1771: Mary Jones, hanged for shoplifting

Add comment October 16th, 2017 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.)

Mary was thought to be about eighteen or nineteen years old but was already married with two children when her husband, William, was press ganged into the Navy to go to the Falkland Islands, leaving her virtually destitute. She lived with her friend Ann Styles in Angel Alley in the Strand and was at times reduced to begging to feed herself and the infants. It is said that she had her baby with her in the cart as she was taken to Tyburn to be hanged.

There had been a spate of shoplifting incidents in Ludgate Street area of London during 1771 and the shop keepers were on high alert and keeping watch for suspects. On Wednesday the 7th of August Mary, with one of her children in tow and Ann Styles went on a shop lifting expedition in the Ludgate Street. They may have other accomplices with them although no one else was arrested. Mary and Ann were observed going in and out of a large number shops. Thomas Ham, a shopkeeper himself and a witness at the trial, was suspicious of their activities and kept a close eye on them. He estimated that he had seen them go into as many as fifteen shops in the street, between three o’clock and six o’clock that afternoon. Finally the pair went to the drapery shop owned by a Mr. William Foot and expressed interest in buying a child’s frock. Nothing that they were shown appeared to be what they wanted and Mary made to leave the shop but Mr. Foot’s assistant, Christopher Preston, noticed that she had something concealed under her cloak. He went after her and brought her back into the shop where he discovered she had concealed four pieces of worked muslin which she had taken from the counter. Christopher Preston told the other assistant, Andrew Hawkins, to fetch a constable while he kept the women in the shop. The constable arrested them both and they were taken to the Compter (a local lock up jail).

Both women were charged under the Shoplifting Act with the theft of the muslin which was valued at £5. 10s. (£5.50) The actual offence at this time being called “privately stealing in a shop”. The value of the goods stolen, being more than five shillings (25p), made it a capital crime. The pair were tried at the Sessions of the Old Bailey held on Wednesday the 11th of September 1771, Thomas Ham, Christopher Preston and Andrew Hawkins each giving evidence for the prosecution.

Mary and Ann were permitted to speak in their own defence. Mary told the court of her struggle to support two children without her husband and that she had always been an honest woman.

Ann told the court that she had merely gone with Mary to by the child’s clothes and that she had nothing to do with the theft.

The trial lasted no more than two hours and Mary was convicted as she was actually in possession of the stolen items but Ann was acquitted. Mary received the mandatory death sentence and was transferred to Newgate to await her trip to Tyburn. When the Recorder of London prepared his report for the King and Privy Council there was no recommendation to mercy for Mary, despite her age and circumstances. As was normal for non murder cases she was to spend some time in the Condemned Hold until the next “hanging day”. She would have been regularly attended by John Wood, the then Ordinary (Newgate’s prison chaplain) and would have been expected to attend Sunday religious services. She and the other condemned criminals had a special area in the centre of the chapel, surrounded by a high partition so that they could not be seen by or communicate with the other prisoners. On the table in front of them was a coffin!

On the morning of Wednesday the 16th of October she was brought to the Press Yard of Newgate where the halter noose was put round her neck and her arms tied to her body with a cord above the elbows. She was made to get into the cart and sit on her own coffin.

With her for her last journey were four men, James Allen who had been convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, William Penn, Richard Thompson and John Hughes who had all been convicted of highway robbery.

The procession consisting of a court officer responsible for prisoners, Reverend John Wood, the Ordinary, the hangman and his assistants and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn, about two and a half miles away. The procession made its slow and bumpy passage along Holborn, St. Giles, and the Tyburn Road (now called Oxford Street), to Tyburn itself near what is now Marble Arch. A stop was often made at St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell would be tolled, and the minister would chant, “You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls.” As the procession passed on, the minister would tell the audience, “All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls.” Here friends might present the criminals with small nosegays (bunches of flowers).

Stops were made at two public houses along the way, probably the Bowl Inn at St Giles and the Mason’s Arms in Seymour Place, where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink. Once they left the second pub it was a short journey to the gallows.

On arrival at Tyburn around noon, some two to three hours after they had left Newgate, the prisoners were greeted by a large crowd.

Mary’s cart was backed under one of the three beams of the gallows and Edward Dennis, the hangman, uncoiled the free end of the rope from her body and threw it up to one of his assistants balanced precariously on the beam above. They tied the rope to the beam leaving very little slack. The Ordinary prayed with her and when he had finished the hangman would have pulled a night cap over her face if she had been able to afford one. As you can imagine the preparations took quite some time where a batch of five prisoners was being hanged.

When everything was ready, the City Marshall gave the signal and the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop, at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air — “dancing the Tyburn jig” as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end. It is not recorded whether or not Mary struggled or was one of the fortunate few who quickly became still. The five bodies were left to hang for an hour before being cut down and claimed by relatives or friends and taken for burial.

One can well understand why the law in this period in history is now referred to as the Bloody Code. Of the two hundred and ninety four people executed at Tyburn in the decade from 1765 to 1774 only twenty five were to die for murder and three for rape. The rest mostly suffered for various types of property related crime, such as highway robbery, burglary, housebreaking and forgery.

It seems amazing today that a young mother should be hanged for what would now considered to be a minor crime, yet in 1771 nobody would have thought anything of it — it was a regular and perfectly normal event. If it was Mary’s first offence, as she claimed, she would probably get a community service order now, especially as he had dependant children. However Georgian justice was being applied increasingly severely at this time. Sixty-two men and six women received the death sentence during this year, of whom thirty four of the men and one of the women, Frances Allen, were to share Mary’s fate. Frances Allen was hanged on Wednesday the 7th of August for housebreaking.

A few years later her case was raised in Parliament by Sir William Meredith, the Whig Member for Liverpool, when he was opposing a motion to make yet another offence capital. He told the House that he did not believe “a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law”. His eloquence was to no avail however and the Bill was carried.

It is a circumstance not to be forgotten, that she was very young, (under nineteen) and most remarkably handsome. She went to a linen draper’s shop, took some coarse linen off the counter, and slipped it under her cloak. The shopman saw her, and she laid it down again. For this she was hanged. Her defence was, ‘that she lived in credit, and wanted for nothing, till a press-gang came, and stole her husband from her—but since then she had no bed to lie on, nothing to give her two children to eat, and they were almost naked: and perhaps she might have done something wrong, for she hardly knew what she did.’ The parish officers testified the truth of this story. But it seems there had been a good deal of shop-lifting about Ludgate; an example was necessary — and the woman was hanged for the comfort and satisfaction of some shopkeepers in Ludgate-street. When brought to receive sentence, she behaved in such a frantic manner as proved her to be in a distracted and desponding state; and the child was sucking at her breast when she set out for Tyburn gallows! Let us reflect a little on this woman’s fate. The poet says, “An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” He might have said, with equal truth, that a beauteous woman is the noblest work of God. But for what cause was God’s creation robbed of its noblest work? It was for no injury, but for a mere attempt to clothe two naked children by unlawful means. Compare this with what the State did, and what the law did. The State bereaved the woman of her husband, and the children of a father, who was all their support: the law deprived the woman of her life, and children of their remaining parent, exposing them to every danger, insult, and merciless treatment, that destitute and helpless orphans suffer, Take all the circumstances together, I do not believe that a fouler murder was ever committed against law, than the murder of this woman by law.

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1691: Eleven at Tyburn

2 comments December 18th, 2012 Headsman

“Having Intangled themselves in the snares of Death, by their Dissolute Practices, against all the warnings of Publick Justice on other Criminals,” as the Ordinary’s Account puts it, 11 men and women “provokt the Lord to set them out, as monuments of his present severe, yet Righteous Judgement” and therefore hanged together on this date at London’s Tyburn gallows.*

Murderers (and -esses)

William Harsey was taken literally red-handed, found by the St. Katherine’s watch passed out drunk, still gripping a bloody knife. He’d wetted the blade in three different bodies that night, one of them his good friend (also drunk). Two died; one survived to testify against Harsey.

Mary Mott‘s infant son was found lying dead in a gutter on her rooftop, by a laborer working on the chimney. She claimed it was stillborn, but was unable to prove it: the presumption in such instances went against the mother, on the grounds that every infanticide would simply claim stillbirth otherwise.

Thieves

William Smith “said that he was guilty of all sins except Murther, he named Sabbath breaking, Drunkenness, and Uncleanness.” John Barret, a burglar, copped to the same trio of gateway sins.

Less repentant were two other robbers who had no use for the Ordinary’s god-bothering, to the detriment of their bloggable biography: Richard Johnson, who “was not concerned for his bad Life, and withdrew himself from Chappel,” and Anne Miller, who “refused to come to the Chappel, saying she was a Papist.”

Posterity has much more on Mary Jones, a scarf-maker whose lover squandered all her revenues and drove “Moll” to make an illicit living by the dexterity of her fingers. Having been branded on the hand for picking the royal chocolatier’s pocket, Jones turned to the boom trade in shoplifting London’s growing traffic of valuable little textiles like stockings and lace.

She must have had no small gift for the five-fingered discount as she practiced it for 3-4 years. “She was apprehended for privately stealing a piece of satin out of a mercer’s shop on Ludgate Hill, whither she went in a very splendid equipage and personated the late Duchess of Norfolk, to avoid suspicion of her dishonesty; but her graceless Grace being sent to Newgate, and condemned for her life at the Old Bailey.”

Hanging day would hardly be complete in the late 17th century without a highwayman like William Good, who with a buddy (uncaptured) carriage-jacked a gentleman on the London-Hackney road and made off with the 12-Days-of-Christmas-like trove of “a Dyaper Napkin Value 12 d. Twelve Larks, Two Ducks, and an Embroidered Wastcoat.”

Where Good hangs, there will you also find Malice — Humphrey Malice, to be exact, “Condemned for Robbing a Gentleman in Chelsy Field” in which crime he nevertheless enjoyed “no share in the spoil.” His better remunerated (and less interestingly named) confederate Edward Booth hanged with him. The gentleman in question was Malice and Booth’s second victim of the night, the first having been a more working-class sort who was stripped stark naked and could still only produce eight coppers. Malice and Booth gave him a vengeful thrashing for their trouble and told him “that the next time he went abroad, he should put more Money in his Pocket.”

Thomas Taylor, a parson’s son “addicted to idleness,” was in fact quite industrious when it came to robbery. There’s a story from his career of engineering a buffoonish caught-in-the-town-pillory routine to distract a crowd of yokels while his pickpocket buddies plucked them clean. His fatal crime was an even more audacious twist on the same, in which Tom, acting alone this time, fired a barn, then joined the resulting rescue scramble and made off with a trunk full of plate and £140 cash. He would later admit this was not the first time he had used this gambit.

The arson was the source of his condemnation, but we could not pass over the Newgate Calendar’s remembrance of a different and dreadfully amusing larcenous exploit … which also goes to show the very private, and very punitive, nature of crime prevention in those days.

Taylor being pretty expert at picking of pockets, he set up for himself; and one day going to the playhouse in Drury Lane, very well dressed, he seated himself by a gentleman in the pit, whose pocket he picked of about forty guineas, and went clean off. This good success tempted Tom to go thither the next day in a different suit of clothes, when, perceiving the same gentleman in the pit whose pocket he had picked but the day before, he takes his seat by him again. The gentleman was so sharp as to know his face again, for all his change of apparel, though he seemed to take no notice of him; whereupon putting a great quantity of guineas into the pocket next Tom, it was not long before he fell to diving for them. The gentleman had sewed fishing- hooks all round the mouth of that pocket, and our gudgeon venturing too deep, by unconscionably plunging down to the very bottom, his hand was caught and held so fast that he could in no manner of way disentangle it.

Tom angled up and down in the pocket for nearly a quarter of an hour; the gentleman, all the while feeling his struggling to get his hand out, took no notice, till at last Tom, very courteously pulling off his hat, quoth: “Sir, by a mistake, I have somehow put my hand into your pocket instead of my own.” The gentleman, without making any noise, arose and went to the Rose Tavern at the corner of Bridget Street, and Tom along with him, with his hand in his pocket, where it remained till he had sent for some of his cronies, who paid down eighty guineas to get the gudgeon out of this dry pond. However, the gentleman, being not altogether contented with this double satisfaction for his loss, most unmercifully caned him, and then turning him over to the mob, they as unmercifully pumped him and ducked him in a horse-pond, and after that so cruelly used him that they broke one of his legs and an arm.

Taylor, the Ordinary reported, “behaved himself very undecently and unhandsomely, all the way from Newgate to Tyburn.”

* A good round number: it was Tyburn’s second 11-spot of the year.

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