In the 1730s, an inventory of items in the care of gaolers Richard Hoey and Thomas Manning was taken at Wicklow Gaol. Amongst the items recorded were 11 pairs of handcuffs, two neck yokes, five yoke shackles, and six pairs of manacles (source: Lane Poole Collection, National Library of Ireland). These items do not fully illustrate the extent to which torture was employed at the gaol, however.
Wicklow Historic Gaol records that the torture of its prisoners was ‘very common’ in the 18th century, and included flogging, mutilation, ironing, the stocks and branding. Men and women, adults and children, were all subject to torture.
Another grotesque method of torture was ‘half-hanging’, whereby a rope would be tightened around a victim’s neck and then, when the individual lost consciousness, the rope would be loosened. Once the prisoner had regained consciousness, the rope would again be tightened. Anne Devlin, the housekeeper of rebel leader Robert Emmet, was subject to this in 1803.
Wicklow also employed a notorious character known as ‘The Walking Gallows’ or ‘The Travelling Hangman’. This was Lieutenant Hempenstall, a seven foot tall militiaman who was employed by various gaols as an executioner. However, he was also a torturer – he was famed for taking an instant dislike to certain members of the local poor, and would put a noose around their necks and ‘merely fling them over his shoulder and hang them across his back until they were dead’.
Hempenstall was particularly feared as he refused to accept bribes – so condemned prisoners knew that he was their executioner, they had no chance of bribing him to avoid their deaths.
Torture was considered so much a part of prison life at Wicklow that today, one cell has been recreated as a torture cell; here, visitors can ‘watch’ a prisoner being flogged, whilst blood splatters across the walls both inside and outside the cell. In a neighbouring cell, instruments of torture are laid out, making it clear how barbaric the treatment of prisoners in the past could really be.
The third of my blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, on life for female prisoners, will be published on Friday. For more information on the Gaol, see its website here.