(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)
Mary was thought to be about eighteen or nineteen years old but was already married with two children when her husband, William, was press ganged into the Navy to go to the Falkland Islands, leaving her virtually destitute. She lived with her friend Ann Styles in Angel Alley in the Strand and was at times reduced to begging to feed herself and the infants. It is said that she had her baby with her in the cart as she was taken to Tyburn to be hanged.
There had been a spate of shoplifting incidents in Ludgate Street area of London during 1771 and the shop keepers were on high alert and keeping watch for suspects. On Wednesday the 7th of August Mary, with one of her children in tow and Ann Styles went on a shop lifting expedition in the Ludgate Street. They may have other accomplices with them although no one else was arrested. Mary and Ann were observed going in and out of a large number shops. Thomas Ham, a shopkeeper himself and a witness at the trial, was suspicious of their activities and kept a close eye on them. He estimated that he had seen them go into as many as fifteen shops in the street, between three o’clock and six o’clock that afternoon. Finally the pair went to the drapery shop owned by a Mr. William Foot and expressed interest in buying a child’s frock. Nothing that they were shown appeared to be what they wanted and Mary made to leave the shop but Mr. Foot’s assistant, Christopher Preston, noticed that she had something concealed under her cloak. He went after her and brought her back into the shop where he discovered she had concealed four pieces of worked muslin which she had taken from the counter. Christopher Preston told the other assistant, Andrew Hawkins, to fetch a constable while he kept the women in the shop. The constable arrested them both and they were taken to the Compter (a local lock up jail).
Both women were charged under the Shoplifting Act with the theft of the muslin which was valued at £5. 10s. (£5.50) The actual offence at this time being called “privately stealing in a shop”. The value of the goods stolen, being more than five shillings (25p), made it a capital crime. The pair were tried at the Sessions of the Old Bailey held on Wednesday the 11th of September 1771, Thomas Ham, Christopher Preston and Andrew Hawkins each giving evidence for the prosecution.
Mary and Ann were permitted to speak in their own defence. Mary told the court of her struggle to support two children without her husband and that she had always been an honest woman.
Ann told the court that she had merely gone with Mary to by the child’s clothes and that she had nothing to do with the theft.
The trial lasted no more than two hours and Mary was convicted as she was actually in possession of the stolen items but Ann was acquitted. Mary received the mandatory death sentence and was transferred to Newgate to await her trip to Tyburn. When the Recorder of London prepared his report for the King and Privy Council there was no recommendation to mercy for Mary, despite her age and circumstances. As was normal for non murder cases she was to spend some time in the Condemned Hold until the next “hanging day”. She would have been regularly attended by John Wood, the then Ordinary (Newgate’s prison chaplain) and would have been expected to attend Sunday religious services. She and the other condemned criminals had a special area in the centre of the chapel, surrounded by a high partition so that they could not be seen by or communicate with the other prisoners. On the table in front of them was a coffin!
On the morning of Wednesday the 16th of October she was brought to the Press Yard of Newgate where the halter noose was put round her neck and her arms tied to her body with a cord above the elbows. She was made to get into the cart and sit on her own coffin.
With her for her last journey were four men, James Allen who had been convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, William Penn, Richard Thompson and John Hughes who had all been convicted of highway robbery.
The procession consisting of a court officer responsible for prisoners, Reverend John Wood, the Ordinary, the hangman and his assistants and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn, about two and a half miles away. The procession made its slow and bumpy passage along Holborn, St. Giles, and the Tyburn Road (now called Oxford Street), to Tyburn itself near what is now Marble Arch. A stop was often made at St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell would be tolled, and the minister would chant, “You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls.” As the procession passed on, the minister would tell the audience, “All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls.” Here friends might present the criminals with small nosegays (bunches of flowers).
Stops were made at two public houses along the way, probably the Bowl Inn at St Giles and the Mason’s Arms in Seymour Place, where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink. Once they left the second pub it was a short journey to the gallows.
On arrival at Tyburn around noon, some two to three hours after they had left Newgate, the prisoners were greeted by a large crowd.
Mary’s cart was backed under one of the three beams of the gallows and Edward Dennis, the hangman, uncoiled the free end of the rope from her body and threw it up to one of his assistants balanced precariously on the beam above. They tied the rope to the beam leaving very little slack. The Ordinary prayed with her and when he had finished the hangman would have pulled a night cap over her face if she had been able to afford one. As you can imagine the preparations took quite some time where a batch of five prisoners was being hanged.
When everything was ready, the City Marshall gave the signal and the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop, at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air — “dancing the Tyburn jig” as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end. It is not recorded whether or not Mary struggled or was one of the fortunate few who quickly became still. The five bodies were left to hang for an hour before being cut down and claimed by relatives or friends and taken for burial.
One can well understand why the law in this period in history is now referred to as the Bloody Code. Of the two hundred and ninety four people executed at Tyburn in the decade from 1765 to 1774 only twenty five were to die for murder and three for rape. The rest mostly suffered for various types of property related crime, such as highway robbery, burglary, housebreaking and forgery.
It seems amazing today that a young mother should be hanged for what would now considered to be a minor crime, yet in 1771 nobody would have thought anything of it — it was a regular and perfectly normal event. If it was Mary’s first offence, as she claimed, she would probably get a community service order now, especially as he had dependant children. However Georgian justice was being applied increasingly severely at this time. Sixty-two men and six women received the death sentence during this year, of whom thirty four of the men and one of the women, Frances Allen, were to share Mary’s fate. Frances Allen was hanged on Wednesday the 7th of August for housebreaking.
A few years later her case was raised in Parliament by Sir William Meredith, the Whig Member for Liverpool, when he was opposing a motion to make yet another offence capital. He told the House that he did not believe “a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law”. His eloquence was to no avail however and the Bill was carried.