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BURNING FOR PETTY TREASON

In 1769 Susannah Lott was burned for the murder of her husband, at Canterbury, and Benjamin Buss, her paramour, was hanged for participation in the crime.

Catherine Hayes was burned alive in 1726. Her son, Billings, who had assisted her in the murder of her husband, was hung. "An iron chain was put round her body, with which she was fixed to a stake near the gallows." On these occasions, when women were hanged for petty treason, it was customary to strangle them, by means of a rope passed round the neck, and pulled by the executioner, so that they were dead before the flames reached the body. But this woman was literally burnt alive: for the executioner letting go the rope sooner than usual, in consequence of the flames reaching his hands, the fire burnt fiercely round her, and the spectators beheld her pushing away the faggots, while she rent the air with her cries and lamentations. Other faggots were instantly thrown on her; but she survived amidst the flames for a considerable time, and her body was not reduced perfectly to ashes in less than three hours.—"Chronicles of Crime, or the New Newgate Calendar." G. C. Pelham, June 1840.

"From a prison chaplain's MS. private prayer-book I copy, that in 1732 a woman was hanged, taken down while the body was warm, and then burnt; and this is recorded as if the process were usual, and as if women were not burnt alive then. J. HODGSON."

A poor girl of fifteen was burnt at Heavitree, near Exeter, on July 29, 1782, for poisoning her master, Richard Jarvis, with arsenic. A broadside ballad was circulated among the crowd who witnessed the execution, of which this is the last verse:—

"When to the fatal stake I come
And dissipate in flame,
Let all be warn'd by my sad doom,
To shun my sin and shame.
May I thus expiate my crime,
And whilst I undergo
The fiery trial here on earth,
Escape the flames below."

A woman was burnt at Winchester in 1783. A writer in "Notes and Queries," June 1, 1850, says: "A gentleman lately deceased told me the circumstances (of a case in 1789) minutely. I think that he had been at the trial, but I know that he was at the execution, and saw the wretched woman fixed to the stake, fire put to the faggots, and her body burnt. But I know two persons still alive who were present at her execution, and I endeavoured in 1848 to ascertain from one of them the date of the event. I made a note of his answer, which was to this effect: I can't recollect the year, but I remember the circumstance well. It was about sixty-five years ago. I was there along with the crowd. I sat on my father's shoulder, and saw them burn her. . . . They fixed her neck by a noose to the stake, and then set fire to the faggots and burnt her."

This woman was Christiana Murphy, alias Budman, convicted of coining. She was stood on a stool, and the stool was removed from under her just before fire was put to the faggots.

A writer in "N. and Q.," August 10, 1850, says: "I will state a circumstance that occurred to myself about 1788. Passing in a hackney coach up the old Bailey to West Smithfield, I saw the unquenched embers of a fire opposite Newgate. On my alighting, I asked the coachman, 'What was that fire in the Old Bailey over which the wheel of your coach passed?' 'Oh, sir,' he replied, 'they have been burning a woman for murdering her husband.'"

A full account of the execution is in the "Gentleman's Magazine" for 13th March and 18th March 1789. "This is the execution at which I was present," says another writer in "N. and Q." "Eight of the malefactors suffered on the scaffold, then known as the New Drop. After they were suspended, the woman, in a white dress, was brought out of Newgate alone, and after some time spent in devotion, was hung on the projecting arm of a low gibbet, fixed at a little distance from the scaffold. After the lapse of a sufficient time to extinguish life, faggots were piled around her, and over her head, so that the person was completely covered. Fire was then set to the pile, and the woman was consumed to ashes."

In the "Gentleman's Magazine" for June 21, 1786, is the account of the burning of Phoebe Harris for counterfeiting the coin of the realm.

In Harrison's "Derby and Nottingham Journal," September 22, 1779, is an account of another such sentence: "On Saturday, two persons were capitally convicted at the Old Bailey of High Treason—viz., Isabella Condon, for coining shillings in Coldbath Fields, and John Field, for coining shillings in Nag's Head Yard, Bishopsgate Street. They will receive sentence to be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution the woman to be burnt, and the man to be hanged."

From Angliæ Notitia, by Edward Chamberlain, LL.D., F.R.S., 1676. P. 44:—"Petit Treason is when a servant killeth his master or mistress, or a wife killeth her husband. The punishment for a woman convicted of high treason or petit treason is all one, and that is to be drawn and burnt alive." P. 292:—"The Law allots the same punishment to a woman that shall kill her husband as to a woman that shall kill her father or master, and that is petit treason, to be burnt alive."

The Shrewsbury case was, I believe, the last in England. On May 10th, 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett, in the House of Commons, called attention to the then state of the law. He said that it had been his painful office and duty in the previous year to attend the burning of a female, he being at the time Sheriff of London; and he moved to bring in a Bill to alter the law. He showed that the Sheriff who shrank from executing the sentence of burning alive was liable to a prosecution, but he thanked Heaven that there was not a man in England who would carry such a sentence literally into execution. The executioner was allowed to strangle the woman condemned to the stake, before flames were applied; but such an act of humanity was a violation of the law, subjecting executioner and Sheriff to penalties. The Act was passed 30 George III. C. 48.

It is a startling thought that in the time of our grandfathers such atrocities could have been permitted by law. We move so rapidly now, and the swing of the pendulum has been so greatly into the other extreme, that we forget that little over a century has elapsed since the last stake was kindled in England about the body of a wretched woman.