John Gower, c. 1658-1684

Bigamist, Wife Murderer, and Penitent

The case of John Gower illustrates how important a public confession of one's sins was in the ritual of execution in early modern England. The attending crowd, however, did not always learn the right lessons from this display.

Early Life

John Gower was born around 1658 at an unknown location outside London, and it is not known when he came to the capital. Around 1681, apparently before he moved to London, he married a woman who is never named. The marriage was kept secret whilst Gower completed his apprenticeship as a coachmaker.

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Trial for Murder

On the 16th of March 1684 his wife's body was discovered, "having been shot in the back part of the Head with a Pistol Bullet", at Green-Berry Hill in the parish of Hampstead, then a village just north of the metropolis.

On 23 May 1684 he was tried at the Old Bailey for her murder. During the trial it emerged that since coming to London Gower had married a second woman, whose name is also never mentioned in the records. In a later pamphlet it is revealed that this woman was a maid to Gower's master. According to the Old Bailey Proceedings sometime in March 1684 he invited his first wife to come to London from the country, lodging her in a house near Knightsbridge, though the later pamphlet says that she came on her own initiative, having heard that he had completed his apprenticeship.1

During the trial evidence of a poor relationship between Gower and his first wife was produced. Shortly before she arrived he was alleged to have said "if they came together there would be Murder". He apparently also offered a "young fellow" five pounds to sleep with her, so he could then legitimately divorce her.

The main evidence against Gower at the trial was that a number of people had seen him walking with his wife prior to her disappearance. Moreover, his wife's landlady testified that Gower had tried to cover up her disappearance. He told her he had moved his wife to another address, but upon investigation this proved false. He gave more excuses to the landlady, claiming that he nor his wife could come in person due to being "ill with sore eyes".

Gower gave no real defence, attempting to stall the court by saying that he needed time to produce more witnesses. The court believed that this was only an excuse, as Gower had been held at Newgate Prison since the last sessions, giving him ample time to gather witnesses. He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.

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The Penitent Sinner and the Public Spectacle

Before his execution Gower spent three days with the Ordinary in the chapel at Newgate. Gower refused to confess to the murder of his wife, but willingly acknowledged "that he had been a great Sinner, and an evil Husband, in Marrying another Woman while his former Wife was Living". After taking the sacrament on the day before his execution, Gower finally admitted to the murder of his wife. In doing so the Ordinary said Gower "discovered the greatest outward appearance of a Penitent Sinner".

However, at his execution, after witnessing a fellow convict’s confession to the crowd, Gower once again refused to acknowledge his crime. Since acknowledging one's guilt was an important part of the execution ritual, the Ordinary delayed the execution trying to persuade Gower to confess publicly. After more warnings about endangering his eternal soul, Gower would only confess quietly into the Ordinary’s ear. The sheriffs pressed the Ordinary to allow the execution to continue as it had taken far longer than usual. The other convict suggested that they sing psalms, for fear that Gower’s unwillingness to admit guilt would damn his soul as well. Determined to get Gower to publicly acknowledge his crime, it appears the Ordinary spent a further fruitless hour leading prayer, before he left.

Upon the Ordinary’s exit, a number of the crowd called on Gower to admit whether he did or did not kill his wife. This seems to have finally persuaded Gower to confess. The Ordinary returned and Gower publicly confessed that he had shot his wife with a pistol. After further prayer, Gower expanded his confession, adding his poor behaviour as a young apprentice and misbehaviour during the Sabbath, and calling upon others to avoid repeating his mistakes. Finally, he admitted to having two wives, stating explicitly that his wife in the city had no role in the murder, or knowledge of his first wife in the country. Having proved himself penitent publicity, Gower was hanged.

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Execution was not a Deterrent

Despite the lengths the Ordinary took to secure a public confession from Gower, it failed to prevent similar crimes. In July 1684, two months after the trial of Gower, Edward Kirk was tried and found guilty of killing his wife. In his confession to the Ordinary, Kirk admitted that he had witnessed Gower's execution and after returning home "Satan suggested him to Murder his own Wife within one hour after", which he did. Public confessions of guilt aimed at preventing crime could just as easily inspire people to copy them.

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External Sources

  • The Last Speech, Confession and Execution of the two Prisoners at Tyburn, on Friday the 23d of this Instant May. 1684.


1 The Last Speech, Confession and Execution of the two Prisoners at Tyburn, on Friday the 23d of this Instant May (1684).

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About this Biography

Created by

Edward Duncan 

Further contributions by

Robert Shoemaker