HE died as flamboyantly as he lived, turning his execution into a near celebration.

Unlike the transparent penitence of his fellow thief, Tom Jones bantered with officials and onlookers as he neared the gallows.

"May the Lord forgive you," one cried out.

"Thank you," he beamed, as though acknowledging a common greeting.

Then, following a last embrace with the love of his life, Esmerelda, Jones bounded up the steps.

Jones and Dick Francis had been convicted of burgling the shop of an affluent Salisbury jeweller, looting it of a valuable hoard of gold and silver watches and chains amongst other items.

And they might have got away with it but for the state of England's roads in the early 19th century.

The pair hot footed it to the hamlet of Sutton Scotney, a few miles north of Winchester, where they had planned to temporarily hide the loot under a hedge and await the London bound stagecoach but it was late, very late, and in the interim they fatally changed their mind and decided to take the goods with them.

The continual pounding of the wheels on what passed as the highway had loosened a wheel and emergency repairs had to be carried out at a country inn where the coachman overheard a conversation about a daring robbery in Salisbury.

He instinctively took an interest in the two men, cases in hand, who insisted on having tickets to ride as outside passengers, and having confided his suspicions to another traveller, he made such an extravagant stop at Egham, Surrey, they were able to alert a police constable who detained them.

Jones and Francis did reach London - but only under escort. They were held at the celebrated Bow Street police station where the relieved shop owner identified his missing property.

Doomed, they were returned to Salisbury under heavy guard and entertained little hope of an acquittal, a light sentence or even transportation to the colonies when tried at the forthcoming Wiltshire Summer Assizes of 1801. Ordered to be hanged, they were confined to Fisherton Prison in the cathedral city where they exhibited contrary demeanour as to their fate.

"The conduct of Francis was , from the moment of condemnation, exemplary and devout," recorded William Dowding, the assistant governor. "But Jones was indifferent, even to the last."

Fate was to play a last cruel trick on the latter. The ne'er do well in life was a ne'er do well at death.

In a split-second, he should have been plunged into eternity - as the old vernacular termed it - but the hangman bungled his job. The rope became displaced and it was only after protracted suffering in front of the shocked crowd that he finally died.

But there was no sympathy for Richard Tucker who suffered a similar fate at the same assize. Indeed, there was many a man who would have relished doing the authority's work for them - he had starved his wife to death.

Though low in intelligence, the unworldly rustic was cunning in exploiting the fears of the ill and gullible by posing as 'Dr Tucker, Practitioner in Physic' to amass a considerable fortune out of their desperation.

But trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman 14 years older at nearly 50, who had been widowed with three children, he took a mistress as a cure for his heartache.

Ruling out the obvious methods to get rid of his wife, his evil mind eventually settled on starvation.

"It simply gave the impression she had died from natural causes," he later admitted.

Confining her to the bedroom, the children were banned from waiting upon her and their repeated attempts to feed her were blocked by the cruel stepfather with the severe threat of "Don't breathe a word or it will be the worst for you."

But word eventually did get out to a local magistrate who sent an overseer and a constable to the house where they found Mrs Tucker in a shocking state and barely able to explain her ordeal. She managed to swallow a little wine and water which seemed to revive her but suddenly her precarious condition worsened and she died the following day.

At his trial, a surgeon told shocked jurors: "Her flash had become so wasted her bones were scarcely covered, her heart had become extremely small and there was barely a teacup full of blood in her body. There has been no disease. She had been reduced to her pitiful condition through starvation."

Tucker was penitent in the condemned cell but refused to admit his extra-marital affair had caused his downfall.