1785: Elizabeth Taylor, hanged for burglary

1 comment August 17th, 2019 Richard Clark

(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.)

On August 17, 1785, Elizabeth Taylor was only the third woman to be hanged on the New Drop gallows outside Newgate.*

Elizabeth and her brother Martin were convicted of burgling the house and shop of Samuel Hooker at Highgate in London on the night of Sunday the 7th of May 1785. They got quite a haul, nearly £200 worth of goods comprising sixty yards of Irish linen cloth, ten linen handkerchiefs, two hundred and fifty yards of thread lace, two thousand yards of silk ribbon, thirty yards of muslin, two silk handkerchiefs and some silver spoons and tableware. Elizabeth had been a servant in the Hooker household and had left his employment about sixteen months earlier.

On the night of the 7th Mr. Hooker locked up as usual before going to bed and was satisfied that everything was secure. Sometime after midnight Elizabeth, Martin and possibly a second man arrived at the house where they carefully removed four course of brickwork from under the kitchen window without disturbing the sleeping occupants. Martin was able to get through this hole and then went into the shop, taking the items that he found and passing them out to Elizabeth.

The crime was discovered the following morning when Mr. Hooker came down and was surprised by the amount of light in his kitchen from the sun shining through the hole that had been made. He checked round and went into the shop where he noticed various items missing. In a state of agitation he went next door and fetched his neighbour to look at the situation. He then fetched the local constable, Mr. Thomas Seasons and reported the burglary and the considerable loss of stock to him.

On the 18th of May, Mr. Hooker and Mr. Seasons went to Martin Taylor’s home and searched it. They discovered a cap which had some lace on it and a few yards of ribbon which Mr. Hooker was able to identify but none of the other property. Martin was arrested at the house. Mr. Hooker and Mr. Seasons then went to the home of a friend of the Taylors, Mrs. Halloway, who was a part time dress maker with whom Martin had lodged. She claimed in court that Martin had asked her to make two shifts for his sister from the material that he had brought to her. Mrs. Halloway knew Elizabeth from her visits to the house. Here Mr. Hooker and Mr. Seasons discovered pieces of the Irish linen cut up into panels for shirts and shifts. They also discovered one of the handkerchiefs that had been stolen. Further searching of the house revealed some more of the items in the upstairs room of another lodger, Mrs. Powell. Mr. Hooker and the constable’s next visit was to Bow fair where they apprehended Elizabeth who tried to make a run for it with the help of some of the bystanders. When she was searched a small quantity of ribbon was found in her pocket book. She was taken back to Mr. Season’s house and then before a magistrate where she made a confession. She told Mr. Seasons that she and two men had committed the burglary.

Elizabeth and Martin were committed for trial by the magistrates and appeared at the June Sessions of the Old Bailey which opened on Wednesday the 29th of that month before Mr. Justice Buller. Mr. Silvester led the prosecution and the defence was handled by Mr. Garrow.**

Various witnesses were called including Mr. Hooker, Mr. Seasons, Mrs. Halloway and Mrs. Powell, each giving their account of the events and being cross examined for the defence. Mr. Garrow questioned the constable as to the circumstances in which Elizabeth had made her confession and whether or not he had placed under duress to extract it. He suggested to the constable that he had threatened her with being hanged if she did not confess, something which Mr. Seasons denied, telling the court that he tried to dissuade her from making a confession to him and that she continued because she thought, in his opinion, that it might save her from the gallows.

Martin Taylor was allowed to make a personal statement in his defence in which he told the court that he had bought fourteen yards of the linen for twenty two pence a yard from an acquaintance in the Borough with the intention of having it made up by Mrs. Halloway into clothes for his wife and sister. Elizabeth simply told the court that she knew nothing about the crime at all. Not a statement that was likely to impress the jury in view of the evidence against her.

Both Elizabeth and Martin were convicted and sent back to Newgate to await sentencing at the end of the Sessions. No less than twenty-two men and three women were condemned to hang on that Friday. However fifteen men and the other two women were reprieved and had their sentences commuted to transportation.

The execution of the eight remaining prisoners was to take place on the portable “New Drop” gallows outside the Debtor’s Door of Newgate on Wednesday the 17th of August 1785. They were among a group of eight prisoners to die that morning. With them on the platform was James Lockhart who had been convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, John Rebouit, John Morris and James Guthrie convicted of highway robbery and Richard Jacobs and Thomas Bailey who had also been condemned for burglary.

The actress Elizabeth Taylor — no relation — taking her leave of the soon-to-be-executed Montgomery Clift in the 1951 classic A Place in the Sun

At around 7.30 a.m., the condemned were led from their cells into the Press Yard where the Under Sheriff and John Villette, the Ordinary, (Newgate’s chaplain) met them. Their leg irons were removed by the prison blacksmith and the Yeoman of the Halter supervised the proceedings as the hangman and his assistant bound their wrists in front of them with cord and also place a cord round their body and arms at the elbows. White nightcaps were placed on their heads. The prisoners were now led across the Yard to the Lodge and then out through the Debtor’s Door where they climbed the steps up to the portable wooden gallows. There were shouts of “hats off” in the crowd. This was not out of respect for those about to die, but rather because the people further back demanded those at the front remove their hats so as not to obscure their view of the execution. Once assembled on the drop, the hangman, probably Edward Dennis, put the nooses round their necks while they prayed with the Ordinary. Elizabeth might have had her dress bound around her legs for the sake of decency but the men’s legs were left free. When the prayers had finished at about 8.15, the under sheriff gave the signal and the hangman moved the lever, which was connected to a drawbar under the trap, causing it to fall with a loud crash, the prisoners plunging 12-18 inches and usually writhing and struggling for some seconds before relaxing and becoming still. If their bodies continued to struggle, the hangman, unseen by the crowd, within the box below the drop, would grasp their legs and swing on them so adding his weight to theirs and thus ending their sufferings sooner. The dangling bodies would be left hanging for an hour before being either returned to their relatives. It was not recorded whether Elizabeth struggled or whether she died easily.

Although still by no means an instant death at least being hanged outside Newgate and being given some drop was a considerable improvement over executions at Tyburn with the long and uncomfortable ride to the gallows where prisoners died a much slower death as they got virtually no drop.

* The other two were Frances Warren and Mary Moody.

** William Garrow was a wet-behind-the-ears barrister at this moment having been called to the bar just the year prior, but he went on to a career as one of the age’s great Whig jurists and (thanks to his unusually energetic advocacy for his clientele) a key figure in the development of the adversarial trial model. He’s notable for coining — in 1791, in a case that he lost — the phrase and then-novel doctrine “presumed innocent until proven guilty”. He’s the subject of the 2009-2011 BBC series Garrow’s Law. -ed.

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1785: Horea and Closca, Transylvanian rebels

Add comment February 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.


Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).

The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.

Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*

But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.

Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:

  1. The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
  2. The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
  3. The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
  4. The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people

Source

The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.

“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.

Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”

Nuove di diverse corti e paesi, Dec. 27, 1784 (quoted by Franco Venturi)

The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†


Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.

But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:

The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.

Wilhelm Ludwig Wekhrlin

* Joseph also abolished the death penalty in 1787. (He died in 1790, and the abolition with him.)

** And even more so in hindsight; see, for instance, this 1937 tributary obelisk.

† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)

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1785: Alexander Stewart, the first to hang at the Tolbooth

Add comment April 20th, 2016 Headsman

We’ve recently featured in these pages the very last hanging at Edinburgh’s old Grassmarket, scene of innumerable executions potent in Scottish history.

Beginning in 1785, public hangings were relocated to the Tolbooth, a medieval civic building that had been converted into a notorious prison — an era that was officially christened on this date in 1785 with the sacrifice of a juvenile delinquent.

the first person executed at the west end of the old city gaol, was Alexander Stewart, a youth of only fifteen, who had committed many depredations, and at last had been convicted of breaking into the house of Captain Hugh Dalrymple, of Fordell in the Potterrow, and Neidpath Castle, the seat of the Duke of Queensberry, from which he carried off many articles of value. It was expressly mentioned by the judge in his sentence that he was to be hanged in the Grassmarket, “or any other place the magistrates might appoint,” thus indicating that a change was in contemplation; and accordingly, the west end of the old Tolbooth was fitted up for his execution, which took place on the 20th of April, 1785.

Demolished in 1817, the Tolbooth survives today as a much-spat-upon heart design in the cobblestones marking the gaol’s former location.

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1785: Three at Shrewsbury, in depraved times

Add comment March 26th, 2016 Headsman

The assize model we’ve been featuring this week surely underscores during the Bloody Code days the law as a wholesale instrument.

For a site like this which prefers to zero in on a story for the day, the phenomenon is most discomfiting. But even if executions in the Anglo world have for the past century or two mostly unfolded as individual tragic stories arcing from beginning through middle and end, they have still merely sat atop a legal machine that grinds up lives by thousands.

The specter of the noose perhaps highlights the trend in a way that “mere” terms of years does not quite dramatize for us. Even so, now as then, no small number of convicts prefer the hemp to the life-destroying “mercy” of a lengthy prison sentence or penal transportation overseas.

All of this is mere commentary for today’s hanging trio, who are criminals of no consequence with misdeeds but scantily attested; their trials, like most in that period, would have spanned only minutes or at most a couple of hours, and been determined by gentlemen already looking ahead to the next case. “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, and wretches hang that jurymen may dine”: Alexander Pope had set that line down in The Rape of the Lock more than 70 years before.

“The capital convictions of the late Lent assizes, exhibit a most melancholy picture of the depravity of the times,” lamented the Leeds Intelligencer taking stock on April 5, 1785 of that season’s legal bulletins. “The following short list will prove it; — at Shrewsbury 11, York 7, Derby 6, Lincoln 9 (executed), Gloucester 11, Nottingham 4, (executed) Stafford 3, (executed) and Dorchester 5. There were 112 tried at Gloucester.”

Shrewsbury split its sentences, five for the scaffold and six for reprieve; the last three of the doomed lost their lives on this date in 1785 for various property crimes. These few words on the Salopean assizes were printed in several newspapers, and are quoted here from The British Chronicle, or, Pugh’s Hereford Journal, March 31, 1785:

At the assizes for Shropshire, which ended at Shrewsbury on Wednesday night last, John Green, for the wilful murder of his wife Elizabeth Green, by shooting her through the head, in a cellar in his own house, at Bromfield near Ludlows, and Ann Hancock, for the wilful murder of her male bastard child, at her lodgings in the Castle-foregate, in Shrewsbury, being fully convicted, received sentence of death, and were on Friday [March 18, 1785] executed at the Old Heath, pursuant thereto, and their bodies were delivered to the surgeons to be anatomized. At the place of execution Ann Hancock comfessed the fact for which she suffered, but Green did not.

Here the Shropshire narrative breaks, consigning the remaining death sentences to the newspaper’s dregs.

Image: 'For the Remainder of these Pests, see the last Page.'

… where we find:

The nine following persons were also capitally convicted, and received sentence of death, viz. William Williams, for burglariously stealing 130l. and upwards, the property of Mr. Edw. Jeffreys; Edward Edwards, for burglariously stealing a considerable sum of money, the property of Robert Pemberton, Esq; Sarah Davies, for housebreaking; William Griffiths, for stealing a black mare; Mary Davies, Rich. Pyfield, Mary Boulton, alias Bolton, William Evans, and William Hotchkins, for burglaries. The six latter were reprieved; and William Williams, Edward Edwards, and Sarah Davies, left for execution.

The hangings took place on March 26.

Part of the Themed Set: Shropshire.

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1785: Barbara Erni, the Golden Boos

2 comments February 26th, 2015 Headsman

Tiny Liechtenstein last conducted an execution 230 years ago today: Barbara Erni — the legendary “Golden Boos”.

Nicknamed for her strawberry blond hair, the Golden Boos had an ingenious scam that required every bit of her Bunyanesque strength: she would wander the countryside and check into inns with a large chest or pack. Intimating that the parcel contained something of great value, she would insist upon its overnight safekeeping in a very secure room.

Once the inn had tucked in for the night, a diminutive accomplice would emerge from the trunk, plunder the lonely room of its valuables, and the two would escape into the night. Evidently, secure rooms in 18th century Liechtenstein were never secured from the inside.

She admitted to 17 such thefts. Liechtentein, whose population at the present time numbers fewer than 40,000 souls, had to import the executioner to chop off Barbara Erni’s Golden Boos on a public scaffold in Vaduz on February 26, 1785.

Liechtenstein officiall abolished the death penalty in 1987.

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1785: John Winship, family planner

2 comments July 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1785, a Sunderland-area farmer named John Winship was hanged for killing his maidservant Grace Smith with a poisonous draught of corrosive mercury sublimate which Winship had intended to induce an abortion.

His body was delivered to a local surgeon, who autopsied it and “in the presence of many gentlemen of the faculty” lectured on Winship’s organs as he dug them out (and extracted two intestinal worms).

the doctrine of the late Mr. Hewson, F.R.S. was demonstrated, that, in executions of this kind, death is not produced, as has been generally supposed, by an extravation of blood, occasioned by the rupture of the vessels of the brain, but by suffocation: as in the case of drowning, etc. (Newcastle Courant, July 30, 1785, quoted in this anti-abortion tract)

Grace Smith, who died four agonizing days after she ingested the toxin, perhaps did not sympathize overmuch with her killer’s unpleasant strangulation.

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