(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.)
Up to 1790, women convicted of High Treason and Petty Treason were burned at the stake. Although I am sure you have a perception of what High Treason is, as a crime in those days, it also encompassed several other offences, notably coining. Coining covered several individual offences relating only to gold and silver coins, e.g. clipping coins to provide coin metal for forgeries, colouring coins to make them appear of higher value, making counterfeit coins and having the equipment to do any of the above. Coining was considered treasonable because it directly affected the State and confidence in the currency.
Under the name of Mrs. Brown, Phoebe Harris had rented a room from one Joel Sparkes at a house in Drury Lane, London (No. 19, in Swan-yard) before Christmas 1785. A friend of hers, Francis Hardy, had recommended her to Sparkes, describing her as a captain’s widow with a private income. In reality, it seems that Phoebe had been separated from her husband for two or three years. Whilst Phoebe lived at this address she was regularly engaged in filing and clipping coins and then using the metal to make new counterfeit coins in sand moulds. Francis Hardy was the person who was later to inform the police of the goings on at No. 19. There was a suggestion, flatly denied by him in court, that Francis Hardy had had a relationship with Phoebe. He did, however, take her teenage daughter in as a servant on the day of her mother’s arrest.
At about 5 o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, the 11th of February 1786, John Clarke (a constable) went to No. 19 in consequence of the information he had received and found Phoebe Harris and Elizabeth Yelland in the first floor room. He and his assistants, George Meecham, Patrick Macmanus, and William Andrews, broke down the locked door and arrested the two female occupants. They then searched the room in which they found some counterfeit coins and the necessary equipment for coining in an adjoining closet.
When John Clarke compared the counterfeit shillings to genuine ones, it was clear that they had been cast from a mould made from a genuine shilling. In all, some 12 counterfeit coins were discovered, both shillings and sixpences. One of the genuine sixpences had a hole in it and this was evident in the counterfeits.
A little later, after the rooms had been searched, Elizabeth’s brother, Joseph Yelland, returned home and was also arrested. All three were taken to Bow Street to appear before a magistrate. They were remanded in custody at Newgate to stand trial at the next Sessions of the Old Bailey.
Capital trials at this period took up very little time with a number being conducted during a single day. The April Sessions of the Old Bailey in 1786 were held on Wednesday, the 26th of that month, before Mr. Baron Eyre. Among those indicted were Joseph Yelland, otherwise known as Holman, Phebe Harris (spelling of Phoebe as given in the original indictment) and Elizabeth Yelland, who were jointly charged with two specimen counts, as follows: “for that they, on the 11th of February last, one piece of false, feigned, and counterfeit money and coin, to the likeness and similitude of the good, legal, and silver coin of this realm, called a shilling, falsely, deceitfully, feloniously, and traiterously did counterfeit and coin, against the duty of their allegiance, and against the statute.” There was also a second count of coining a sixpence. The shilling is the equivalent of the current 5p coin, whilst a sixpence is the equivalent of 2.5p. Although in 1786, these two coins had much greater purchasing power they were still coins of small denomination.
The prosecution was opened by Mr. Silvester, assisted by Mr. Wilson and Mr. Garrow led the defence. [Silvester and Garrow were famous combatants at the bar. See this post for another instance. -ed.]
The case was heard before the 2nd Middlesex jury, consisting of twelve men. Both sides were able to call witnesses and cross examine those for the other side. In this case, the Crown called the constables involved in the raid, together with the landlord and his son. They also called Francis Hardy, who gave direct eyewitness evidence of the manufacture and colouring of the counterfeit coins. The coining equipment found in the rooms was produced in court as evidence. Hardy also suggested that the group had bought forged coins from other criminals to pass off as good — also a capital crime then, known as uttering. He stated in his testimony that she continued with the coining business even though she knew that Hardy was fully aware of what she was doing. It appears that there had been some disagreement between Hardy and Phoebe and this may have led to him informing on her.
The defence was principally based upon the testimony of character witnesses for each of the defendants who averred them to be people of good character. Phoebe addressed the court as follows: “My Lord and Gentlemen of the Jury, I am an unhappy woman; I was desired by a young man of the name of John Brown, to take the room, which I did, and he brought the things found in the room; and desired me to secrete them, and I not knowing the nature of them, or for what purpose they were intended, did do so, and so I told the gentleman when they came and took me: as to my sister-in-law, I being very ill, she came to clean the room for me, and the gentleman found her cleaning it on her knees: and my brother-in-law came some time after the gentlemen had been in the room.”
She also called two character witnesses.
The jury took some time in their deliberations before finding Phoebe guilty and, despite Francis Hardy’s evidence against them, acquitting Elizabeth and Joseph Yelland. As was normal sentencing of all those convicted, took place at the end of the Sessions. Nine prisoners were condemned to death, these being: Hannah Mullins, William Smith, Edward Griffiths, James May, George Woodward, Daniel Keefe, Jonathan Harwood and William Watts, who were sentenced to be hanged while Phoebe was condemned to be burned at the stake. Many other prisoners were sentenced to transportation or imprisonment. Hannah Mullins and James May were subsequently reprieved to transportation. The condemned were returned to Newgate prison to await their fates.
Phoebe Harris was to be the first woman burnt at Newgate, as distinct from Tyburn or Smithfield, and her execution was carried out just after 8.00 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday the 21st of June 1786. A huge crowd, estimated at some 20,000 people, had turned out to watch this gruesome spectacle.
At 7.30 a.m. six men, Edward Griffiths, George Woodward, William Watts, Daniel Keefe, Jonathan Harwood and William Smith were brought out through Newgate’s Debtor’s Door and led up onto the “New Drop” gallows. They were prepared in the usual way and the drop reportedly fell around 8.00 a.m.
After they were suspended, Phoebe was led from the Debtor’s Door of Newgate by two sheriff’s officers to a stake that had been erected halfway between the gallows and Newgate Street. The stake was some 11 feet high and had a metal bracket at the top from which a noose dangled. Phoebe was described as, “a well made little woman of something more than thirty years of age, with a pale complexion and not disagreeable features.” She was reported to be terrified and trembling as she was led out. She mounted a stool and the noose was placed around her neck and was allowed a few moments to pray with the Ordinary before her support was removed and she was left suspended. According to V. A. C. Gatrell’s book The Hanging Tree she died hard, he reported that she choked noisily to death over several minutes.
After hanging for half an hour, the executioner put an iron chain around her upper body and fastened it to the stake with nails. Two cart loads of faggots were now piled around the stake and then lit. It is reasonable to assume that she would have been quite dead by this time. After a while, the fire burnt through the rope and Phoebe’s body dropped, remaining attached to the stake by the chain. It took over two hours to be completely consumed by the fire, which continued to burn until midday.
Only two more women were to suffer Phoebe’s fate. These were Margaret Sullivan on the 25th of June 1788 and Catherine Murphy on the 18th of March 1789, both for coining. At the April Sessions of 1790, Sophia Girton was also convicted of this offence but her execution was delayed until after Parliament had passed an Act (Act 30 Geo. III, c.48) substituting ordinary hanging for coining offences on the 5th of June 1790. In fact, Sophia was ultimately pardoned, on condition of transportation for life to New South Wales, on the 12th of June 1790.
Executions by burning at Newgate were distinctly unpopular with the local residents of what was a respectable business area of the City. They had sent a petition to the Lord Mayor requesting that Phoebe’s execution be carried out elsewhere. This was an early version of “not in my back yard” rather than a protest against the severity of her punishment. It was later reported that some locals became ill from the smoke from her body. There were similar protests over the Sullivan and Murphy executions and a great feeling of relief when Sophia Girton was reprieved, and the whole ghastly business passed into history in 1790.
The Sheriffs were also becoming increasingly unhappy about attending burnings, and it was they who brought forward the Bill to end this practice. Even though by this time the condemned woman was dead before the faggots were lit, it must have still been a gruesome and revolting spectacle and one which conveyed a feeling of injustice. Men convicted of coining offences were hanged in the same way as other condemned males. The Times newspaper took up this theme after Phoebe’s burning and printed the following article: “The execution of a woman for coining on Wednesday morning, reflects a scandal upon the law and was not only inhuman, but shamefully indelicate and shocking. Why should the law in this species of offence inflict a severer punishment upon a woman, than a man. It is not an offence which she can perpetrate alone — in every such case the insistence of a man has been found the operating motive upon the woman; yet the man is but hanged, and the woman burned.” One can only agree with the “Thunderer’s” sentiments as the Times came to be known. Other London newspapers carried similar articles. Again similar outrage was expressed two years later at the burning of Margaret Sullivan, although strangely there was little media interest at the burning of Catherine Murphy.
On this day..