1780: Elizabeth Butchill, Trinity College Cambridge bedding-girl

2 comments March 17th, 2019 Headsman

A Cambridge University servant was hanged on this date in 1780 for infanticide.

Elizabeth Butchill made her way turning down the beds for the boys attending Trinity College, work she had secured via her aunt who held the same position. She somehow got pregnant, an event which does not appear to have inordinately exercised her eventual judges perhaps by virtue of its very obviousness; as Frank McLynn wryly observes, “It does not need the imagination of a novelist to reconstruct the events that led her to the gallows.”

She was surely desperate to avoid social opprobrium and unemployment, so we find from the Newgate Calendar that “she confessed that she was delivered of a female child on Thursday morning [January 6, 1780], about half past six o’clock, by herself; that the child cried some little time after its birth; and that, in about twenty minutes after, she herself threw the said infant down one of the holes of the necessary into the river, and buried the placenta, &c. in the dunghill near the house.”

“Modest, patient, and penitent” during her confinement awaiting the noose, Butchill died

firm, resigned, and exemplary. She joined with the minister in prayer, and sung the lamentation of a sinner with marks of a sincere penitent, declaring she had made her peace with God, and was reconciled to her fate. Desiring her example might be a warning to all thoughtless young women, and calling on Jesus Christ for mercy, she was launched into eternity amidst thousands of commiserating spectators, who, though they abhorred the crime, shed tears of pity for the unhappy criminal.

Whether the nameless infant’s nameless father shared those tears is a matter for the novelist’s imagination.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Sex,Women

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1556: Beatrice, a servant

2 comments December 3rd, 2014 Headsman

An everyday execution in 16th century Montpellier, from the diary of Swiss medical student Felix Platter — whom we have already had cause to notice in these pages:

Beatrice, Catalan’s former servant girl, who had drawn off my boots when I had first arrived in Montpellier, was executed on the 3rd of December. She was hanged in the square, on a little gibbet that had only one arm. She had left us a year before to go into service in the house of a priest. She became pregnant, and when her child was born, she threw it into the latrine, where it was found dead. Beatrice’s body was taken to the anatomy theatre, and it remained several days in the College. The womb was still swollen, for the birth of the child had occurred no more than eight days before. Afterwards the hangman came to collect the pieces, wrapped them in a sheet, and hung them on a gibbet outside the town.

Part of the Themed Set: Filicide.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1724: Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson

15 comments September 2nd, 2008 Headsman

Allegedly on this date in 1724, a young woman was hanged at Edinburgh’s Grassmarket for concealing her pregnancy.

Any number of details in this horrible/wonderful story are shaky, including the date: some sources make it 1728, a few say 1723, and only a handful attest a specific calendar date. Nobody seems to doubt the tale in the main, however — and it’s certainly excellent enough lore to deserve even a heavily asterisked entry.

Deserted by her husband, young Maggie Dickson took lodgings at an inn in exchange for work, and became pregnant by either the innkeeper or his son. (Again — details in the various sources available read like a game of telephone.) Since single* pregnant working-class women had about as many employment options as birth control options, Maggie kept quiet about her condition in the interest of keeping her job.

And since male parliamentarians figured their job was to keep young lasses of loose character and modest means on the straight and narrow by criminalizing their options, Maggie’s sleight-of-womb put her in violation of a law against concealing a pregnancy. (The same situation was playing out elsewhere in the British sphere at this time.)

When the resulting infant turned up dead, the trail led straight to Dickson … but the concealment of the pregnancy and birth were capital crimes on their own, making it immaterial whether it had been a miscarried pregnancy, an act of infanticide, or simply one of the many early 18th century babies to die in the cradle. The law was an indiscriminate instrument to prevent women terminating their pregnancies.

Nothing noteworthy about the hanging itself is recorded; it seems to have been one of the routine public stranglings of the age, and even the scuffle over the body between family and medical students hunting dissection-ready cadavers was a normal occurrence.

The family won. And en route to Musselburgh for burial, Maggie started banging on the inside of the coffin, and was forthwith revived. Officials decided the sentence of hanging had already been carried out … and her awestruck neighbors suddenly started seeing Maggie sympathetically

And they all lived happily ever after. This day’s principal, at any rate, gained a foothold in adequate prosperity, bore more children, and answered to the nickname “Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson” all the many more years of her life.

The story passed into legend; the dates, as we’ve alluded, fuzzed. One entrepreneurial English broadside publisher of the 19th century even transported the affair to February 1, 1813 — four years after a Concealment of Pregnancy Act reduced the penalty for Maggie Dickson’s “crime” to penal servitude. And near the site of the not-quite-Passion, should you call sometime in Edinburgh, you can raise Half-Hangit Maggie a pint at Maggie Dickson’s Pub.

I’le crye as fu’ o’ tears an egg,
‘Death, I’ve ae favour for to begg,
That ye wad only ge a flegg,
And spare my life,
As I did to ill hanged Megg,
That graceless wife

-Broadside, ‘The last speech and dying words of John Dalgleish, Hangman of Edinburgh’

* Technically, she was still married but separated.

Part of the Themed Set: Judging Abortion.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,Murder,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1739: Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson

6 comments December 27th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson were publicly hanged in colonial New Hampshire for “feloniously concealing the death of a[n] … infant bastard child.”

The first people — male or female — executed in New Hampshire history had separately disposed in August 1739 of their respective newborns. Unluckily for them, some never-discovered third woman did the same thing around the same time much less adroitly … and her dead infant was found in a well.

The ensuing investigation uncovered (in one case by the forcible ministrations of a midwife team) the recent pregnancies of this day’s victims, and though Simpson claimed her child was miscarried, she still fell under a law making a capital crime of covering up the death of a baby.

Today, Executed Today interviews New Hampshire historian Christopher Benedetto, whose research situates Kenny and Simpson in the context of their times:

In provincial New Hampshire, as was common across colonial America, the punishment of fornication and bastardy was harsh, and the stigma that followed could cost a working class woman her livelihood. When Penelope Kenny and Sarah Simpson gave birth in August 1739, they both knew that the physical product of their sexual improprieties must be concealed. It was an awful decision to have to make, but in their minds “infanticide might have seemed a matter of survival.” The discarding of illegitimate children, however, seems to have been an issue in New Hampshire long before 1739. In 1714, the General Assembly passed “An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murdering of Bastard Children,” which declared

Whereas many lewd women that have been delivered of Bastard children, to avoid shame and escape punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the death of their children…Be it therefore enacted…that if any woman be delivered of any Issue of her body, male or female, which if it were born alive should by law be a Bastard; and that she endeavor privately either by drowning or secret burying thereof…so to conceal the death thereof that it may not come to light, whether it were born alive or not but be concealed. In every such case the Mother soe offending shall suffer Death…except such Mother cann make proof by one witness at least, the Child whose death was by her so intended to be concealed was born dead.

Executed Today: The first hanging in New Hampshire didn’t happen until 1739?!

Christopher Benedetto: There were plenty of capital laws and there definitely were cases where people were tried for their lives, but why it took so long … they had crossed some sort of a boundary. I’m sure the loss of so many children only a few years before [in a diphtheria epidemic] made these crimes that much more shocking.

ET: You’re working on a book on crime in New Hampshire.*

CB: The criminal history of Massachusetts has been studied for so long, but there’s really nothing like this for New Hampshire at all. And there’s so much there. There’s a whole chapter in the book on infanticide and child murder.

ET: What’s the perspective you get working deeply in a local milieu?

CB: I think having grown up here, my own family I’ve been able to trace back to the 1650’s in Massachusetts … it’s always been a big part of my life.

I like being able to go to different sites where these things actually happened. I think that’s true for any historian — you’re drawn to the specific places. The town I grew up in, Ipswich, they have plaques of people who lived there. Anne Bradstreet‘s house is still there.

I could walk on a lot of the streets or at least go to some of the places where these things took place.

But to me, history is about people. It’s about passions. To me, these people are so much like us today. Human nature has not changed a lot over the years.

ET: Does that lead to any conclusions on the death penalty in general?

CB: It’s one of the few things that’s as controversial now as it was two, three hundred years ago. I don’t think capital punishment prevents crime. I do think there are certain instances where the crime is so heinous, so bad — I don’t know, I’m sort of in the middle on it. I think we should reserve the right to do it, but does it improve our society at all?

ET: What advice would you have for a young person about being a historian? What’s the historical method for you?

CB: I would say, just be curious. You’ve got to be relentless. You’ve got to go after what you’re passionate about — nobody wants to do research about something they’re just not interested in.

To me, I love writing, but I think one of the most thrilling parts can be when you’re sort of on the hunt. I kind of see being a historian — and not just professionally; anyone who’s researching a family history — you’re almost like a quilter. You’re taking all these little pieces of fabric and just trying to create a whole picture. That might be my favorite part, taking all those pieces of information and just putting them together.

It’s not that nobody had ever written about that execution [of Kenny and Simpson] before, but maybe nobody had taken all that information and just kind of put it together in that way. You’re not always going to have something 100% new to say, but you might present it in a way that casts a new light or makes somebody think about it differently.

* Tentatively titled Gruesome Stories from the Granite State with an anticipated release in 2009 through regional press Commonwealth Editions.

Part of the Themed Set: The Spectacle of Public Hanging in America.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Interviews,Milestones,New Hampshire,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Public Executions,Sex,USA,Women

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