Anyone hearing this Ewan MacColl composition might conclude it is a song about an innocent man who was hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter. It remains to be seen if Evans was totally innocent of either murder; the evidence that he killed his wife is overwhelming, but clever propaganda and willful distortions by Michael Eddowes and others opposed to capital punishment have misled the public for decades.
In November 1949, Timothy John Evans walked into a police station in his native Merthyr and told the officer on the desk he had "disposed of" his wife some three weeks previously, giving the police a cock and bull story about procuring an abortificant for her - reluctantly and almost accidentally - and claimed to have found her dead after she had used it against his wishes. Initially they thought he was impaired by alcohol, but when he mentioned his young daughter they became sufficiently concerned to contact their colleagues in London where the family had been living. After an initially fruitless search, officers found the bodies of Beryl Evans and baby Geraldine stashed in an outhouse; they had been strangled. Evans changed his story, claiming his neighbor Christie had assisted Beryl with an illegal abortion, and that he had concocted the previous tale in order to protect him after the operation went wrong. He and Christie had disposed of the body together he said, and Christie had given the baby to a local couple to look after.
Confronted with the evidence though, Evans confessed freely and voluntarily to both murders, and even shook hands with one of the detectives assigned to the case telling him he felt better already. In all he confessed no fewer than five times, without the slightest pressure being put on him, but when he realized the enormity of his position, he had a change of heart.
This may have been due to his meeting Donald Hume while on remand in the hospital wing of Brixton Prison. Hume was awaiting trial for the murder of Stanley Setty - for which he was acquitted, although after serving a lengthy sentence for disposing of Setty's body he confessed to a newspaper. Setty's headless torso had been washed up in the Thames Estuary after Hume had thrown it into the sea from a light aircraft, although it was believed at the time to have been dumped from a motor vehicle. Evans - who was widely and erroneously believed to be illiterate - had followed the headless torso case, cuttings of which had been found in his flat; the police believed he had intended to dump the bodies of his wife and child in similar fashion, but he had lost the use of a motor vehicle after being sacked from his delivery job. Hume told Evans to blame anyone but himself. And who else could he blame but his neighbor, Christie?
John Reginald Halliday Christie was the chief witness against Evans; he denied any involvement or knowledge of either murder, and unsurprisingly, Evans was convicted. He was not tried for both murders, as MacColl seems to think, only for the murder of his young daughter. At that time, if an accused was charged with more than one murder it was standard practice to try him separately for each crime. The Crown elected to try him for the baby's murder first because there could be no issue of provocation - although his legal team had considered running an insanity defense.
His appeal rejected, Evans was duly hanged at Pentonville Prison, and there things might have ended, but in 1953, a new tenant who had moved into Christie's ground floor flat which he had sub-let illegally, made an horrific discovery. After a thorough investigation, the bodies of Christie's wife Ethel and of the three other women (all of them prostitutes) he had recently murdered and secreted in the house, were supplemented by the skeletal remains of two women he'd killed and buried in the back garden during the Second World War.
During the Evans trial, Christie's criminal past had been brought up, he was sacked from his clerical job, and sitting brooding at home had clearly "lost it". Soon after the discovery of the "house of horrors" he was picked up wandering around the Thames Embankment. His only real defense was insanity; knowing this, he confessed to the murder of Beryl Evans - seven murders being slightly madder than six. He did not appeal his conviction, and was hanged. A contemporary inquiry by John Scott Henderson, Recorder of Portsmouth, found no fault with the earlier murder inquiry, and concluded that Evans rather than Christie had murdered both his own wife and daughter. But in 1965-6, an extensive inquiry chaired by the High Court Judge, Sir Daniel Brabin, concluded that Christie had probably murdered the baby but that Evans had probably murdered his wife, Beryl. Evans was therefore granted a posthumous pardon and his body exhumed, and re-interned in consecrated ground.
In 1958, in an interview with the Daily Express after his release from prison, the aforementioned Donald Hume said Evans had told him Christie had murdered the baby while he, Evans, watched. If Hume is to be believed - and he had no real motive to lie - this is quite likely another example of Evans passing the buck.
There is an extensive literature on the cases of Evans and Christie, the most well known of which is Ludovic Kennedy's book 10 Rillington Place, which was also made into a film, in which, among other errors, Christie is portrayed as the landlord. By far the most compelling book though is the 1994 study The Two Killers Of Rillington Place in which John Eddowes tears to shreds the earlier work of his late father, Michael, who was largely responsible for the Evans was totally innocent hypothesis. Among other things, Eddowes points out that at the time Beryl was murdered, Christie had a rock solid alibi. Other very good judges believed Evans had attempted to frame Christie, who in this case was totally innocent. Beryl Evans had been beaten up prior to being strangled; this was not necrophiliac Christie's modus operandi, however vile his crimes.
Because both men were habitual liars, the entire truth will never be known, but the idea that Evans - a drunkard and a wife-beater to boot - was totally innocent is simply not tenable.
Ewan MacColl's heart may be in the right place, but he would have served his cause better if he had chosen a more worthy subject for his anti-capital punishment rant. The song has been covered by Judy Collins, among others.