On this date in 1708, a twenty-year-old shoplifter Anne Harris was hanged at Tyburn for serial larceny.
This young woman (“bidding adieu to everything that looked like virtue,” in the words of her Newgate Calendar entry) had picked up the tricks of her trade at least in part from two paramours who had already preceded her to the gallows. Signature trick: freebasing ale in a spoon, our subject would burn it down to a sticky syrup, which she could apply to her hands for a useful spidey-grip.
At age 14, she ditched her impoverished St. Giles family to cohabit with a thief 10 years her senior by the scabrous handle of “Jemmy the Mouth”, who was hanged for burglary in 1702. Nothing daunted, Anne moved on to one “Norwich Will”, who also had a good decade on her; this one swung in 1705 for a lucrative highway robbery.
Perhaps from their examples of excess greed, Anne seems to have picked up another useful trick: thieving modestly. Hangings required stealing goods in excess of a certain value, and while the threshold was heartbreaking low, it did exist. (Juries loath to hang a certain defendant for a mere property crime would often intentionally construe the value of stolen objects to only a sub-capital level.)
Anne Harris had been caught before for purloinings of a sub-felonious nature, and frequently: she was “so often burned in the face that there was no more room left for the hangman to stigmatise her.” In just her few years in the trade, almost every inch of her face had been burnt and scarred.
Accordingly, although her fatal crime likewise appears to have been only a minor theft, “the Court thought fit to condemn her for privately stealing a piece of printed calico” on the grounds of incorrigibility.
From 1699 until 1707/8, England used a facial-burning sentence for minor thefts when the offender could claim benefit of clergy. After 1691, this benefit was fully available to women, and from 1706 it was even available for both men and women without the classical literacy test.
Since the point of the benefit by this time — long past the sell-by date of its ecclesiastical foundation — was to go easy on first-time offenders, it’s a bit surprising that Anne Harris might have had it several times. More than likely that again underscores the trifling value of her previous thefts. After the change in law early in 1708, it would be the hand that got branded instead … but as a repeat recidivist, Anne apparently was past the help of this little loophole regardless of the body part mutilated.
Incidentally, the reason England so quickly gave up on its experiment in branding small-time criminals with a prominent, visible-to-everyone stigmata was that “it hath been found by experience, that the said punishment hath not had its desired effect, by deterring such offenders from the further committing such crimes and offences, but on the contrary, such offenders being rendered thereby unfit to be intrusted in any service or employment to get their livelihood in any honest and lawful way, become the most desperate.”