The Ballard of Henry Tidswell

The last man to suffer the death penalty in New Zealand (only he wasn’t!)

Adapted from an old joke by Tristan Bayliss.

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This is the story of Henry Tidswell, the last man to be sentenced to death in this country before capital punishment was abolished. But to understand his story and how it ends, you’re going to need a basic knowledge of the science of electricity, as well as compassion for the vagaries of human nature.

Henry Tidswell was a veteran of the Great War, where he had shown much bravery and distinguished himself in battle, rising to the rank of sergeant major before the war’s end.

Then he returned to his childhood home in Wellington, a hero with a smart dress uniform and a wish to find a simple life of domestic peace where he could forget the horrors of the trenches.

The first thing he did was get himself a job as a bus conductor on the city council buses. It was not a highly paid job, but Henry was proud of it, standing on the back step of the bus, collecting the passengers’ fares and watching the city roll by.

On Saturday nights he would put on his army uniform, for he knew it impressed the ladies, and go downtown to the local dance hall. And it was there that he met Mary Reilly. She was a rare beauty with a wild mane of red hair, sparkling green eyes, and a laugh of liquid delight.

Mary was fresh off the boat from Ireland, the fourth daughter of a wealthy landed family, who’d been used to a life of privilege and plenty with servants to take care of her every need.

But something had happened at home (of which reports are unclear) and consequently Mary was banished in shame to the colonies with just enough money for a modest dowry or to set herself up in a small business as a seamstress, for she was clever with her hands.

Back at home in Ireland, Mary had met many young officers (perhaps too many!) and they had always been well-to-do types from prosperous families, so she associated the uniform of an officer with a certain social status. Thus, when she saw Henry in his officers’ uniform at the dance, she made a beeline for him.

Henry was at the bar ordering a round of drinks for his friends, standing patiently while the barmaid counted on her fingers, her forehead scrunched in a frown. Finally, just as Mary Reilly sidled up beside him, Henry intervened and said to the barmaid “It’s 5 drinks at thruppence ha’penny each,, that’s one shilling five and ha’penny. Here’s a florin and you give me sixpence ha’penny change.”

The barmaid seemed relieved,  but Mary was impressed with how quickly he’d totted it up, and asked “How did you do that?”

“It’s because I’m a conductor,” replied Henry, at which Mary laughed, and Henry was hooked.

The courtship was brief and within 2 months they were married. Soon after that Mary was expecting her first child, and a year later, her second, and the couple settled into a quiet domestic routine. For Henry, this was the life he’d dreamed of, to work at a good steady job and come home to a loving family. For Mary, not so much.

Though she was fond of her husband, the long hours of cleaning and cooking and feeding the babies and mending the clothes soon palled on her, and she longed for a grander, more leisurely life.

So it was she began to complain to Henry when he got home,

“Can yer not get a bit more money, darlin’, a promotion or some’tin, just so’s we can afford a bit o’ help aroun’ the house, or maybe even get one o’ dose new-fangled gadgets to help with the washin’?”

“There’s no chance of a raise at the moment, Mary, and I’m already working all the overtime I can get,” replied Henry patiently, “We’ll get by, Mary, don’t worry.”

But do yer not collect a pile o’ shillins’ every day in dat belt o’ yours, ‘t’would be easy to just keep a penny for every shillin’ yer take, sure?”

Henry was shocked at the suggestion.”But that would be stealing, Mary. That’s not my money.”

“Ah, go aarn. No-one’d notice a wee penny here or there. Would you not do it fer me, darlin, and the babies?”

“No, Mary, it wouldn’t be right, and I’m not a thief.”

So she let it go. But that night, when all the chores were done and they were laying in bed before sleep, Mary raised the idea again . But this time, as she did so, she began to gently massage the knot in Henry’s back which was sore from carrying his heavy money belt, and she slowly worked her way down and around, till by the time she’d got to his feet, which were sore from standing all day, Henry had agreed to keeping a penny for each shilling collected, for she was clever with her hands.

The next day Henry headed off to work with a heavy heart, but he’d given his word, so he began to pocket a penny for every shilling he collected, till by the end of the day his pockets were bulging. Afraid someone would notice, he nervously kept his hands in his pockets all the time at the depot and on the way home till he got inside.

“It’s no good, Mary, I can’t keep this up. Someone will notice all these pennies in my pockets.”

“Aah, don’t yer worry yourself about that, me darlin’. I can fix that, for sure,” she laughed as he handed her the money. Then, when he’d changed, she took his conductor’s pants, turned them inside out, and with her needle and thread and a length of material, quickly made a neat hidden pocket down the length of his right trouser leg, for she was clever with her hands.  

Now with his secret pocket, Henry brought the coins back each day, and for a while things were good. Mary used the extra money to buy herself a new red dress and pay a shilling a week for a girl who came in to help with the chores and looking after the babies, and she seemed much happier.

But after two months had passed, Henry came home one day to find Mary in a new orange dress and a bright copper and brass contraption whirring and clanking in the laundry.

“Isn’t it a beauty?” enthused Mary. “It’s only the latest model! ‘Tis an electric agitator washing machine’. All the best homes are gettin’ one, sure.”

“But how much did it cost?” asked Henry with consternation creeping into his voice.

“Ah now, that’s the wonderful ting!” she replied brightly, “I didn’t have to pay the man anything at all to begin with, and he even delivered it for free, sure. And all he needs is two shillin’s a week, and it’s ours to keep.”  

“But Mary, we can’t afford it. Even with the extra money, we can’t pay for that and the girl. You’ll have to let the girl go.” protested Henry.

“What, let Rosie go?! Nooo, we can’t do that to the poor girl. She’s part of the family now, and no mistake. No, if yer just keep two pennies for every shillin’ you take, darlin, we can easily afford to keep ’em both,” she smiled.

“No, Mary, I can’t. What if I get caught? It’s out of the question,” answered Henry.

Mary opened her mouth to argue, but thought better of it,

“Sure, you’re tired, me darlin’. We can talk about it later when the wee ones are abed.”

And that night, as they lay in their bed, Mary began to work that knot in his back again, and talked gently as she moved her hands, and before ten minutes had passed, Henry had agreed to keep two pennies for every shilling collected. And the next morning, as he put on his uniform, he noticed Mary had sewn a new hidden pocket into the left leg of his pants, for she was clever with her hands.   

Well, the new arrangement worked well for a time. Mary was very happy with her wonderful machine, and Rosie kept her job. Henry was able to bring home the extra pennies in his second pocket without anyone noticing, and for one month all was bliss.

Then one day, Henry came home to find Mary in a new yellow dress and the house looking very changed. There were jaunty yellow curtains on all the windows, a new rug on the living room floor, and a big golden wood table in the dining room glowing with a lustrous shine.

“Oh no, Mary, what have you done now?” cried Henry, with his hands to his head.

“Ah now, don’t be gettin’ yourself in a lather. I’ve done a little shoppin’, is all. I got all o’ these for a single price, on sale to boot! And he didn’t even ask fer a deposit.” she trilled, obviously delighted, “just a wee payment each week and it’s all ours.”      

How much?” asked Henry, through clenched teeth.

“Just three shillin’s, me love, and you could easily cover it if yer keep three pennies a shillin from yer belt.” she suggested with a winning smile.

“No Mary, I can’t. If I take any more, the director will begin to suspect. You’ll have to take these things back.” he said firmly.

“Ah now, let’s jus’ not be so hasty. We can talk over it later when you’re a bit rested, me darlin’,” smoothed Mary.

“Oh no you don’t, Mary Reilly. I know what you’re going to do. I’m going to sleep on the couch in here tonight, and you’re taking these things back tomorrow.” he stated with finality.

At that, Mary opened her beautiful green eyes wide and Henry could see tears forming as her bottom lip began to tremble.

“Ah God, I’m sorry, me darlin’. I was only trying to make our home more cheery for yer to come home to. And da dress as well, I got jus’ for you, as I know yer like yella.” she sobbed.

And with this, the tears began to flow freely down her lovely cheeks and her chest heaved. Henry looked at her forlorn expression and his resolve broke. He took her in his arms, saying “There, there Mary, I know you meant well, but we just can’t afford all these things.”

But as he hugged her, her own hands responded with a gentle caress of his back which started meekly and moved around, till twenty minutes later Henry was lying back on his bed wondering how he was going to get away with keeping three pennies in the shilling, and marveling at how really clever she was with her hands.

“The only way I can do it,” he said eventually, “is if I keep the two pennies for every shilling as I’ve been doing, then keep a thruppence every third shilling on top.”

“Ah sure, I’ll never understand how it is ye work dese tings out,” she said in awe beside him.

“It’s because I’m a conductor,” he replied.

And the next morning as he dressed, he noticed a new pocket sewn on the inside right of his jacket, just a perfect size to hold the small threepenny pieces.

Well, life was sweet for a while, and Henry had to admit the house did feel a lot cheerier to come back to. But after only two weeks had passed, he arrived home to see a small green car parked outside and Mary at the door, beaming in a beautiful new green dress which matched her eyes perfectly.

“What do yer tink?” she squealed excitedly, “isn’t it just a cutey?”

Henry looked at the dress and nodded warily.

“Yes it is, Mary, but did it cost much?”

“Ah, not this, yer ejit.” she laughed, dismissing the dress with a wave of her hand,  “The car! I got yer a car.”

Henry did a double take, and experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“But we don’t need a car, Mary. I take the bus to work, and you can get to the shops easily on foot. Only rich people have their own car, Mary.”

“Ah don’t be such a killjoy. Sure it’s just a wee one, jus’ big enough for us and the bubbies. And it’s only four shillins a week!  Yer only need to keep four pennies in the shilling and it’s ours. Tink of all the places we can go in the weekend, now. Picnics on the beach, it’ll be grand!”

“NO,” said Henry with some force, “We are not keeping this car.”

Mary took a step towards him and reached out placatingly, but Henry moved out of her way.

“Oh no you don’t, Mary Reilly. You keep those hands to yourself … and don’t think about crying either. I’m up to your tricks. Now you get in the car. We are taking it back.” he stated determinedly.

Mary decided not to argue and got in the car, but as they were on the way to the car dealers, she mentioned, “Henry me darlin’, there may be a wee problem wid takin’ it back. Silvio seemed quite set on his no returns ‘ting when we made the deal.”

“Silvio! You bought it from those Italian loan sharks?!” Henry sighed incredulously.

“Ah, but he’s a lovely man, an no mistake. Gave me such a good deal, and didn’t even ask fer a deposit,” she opined.

At the car yard, Silvio Tucci was applying a fresh coat of grease to his hair as he confirmed Mary’s story.

“Like I say to your wife. We make-a the deal, we donna take him back. You paya da four shilling a week, no problem.” Silvio held up the paper which Mary had signed.

“But how many payments do we have to make ?” asked Henry

Silvio shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms to the heavens.

“How long isa da piece a string? Who knows? Maybe a hundred, maybe two hundred. Da bank, he put interest up, he put interest down, Whaddya know? But you paya da four shilling a week, you keepa da nice car.”

“What if I just leave the car here and refuse to take it?” said Henry defiantly.

“Like I say, you leava da car wherever you like. Is a your car. But next week you paya da money or I send my friend Guido here to collect it.” replied Silvio threateningly. And, as if on cue, a giant man with a shaven head and tattoos down his heavily muscled arms stepped out of the little office and stood with his arms folded.

On the way home Mary tried to comfort him by placing her hand on his knee as he was driving, and though he hated himself for it, Henry couldn’t help but feel there was something quietly wonderful about driving his own car, with his beautiful wife beside him, knowing he could go wherever he wanted to. But it didn’t erase the creeping feeling of dread when he realised he now had to find a way to keep four pennies of every shilling he collected.

And next morning, when he donned his conductor’s jacket, he noticed another new pocket, just big enough for a stack of threepenny pieces, sewn artfully on the inside left, for she certainly was clever with her hands.

For the next week, Henry was a nervous wreck at the depot. He would constantly glance towards the director’s office and couldn’t relax until he got on his bus, but he knew it was only a matter of time till he was caught, for he was keeping a full third of the takings.

Now the director of the bus depot was an older Englishman named George Barnstaple. George had suffered from a mustard gas attack in the War, and had returned with a weakened heart and lungs. He was slow and methodical, tended to trust people on face value, and was straight as a die when it came to questions of right and wrong. He had liked Henry Tidswell from the outset, but on the rare occasions he’d met Henry’s wife, had wondered how such a solid chap had ended up with someone so flighty, though there was no doubt she had her charms.

George kept a close eye on all the takings from each bus route, and had noticed a steady increase in all of them except one, Henry’s one. And just of late, it had even begun to diminish alarmingly. George was not one to jump to conclusions hastily, so resolved to call Henry in at the end of his shift that day to ask him some questions about it.

As he stood there sweating, Henry prayed for a way out.

“So how do you explain this drop in your takings, Henry?” asked George quietly.

“I really don’t know, George. My route is mostly flat and I have seen more and more people using bicycles.” suggested Henry.

“I see,” said George, thoughtfully, “Now  don’t take offence, Henry, but I’d like you to turn out your pockets, if you will.”

Henry did so and silently thanked his wife’s clever hands as all that was revealed was a handkerchief and some boiled sweets he had to chew on.

Alright, Henry, you can go.” said George, and he watched him leave. But George was a thorough person, so after Henry had gone he went out to the workshops and called to Piri, a small maori boy who was always about, watching the mechanics work on the big engines, for he dreamed of being a mechanic one day too.

“Piri, how would you like to earn a few pennies?” asked George, “Yes? Well, tomorrow I want you to ride on Henry Tidswell’s bus and watch him closely, then report back to me what you see. But make sure he doesn’t notice you watching.”

That evening as Henry went home, he resolved to put an end to it all, give everything back, and stop taking any more money, but as he came to his door, Mary greeted him in a bright new blue dress, her eyes sparkling with delight.

“Ah, darlin, i have the most wonderful news!” she gushed.

Henry looked around with dread, but could see nothing changed except for the dress.

“What is it? What have you bought this time,, Mary?” breathed Henry.

“Well, you’re only standin’ on it, sure,” she trilled.

Henry looked down at the doormat, but it was the same one as always, and he frowned.

“Not the mat, yer ejit. The house! We’ve only gone and bought the house, we have.” And she could contain herself no longer, grabbed Henry’s hands and did a little jig.

Henry had to go and sit down, “But how?” he asked finally.

“Well, I was a-talkin to my friend Gillian, and she was tellin’ me how der government is helpin’ folk to buy dere own homes, and givin dem all the money to do so … well, almost all,” she recounted breathlessly, “so I went down to the Housin Aut’ority and spoke to a lovely man dere, Gavin his name was, and he said we could buy the house we’re in! So I did! Isn’t it the bees knees?!”

“And how much are the payments?” asked Henry fatalistically.

“Only five shillins a week! And dat’s only a shillin more dan we’re payin for rent, anyways,” she laughed.

Despite himself, and knowing that they were probably doomed, he had to admit it made a lot of sense, in fact he wished they’d thought of it sooner.

“And how are we supposed to pay the extra shilling?” he asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.

“Ah, that’s where I have to leave it up to me darlin’ man. Yer so clever wid dese tings, yer’ll prob’ly put sixpences in yer cap, or some such like,” she replied, and Henry noticed she was already holding his conductor’s cap in her nimble fingers.

Sure enough, the next day Henry found a crafty sleeve had been sewn around the inner brim of his cap, and was so distracted at work musing on his wife’s clever hands, he didn’t notice when Piri snuck onto his bus and curled himself up in a corner where he could see Henry without being noticed. All through one route Piri watched, then reported back to the director when they changed at the depot.

“He’s always fiddlin’ wiv ‘is clothes, and took his cap off quite a lot.”

The director nodded thoughtfully, gave Piri some pennies and sent him on his way.

At the end of that day, George called Henry in again to the office.

“Take off your change belt and have a seat, Henry,” said George evenly.

Henry did as suggested, holding the heavy belt on his lap as he eyed the director nervously. George then stepped towards him and reached for Henry’s cap. Alarmed, Henry tried to hold on to it, his change belt fell to the floor, and the two wrestled briefly before Henry realised finally the game was up. George wrenched the cap free and, breathing heavily, he felt inside the brim and his suspicions were confirmed.

Then the combination of the exertion and the anger of betrayal led George’s weak heart to suddenly rupture, He went rigid, his face turned green, and he pitched forward, his head smashing violently against the sharp corner of Henry’s change belt on the floor.

Henry panicked and leant forward to pick up the heavy belt, covering himself in George’s blood and brain matter as he did so, and just at that moment, two other drivers burst into the office to see what the commotion was about.

Henry stood there, guilt written all over his face, the bloodied change belt in his hands, and George dead on the floor amid a widening pool of blood, his hands still clasped around Henry’s cap.  

 Later, at the police station, a routine search found the other hidden coins in Henry’s uniform, and Henry was arrested and formally charged with the murder of his supervisor.

The next day, after collecting statements from the drivers and Piri, and examining George Barnstaple’s records, the police prosecutor took his preliminary findings to the presiding judge, Judge Abercrombie, who decided there was indeed a case to answer for murder in the first degree, and a date was set for the trial.  

After this brief meeting, the Right Honourable Edward Thaddeus Abercrombie was finished for the day, and called for his car to be brought round to the courthouse entrance. As he waited for his driver, he adjusted his immaculate blue Saville Row suit, of which he was immensely proud, and he mused on his life. Though being a judge was a highly respected and well paid position, he owed his wealth to his family, who owned vast estates and many businesses to do with the export of agricultural produce. But the judge lived alone, and his only passions were his work and the luxuries with which he indulged himself. And truth to tell, these were beginning to leave him feeling rather empty of late. He would need to find something else to bring him fulfillment, perhaps a hobby, or a good cause, though neither of these really appealed to his essentially self-centred nature.

As he came to this realisation, a beautiful young woman with flaming red hair and a bright blue dress walked boldly up to him and introduced herself.

“Hello, sir, it’s Judge Abercrombie, is it not? I’m Mary Reilly and you have my husband in yer jail at the moment.”

“Young lady,” replied the judge archly, “thisss is quite irregular. I cannot be discussssing the details of any case on the sstreet with parties concerned, least of all the sspouse of the accused.”

“Ah no, it’s not the case I’m come to see about. You’re a fine man, and I’m sure you’ll handle the case jus’ grand. No, I’ve come to get Henry’s conductor suit. I do like to keep ‘tings clean and tidy, and I’m sure he won’t be needin’ it while he’s in the jail.” she pleaded.

“Any belongings of the accused will be in the hands of the policcce. You’ll have to ssee them with your request. Now if you’ll excuse me,” dismissed the judge as his limousine pulled up to the kerb.

“Roight, I will that, and thank yer for yer trouble,” she continued blithely, “but speakin o’ suits, that’s a rare one you’re wearin’ dere. Sure it’s not made by anyone round here, not quality like dat.”

The judge was flattered by the recognition. “No, it’s from London, actually.”

“Surely …  not from …?” prompted Mary.

“Sssaville Row, yes” replied the judge with undisguised pride.

“Ah, would yer not jus’ let me have a wee feel of the cloth, dere, for I swear I’ve never seen such a fine one,” and she laid her hand lightly on the judge’s sleeve and began to stroke the cloth.

The driver, by this point, was standing with the rear door open, waiting for the judge to mount.

“Ah, now would you be headin’ uptown, by any chance, where you could give a poor girl a lift?” asked Mary, in her sweetest voice.

Standing there with the young lady’s hand stroking his arm, the judge suddenly seemed to lose grasp of his steely legal reasoning, and thought to himself. “Why not? What could go wrong?” and he invited Mary into the back of his limousine.

There, as the car purred away, Mary continued her examination of his wondrous suit, tracing her fingers along the stitching from his cuffs to where the sleeve joined the torso.

“Ah, but what’s this?” she gasped,” … Judge, yer must be workin’ too hard, sure, yer’ve a knot in yer shoulder like a sailor’s elbow. Jus’ turn a bit, dere, and I’ll give it a wee rub …”  

By the end of that short journey, Judge Abercrombie had answered the nagging question of what more his life required for fulfillment, and he gallantly got out to walk Mary to her door. His driver, meanwhile, took a cloth and discreetly wiped the condensation from the back windows of the limousine.

“So, Teddy, I’ll be thankin’ yer greatly fer the lift … and yer say the money will go automatically to the bank now, is it?” she asked sweetly.

“Yess, Mary, a pound a week should cover your expensses, shouldn’t it? And you won’t have to lose your house or things, don’t worry,” he crooned suavely in reply.

“Ah, you’re a gentleman and a life saver fer sure, Teddy. So same time next week then?” she said lightly.

“Yess, I’ll look forward to it.” he smiled, returning to his car.

The next day, judge Abercrombie asked for the chief constable to report to him everything he had on the Tidswell case.

“Sso how did he manage to ssteal all this money and walk right out of the depot without anyone noticing?” asked the judge.

“His wife had sewn secret pockets into his conductor’s uniform…. apparently she’s clever with her hands.” replied the chief constable, by way of explanation.

At this the judge turned a deep shade of red, and spluttered, “Yess, well, I don’t think we need to involve her in the investigation. Sshe was obviously just doing as sshe was told. We have all we need for a sspeedy prosecution without the wife.”

“As you say, sir,” replied the chief constable, glad to close the case.

So it was, Henry’s trial moved rapidly and, though his defence attorney tried to put forward  evidence of the victim’s heart condition, Judge Abercrombie showed little interest and Henry Tidswell was convicted of the first degree murder of George Barnstaple, and sentenced to death by electrocution.

Well, since the end of the Great War, the tide of opinion about capital punishment had changed. Almost everyone had lost friends or loved ones in the conflict, and people were heartily sick of killing as a way of solving anything. So when news of Henry Tidswell’s sentence got out, there was an outcry from the liberals and socialists, and the very next day a small group of protesters gathered outside the courthouse and began chanting their anti-death slogans.

But the wheels of the law ground on, and the date of the execution soon arrived.

The electrocution chamber was annexed to the courthouse and was a room just big enough to house a massive raised wooden chair with a hideous hinged copper helmet attached, to which ran a stout electrical cable. Leather straps were fastened to the legs and arms of the chair, and two steel cages were at the feet. A small window of reinforced glass opened through the front wall to an observation room with seats for 20 witnesses.

This day the room was half full with two reporters, the defence counsel and police prosecutor, the court bailiff who was official timekeeper, the executioner, and judge Abercrombie making up the official party. Sitting next to the judge, and clothed in a demure dress of deepest indigo making her seem suitably funereal yet still striking, was Mary Reilly.

Henry was led in and strapped to the chair. His head had been shaved and the metal helmet was placed on and strapped down tight. The executioner left the chamber and stood by the massive control switch, and the last thing Henry saw before the lights in the observation room were doused, was Mary sitting in her indigo dress wearing, what looked to him, like a new set of pearls about her neck.

The bailiff commenced the countdown, and at 1 the executioner pulled the lever. There was a low hum, and the collected audience held their breath. Henry’s eyes seemed to dilate and his fingers tensed. The hum continued for a full minute, then the bailiff nodded to the executioner and the power was shut down. Henry blinked, gave a little cough, and sat with a sheepish smile on his face.

Loud murmurings broke out in the room, and the judge called out, “It didn’t work. Do it again, man.”

At that, the defence counsel stood up and protested, “According to law, the sentence was carried out. If you wish to claim a technical miscarriage of the sentence, you’ll have to get a new execution order.”

The judge muttered something under his breath and stormed out of the room, and Henry was taken back to his cell.

When news of the failed execution was broadcast, interest in the case skyrocketed. Some claimed it must prove Henry was innocent, and the pacifist lobby took it as irrefutable evidence that capital punishment should be abolished. The governor general was petitioned to grant a pardon and letters in support of Henry were published in the national papers. The protests outside the courthouse grew in number and volume, and became a constant thorn in the side of Judge Abercrombie.

He took the failure quite personally, and assiduously oversaw preparations for the next attempt. He spoke to the electrical engineer,  who replaced the cables and fittings with larger industrial ones and tripled the power into the chamber. New electrodes were added to the back and seat of the chair, and the judge was assured that nothing could go wrong, as, in the words of the engineer, “there’s enough current there to fry an elephant.”

The preparations were completed and the new execution date arrived. A small crowd squeezed into the observation room, this time including several representatives from the various political parties and news reporters from all the major city papers. Mary took her place beside the judge, wearing again her sombre indigo dress, this time teamed with a dark fur coat, as the weather had turned colder. The crowd outside was blocking half the street and the noise was constant as Henry was brought in again and strapped to the contraption. He squinted at the window and searched for Mary’s face among the onlookers and the last thought he had before the lights were doused was, “that fur looks awfully like mink.”

The countdown began again and at 1 the lever was slammed down. This time the low hum was replaced by a high-pitched metallic whine as the enhanced current shot through Henry’s body. His eyes popped wide, his fingers and toes splayed outwards rigidly, and his lips began to vibrate with the power. For a full minute it continued and the whine became a shriek as the electrodes began to crackle and spark with the overload. Finally the bailiff gave the nod, and the crowd in the observation room watched breathlessly as Henry’s rigid body was released from the current. The noise ceased, and Henry stayed, mouth and eyes wide open, stiff and breathless. Then he gave a gasp, shook his head and blinked, and peered up at the window with a look of bemusement.

The room erupted in pandemonium as everyone crowded forward to get a closer view through the window. Judge Abercrombie seemed beside himself with barely contained fury and stalked out in search of the engineer.

When news of the second failed attempt got out, Henry became an international celebrity. Telegraphs were transmitted around the world with the details, and the case was discussed in every pub and tearoom in the country. By now, the anti-death penalty lobby had become so strong that a bill had been drafted and gone to its first reading in parliament, and again the governor general was petitioned for a pardon.  

Judge Abercrombie, meanwhile, became obsessed with the case, and let all his other work pile up. He bypassed the incompetent engineer and went directly to the power station manager to demand new transmission cables that could carry more power.

“What’s the biggest cable you can get to the courthouse?” demanded the judge.

”Well, your honour, you already have the largest standard urban cabling,” answered the manager, somewhat flustered by the intensity of the judge.

Abercrombie looked around the yard where they were talking and noticed a giant reel with what looked like the sort of hawser you would use to moor a ship.

“What about those, what are they for?” he insisted

“Oh, that’s not for residential use. There’s talk of laying a cable under the straits to bring power from the South Island. That’s undersea cable.” he explained.

“How much power can that carry,” continued the judge.

“Well … all of it, basically. As much as can be generated and enough to power the whole city.” he answered bemusedly.

“Then I want you to lay that cable to the courthouse, and make sure all the connections can carry the load, then link it up to the electric chair. You have three weeks left to do it.” ordered the judge.

“But … your honour. It’s not ..” he began,

“No BUTS!” shouted the judge, “if you value your job, you will get it done.” and with that he stalked off.

So while the protests gathered in strength daily, a large team of network engineers set to and laid the giant cable from the power station to the courthouse five blocks away. In the chamber itself all the connectors were replaced with massive forged steel units and the cables triple wound. The observation window was replaced with double glazed safety glass, the walls and door reinforced, and a large iron handrail fitted to keep people back from the window.

On the allotted day of the execution, a massive crowd gathered outside the courthouse, including film cameramen from as far afield as Australia. They interviewed all the important protagonists in the case, including the defence counsel, the police prosecutor, and the wife of the accused, who was resplendent in a stunning violet dress with matching sapphire brooch.

As the appointed hour drew near, the excited crowd of observers pressed into the room adjoining the chamber. Among them were Mary, Judge Abercrombie, and no less than the governor general himself who had come to witness this extraordinary event.

Henry was brought into the chamber and, as before, strapped into the enormous raised chair. The helmet was placed on his shaven head, and the executioner went round meticulously  tightening the straps around his chin, arms and legs, and checking every connection and cable was sound. All of the fittings were obviously new and considerably thicker than at the previous attempts, and there was some comment on this within the crowd..

With one minute to go to the hour, the executioner left the chamber, closed the reinforced door, and took his place by the massive lever that would release the fatal current. The murmuring in the observation room ceased as all attention was riveted on the forlorn figure of a frightened Henry Tidswell strapped to the diabolical contraption and bathed in a sickly blue light.

As the bailiff of the court began the official countdown of the last 30 seconds, Judge Abercrombie could no longer contain himself and stepped forward to get a closer view through the observation window, grasping the newly installed iron handrail as he did so.

…5, 4, 3, 2, 1.  The executioner grasped the lever and plunged it down, and an enormous buzz, like a million bees, filled the room. At the same time the sound of the chanting crowd outside changed to gasps and screams as all the lights in the city spluttered out. Henry’s body was thrumming with the enormous power surging through him, and he began to glow. But the current was too much for the system, and the cables crackled and began to melt, while the arms of the chair started to smoulder. Then a huge arc of electricity leapt from the chair across the room to the steel window frame of the observation room, and from there through the reinforcing to the iron handrail. The judge went rigid as the bolt shot through his hands and every muscle in his body became electrically tensed. The governor general saw what had happened and shouted to the executioner to shut off the power, but the current in the wall had reached the lever and the executioner was blasted away with a scorched hand for his trouble.

Inside the chamber, the walls were smouldering and the smoke obscured any view of Henry, but all eyes now were fixed on the vibrating silhouette of the judge, whose neatly coiffed hair first smoked then burst into flame. The oilier parts of him, such as eyeballs and skin, began to blister and pop as all the fat inside him liquefied, and soon the room reeked of burnt bacon, until  what was left of him dropped to the floor in a disorderly pile of charred and blackened lumps wrapped clumsily in a blue tailored suit, which was surprisingly undamaged, for it was of the highest quality.

Finally the power station manager realized what was happening and shut off the courthouse cable, restoring power to the rest of the city. The crowd on the street responded with a raucous cheer, then began their chant again, louder than ever,

“Hen-ry Tids-well, Hen-ry Tids-well …”

Back in the courthouse, the bailiff marshalled help to wrench open the door of the chamber  and a fire hose was used to douse the flaming walls. Windows were opened to clear the smoke and as a generator chugged into action to restore lighting, the small crowd was fascinated to see what had become of Henry Tidswell. Slowly through the murk they could make out his slumped outline, still strapped to the smouldering chair. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he gave a cough and a splutter and raised his head. The governor general rushed forward, beside himself with emotion, pushed through the throng and into the chamber. There he grabbed Henry by the lapels as the bailiff released him from the restraints, and cried in anguish,

“What does this mean, man? Is it a sign from God that we must stop this barbaric ritual? Are you being saved because you’re innocent? Tell us, man, why is it you cannot be electrocuted?”

Henry coughed again, and looking up through watery eyes, said sheepishly,

“I think, Sir … it’s because I’m a conductor.”  


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