1721: Christiana Bell

Add comment November 21st, 2014 05:38am Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

The story of Christiana Bell’s execution in Gloucester County in modern-day New Jersey on or shortly before November 21, 1721, begins in 1703. That was the first time she was accused of infanticide: they had found a dead baby and Christiana, a domestic servant who was probably only in her teens at the time, came under suspicion because she had been pregnant out of wedlock and was suddenly not pregnant but with no infant to show for it.

Her trial in 1703 was presided over by Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, governor of the New York and New Jersey colonies. She was convicted and sentenced to death. However, Lord Cornbury took pity on her — perhaps because of her youth, or maybe there were doubts about her guilt — and first commuted the death sentence, then issued a full pardon. Christiana returned home, having spent fourteen months behind bars but not stretched her neck.

She didn’t learn the lesson Lord Cornbury might have wanted her to learn from her fortuitous escape.

In 1720, she was rearrested for the exact same crime: she’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock again, delivered a live baby and did away with it.

Christiana very nearly got lucky again: her death sentence was suspended and she got a chance to plead her case before New Jersey Supreme Court on May 2, 1721. Today, appeals in capital cases are automatic; in Christiana’s time, this was an unusual and perhaps unprecedented legal maneuver.

Unfortunately, it backfired on her: the prosecution was ready with witnesses who testified about Christiana Bell’s notorious past and her prior conviction and death sentence. This time there would be no reprieve.

The exact date of her execution is not known for certain, but on November 21, 1721, the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders approved funds to reimburse the sheriff for expenses he’d incurred in hanging her.

See Legal Executions in New Jersey: A Comprehensive Registry, 1691-1963.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,New Jersey,Other Voices,Public Executions,Uncertain Dates,USA,Women

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