Canterbury’s 4th Hanging Took Place – 21st July 1897

As 16 year old Agnes Lawcock made her way on foot towards the township of Amberley, she may have not a troubling thought in her mind, especially concerning the young gentleman who was also sharing the road with her that morning.  Send out by her mother to run a few errands and collect the mail, it was a familiar route that Agnes had walked many times.  The date was 28th April 1897.

The young man that walked towards her was 21 year old William Sheehan.  Son of a bookmaker, he had been born in Wellington in 1876.  There wasn’t an item on clothing on his body or an item in his pockets that hadn’t been stolen.  He was no stranger to crime as he had already served time for thief in a Wellington Goal, taking the advance of a fire to steal a pair of boots.

Even though William would later claim that he had never seen Agnes Lawcock before that day on the road, he had in fact been bothering the Lawcock’s neighbours, knocking on the doors, asking to borrow some sugar.  If he approached those on foot, he would ask them for directions.  According to William’s later confession, as he passed Agnes, he became impassioned.  He picked up a nearby “…stick…” and began to beat her with it.  He then withdrew a knife and attacked her.  After he stabbed her in the throat three times and once in the chest, he hid her under some gorse on a nearby property and fled.

When Agnes failed to return home by lunchtime, her mother raised the alarm.  Agnes was found around dinnertime by a small search party of locals.  The police were called.

William was arrested in the outhouse of the Star and Garter Hotel at Waikari later that night, claiming to be Hugh Fraser.  Found to have fresh scratches on his face and a knife in his pocket, he was informed of why he was being arrested.  Thanks to his odd behavior, recognizable features and observant locals, he had been easy to track down.

“You are making a mistake about me murdering a woman,” he protested at his arrest.

By 1am, William was in a cell at the Amberley Lockup where he made a full confession.  After a great show of sorrow, he became calm which remained with him until his death.  During his time at Lyttelton Goal, he leaned on his Catholic roots and undertook a great time of reflection and devotion with the company of priests and nuns.  Here he is pictured arriving at court.

William always claimed he never knew why he attacked Agnes.  Despite of being later identified as the attacker of a woman in Shands Track (now Shands Road) on 15th April 1897, he must have made quite an impression of repentant on the clergy around him as one of his priests was so upset the morning on the execution, he couldn’t attend even as support.

William Sheehan was hanged at 8.02am on 21st July 1897, his death was instant and a look of great peace covered his feature upon death.

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