Posts filed under 'Women'

1616: Margaret Vincent, “Pitilesse Mother”

Add comment May 18th, 2015 Headsman


(Via)

A pitiless mother, that most unnaturally at one time murdered two of her own children, at Acton within six miles from London, upon Holy Thursday last 1616, the ninth of May. Being a gentlewoman named Margaret Vincent, wife of Mr. Jarvis Vincent of the same town. With her examination, confession and true discovery of all proceedings in the said bloody accident.

How easy are the ways unto evil, and how soon are our minds (by the Devil’s enticement) withdrawn from goodness. Leviathan, the archenemy of mankind, hath set such and so many bewitching snares to entrap us that unless we continually stand watching with careful diligence to shun them, we are like to cast the principal substance of our reputation upon the rack of his ensnaring engines. As for example, a gentlewoman, ere now fresh in memory, presents her own ruin amongst us, whose life’s overthrow may well serve for a clear looking-glass to see a woman’s weakness in, how soon and apt she is won unto wickedness, not only to the body’s overthrow but the soul’s danger. God of his mercy keep us all from the like wilfulness.

At Acton, some six miles westward from London, this unfortunate gentlewoman dwelled, named Margaret Vincent, the wife of Mr. Jarvis Vincent, gentleman, who by unhappy destiny marked to mischance I here now make the subject of my pen and publish her hard hap unto the world, that all others may shun the like occasions by which she was overthrown.

This Margaret Vincent before named, of good parentage, born in the county of Hertford at a town named Rickmansworth, her name from her parents Margaret Day, of good education, graced with good parts from her youth that promised succeeding virtues in her age, if good luck had served. For being discreet, civil, and of modest conversation, she was preferred in marriage to this gentleman Master Vincent, with whom she lived in good estimation, well beloved and much esteemed of all that knew her for her modesty and seemly carriage. And so might have continued to her old age, had not this bloody accident committed upon her own children blemished the glory of the same.

But now mark (gentle reader) the first entrance into her life’s overthrow, and consider with thyself how strangely the Devil here set in his foot and what cunning instruments he used in his assailments. The gentlewoman being witty and of a ripe understanding desired much conference in religion, and being careful, as it seemed, of her soul’s happiness, many times resorted to divines to have instructions to salvation, little thinking to fall into the hands of Roman wolves (as she did) and to have the sweet lamb, her soul, thus entangled by their persuasions.

Twelve or fourteen years had she lived in marriage with her husband well beloved, having for their comforts diverse pretty children between them with all other things in plenty, as health, riches, and such like, to increase concord and no necessity that might be hindrance to contentment. Yet at last there was such traps and engines set that her quet was caught and her discontent set at liberty. Her opinion of the true faith (by the subtle sophistry of some close Papists) was converted to a blind belief of bewitching heresy. For they have such charming persuasions that hardly the female kind can escape their enticements, of which weak sex they continually make prize of and by them lay plots to ensnare others, as they did by this deceived gentlewoman. For she, good soul, being made a bird of their own feather, desired to beget more of the same kind and from time to time made persuasive arguments to win her husband to the same opinion, and deemed it a meritorious deed to charge his conscience with that infectious burden of Romish opinions, affirming by many false reasons that his former life had been led in blindness, and that she was appointed by the Holy Church to shew him the light of true understanding. These and such like were the instructions she had given her to entangle her husband in and win him if she might to their blind heresies.

But he, good gentleman, over-deeply grounded in the right faith of religion than to be thus so easily removed, grew regardless of her persuasions, accounting them vain and frivolous, and she undutiful to make so fond an attempt, many times snubbing her with some few unkind speeches, which bred in her heart a purpose of more extremity. For having learned this maxim of their religion that it was meritorious, yea, and pardonable, to take away the lives of any opposing Protestants were it of any degree whatsoever, in which resolution or bloody purpose she long stood upon and at last (only by the Devil’s temptation) resolved the ruin of her own children, affirming to her conscience these reasons: that they were brought up in blindness and darksome errors, hoodwinked (by her husband’s instructions) from the true light, and therefore to save their soul (as she vainly thought) she purposed to become a tigerous mother, and so wolfishly to commit the murder of her own flesh and blood. In which opinion she steadfastly continued, never relenting according to nature but casting about to find time and place for so wicked a deed, which unhappily fell out as after followed.

It so chanced that a discord arose between the two towns of Acton and Willesden about a certain common bordering between them, where the town of Acton, as it seems, having the more right unto it, by watching defended it a time from the other’s cattle. whereupon the women of the same town, having likewise a willingness to assist their husbands in the same defence, appointed a day for the like purpose, which was the Ascension Day last past, commonly called Holy Thursday, falling upon the 9th of the last past month of May. Which day (as ill chance would have it) was the fatal time appointed for her to act this bloody tragedy, whereon she made her husband fatherless of two as pretty children as ever came from woman’s womb.

Upon the Ascension Day aforesaid, after the time of divine service, the women of the town being gathered together about their promised business, some of them came to Mistress Vincent and according to promise desired her company. Who having a mind as then more settled on bloody purposes than country occasions, feigned an excuse of ill at ease and not half well, desired pardon of them, and offering her maid in her behalf, who being a good, apt, and willing servant was accepted of, and so the townswomen, misdoubting no such hard accident as after happened, proceeded in their aforesaid defences. The gentlewoman’s husband being also from home, in whose absence, by the fury and assistance of the Devil, she enacted this woeful accident in form and manner following.

This Mistress Vincent, now deserving no name of gentlewoman, being in her own house fast locked up only with her two small children, the one of the age of five years, the other hardly two years old, unhappily brought to that age to be made away by their own mother, who by nature should have cherished them with her own body, as the pelican that pecks her own breast to feed her young ones with her blood. But she, more cruel than the viper, the envenomed serpent, the snake, or any beast whatsoever, against all kind, takes away those lives to whom she first gave life.

Being alone (as I said before) assisted by the Devil, she took the youngest of the two, having a countenance so sweet that might have begged mercy at a tyrant’s hand, but she regarding neither the pretty smiles it made nor the dadling before the mother’s face, nor anything it could do, but like a fierce and bloody Medea she took it violently by the throat, and with a garter taken from her leg, making thereof a noose and putting the same about her child’s sweet neck, she in a wrathful manner drew the same so close together that in a moment she parted the soul and body. Without any terror of conscience she laid the lifeless infant, still remaining warm, upon her bed and with a relentless countenance looking thereon, thinking thereby she had done a deed of immortality. Oh, blinded ignorance! Oh, inhumane devotion! Purposing by this to merit Heaven, she hath deserved (without true repentance) the reward of damnation.

This creature not deserving mother’s name, as I said before, not yet glutted nor sufficed with these few drops of innocent blood, nay, her own dear blood bred in her own body, cherished in her own womb with much dearness full forty weeks. Not satisfied, I say, with this one murder but she would headlong run unto a second and to heap more vengeance upon her head. She came unto the elder child of that small age that it could hardly discern a mother’s cruelty nor understand the fatal destiny fallen upon the other before, which as it were seemed to smile upon her as though it begged for pity, but all in vain, for so tyrannous was her heart that without all motherly pity she made it drink of the same bitter cup as she had done the other. For with her garter she likewise pressed out the sweet air of life and laid it by the other upon the bed sleeping in death together, a sight that might have burst an iron heart asunder and made the very tiger to relent.

These two pretty children being thus murdered, without all hope of recovery, she began to grow desperate and still to desire more and more blood, which had been a third murder of her own babes, had it not been abroad at nurse and by that means could not be accomplished. Whereupon she fell into a violent rage, purposing as then to shew the like mischief upon herself, being of this strange opinion that she herself by that deed had made saints of her two children in Heaven. So taking the same garter that was the instrument of their deaths and putting the noose thereof about her own neck, she strove therewith to have strangled herself. But nature being weak and flesh frail, she was not able to do it. Whereupon in a more violent fury (still animated foreward by instigation of the Devil) she ran into the yard purposing there in a pond to have drowned herself, having not one good motion of salvation left within her.

But here, good reader, mark what a happy prevention chanced to preserve her in hope of repentance, which at that time stayed her from that desperate attempt. The maid, by great fortune, at the very instant of this deed of desperation returned from the field or common where she had left most of the neighbours. And coming in at the backside, perceiving her mistress by her ghastly countenance that all was not well and that some hard chance had happened her or hers, demanded how the children did.

“Oh Nan,” quoth she, “never, oh never, shalt thou see thy Tom more,” and withal gave the maid a box upon the ear. At which she laid hold upon her mistress, calling out for help into the town. whereat diverse came running in and after them her husband, within a while after, who finding what had happened were all so amazed together that they knew not what to do. some wrung their hands, some wept, some called out for neighbours; so general a fear was struck amongst them all that they knew not whether to go nor run.

Especially the good gentleman her husband, that seeing his own children slain, murdered by his wife and their own mother, a deed beyond nature and humanity, in which ecstasy of grief at last he broke out in these speeches: “Oh Margaret, Margaret, how often have I persuaded thee from this damned opinion, this damned opinion that hath undone us all.”

Whereupon with a ghastly look and fearful eye she replied thus, “Oh Jarvis, this had never been done if thou hadst been ruled and by me converted. But what is done is past, for they are saints in Heaven, and I nothing at all repent it.”

These and such like words passed betwixt them till such time as the constable and others of the townsmen came in and according to law carried her before a justice of the peace, which is a gentleman named Master Roberts of Willesden, who, understanding these heinous offences, rightly according to law and course of justice made a mittimus for her conveyance to Newgate in London, there to remain till the Sessions of her trial. Yet this is to be remembered that by examination she voluntarily confessed the fact how she murdered them to save their souls and to make them saints in Heaven, that they might not be brought up in blindness to their own damnation. Oh, wilful heresy, that ever Christian should in conscience be thus miscarried. But to be short, she proved herself to be an obstinate papist, for there was found about her neck a crucifix with other relics which she then wore about her, that by the justice was commanded to be taken away and an English Bible to be delivered her to read, the which she with great stubbornness threw from her, not willing as once to look thereupon, nor to hear any divine comforts delivered thereout for the succour of her soul.

But now again to her conveyance towards prison. It being Ascension Day and near the closing of the evening, too late as then to be sent to London she was by commandment put to the constable’s keeping for that night, who with a strong watch lodged her in his own house till morning, which was at the Bell in Acton where he dwelled. Shewing the part and duty of a good Christian, with diverse other of his neighbours, all that same night they plied her with good admonitions, tending to repentance, and seeking with great pains to convert her from those erroneous opinions which she so stubbornly stood in. But it little availed, for she seemed in outward shew so obstinate in arguments that she made small reckoning of repentance, nor was a whit sorrowful for the murder committed upon her children but maintained the deed to be meritorious and of high desert.

Oh, that the blood of her own body should have no more power to pierce remorse into her iron natured heart, when pagan women that know not God nor have any feeling of his deity will shun to commit bloodshed, much more of their own seed. The cannibals that eat one another will spare the fruits of their own bodies; the savages will do the like; yea, every beast and fowl hath a feeling of nature, and according to kind will cherish their young ones. And shall woman, nay, a Christian woman, God’s own image, be more unnatural than pagan, cannibal, savage, beast, or fowl? It even now makes a trembling fear to best me to think what an error this unhappy gentlewoman was bewitched with, a witchcraft begot by Hell and nursed by the Romish sect, from which enchantment God of Heaven defend us.

But now again to our purpose. The next day being Friday and the tenth of May, by the Constable Master Dighton of the Bell in Acton, with other of his neighbours, she was conveyed to Newgate in London. Where lodging, in the master’s side, many people resorted to her, as well of her acquaintance as others and as before, with sweet and comfortable persuasions practised to beget repentance and to be sorry for that which she had committed. But blindness so prevailed that she continued still in her former stubbornness, affirming (contrary to all persuasive reasons) that she had done a deed of charity in making them saints in Heaven that otherwise might have lived to destruction in Hell, and likewise refused to look upon any Protestant book as Bible, meditation, prayer book, and such like, affirming them to be erroneous and dangerous for any Romish Catholic to look in. Such were the violent opinions she had been instructed in, and with such fervencies therein she continued that no dissuasions could withdraw her from them, no, not death itself, being here possessed with such bewitching wilfulness.

In this danger of mind continued she all Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Sessions drawing near, there came certain godly preachers unto her, who prevailed with her by celestial consolations, that her heart by degrees became a little mollified and in nature somewhat repentant for these her most heinous offences. Her soul, a little leaning to salvation, encouraged these good men to persevere and go forward in so godly a labour, who at last brought her to this opinion, as it was justified by one that came from her in Newgate upon the Monday before the Sessions: that she earnestly believed she had eternally deserved hellfire for the murder of her children, and that she so earnestly repented the deed, saying that if they were alive again not all the world should procure her to do it. Thus was she truly repentant, to which (no doubt) but by the good means of these preachers she was wrought unto.

And now to come to a conclusion, as well of the discourse as of her life, she deserved death, and both law and justice hath awarded her the same. For her examination and free confession needed no jury: her own tongue proved a sufficient evidence, and her conscience a witness that condemned her. Her judgment and execution she received with a patient mind, her soul no doubt hath got a true penitent desire to be in Heaven, and the blood of her two innocent children so wilfully shed (according to all charitable judgements) is washed away by the mercies of God. Forgive and forget her, good gentlewomen. She is not the first that hath been blemished with blood nor the last that will make a husband wifeless. Her offence was begot by a strange occasion but buried, I hope, with true repentance.

Thus, countrymen of England, have you heard the ruin of a gentlewoman who, if Popish persuasions had not been, the world could not have spotted her with the smallest mark of infamy but had carried the name of virtue even unto her grave. And for a warning unto you all, by her example, take heed how you put confidence unto that dangerous sect, for they surely will deceive you.

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1746: Three Catholic servants

Add comment May 16th, 2015 Headsman

All stories from issues of the Maryland Gazette, datelined Annapolis. (via) Though not explicit in any of these stories, the attack by Catholic servants upon their master while the Jacobite rising was still afoot must have been read by Maryland’s grandees as more menacing than your everyday domestic crime.


Tuesday, April 22, 1746

The following Particulars of the murder of Richard Waters, in Kent Co., on the 5th inst., having been transmitted to us, are here inserted:

About two months ago Hector Grant, a Highland Papist, and James Horney, an Irish one, both Servants to Mr. Waters, communicated to a West Co. convict woman (servant to Mr. Waters, and of the same communion with the other two), and an orphan apprentice girl, their intention to murder their Master; to which the women agreeing, they all swore on a Bible not to make any discovery.

Having been several Times disappointed in their Design to way-lay him on the Road, in order to perpetrate their Villainy, it happened that on Saturday the 5th Instant, Mr. Waters being at a Muster, and having drank too freely; he was conducted home by two of his Neighbours, who had put him to Bed, and left him about an Hour within the Night: When the Woman, having put his two Children to Bed with him, persuaded the Orphan Girl to go over with her to a Neighbour’s.

In the meantime the two Men murder’d the poor Man, overcome with Liquor and Sleep, by giving him a desperate Blow on the Head with an Axe; after which they dragg’d him out of Bed upon the Floor, repeating their Blows, tho’ any one of them would have proved mortal: The Children sleeping sound all the While; it is thought prevented their undergoing the same Fate; tho’ the Highlander proposed setting the House on fire, and burning the Children therein.

The Girls returning, found the Fellows rejoicing in their Villany, who then put the Deceased’s Cloaths on him, and throwing his Body across a Horse carried it to a Branch about half a Mile from the House, and there buried it; They afterwards burnt the bloody Sheets, clean’d away the Blood, and the next Morning gave out, that their Master set out for Annapolis by Day-break. Nobody had any Suspicion of what had been transacted ’til about the Middle of the Week, when one of the Deceased’s Shoes and Buckles were found; and their carousing, buying Rum, and idling about, and the Horse’s being seen at home, gave the Neigbours reason to suspect the Matter; whereupon the Men were apprehended, and a bloody Shirt found, but no further Discovery made ’til Sunday; when the Orphan Girl, after she had at a solemn Examination denied she knew anything of the Fact, privately confess’d that she had been sworn to the Secresy: On being told that her Oath, being extorted by the Fellows, could not be binding, she related all she knew of it.

The same Evening, the Irishman, finding the Girl had made a Discovery, confess’d every Circumstance told; as also where the body was buried, and where he had concealed his Master’s Watch, Ring, Clasps, &c. which were all accordingly found. The two Men and the Woman, were brought in, by the Coroner’s Inquest, guilty of Wilful Murder.

The Highlander received the Sacrament at Mass, the Sunday before this tragic scene was executed; and, notwithstanding his most obstinate denial of knowing anything of the fact, appears to have been the first proposer and principal actor in this tragedy.


Tuesday, May 6, 1746

Friday last was held, at Chester in Kenty County, a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer, for trying the Murderers of Richard Waters; when the two Men and the Woman were found guilty of the Indictment, and received Sentence of Death; Grant and Horney are to hang’d and the Woman (Esther Anderson is to be burnt.)


Tuesday, May 20, 1746

On Friday last, Hector Grant, James Horney, and Esther Anderson, were Executed at Chester in Kent County, pursuant to their Sentence, for the Murder of their late Master. The Men were Hang’d, the Woman Burn’d. They died penitent, acknowleging their Crimes, and the Justice of their Punishment.

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1751: Anna Schnidenwind, the last witch in Baden-Württemberg

Add comment April 24th, 2015 Headsman

Anna Schnidenwind, nee Trutt, was burned at the stake in Endingen am Kaiserstuhl on this date in 1751 — the last “witch” executed in Baden-Württemberg.

There is next to no archival information surviving that would give us insight into this remarkably late Hexenprozess. However, it seems that Schnidenwind got Willinghamed: when a fire destroyed the village of Wyhl, local grandees immediately assumed that the cause of such a devastating event ware eine Zauberin (“would have been a sorceress,” as an abbot wrote in his diary).

Having begun from the conclusion it was simply a matter of finding the witchiest character in the vicinity to fit as the Zauberin. Schnidenwind, a 63-year-old peasant, probably had some pre-existing reputation as a possible witch — a reputation that a visit to the rack obligingly confirmed.

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1635: Elizabeth Evans, “Canonbury Besse”

Add comment April 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Elizabeth Evans (known as “Canonbury Besse”) was hanged for murder.

Sometimes characterized as one of early modern Europe’s pioneer serial killers, Evans was not driven to slaughter by compulsion — merely by its emoluments. Using an early version of the timeless “Lonely Hearts killer” scheme familiar to a later era of classified adverts and Craigslist postings,* Evans and her beau Tom Sherwood committed at least five homicides via the expedient of Canonbury Besse’s allures.

Once the prospect had been enticed to a private rendezvous, Sherwood — “Country Tom” — would jump him, and the couple would rob the body. A straightforward enterprise, with a straightforward consequence. (Sherwood had already gone to the gallows on April 14th.)

The ballad “Murder Upon Murder” blames Evans for seducing Sherwood, “a man of honest parentage”, both bodily and spiritually:

she sotted so his minde,
That unto any villany,
fierce Sherwood was inclind,
His coyne all spent he must have more,
For to content his filthy (Whoore).

So shocking was the spree these lovebirds carried out — as reflected in nicknames that denote a degree of celebrity — that they were doomed to posthumous terrors as well.

Sherwood was hung in chains near St. Pancras Church where he so notably failed to deter crime that a later group of thieves, frustrated at finding their mark penniless, contempuously lashed him naked to Country Tom’s gibbet.

“Oh pity! Still running on to more mischief, having such a fearful spectacle before their eyes as Country Tom, which should rather have frightened and hindered them from doing this bold and insolent act,” laments Henry Goodcole in Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a narrative pamphlet trading on that same “fearful spectacle.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of Heaven’s Speedie Hue and Cry, a pamphlet narrating the crimes of Sherwood and Evans.

Canonbury Besse was bound over to the surgeons for anatomizing — well before this particular terror became a common extension of murder sentences. According to The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture, both Sherwood’s and Evans’s skeletons would ultimately became ornaments on permanent display at Inigo Jones‘s 1636 London anatomy theater,** and could be seen there as late as 1784.

* Consider, for instance, America’s Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck — or Henri Landru, French predator of World War I widows.

** Diarist Samuel Pepys described a visit to this theater in 1663.

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1805: Mary Morgan, anomalously

Add comment April 13th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1805, servant Mary Morgan, age 17, was hanged at Presteigne for murdering her bastard child.

An undercook in M.P. Walter Wilkins‘s Maesllwch Castle, Morgan had that achingly typical infanticide story: an unwed youth down the servants’ quarters desperately concealing the pregnancy until her coworkers sniffed her out, barged into the room where she had locked herself up to surreptitiously give birth, and discovered the newborn, “cutt open, deep sunk in the Feathers with the Child’s head nearly divided from the Body” by the efficient hand of a young under-cook who had often used that same pen-knife to slaughter chickens.

“I determined, therefore, to kill it, poor thing!” she would later confess of the (unnamed) father’s refusing her any aid. “Out of the way, being perfectly sure that I could not provide for it myself.”

That was in September of 1804. She would remain imprisoned until she could be tried at the Radnorshire assizes the following April.

Morgan expected lenient treatment — more on that in a moment — and must have been shocked to have the death sentence pronounced on April 11, with no more than two days to prepare herself for the ordeal. She was reportedly in a state of near-collapse when hanged at Gallows Lane.


Mary Morgan’s grave marker in St. Andrew’s parish church. A much longer and more sanctimonious stone, erected by a friend of the judge, also stands in the same cemetery.

We have seen elsewhere in these pages that executing women for infanticide was becoming distinctly uncomfortable for Europeans at this period, and Great Britain was no exception.

The most recent executions for infanticide at this point in London appears to be those of Jane Cornforth in 1774 and Sarah Reynolds in 1775. According to Anne-Marie Kilday’s A History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present, hanging Welsh infanticides was practically ancient history at this point: the last such execution ordered by the Court of Great Sessions in Wales had been way back in 1739 — and the court would not order another one before its 1830 abolition.

During those many decades, close to 200 infanticide cases came to its bar. Hardly any of the accused women were even convicted, never mind condemned.* All the more surprising, then, that the one and only prisoner to merit a death sentence was a 17-year-old. Why did Mary Morgan hang when other Welsh infanticides walked?

The (presumably unobtainable) answer has occasioned a good deal of modern-day speculation.

One possible reason was a cruel judgment on Mary’s unbecoming nonchalance in the court. The presiding judge, George Hardinge,** wrote in private correspondence to the Bishop of St. Asaph that young Miss Morgan “took it for granted that she would be acquitted; had ordered gay apparel to attest the event of her deliverance; and supposed the young gentleman (who I well knew) would save her by a letter to me.” Judges like to see a little cowering.

The young gentleman Hardinge alludes to is another person of interest with respect to Mary Morgan’s surprising fate: Walter Wilkins, Jr. — the heir in the household where Mary served. This man seduced Mary but was not — so said both Mary and Walter — the father of the unfortunate child. In an egregious conflict of interest, Wilkins served on the grand jury that found his lover guilty. Was he playing a double game, posing as a potential intercessor even while keen to eliminate the evidence of his misdeeds?

Kilday suspects that in the end it was nothing but the calculated caprice of Judge Hardinge — who, although he often acquitted accused infanticides, was also alarmed by the prevalence of the practice and wanted to stake out at least one deterrent instance of truly exemplary punishment. As he said in his sentencing address to Mary Morgan, “many other girls (thoughtless and light as you have been) would have been encouraged by your escape to commit your crime, with hopes of impunity; the merciful turn of your example will save them.”

Hardinge himself might not have been fully at home with this rationale. He’s reported to have visited the grave of his “thoughtless and light” defendant several times, even composing a verse “On Seeing the Tomb of Mary Morgan”:

Flow the tear that Pity loves,
Upon Mary’s hapless fate:
It’s a tear that God approves;
He can strike, but cannot hate.
Read in time, oh beauteous Maid!
Shun the Lover’s poisoning art!
Mary was by Love betray’d,
And a viper stung the heart.
Love the constant and the good!
Wed the Husband of your choice,
Blest is then your Children’s food,
Sweet the little Cherub’s voice.
Had Religion glanc’d its beam
On the Mourner’s frantic bed,
Mute had been the tablet’s theme,
Nor would Mary’s child have bled.
She for an example fell,
But is Man from censure free?
Thine Seducer, is the knell,
It’s a Messenger to thee.

* Kilday makes it 149 indictments from 1730 to 1804, with seven convictions and two executions — Jane Humphries in 1734 and Elinor Hadley in 1739; and, after Mary Morgan, another 46 indictments up until 1830 without a single conviction.

** Look for Judge Hardinge in Lord Byron’s Don Juan:

There was the waggish Welsh Judge, Jefferies Hardsman,
In his grave office so completely skill’d,
That when a culprit came for condemnation,
He had his judge’s joke for consolation.

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1772: Mary Hilton

Add comment April 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Mary Hilton was burned at the stake in Lancaster for “petty treason”: poisoning with arsenic her husband, John, a blacksmith.

She was drawn on a sledge to the execution site, hanged to death as a mercy, and her body burnt to ashes.

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Feast Day of Saints Agape, Chionia, and Irene

Add comment April 3rd, 2015 Headsman

In honor of Good Friday (in 2015), we pay tribute today to the Diocletian-era Christian martyrs Agape, Chionia and Irene.

The three virgin sisters whose names mean Love, Purity, and Peace in Greek were not, per tradition, actually martyred all together. However, they do share an April 3 feast date.

They are said to have made their illicit faith conspicuous to the governor of Macedonia by refusing to eat meat that had been burned as a pagan sacrificial offering. Agape and Chionia suffered immediate martyrdom, while Irene escaped to the mountains only to be captured and burned later with her Christian books.

The remarkable medieval canoness and playwright Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim — by some reckonings the West’s first known dramatist since antiquity — made the .

An English translation of her 10th century play Dulcitius is available online here:

IRENA. You wretched Sisinnius! Do you not blush for your shameful defeat? Are you not ashamed that you could not overcome the resolution of a little child without resorting to force of arms?

SISINNIUS. I accept the shame gladly, since now I am sure of your death.

IRENA. To me my death means joy, but to you calamity. For your cruelty you will be damned in Tartarus. But I shall receive the martyr’s palm, and adorned with the crown of virginity, I shall enter the azure palace of the Eternal King, to Whom be glory and honour for ever and ever!

Bad Gandersheim‘s Roswitha Prize is awarded (nearly) annually in Hrosvita’s honor. It’s the oldest German literary laurel that’s conferred exclusively upon women.

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1756: Veronika Zeritschin, the last witch executed in Germany

Add comment April 2nd, 2015 Headsman

When did Europe stop executing witches?

Early modern Europe’s witch hunt era wound down in the 18th century, but the precise milestone dates are surprisingly tricky to pin down. The superstition outlived the judicial machinery, and some of the last reputed “witches” — like Anna Göldi and Barbara Zdunk — don’t seem to have been formally charged with sorcery.

The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.

The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.

There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.

As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.


Salvator Rosa, Witches at their Incantations (c. 1646). “Rosa has a secret to tell us: how the romantic imagination feeds on terrors and beliefs that were once all too real.”

* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:

What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)

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1822: Hannah Halley, scalding infanticide

Add comment March 26th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Hannah Halley went to the gallows at Derby for murdering her newborn child — by the gruesome expedient of pouring scalding water on it.*

“That it was her intention to destroy the infant was inferred, from her constant denial of the pregnancy,” observed the Derby Mercury (March 27, 1822), building towards indignation, “and from her having made no preparation of baby linen tho’ the child was full grown at the time of its birth.”

On being charged with the intention of murdering the infant by those who first discovered it, she made no answer; and subsequently when asked what incited her to commit such a deed, she replied “it was the devil who caused her to do it.” This is the usual apology assigned for their evil deeds by those who are too ignorant to analyze the real motives of their actions; who are not willing, from self love, to view their conduct in its true light; and who chuse to refer the corrupt habits formed by previous indulgence, to any cause however improbable and groundless, rather than to their own depraved dispositions.

One might perceive other factors in Halley’s desperation than her depravity.

The 31-year-old cotton mill laborer had conceived the child out of wedlock and lacked the means to care for it. Family and workplace constraints converge here, in what sequence one can only guess: Hannah married a man — not the baby’s father — two months before she secretly delivered.

Infanticide cases we have seen on this site frequently involve a pregnant woman far advanced in her term who raises eyebrows by denying the pregnancy all the way to the end; surely this must also be true of some infanticidal mothers who get away with the deed in the end.

In this instance, the husband too denied knowledge of his wife’s pregnancy: he was believed, and was not punished. I cannot document this hypothesis, but I often wonder if individuals who end up executed for infanticide are falling prey as much as anything to their standing among their community. For a woman of little means like Hannah Halley, does it all come down to whether her popularity among her neighbors — or specifically among the other women who shared her lodging-house and decided to report hearing a baby’s cry from her room — is sufficient to induce them tacitly to go along with the cover story? Was her husband’s convenient (and conveniently accepted) denial only produced because the matter unexpectedly went to the courts?

A woman of “feeble frame”, she died with apparent ease and was given over for dissection afterwards. She was the second and last woman hanged outside Friar Gate Gaol, and the second and last Hannah.

And the march of industry that shaped Halley’s working life was also to be found at work in her death. The Mercury once again:

The drop used on the above occasion was constructed by Mr. Bamford, of this town. It is formed principally of wrought iron, and tho’ it has a general resemblance to that previously in use, it has a much lighter appearance. The great advantages of the new drop consist in the facility with which it can be put up, the consequent diminution of expense on every execution, and the decreased annoyance to the neighbourhood. Formerly it was necessary to commence bringing out the heavy timbers of which the old drop was constructed early in the morning, and many hours were required to complete its erection, during which the loud sounds of mallets and hammers rung in the ears and suddened the hearts of the surrounding inhabitants. The new drop can be prepared for use in ten minutes (as we are informed) and taken down in the same time. In fact it is drawn from the wall of which the front of it forms a part, and is supported by iron rods let down upon the ground beneath. Ingenious however as its construction appears, it would be infinitely more consonant to our feelings to report such improved arrangements in prison discipline, and such modifications of the existing criminal code as should render the use of this dreadful instrument of death less familiar to the public mind.

* The nameless child survived four days in what one supposes must have been unbearable pain.

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1745: Martha Stracey, whore and reprobate-creature

1 comment March 15th, 2015 Headsman

Martha Stracey or Tracey hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1745 for assaulting a man named Will Humphreys and robbing him of one single guinea a few months before.

Stracey, about 18 or 20 years old, was a prostitute and pickpocket — “a perverse, vicious Girl, void of all good Dispositions, and wholly untractable and unadviseable, giving herself up to the vilest Company on Earth, both of Men and Women,” the Newgate Ordinary judged. The Ordinary’s accounts are a reliable feast of purple prose and do not disappoint in discoursing on the young bawd and her fall.

Having no interest in honest work and “renounc[ing] every thing resembling Goodness or Virtue,” she “went idling her Time away on the Streets with her hellish wicked Companions, who induc’d her to commence Whore, upon which she turn’d a meer reprobate-Creature” and “became known to all the Constables, and inferior Officers of Justice in that End of the Town.” Stracey, says the Ordinary, “own’d she was naturally inclined, and not over-persuaded by others, as some of them may or do alledge in Extenuation of their Guilt.”

During the night of Dec. 22-23, Humphreys testified, Stracey and Humphreys met on the Strand. According to Humphreys, she approached him unbidden, and when Humphreys insulted her, two men clobbered him as Stracey skillfully went through his pockets in a few seconds and plucked out the gold coin.

Stracey claimed the affair began when Humphreys “pulled me into an alley, and wanted to be concerned with me.”

No other eyewitnesses could testify to the substance of their rendezvous, but Humphreys’s story about the mysterious male accomplices who after thumping him went on their own way and left Stracey alone with him mid-robbery has the definite whiff of a cover story. The jury — perhaps searching for some grounds to avoid sending the woman to the gallows* — even asked the arresting constable, William Dunn, whether Humphreys’s clothes were really dirty, since he claimed to have been knocked down in the scuffle. (The constable didn’t know.)

But the simple fact was that Stracey did have Humphreys’s gold guinea, whether she achieved by main force or plucked it during a roadside assignation. With the convenient disappearance of her supposed goon squad, Humphreys was now able to seize the hustler on the spot and drag her to the watch. Constable Dunn had someone “search her behind and before (I ask pardon, my Lord)” and finally found the guinea under Martha’s profane tongue.

Before her execution, Stracey did confess that she had stolen the gold piece, under the circumstances that Humphreys’s shady account might lead one to infer:

Martha own’d the Fact she died for, that meeting a Man in the Street in the Evening, about Nine or Ten o’Clock, they speedily came to speak of an Agreement about a certain Affair; and as they were adjusting Matters, Martha thought fit to examine the Gentlemen’s Pockets, and amongst other Things, finding a Guinea, she robb’d him of it, as he Swore against her, and upon this she was convicted of a Street-robbery, one of the greatest Crimes in the Eye of the Law. She did not well remember the Circumstances of this robbery, as being very Drunk, which all of them generally are, when attempting to perpetrate so soul and black Crimes in an audacious manner.

Martha owned her committing of several robberies of this Kind before, she being a constant Street-walker , but did not well remember the Circumstances of the Robbery, she died for, nor the others which were conceal’d, it being impossible to recollect them, for the was always dead Drunk when they were committed. She was very ignorant of Religion, and what Things pertained to the state of her Soul; I endeavoured to instruct her, as the Brevity of Time allow’d, but she was of a mean Capacity and slow of Understanding, and had been so accustomed to do Evil, that she could scarce do any Thing that was good.

* The denomination of the stolen coin made “pious perjury” impossible.

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