This unfortunate young man, who was executed at the early age of twenty-three for the heinous crime of arson, was born of respectable parents, and having received a good education, was brought up to the business followed by his father -- that of a bookseller. His father died when he was yet young, but his mother continued to carry on the shop which her late husband had opened at No.265, High Holborn, near Red Lion-street, with a view to its future occupation by his son. Young White was respectably married at the early age of twenty-two, and then he received a sum of 800l. to commence business on his own account, besides a settlement on his wife of 1000l., producing 65l. a year, and a further interest in 4000l., which would fall to him on the death of his wife's mother. Although thus comfortably situated, however, he was guilty of a crime of the most diabolical nature, which cost him his life, and which had for its object the destruction of his own premises, and a consequent fraud upon the Insurance Office.
It appears that the unhappy young man made three attempts to secure his object; but although considerable injury was done on each occasion, he failed in attaining the end which he had in view to the full extent of his intention. The house in which he resided was too large for his purposes, and a portion of it was therefore let off to a Mr. Lazarus, whose family consisted of his grandmother, his sister, and a servant. The prisoner also had a servant named Catherine Taylor, but he had no family except his wife.
In the month of September 1823, a policy of insurance was effected by the prisoner's mother in the British Fire Insurance Company, upon the furniture and stock in the house, respectively for the sums of 400l. and 600l.; but on the 30th of May 1826, young White, without any assignable cause, increased the amount of the policy to 3500l. Within two months after this, the house was discovered to be on fire; but Mr. Lazarus having been alarmed, he jumped up, and on proceeding down stairs, he found his servant in a position which induced him to suppose that she was in some way a party to the wilful firing of the house. He for the time concealed his suspicions, but on the morning of the 5th of August the house was again discovered to be in flames. The girl was on this occasion found by her master near the place where the fire had commenced, almost entirely dressed; and his fears being now much excited, Mr. Lazarus caused her to be taken into custody. She underwent several examinations before the magistrates of Marlborough-street Police-office; but the evidence adduced against her was of a nature so inconclusive as to leave great doubts as to her guilt, and she was discharged. Evidence was soon after this obtained which proved her innocence, and the guilt of one of the persons at whose instance she was conveyed before the magistrates, namely, Mr. White. The fire on this occasion, it appears, happened between one and two o'clock in the morning. Mr. Lazarus was at that time aroused from his sleep by a strong sense of suffocation, and on rising from his bed, he ran down stairs, and found that flames were issuing from a cupboard situated under the stairs leading to the first floor. An alarm had already been given outside the house, and some watchmen had assembled, and by their aid the fire was extinguished. When tranquillity had been in some degree restored, a search was made with a view to ascertain the cause of the conflagration, and the remains of two links, partly consumed, were discovered. White, on this, expressed his belief to Lazarus that the servant of the latter had wilfully set the house on fire, and she was, as we have already mentioned, given into custody. After her first examination, Mr. White suggested that it would be useless to follow up the prosecution, as he did not believe the girl had had the links; but on his being questioned, he denied all knowledge of them himself. The investigation of the case was intrusted to a very active and meritorious officer named Furzeman, and after the examination of the girl, the affair having been much talked of, it was at length discovered that a person very like White himself had purchased some links at the house of a Mr. Bradford, in Broadstreet, St. Giles. While the inquiry was still proceeding, on Wednesday the 4th of October 1825, a third fire broke out on the same premises. At this time the only persons sleeping in the house were Mr. White and his wife, and their servant Catherine Taylor. Mrs. White had retired to bed early in consequence of indisposition, and the servant went to sleep in her mistress's room at eleven o'clock at night, Mr. White then going to another apartment. At about one o'clock, an alarm of fire was raised, and the stairs were found to be in flames. Mrs. White suggested that some assistance should be demanded from the street; but her husband refused to consent to such a course, and conducted the two females to a trapdoor in the roof of the garret, through which they made their escape, abandoning the house to its fate. The watch in the mean time had discovered the fire, and bursting open the street-door, they succeeded in extinguishing the flames. Further inquiries were now made, and upon the examination of the girl Taylor, it was ascertained that she had found a considerable quantity of turpentine, which was kept for her use, thrown over a hearth-rug in the parlour a day or two before the fire; and other facts were elicited, from which it became perfectly evident that the fire was the effect of design and not of accident, and that very great pains had been taken, by the distribution of combustibles in various parts of the lower rooms of the house, to secure the complete destruction of the premises. White was subsequently seen by Mr. Bradford, the oilman, in a dress similar to that worn by the man by whom the links had been purchased at his house, and then he immediately identified him as the person to whom he had sold them. Mr. White was on this taken into custody, and the circumstances above related having been proved in evidence before the magistrates, he was committed to Newgate.
At the sessions held at the Old Bailey on the 31st of October, the prisoner was indicted for the offence with which he stood charged, and the jury returned a verdict that he was guilty. His defence consisted only of a denial of the facts alleged against him, and he heard the finding of the jury delivered without much emotion. At the conclusion of the session he received sentence of death, in common with the other capital convicts; and he then urged upon the court the improbability of the charge, and suggested that his condition was such as to render it most unlikely that for the profit which he should derive, he should commit so diabolical an offence.
The unfortunate man subsequently made representations to government, with a view to procure a commutation of his sentence; but although considerable exertions were made in his favour, an order for his execution on the 2nd of January 1827 was received at Newgate on the 20th of December. The wretched man, who had been constantly attended in jail by his young wife, was dreadfully affected at receiving the fatal intelligence.
The subsequent conduct of the convict was such as ill befitted his awful situation. The bare contemplation of the moment of execution completely unmanned him, and instead of applying himself to religious exercises, he sat day after day brooding over his past life, and occasionally starting upon his feet, bitterly inveighed against his sentence. He had from the time of his trial persisted in denying his guilt; but at length he confessed that he was rightly charged and convicted, pleading in excuse that he was of unsound mind at the time. On his finding that his execution was inevitable, he had recourse to many ingenious measures to procure his escape, and it was discovered that he had some powerful auxiliaries, both among his fellow-prisoners, and his friends without the jail. Ground for suspicion of the design was first given by an intercepted letter; and at this time the prisoner occupied a cell which, from its position, was most favourable for his project. It was situated close to the outer wall of the prison, and could he but have removed the iron bars of the window, he might easily have reached the parapet, by means of a rope ladder, and descended into Newgate-street. A ladder was actually made of black sewing-thread, firmly and curiously wattled, which must have been the work of very considerable time: but the difficulty of removing the window-bars was found by the prisoner to be insurmountable without the aid of instruments. It is almost needless to say, that on the discovery of the scheme, the most minute watch was kept over the movements of the prisoner and his coadjutors. Frequent and anxious inquiries were observed to be made by White for a pair of shoes, which did not appear to be wanted; and when they arrived, they were examined; and spring saws, capable of cutting through iron bars without making any noise, were found sewed up between the upper and lower soles. The wretched man was now made acquainted with the frustration of his plans, and he at once admitted his intention, and spoke of the practicability of his scheme with much pride and satisfaction.
On the fatal morning the prisoner was conducted from his cell to the press-room by the sheriffs' assistants, when he declared that he was quite prepared, and had but one request to make before he died. Some hesitation was exhibited in answering him, when he said, that he had a wish that his arms should not be bound with ropes, but with a handkerchief, which he had prepared for that purpose. A short conference took place between the sheriff (Winchester) and the governor of the jail, and his request was acceded to; but he soon exhibited the design with which he had made it. Upon the executioner proceeding to pinion his hands, he made an effort, by keeping his wrists asunder, and by raising his left hand on a level with his right wrist, to procure the cord to be as slack as possible; but his object being seen, some assistance was procured, and his hands were firmly tied together, notwithstanding his struggling. The worthy ordinary remonstrated with him upon the impropriety of such conduct; but his only answer was, that he was hurt by the cords with which he was bound. Upon the handkerchief, which he had produced, being placed round his arms, it was found to be too small, and a second was taken from his pocket, to add to it. He complained that his eyes would be uncovered, if this were used for the purpose proposed; and his intention to procure the liberation of his arms being at length clearly visible, he was pinioned with a cord in the customary manner. On this he became much affected, and wept bitterly. At length the procession moved on to the scaffold, and the wretched man mounted the platform at twenty minutes past eight, with a faltering and unsteady step. On the executioner and his assistant now approaching him in such a way as to convince him of their firmness, he became dreadfully agitated, and he raised his arms and extended his chest, as if desirous to burst the cords. In the attempt he loosened the bandages round his wrists; and on the cap being drawn over his face, his terror seemed to increase. No sooner had the executioner left him, than he suddenly raised his arms, and by a violent movement pushed off the cap; and accompanying this act with a motion of the body, he made a strong effort to liberate his neck from the halter. Two assistant executioners were now called; and having approached the unhappy man, they held him, while the cap was again placed over his face and tied with a handkerchief. The miserable wretch during the whole of this time was struggling with the most determined violence, and the scene excited the strongest expressions of horror among the crowd. Upon his being again left, he advanced from the spot on which he had been placed, until he had got his feet nearly off the drop, and had rested them on the firm part of the platform; and almost at the same moment he succeeded in tearing the handkerchief from his eyes. The outraged feelings of the assembled populace were still to be excited by a more frightful exhibition than they had yet witnessed. The accustomed signal having been given, the drop sunk; but the wretched man, instead of falling with it, suddenly jumped upon the platform, and seizing the cord round his throat with his hands, which he had sufficiently loosened by the violence of his struggles, he made an effort to prolong that life to which he seemed to be so strongly attached. At this moment the spectacle was horrifying in the extreme. The convict was partly suspended, and partly resting on the platform. During his exertions, his tongue had been forced from his mouth, and the convulsions of his body and the contortions of his face were truly appalling. The cries from the crowd were of a frightful description, and they continued until the executioner had forced the wretched man's hand from the cord, and having removed his feet from the platform, had suffered his whole weight to be sustained by the rope. The distortions of his countenance could even now be seen by the crowd, and as he remained suspended with his face uncovered, the spectacle was terrific. The hangman at length terminated his sufferings by hanging to his legs, and the unhappy wretch was seen to struggle no more.
A woman named Amelia Roberts was executed with White, and her conduct and demeanour formed a striking contrast to that of her fellow-sufferer.