On this date in 1708, Deborah Churchill, alias Miller, was hanged at Tyburn.
Her crime was in the company she kept: although born into modest circumstances in Norwich, Deborah washed up in the underclass of that swelling metropolis on the Thames — leaving behind an abusive drunk of a first husband and a couple of children she’d had with him.
In London our principal kept what the Ordinary of Newgate would call “lascivious and adulterous” company with a young ruffian named Hunt who murdered another bloke while in Ms. Churchill’s company.
“Though this woman’s sins were great,” remarks the Newgate Calendar on her condemnation for the equivalent of felony murder for having been on the scene and failed to stop Hunt, “yet we must admit some hardship in her suffering the utmost rigour of the law for the crime of which she was found guilty.”
Those “great sins” consisted in a career in pickpocketing and sex work, at least one disposable “Fleet Marriage” on the side, not to mention an insufficient grasp of theology common to folk of all epochs and classes: “Whilst she was [in prison] she seemed to be really a pious woman; but her religion was of five or six colours, for this day she would pray that God would turn the heart of her adversary, and to morrow curse the time that ever she saw him.
“She at last got out of this mansion of sorrow also, but soon forgetting her afflictions she pursued her wickedness continually, till she had been sent no less than twenty times to Clerkenwell Bridewell, where, receiving the correction of the house every time, by being whipped, and kept to beating hemp from morning till night for the small allowance of so much bread and water, which just kept life and soul together, she commonly came out like a skeleton, and walked as if her limbs had been tied together with packthread.”
One might think that doing brutal labor under the lash on starvation rations was part of Deborah Churchill’s problem, not part of the solution, but the writer proceeds with sincere bewilderment, “Yet let what punishment would light on this common strumpet, she was no changeling, for as soon as she was out of jail she ran into still greater evils, by deluding, if possible, all mankind.”
Though the continued beatings curiously failed to improve morale, once Churchill was under sentence of death (whose execution she put off for the best part of a year by pleading her belly) she pleasingly played the penitent part assigned to the Tyburn gallows patient and enjoys a lengthy remembrance in the Newgate Ordinary’s documents as a result. She’s remarkably sanguine, one might think, about that whole “being hanged just for being in the vicinity of someone else’s murder” thing: of course, in Bloody Code London, many hanged for less than that. Churchill’s eyes seem to have been fixed by this moment upon salvation.
when she again reflected on her past Sinful Life and approaching shameful Death, she freely acknowledg’d, that tho’ she did not look upon herself to be guilty of Blood-shedding, yet she could not plead Innocence, but was a great Criminal before God, whose Pity and Compassion she implored.
Here she wept most bitterly, and shew’d great Signs of Repentance; saying, that she hoped God would be merciful to her, because she had ever since her Condemnation, endeavour’d to wean herself from the World in the abhorrence of her Sins, and preparing for a better Life. She wish’d all dissolute Persons would take Warning by her, and give up themselves no more to the foul Sin of Uncleanness.
When this Day of her Death was come, she was deliver’d out of Newgate, and carry’d in the Coach with me to the Place of Execution, where I attended her for the last time, and (according to my usual manner) pray’d and sung some Penitential Psalms with her, and made her rehearse the Apostles Creed. And after I had been a pretty while with her, exhorting her more and more to stir up her heart and mind to God, I took my leave of her; earnestly recommending her to the Divine Mercy, and wishing her a happy Passage out of this miserable World, and an endless Felicity in the next. Then she spoke to the Spectators to this effect: I desire all Persons, especially Young Women, to take Warning by me, and take care how they live; for my wicked Life has brought me to this shameful Death. I had a good Education, and was well brought up by my Parents; but I would not follow their good Advice and Instructions. I kept company with a Young-man, who committed the Murther for which I am here to suffer. I did not prompt him to it, nor was near him when he did it. But it was my misfortune to be concern’d with him: And God is just in bringing me to this Condemnation; for I have been a great Sinner, and very wicked. I desire those of my Acquaintance, that lead such a Life as I have formerly led, (and I see some of them here) I desire them, I beg of them, that they would take Warning by my Downfall, and amend their wicked Lives, lest they bring themselves to such an untimely End, and be undone for ever. These were her very Words, as far as I can remember; and she gave me a Paper containing the same; the substance of which I have (according to her desire) here deliver’d, whereby the Publick may avoid their being impos’d upon by any Sham-Papers relating to her Last Speech.
She desired the Standers-by to pray for her, That God would be pleas’d to be merciful to her Soul. And turning to one she call’d Nurse, she earnestly begged of her to take care of her poor Children, for whom she seemed to be very much concern’d.
Then she return’d to pray to God in these following Words, which she often repeated.
O God the Father, who hast created me, preserve and keep me. O God the Son, who hast redeemed me, assist and strengthen me. O God the Holy Ghost, who infusest Grace into me, aid and defend me. O Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity, Three Persons, and One God, assist me in this my last Trial, and bring me into the way of Everlasting Life.
O Blessed Jesus, wash away my Sins in thy Blood, and receive my Soul, Thou art my Helper and Redeemer, make no long tarrying, O my God. Say now unto my Soul, I am thy Salvation. Into thy Hands, O Lord, I commend my Spirit; for thou hast redeem’d me, O Lord, thou God of Truth. Lord Jesus receive my Spirit. Amen. Amen.
When she had done speaking, she was allow’d some further time for her private Devotions. Then the Cart (into which she was put as soon as she came to that Place) drew away; and so she was turn’d off; she all the while calling upon God for Mercy, in these and the like Ejaculations: Lord, have mercy upon me! Lord, receive me! Make haste unto me, O Lord! Lord, save me! &c.