(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
She was the fifth and last woman to be publicly hanged at the castle during the 19th century, and she remains the last woman in England to be hanged for a crime she’s pleaded guilty to.
Eliza had married William Joyce, a gardener, in 1840. He had two children by his prior marriage, Emma and William Jr., and he and Eliza went on to have a daughter together, Ann.
However, Emma died suddenly in October 1841 and William took sick the following year. In September 1842 he was visited by a doctor, who prescribed medicine for him. Eliza went to the chemist’s … where she picked not that medication, but arsenic.
Her husband found out and took the poison back to the chemist’s, where they realized some of it was missing. By then William Jr.’s condition had worsened considerably and he was showing symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Before his death at Christmastime he gave a statement, confirming his stepmother had given him the arsenic. He was fifteen years old.
Early in 1843, Eliza’s baby daughter Ann also died. Eliza was charged with William Jr.’s murder, but the indictment was thrown out on a technicality. She was then re-charged with attempted murder, which at the time carried the same penalty: death. But at her trial she claimed William Jr.’s poisoning was accidental: she’d spilled some of the arsenic powder on the floor, she said, and picked it up with a spoon, and later without washing it she used the same spoon to give William his medication.
The jury bought the story and Eliza was freed in the summer of 1843.
However, in light of what had happened, her husband cast her out and she had to move into the workhouse.
Eventually, her conscience began to trouble her and she confessed she’d been guilty all along of William Jr.’s murder, and that she had also poisoned both Emma and Ann with laudanum.
When asked why she’d done such terrible things, she plaintively replied, “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”
By now fully resigned to her punishment, she offered no defense to the court and pleaded guilty to both girls’ murders. (She couldn’t be charged with her stepson’s murder a second time.) William Calcraft handled her execution, and (for once) he didn’t botch it; she died quickly and quietly.
The prisoner walked with tolerable firmness, being only occasionally supported; and once, when about midway on the platform, she paused for a second, and turned to take a parting glance at the sunny scenery by which she was surrounded, and, as if to bed a lingering farewell to the bright and glorious world which she had sacrificed: her face and features wore an aspect of ghastly agony which none can forget who gazed upon her. Having ascended to the top of the tower on which the scaffold was erected, her bonnet was removed, her arms pinioned, and the cap placed over her face. She then ascended the step of the gallows. The effect of her appearance on the immense crowd was awfully striking. In an instant, the hootings, bellowings, and imprecations, which ever distinguish such enormous assemblages, were hushed, and a profound stillness reigned throughout the living mass.
–The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Aug. 9, 1844