Archive for January 3rd, 2011

1786: Elizabeth Wilson, her reprieve too late

3 comments January 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1786, Elizabeth Wilson was hanged in Chester, Pennsylvania for the murder of her infant twins.

“One of the melodramas of the early American republic,” our Elizabeth (sometimes called “Harriot Wilson” in the accounts) was a farmer’s daughter of Chester County who got knocked up by a passing sailor. When this gentleman declined to make an honest woman of her after she had borne the bastards, the kids disappeared — later to be discovered dead in the woods by a hunter.

The fallen woman denied having killed them directly, but “acknowledged having placed the children by the road-side, in order that any person passing that way, and who had humanity enough, might take them up.”

She would eventually, after condemnation, accuse her lover of having slain the children.

Elizabeth’s brother William Wilson vigorously undertook on this basis to secure her a pardon at the hands of the Commonwealth’s executive authority, the Supreme Executive Council — then under the leadership of no less august a character than Benjamin Franklin.

And he found a sympathetic audience. Council Vice-President Charles Biddle* “firmly believed her innocent, for to me it appeared highly improbable that a mother, after suckling her children for six weeks, could murder them … there was a large majority would have been for pardoning her.”

Instead of an outright commutation, it granted a stay of execution for William Wilson to investigate further, which he did to no successful effect.

“But here we must drop a tear!” exclaims the Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, a popular pamphlet (pdf) sensationalizing the case. “What heart so hard, as not to melt at human woe!”

For William Wilson’s suit on behalf of his sister had succeeded in earning, on the eve of the Jan. 3 hanging, a second respite on Biddle’s certain anticipation that clemency would be forthcoming. Ill himself, William took the stay of execution from Biddle’s own hands and raced through a fearful storm on the 15-mile ride from Philadelphia to Chester … but

did not arrive until twenty-three minutes after the solemn scene was closed. When he came with the respite in his hand, and saw his sister irrecoverably gone, beheld her motionless, and sunk in death, who can paint the mournful scene?

Let imagination if she can!

Imagination can do quite a lot with this sort of material, and so the tale of Elizabeth Wilson — the intrinsic pathos of the condemned, her widely-suspected innocence, her evangelical-friendly repentance, the cliffhanger conclusion — became widely re-circulated, and undoubtedly embroidered.

Quaker colonial diarist Elizabeth Drinker (who had firsthand experience of official injustice, when suspicious-of-Quakers revolutionaries had banished her husband from Philadelphia) was still seeing these publications over a decade after Wilson’s death.

May 16 [1797]. Unsettled. Wind variable. Read a narrative of Elizabeth Wilson, who was executed at Chester, Jany ’86, charged with the murder of her twin infants. A reprieve arrived 20 minutes after her execution, by her brother from Philadelphia. She persisted to the last in her account of the murder being committed by the father of the children, which was generally believed to be the truth. I recollect having heard the sad tale at the time of the transaction.

The Wilson story actually persisted (and persists) for centuries yet. Her shaken brother, William, withdrew himself from society and lived out his last years in a cave: he entered folklore as the Pennsylvania Hermit, affixed with his tragic sister to all manner of spook stories, like a spectral horseman galloping to Chester, or a ghostly woman rummaging the leaves where the bodies were found. You’ll hear all about the Pennsylvania Hermit when touring his former stomping grounds, now open to the public (for a fee, my friend) as Indian Echo Caverns.

* Biddle was a future U.S. Senator, but he’s probably best known through his son. Born just five days after Elizabeth Wilson’s execution, Nicholas Biddle was a bitterly controversial character as one of antebellum America’s original banksters.

Charles Biddle’s notes on the case veer into the era’s philosophical concern with the timeless problem of making a just response to infanticide.

“Perhaps,” he muses “the punishment of death is too great for an unmarried woman who destroys her child. They are generally led to it from a fear of being exposed … [and] while death is the punishment, a jury will seldom find a verdict against them.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Reprieved Too Late,The Supernatural,USA,Women,Wrongful Executions

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