1718: Purry Moll and Elizabeth Cave

Add comment August 6th, 2018 Headsman

Tyburn on this date three hundred years ago saw the hanging of two women, both transgressors of the booming capital’s purported sexual mores.

The Ordinary of Newgate Paul Lorrain favored Mary Price (alias Purry Moll) and Elizabeth Cave for the occasion with “A Dehortation from living after the Flesh, that is, after the carnal Desires and sinful Lusts of our Corrupt Nature, which brings forth Death, even Eternal Death.”

Purry Moll‘s sinful Lusts didn’t really have that much to do with her crime; it’s just that she and her husband had walked away from an unedifying union after the banns of marriage were already published. It seems that her post-hubby lover upon putting out to sea had left her a tobacco box as a mark of his affection but — and this gets a little tangled — her mother‘s lover had snatched the box. Moll, clearly in a domestic passion which the scarce words on file at the Old Bailey hardly even attempt to convey, strangled to death a three-year-old girl who was the daughter of mom’s lover. (But not by mom.)

So grief-stricken was she that she insisted on pleading guilty despite the court’s repeated admonition that “if she confess’d it she must be hang’d: To which she replied, if she did confess it, she confess’d nothing but the Truth.”

With her was a woman “about 40 Years of age” of whom the Ordinary noticed — and his narrative is unfortunately truncated by a missing page — “her Face to be extreamly disfigur’d, even to that degree as to have her Nose and Lips eaten up (as it were) with the foul Disease.” Ms. Cave confirmed that “she had been a very lewd Woman, debauch’d.”

She was, in fact, a whore, as would be obvious to any 18th century cad by the cursory narration of her trial: a fellow named Sampson Barret “depos’d, that going through Drury Lane at about 11 o’Clock at Night, there was 6 or 7 Women kind standing together, who divided and made a Lane for him to go through them” whereupon Elizabeth Cave followed him and picked his pocket.

Now, with apologies to the children’s rhyme, there’s really only one reason a guy would be traversing Drury Lane at 11 o’clock at night and that he’d bump into six or seven women on his way … and baked goods weren’t the reason.

This street was a hub of London’s vigorous sex trade. Pronging off “the great thoroughfare running east from the Royal Exchange, along Fleet Street, to St. James’s Park, linking the financial and trade centre of the City with the political power base of aristocratic West London,”* Drury Lane channeled into the far less reputable Covent Garden and from the 17th century had developed into the heart of the red light district that earned this zone the sobriquet “great square of Venus.”

Here, tarts offered their wares amid the bustle of theaters and taverns, often pursuing their profession under the guise of a nominally legitimate street-hawking occupation such as flower-selling.** But little pretense was necessary: from the mid-18th century there was even an annual catalogue of area working girls, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies which by the end of its run in the 1790s was selling 8,000 copies per year. So great a boon was sex work to the economy that a German visitor half-joked that if suppressed, “London would soon be depopulated; the fine arts would be frightened away; one half of the inhabitants would be deprived of subsistence.”


In the “Morning” plate of William Hogarth‘s Four Times of the Day cycle (above), men rendezvous with prostitutes outside a notorious Covent Garden dive, Moll and Tom King’s Coffee House.

We catch an interior glimpse of this same environment in plate three of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, wherein said rake frolics at a Covent Garden brothel (below).

Unsurprisingly, venereal diseases such as that suffered by Elizabeth Cave were quite common among the more proletarian pros to be found at an hour to midnight on Drury Lane; nevertheless, they had no shortage of customers.

If Cave did indeed rob this passing john, it was unfortunate for her that she took currency. In order to save small-time criminals from the gallows, juries routinely applied “pious perjury” to downrate the value of stolen objects below the absurdly low one-shilling (12-pence) threshold for felony larceny; such maneuvers were obviously impossible when it was actual shillings that had been pilfered.

* The trade spilled aggressively out upon that same august thoroughfare, which was the route Defoe alluded to when complaining in the 1720s of “being in full Speed upon important Business, [and] have every now and then been put to the Halt; sometimes by the full Encounter of an audacious Harlot whose impudent Leer shewd she only stopp’d my Passage in order to draw my Observations to her; at other times by Twitches on the Sleeve. Lewd and ogling Salutations; and not infrequently by the more profligate Impudence of some Jades, who boldly dare to seize a Man by the Elbow and make insolent Demands of Wine and Treats before they let him go.” (Source)

** “Flower girl” consequently developed into a euphemism for a tramp. One literary artifact of this history is Eliza Doolittle of the G.B. Shaw play Pygmalion and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady: it’s never overtly stated in the text, but because Eliza begins as a Covent Garden flower girl her virtue is implicitly suspect … hence her repeated insistence, “I’m a good girl I am!”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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2008: Two alleged prostitutes, by the Taliban

Add comment July 12th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2008, the Taliban executed two women whom it claimed were running a prostitution ring for U.S. soldiers based in the city of Ghazni.

The Taliban invited a journalist who gives us a disarmingly placid picture of the two burka-clad women seemingly conversing even as armed men surrounding them in the nighttime gloom prepare to take their lives.

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1936: Charlotte Bryant

9 comments July 15th, 2015 Meaghan

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

At around 8:00 a.m. on this day in 1936, Charlotte Bryant was hanged at Teeter Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint for poisoning her husband with arsenic the previous year.

“Dying of arsenical poisoning,” writes Stephen Wade in his book Notorious Murders of the Twentieth Century: Famous and Forgotten British Cases,

…has got to be one of the most agonizing exits from the world we can imagine… Its effects are horrific… The sensations experienced have been described as the sense of having a burning ball of hot metal in the gut; on top of that, the victim has vicious diarrhea, vomiting and spasms in the joints, dizziness and consequent depression.

Frederick Bryant was to die that way.

Charlotte was born and raised in Ireland. She and Frederick met there in 1922, where he was serving with the military police. Charlotte, who was only about nineteen at the time, had the reputation as a girl who would sleep with anyone. Frederick didn’t seem to mind her reputation, though, and they so they married and moved to a tiny, rural village in Dorset, and he sought work as a farm laborer.

Charlotte’s open promiscuity continued, and soon evolved into prostitution. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her for her gallantries. It was said that, when someone asked Frederick how he felt about this, he pointed out he was earning less than said £2 a week as a cowman and said, “Four pounds a week is better than thirty bob [shillings]. I don’t care a damn what she does.”

Charlotte ultimately bore five children, some of whom may have been Frederick’s.

This situation continued until 1933, when Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a man who was himself married, and fell in love. Not only did the easygoing Frederick accept this relationship, he actually invited Parsons to live with them. Parsons did, and things actually went quite well for some time. Parsons paid the Bryants room and board, which made Frederick happy. Parsons and Charlotte got to have sex all the time, which made them happy. Win-win.

But finally Frederick asked Parsons to move out.

Frederick Bryant became inexplicably ill in May 1935 after drinking tea Charlotte had prepared for him. He recovered within a few days and he and his doctor shrugged and passed it off as gastroenteritis. In August he got sick again with the same symptoms as before, and as before, he soon recovered.

In November, Leonard Parsons told Charlotte he was going to leave her and find another job somewhere else. She was devastated.

By the time the Christmas season rolled around, Frederick was sick again. This time his symptoms were serious and he writhed in agony, “saying there was something inside him like a red-hot poker that was driving him mad.” He was sent to Sherbourne Hospital for treatment, but died a few days before Christmas.

Frederick’s doctor, who had treated him through these mysterious bouts of gastric illness, was suspicious: the symptoms the dead man had complained of corresponded exactly to arsenic poisoning, and like everyone else in the area he knew Charlotte as something less than the good wife. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and notified the police of his suspicions.

A very thorough investigation began. A chemistry expert from Scotland Yard was given

complete organs, including the stomach and contents, small and large intestines, urine in the bladder, vomit and excreta, complete lungs, portions of skin and hair, brain and nails. In addition, these were taken from the area around the body: samples of soil from above the coffin, below the coffin and from the adjacent ground, sawdust from the coffin, and a portion of the shroud.

Sure enough: the results showed that Frederick’s flesh and the environs of his corpse were positively dripping with arsensic. Altogether 4.09 grains were discovered. Anywhere between 2 and 4 grains comprises a fatal dose.

While the chemist was at work analyzing his myriad of evidence, the police were questioning Charlotte. She denied having harmed her husband and said she had not recently purchased arsenic or anything containing it. However, a friend of the couple had some interesting things to say: Charlotte had a tin of arsenic-laced Eureka brand weed killer and said “I must get rid of this … If nothing is found, they can’t put a rope round your neck!”

After a search, the police found a partially burned tin of Eureka weed killer. Dirt and ash samples from the rubbish heap where it had been discarded tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic.

But they still had to prove Charlotte bought that tin of weed killer.

The Scotland Yard analyst had a look at Charlotte’s coat and found arsenic dust in the right-hand pocket at a staggering 58,000 parts per million. (By comparison, the average amount of arsenic found in ordinary soil is about 18 parts per million.)

Records showed that someone had purchased Eureka weed killer from a local chemist’s shop at around the right date, signing their name on the poison register with only an X. Charlotte was illiterate and could not have signed her name, but would have used her mark instead. The chemist said he knew the woman who came in to buy the poison but claimed that in spite of this, he would be unable to identify her now. He was probably trying cover his own tracks: it was illegal for a chemist to sell arsenic to anyone they didn’t know.

Parsons was questioned about Frederick’s murder. He had an alibi and was cleared of suspicion, but the police decided they’d accumulated enough against Charlotte, and arrested her for murder.

At her trial in May 1936, her attorney stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence and warned the jury not to take Charlotte’s promiscuity into account. After all, she was on trial for murder, not for sleeping around. No one had seen Charlotte poison any food or give poisoned food to her husband, and the chemist still couldn’t or wouldn’t identify her as the woman who bought the weed killer at his shop.

Nonetheless, the verdict was guilty. Desperate efforts were made on her behalf to get her a new trial; some people believed the chemistry expert’s evidence had been faulty. These efforts came to nothing. Charlotte wrote a letter to the King, begging for a royal pardon, but this was ignored. She died protesting her innocence.

A footnote to this sad and sordid story: Charlotte left a pitiful estate worth 5 shillings, 8½ pence and willed it all to her five children. (She’d learned to write her name in jail; her will was the first legal document she signed with her name rather than her mark.) Her children were trucked off to an orphanage. Mrs. Violet van der Elst, a noted anti-death penalty activist, heard of their plight and vowed to make sure they were cared for. (Van der Elst featured this case among numerous others in her 1937 tract On the Gallows.)

She also started a charitable fund for the children of executed convicts. The first donation to the fund, from van der Elst herself, was £50,000. As for the Bryant children, nothing further is known of them.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex,Women

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1745: Martha Stracey, whore and reprobate-creature

1 comment March 15th, 2015 Headsman

Martha Stracey or Tracey hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1745 for assaulting a man named Will Humphreys and robbing him of one single guinea a few months before.

Stracey, about 18 or 20 years old, was a prostitute and pickpocket — “a perverse, vicious Girl, void of all good Dispositions, and wholly untractable and unadviseable, giving herself up to the vilest Company on Earth, both of Men and Women,” the Newgate Ordinary judged. The Ordinary’s accounts are a reliable feast of purple prose and do not disappoint in discoursing on the young bawd and her fall.

Having no interest in honest work and “renounc[ing] every thing resembling Goodness or Virtue,” she “went idling her Time away on the Streets with her hellish wicked Companions, who induc’d her to commence Whore, upon which she turn’d a meer reprobate-Creature” and “became known to all the Constables, and inferior Officers of Justice in that End of the Town.” Stracey, says the Ordinary, “own’d she was naturally inclined, and not over-persuaded by others, as some of them may or do alledge in Extenuation of their Guilt.”

During the night of Dec. 22-23, Humphreys testified, Stracey and Humphreys met on the Strand. According to Humphreys, she approached him unbidden, and when Humphreys insulted her, two men clobbered him as Stracey skillfully went through his pockets in a few seconds and plucked out the gold coin.

Stracey claimed the affair began when Humphreys “pulled me into an alley, and wanted to be concerned with me.”

No other eyewitnesses could testify to the substance of their rendezvous, but Humphreys’s story about the mysterious male accomplices who after thumping him went on their own way and left Stracey alone with him mid-robbery has the definite whiff of a cover story. The jury — perhaps searching for some grounds to avoid sending the woman to the gallows* — even asked the arresting constable, William Dunn, whether Humphreys’s clothes were really dirty, since he claimed to have been knocked down in the scuffle. (The constable didn’t know.)

But the simple fact was that Stracey did have Humphreys’s gold guinea, whether she achieved by main force or plucked it during a roadside assignation. With the convenient disappearance of her supposed goon squad, Humphreys was now able to seize the hustler on the spot and drag her to the watch. Constable Dunn had someone “search her behind and before (I ask pardon, my Lord)” and finally found the guinea under Martha’s profane tongue.

Before her execution, Stracey did confess that she had stolen the gold piece, under the circumstances that Humphreys’s shady account might lead one to infer:

Martha own’d the Fact she died for, that meeting a Man in the Street in the Evening, about Nine or Ten o’Clock, they speedily came to speak of an Agreement about a certain Affair; and as they were adjusting Matters, Martha thought fit to examine the Gentlemen’s Pockets, and amongst other Things, finding a Guinea, she robb’d him of it, as he Swore against her, and upon this she was convicted of a Street-robbery, one of the greatest Crimes in the Eye of the Law. She did not well remember the Circumstances of this robbery, as being very Drunk, which all of them generally are, when attempting to perpetrate so soul and black Crimes in an audacious manner.

Martha owned her committing of several robberies of this Kind before, she being a constant Street-walker , but did not well remember the Circumstances of the Robbery, she died for, nor the others which were conceal’d, it being impossible to recollect them, for the was always dead Drunk when they were committed. She was very ignorant of Religion, and what Things pertained to the state of her Soul; I endeavoured to instruct her, as the Brevity of Time allow’d, but she was of a mean Capacity and slow of Understanding, and had been so accustomed to do Evil, that she could scarce do any Thing that was good.

* The denomination of the stolen coin made “pious perjury” impossible.

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1917: Mata Hari, femme fatale

6 comments October 15th, 2008 Headsman

At 5 a.m. this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.

She died in a muddy drill field outside Paris, facing a firing squad as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, her eyes (she refused a blindfold) open.

For the oldest profession, it may be there is nothing truly original, nothing new under the sun. But Mata Hari — thanks in no small part to her genuinely fatale end — redefined it for the dawning age of mass visual media and tapped the power of sexual allure for a commercial century.

She was already pushing 30 when she got into the exotic dance game, with a failed May-December marriage behind her from what a wag might call her first sexual bargain, to get out from under the thumb of her family and see the world. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier. Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.

She exploited her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood — and claimed to be an Indian princess; her talent for repackaging oriental exoticism with just the right amount of otherness combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.

Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two.

She comes at the start of our own era: sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product; celluloid was just coming online, and 14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:

That’s her with the last object of her affections, a Russian aviator young enough to be her son, and a reminder that the birth of Greta Garbo’s era was also the death of Mata Hari’s own.

She was aging, for one thing. For another, of course, war shattered Europe. Famous, decadent, polyglot … those things that had been her passport suddenly became her liabilities. Globetrotting travel? Payoffs from a multinational cast of officers for her companionship?

There’s no take here on whether she was really, as convicted, a German spy of any variety at all — she seems to have been approached, to have tried her hand clumsily or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence, or simply to have behaved indiscreetly. Once she was caught up against events, her maneating reputation did her no favors.

Spying, she was terrible at. Commanding men’s attention? As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last.

The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.

The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.

‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.

She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.

Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.

Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:

‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.

The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.

Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.

The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.*

The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.

She did not move a muscle.

The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.

It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.

Mata Hari was surely dead.

* Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Language,Netherlands,Popular Culture,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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