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Setting the scene for murder

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The victim, a grey-haired old lady, had suffered terrible burns. Hit over the head, she had been left to die in a burning house that had first been ransacked. John Charles Tapner, a man leading a double life, was the culprit and became the last person to be hanged in Guernsey. Chris Morvan takes a 21st-century look at his 1854 trial and grisly demise

The victim, a grey-haired old lady, had suffered terrible burns. Hit over the head, she had been left to die in a burning house that had first been ransacked. John Charles Tapner, a man leading a double life, was the culprit and became the last person to be hanged in Guernsey. Chris Morvan takes a 21st-century look at his 1854 trial and grisly demise THE last person to be hanged in Guernsey, John Charles Tapner, may have been a murderer and a rogue, but even in the mid 19th century there were those who didn't want him to die - and one of them was Victor Hugo.

The great French writer was a humanitarian and strongly opposed to the death sentence.

At the time of Tapner's trial in 1854 for the murder of Elizabeth Saujon on 18 October 1853, Hugo was living in Jersey and kept an eye on the proceedings through the newspapers - he moved to Guernsey the following year.

Mme Saujon had been hit over the head and left to die in her burning house. The fire had, in fact, burned slowly, not rising far from the floor (the skirting boards were smouldering and chair legs were burnt) and had been contained by the closed doors and windows. But even so, Mme Saujon suffered terrible burns to her hands, which were clasped to her chest when she was found. The alarm was raised the next day by a neighbour who, sensing that all was not well, got a ladder and some help and entered through an upstairs window.

Mme Saujon's bedroom had been ransacked.

As part of the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Hugo's arrival in Guernsey, Le Cercle Francais - a group of local residents who meet regularly to speak French and keep in touch with matters concerning that country - staged a talk by Advocate St John Robilliard. In it, extracts from the trial were read in French, with an analysis in English for the benefit of interested non-members who are not bilingual.

Tapner was a clerk with the Royal Engineers at Fort George. Married with three children, he lived in St Martin's and was, to all outward appearances, a respectable man. What did not become known until the trial was that he had a second family.

And not only that, but this other woman, by whom he had another child, was his wife's sister.

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It says much about the difference between Guernsey in those days and the community today that a man could lead such a double life.

Mme Saujon took in lodgers at her home in Les Canichers and Tapner had installed his mistress there for a while some months earlier. The 74-year-old woman knew him as Mr Simmer. It was significant that Tapner knew Mme Saujon because it explained how he had been admitted to the house on the fateful evening, there being no sign of forced entry.In his talk at the Frossard Theatre, Advocate Robilliard approached the case with an eye on how it compared with the present day. Setting the scene of the times and Victor Hugo's interest, he spoke of how Hugo and Alexandre Dumas had seen the future British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, in Paris in 1847. Hugo was unimpressed, remarking that Palmerston belonged 'a little to history, but most to fiction'.

The politician was to play a part in the Tapner case in his role as Home Secretary.

The evidence against Tapner, said Advocate Robilliard, was all circumstantial. No one saw him do it. He wasn't even spotted leaving the building or overheard plotting the murder. The man was miles away when the crime was discovered and forensic science at the time could not distinguish human blood from that of an animal, let alone differentiate the blood of one human from another. Similarly, Tapner's clothes may have had Mme Saujon's grey hairs on them, but science could not prove whose hairs they were.

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'Today,' said Advocate Robilliard, 'the forensic evidence would have been overwhelming.'

At the time Guernsey was bilingual, but Tapner, who came from Woolwich, London, spoke no French, as the court was informed as soon as the trial began.

Another practice that seems amazing now is that, after his arrest, the accused was interrogated by the Bailiff - the same man who was expected to be impartial during a trial over which he presided. But that was how things were done in those days.

There was, said Advocate Robilliard, no question that Tapner had been in Town on the night of 18 October - he did not deny it and witnesses spoke of walking with him down George Road and Hauteville. He had even been seen buying a newspaper in Le Pollet - moving ever nearer to Les Canichers.

A drawing was published, showing Tapner as he was said to look that night, carrying a cane with a heavy handle capable of inflicting grievous head wounds such as those suffered by Mme Saujon.

Advocate Robilliard's talk was punctuated by readings - by Rob Shepherd, Elizabeth Mahy and Monique and Iain Shepherd - of dialogue from the court case.

The prosecution told how Tapner was seen walking up and down Les Canichers wearing a naval-style jacket and a glazed hat and carrying the cane. They spoke of artefacts belonging to Mme Saujon being found by police in a field near Tapner's home - a telescope being pulled out of a haystack, for instance.

The defence, said Advocate Robilliard, attempted to cast doubt on prosecution witnesses' testimonies regarding the sightings in Les Canichers, pointing out that there had been the contemporary equivalent of a power cut in St Peter Port that night, the gas being off and therefore no street lights.The defence also attempted to play down the extent of Tapner's financial troubles - he owed substantial amounts of money and was said to be a heavy drinker of wine and gin.

In addition, there was speculation about the fact that Tapner had bought bottles of turpentine, which could have been used to start a fire.

Modern forensics could have had a conclusive influence on such allegations, said Advocate Robilliard. As it was, Tapner had bought some turpentine - didn't everybody? And without even fingerprints to go on, who was to say it was Tapner's turpentine?

A quantity of Godfrey's Cordial (containing an opiate) found in Tapner's house was, the prosecution suggested, to enable him to kill himself after the foul deed was done. Circumstantial, said Advocate Robilliard.

But the court found Tapner guilty by a unanimous verdict of the 12 jurats and he was sentenced to death.

Victor Hugo was incensed and wrote to the Home Secretary (probably not expecting too much, because it was Lord Palmerston). The Frenchman was not disputing Tapner's guilt, but arguing against the barbarity of the death sentence. He got no joy from Palmerston, while a petition with 600 local signatures also did nothing to alter the decision. Tapner was going to hang and that was that.

But hangings were rare in Guernsey and someone had to be found to do the job. An anonymous man was chosen.

It was decided to hold the execution in private, whereas in the past the proceedings had been carried out in front of whatever members of the public wished to witness the macabre spectacle. His most recent predecessor, a Frenchman named Beasse, had gone to the gallows on a beach. Tapner's exit was to take place in an area next to the prison in St James' Street, often referred to as a garden. In reality it was a rather grim, barren space.

Nor was it the private occasion it purported to be, with 200 ticket-holders gathering to watch and others looking through the windows of nearby buildings. The level of interest may have had something to do with the rarity of the crime - indeed, of crime in general: from a population of some 40,000, there were only three people in prison at that time.

The date was pushed back several times as clergymen sought to get Tapner to confess, rather than going to his death dishonestly protesting his innocence. He gradually came around to admitting that no one else had been responsible for the death of Mme Saujon.

The final act of the whole tragedy was yet to come, though.

Advocate Robilliard spoke of the 'science of hanging' and the fact that if the drop was too short, the victim's neck would not be broken and he would slowly and painfully suffocate, while if the drop was too great, the head could come straight off.

With an amateur in charge, the worst was about to happen. The drop was indeed too short, the space too narrow and Tapner, who is said to have got his hands free, attempted to save himself, only to die slowly and agonisingly. The body was left hanging for an hour, just to make sure, before being cut down and left on the ground for the rest of the day.

Tapner was buried in the Strangers' Cemetery in Upland Road, next to the grave of his predecessor, Beasse.

The hangman sank into a depression from which nothing could rouse him and within three months he, too, was dead. In a final, bizarre twist, it is said that he had been Beasse's gardener.

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