1731: Catherine Bevan, burned alive in Delaware

1 comment September 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1731, a double execution of 50-year-old Catherine Bevan and her young servant — perhaps lover — Peter Murphy was nightmarishly marred by Bevan’s burning alive.

Such was indeed the sentence upon her for “petty treason”, a now-archaic legal category that compassed the betrayal — in practice, murder — of an authority. (Compare to “high treason”, meaning the betrayal of the ultimate authority, the sovereign; the legal categories show that these offenses are analogues.) Quite often in such cases the authority in question was the man of the house, and so it was here too: Bevan and Murphy beat and throttled to death her husband, Henry Bevan. Both wife-on-husband and servant-on-master homicide qualified as petty treason.

Crucially for the American colonies, the latter category included slaves in resistance to their masters. Petty treason was an offense elevated beyond “mere” murder because it implied an attack upon the received order upon which all society depended; one expression of the heightened outrage accorded to petty treason was that women* thus convicted could be sentenced to burning, rather than “mere” hanging. This interesting Widener Law Library blog about the Bevan case notes that out of 24 documented burnings of women in early America, 22 were burnings of enslaved women. (Enslaved men were also subject to this fate for crimes particularly threatening to the stability of the Slave Power, like arson.)

Bevan was one of the two exceptions, although it must be noted that there were other prosecutions of white domestic murderesses in the colonial period that simply got the culprits hanged instead of burned. In the looser confines of the New World, the growing English reticence about sending [white] women to the stake predominated; in fact, when Delaware found itself with another spousal parricide on its hands in 1787, its legislature hurriedly amended the still-extant burning-at-the-stake statutes to provide for simple hanging instead.

One reason for the squeamishness was what happened to the widow Bevan.

It was design’d to strangle her dead before the Fire should touch her; but its first breaking out was in a stream which pointed directly upon the Rope that went round her Neck, and burnt it off instantly, so that she fell alive into the Flames, and was seen to struggle.

Pennsylvania Gazette, September 23, 1731

* “In treasons of every kind the punishment of women is the same, and different from that of men” who in some instances could be drawn and quartered, writes Blackstone. “For, as the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publickly mangling their bodies, their sentence (which is to the full as terrible to the sensation as the other) is to be drawn to the gallows, and there to be burned alive.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Botched Executions,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Delaware,England,Execution,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,USA,Women

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