Johnstown, Carmarthen may now be a quiet backwater in a rural corner of Wales, but int he past, it earned its title 'the Hanging Town'. Here, if you so much as stole some cider you could expect to be hanged for it.
Hundreds of people - young and old - were beaten and executed here, and people even paid to watch the horror. For most, the journey from Carmarthen Gaol to a leafy corner of Johnstown was one they would make once, and from which they would never return. Whether guilty of murder, savage beating or petty pilfering, from 1739 onwards, the town provided the location for local justice.
However, not all murder trials ended in conviction. In 1742 - a strange case involving an eight year old girl took place. She was tried at Carmarthen Assizes for murdering her brother and sister, aged six and four. At that time there was fear of a Spanish invasion and stories were rife of the alleged cruelty inflicted by the Spaniards. During a night of heavy storms, the children thought the thunder was the sound of the invasion and the younger ones begged their older sister to kill them in order to spare them from the marauding Spaniards. The girl did so, with a hedge trimming blade and then attempted, unsuccessfully, to kill herself. Remarkably for the times, the girl was acquitted.
One of the hanged was Elinor Williams who lived in the town, at the Royal Oak and was hanged for murdering her child, while, at the other end of the scale, two young men were similarly dealt with for stealing cider from a local hostelry. The executions took place on a raised platform in an area known as Royal Oak Common. Other nearby locations witnessing similar events were at Babell Hill in Pensarn and at the County Gaol itself with prisoners destined for execution at Pensarn having to walk the distance from the gaol in Carmarthen - a distance of over a mile on a route usually crammed with jeering onlookers.
The last man to endure the so-called 'death walk' from Carmarthen to Pensarn was a local man called Rees Thomas Rees in 1817. His crime was the murder of his sweetheart, by poisoning. However, this is subject too debate as she had apparently fallen pregnant and begged him to obtain some medicine which would terminate the pregnancy. He had done so and it is apparently this which killed her. He could have escaped and emigrated to America, as he initially intended to do, but instead he decided to face the authorities and hope for a favourable verdict. He didn't get it and as he mounted the gallows, a number of women in the ''audience' openly wept.
The last public execution to take place there saw some 10,000 people pack the streets - those with money paying for the best vantage points.
The last public hanging was in 1862 and, by 1888, a new gallows was built inside the front wall of the County Gaol. Hangings had ceased to be a public spectacle but that didn't mean the drama had ceased.
On March 13th, 1888, David Rees was hanged, but this may well have been a miscarriage of justice. It certainly became an infamous case. He may have been shielding an accomplice or he may simply not have understood how much trouble he was in. His first language was Welsh and little provision was made for this until a judge decided to intervene.
On November 12th 1887, Thomas Davies, a messenger at the Dafen Tinworks in Llanelli, was found dying in a field of terrible wounds inflicted as a result of a severe beating. he had been carrying a bag filled with wages - $390 in gold and silver. Moore than £300 of this was missing. A blood covered hanger - a tool used in tinwork - was found nearby. Later that evening, police came to question David Rees and arrested him on suspicion of murder.
It took just thirty minutes for the jury to reach their verdict and, his black cap placed with due solemnity on his head, the judge pronounced the sentence. Rees would be hanged for the murder of Thomas Davies. Asked if he had anything to say, he declined and was taken down to the cells, but then started screaming and yelling that he hadn't understood the sentence. He new he was in trouble, but hadn't realised quite how much.
The Governor of the gaol heard this and spoke to the judge who ordered Rees brought back up into court This time, he read out the sentence without wearing the black cap, then ordered it to be translated into Welsh so Rees could be in no doubt. Interpreter Mr Long Price did so. and broke down, as did many in the court.
Members of the church visited Rees in his cell and described him as lacking his old sparkle. They also reported that he protested his innocence of the crime. He insisted he did not kill Davies - laying heavy emphasis on the word 'kill'. When asked who did kill Davies, Rees insisted it was a mystery to him. He did not know. Was he protecting someone? We shall never know. Maybe, as the victim was alive when he left him - even if just barely - he simply meant he hadn't seen him die at his hands.
Nowadays, Carmarthen and its surroundings enjoys a lower than average crime rate and is a peaceful place to live. Carmarthen Gaol itself closed in 1922.