines about ‘The Murder of Cass and his Wife’: