Catherine Hayes burnt for Petty Treason.

The crime of Petty Treason.
In these male dominated times, men were considered more valuable in law than women.  So if a woman killed her husband, she was guilty not merely of murder but the much more serious crime of Petty Treason.  Petty Treason was defined by the Treason Act of 1351 and encompassed the killing of a master by a servant, a husband by his wife, or an ecclesiastical superior by his inferior. These crimes were seen as an assault on the majesty of the State, as well as the actual victim, and were perceived at the time to be against the natural order of things. Therefore, the punishment for Petty Treason was much more severe than for ordinary murder. Women convicted of petty treason were burned at the stake up to 1793, after which they were still drawn to the place of execution but then hanged in the normal way up till 1825, when the crime of Petty Treason was abolished, the offence being reclassified as ordinary murder.

Catherine's background.
Catherine was born near Birmingham in 1690. At the age of 15, Catherine, a good looking and voluptuous girl, ran away from home and in order to survive resorted to prostitution. She looked after the needs of a group of army officers at Great Ombersley in Worcestershire until they tired of her services. She was clearly a very promiscuous young woman who alternated between prostitution and domestic service to earn her living. At the age of 23, she secured a position as a housemaid to a local gentleman farmer named Hayes. Mr. Hayes had two sons and Catherine was soon able to seduce the older one, 21 year old John. John fell for her charms and they married in secret in 1713 and lived in a cottage on his father's farm. Sometime prior to her marriage, she had given birth to a son, Thomas, after a relationship with a local tanner.

The artist's impression of Catherine is thought to be from about the time of her marriage. For the first six months the marriage seemed to go quite well but Catherine needed more sex than John could provide at the end of a physically hard day's work and took other lovers to satisfy herself. The quiet rural life she and John shared also quickly palled and she persuaded him to move to London. This they did in 1719 and John set up a business as a coal-merchant, pawnbroker and money-lender. The business prospered and Catherine had a generous allowance and even servants. However, this was not enough to satisfy her and she nagged John constantly for more. He responded by reducing her allowances and inevitably fights broke out over this. The marriage was deteriorating rapidly and by 1725, she had talked John into taking in a lodger, a young tailor, 18 year old Thomas Billings, who was in fact Catherine's illegitimate son. She started to have an incestuous affair with Thomas and extended this to their next lodger, a friend of John's, called Thomas Wood, who was a butcher by trade.

The murder.
Catherine decided that she no longer had any feelings for John and wanted him out of her life. But instead of leaving him for one of her two lovers she persuaded them, over a six week period, to help her kill him. Perhaps fearing withdrawal of her sexual favours or moral blackmail, they stupidly agreed to her plan.

On the 1st of March 1726, John went out drinking with the two lodgers and they took bets on who could drink the most and remain sober. When they got home, John Hayes went to bed in an alcoholic stupor. Once he was snoring happily, Thomas Billings entered his bedroom and hit John a non fatal blow on the head with an axe. John let out screams, which were heard by Mrs. Springate, who rented the rooms above. When she asked the reason for the commotion, she was told by Catherine that they had been having a party. Thomas Wood helped Thomas Billings finish off John with the axe. To make identification of John's body more difficult, they decided to cut off his head, wrap it in a cloth and place it in a bucket, which they later threw into the Thames at Millbank, from where it was soon recovered lying on a sandbank near the Horse-Ferry at Westminster. Wood, being a butcher, had the skill to dismember the rest of John's body, the pieces of which they threw into a pond in Marylebone Fields. The recovered head was examined and the scull found to be severely fractured in two places and the face lacerated.
As nobody could immediately identify John's severed head, it was put on the top of a wooden spike in St. Margaret's Church Yard, there being no photography at the time. It was identified by at least three men, as being that of John Hayes, and Catherine made up a story that he was away on business. One of the men, Mr Ashby, a business friend of John's, did not accept this explanation as he was due to meet John to discuss some business and had clearly recognised the head. When he questioned Catherine further, she made up a story about John having killed a man in a fight and fleeing the country. Ashby didn’t believe a word of this and so went to the authorities to report his suspicions. Ashby returned to the Hayes household with several constables and they discovered Catherine in bed with Thomas Billings. The pair were both arrested. Thomas Wood had temporarily escaped but returned to London a few days later whereupon he too was arrested. In the meantime, the remains of John's body had been discovered on the 26th of March. It was also decided to arrest Mrs. Springate, although it was soon realised that she had no part in the crime and she was released.

A coroner's inquest opened on the 16th of April 1726 to investigate John's death and brought in a verdict of wilful murder, naming Catherine, Wood and Billings as the prime suspects.

The barbarity of the crime shocked early 18th century London and was widely reported in the fledgling newspapers of the day. The case was of special interest because it was one of the first recorded instances where the victim had been dismembered after death.

The magistrate showed Catherine her husband's head, by now preserved in a jar of gin, and invited her to touch it. Superstition of the day had it that if a murderer touched the head of their victim, their guilt would be revealed. Catherine, being aware of this, was quite happy to touch John's head and put on a show of grief for the magistrate. However, she was committed to Newgate to await trial. Billings was kept separately from her and both continued to protest their innocence. When Wood was arrested, he was examined by Justices of the Peace and confessed to his part in the crime, implicating Catherine and Billings. He told the Justices that Catherine had given he and Billings the money to get her husband drunk and that Billings had struck the fatal blows while he had cut up the body. Catherine then also confessed her guilt and said that the Devil had been in them and made them commit the murder.

The trial.
Catherine came to trial alongside Billings and Wood at the April Sessions of the Old Bailey held between Wednesday, the 20th and Saturday, the 23rd of that month, before the Lord Mayor, the Recorder and several other judges. The indictment against her read as follows : Katherine Hays (note the different spelling used) is indicted for Petty Treason, in being Traitorously present, comforting and maintaining the said Thomas Billings in the Murder of the said John Hayes, her Husband". Billings and Wood were simply charged with murder.
Catherine maintained that she had not taken any part in the actual killing but had held a candle for the men while they dismembered John. She also continued to maintain that the crime was the work of the Devil through them.
They were tried by a jury of 12 men who heard evidence of the murder, identification of the body and her confession and who not surprisingly, returned a verdict of guilty against all three defendants. Billings and Wood were sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn and afterwards be hanged in chains (gibbeted) and Catherine, having been found guilty of Petty Treason was sentenced to be drawn to Tyburn on a hurdle and there to be burned alive at the stake. She was greatly distressed by her sentence, as were her two co-defendants, who begged to have the gibbeting part of their sentence remitted.

At the end of the Sessions, a total of 15 defendants were sentenced to death. The others were Thomas Wright, Gabriel Lawrence, George Reger, William Griffin for sodomy, Mary Schuffman and Jane Vanvick, for felony, John Mapp, John Gillingham, and Henry Vigus for robberies on the highway, John Cotterell and James Dupress for burglary; and Joseph Treen for horse-stealing. This batch sentencing was the normal procedure at the time. The Recorder made his report to the King and Privy Council which resulted in Mary Schuffman and Jane Vanvick having their death sentences commuted to transportation, as did George Reger and Joseph Treen. Thomas Wood died in prison of goal fever before his sentence could be carried out.
Catherine and her fellow condemned were lodged in the Condemned Hold at Newgate where she reaffirmed her confession to the Ordinary, the Rev. J. Guthrie, but protested the severity of her sentence. She told Guthrie when he asked her why she murdered her husband, that “it was no more Sin to kill him than a Dog or Cat, because of the cruel Usuage he gave her, and his blasphemous Expressions which he too frequently used.” She accepted that she deserved to die for her crimes but was understandably horrified by the thought of the manner of her death.

The executions were set for Monday, the 9th of May 1726 and drew the usual huge crowd, particularly as a woman was to be burnt. In the Press Yard at Newgate, the nine men and Catherine were prepared for their fate. Their irons were removed and the Yeoman of the halter put the nooses around the men's necks prior to loading them into the carts where they sat on their coffins for the journey to Tyburn. Lawrence, Griffin and Wright, the three who were to die for sodomy, went together in one cart, Gillingham, Map and Vigus, the three highway-robbers, in another; and Cotterell and Dupress, the two burglars, together with Thomas Billings, in the third cart. Catherine was drawn to Tyburn on a hurdle. (rather a like a wattle fence panel to which she would be tied and then dragged along behind a horse).

When they reached Tyburn, the three carts were backed under the beams and the hangman, Richard Arnet, secured each man in turn. When they had finished their devotions (prayers), the carts were moved from under them leaving them suspended. Catherine was of course able to watch the men die and this must have been especially painful for her emotionally as Billings was her son. Attention now turned to her execution. She was taken from the hurdle and secured to a stake, set in the ground a few yards from the gallows, by an iron chain around her body. A cord was put round her neck and passed through a hole bored in the stake, for the purpose of strangling her, in accordance with the normal practice of the time. Two cartloads of faggots (bundles of dry brushwood) were piled around her and at the signal the fire was lit. She begged Arnet to strangle her before the fire reached her and he took the end of the cord and began to pull on it, but the flames blew in his direction burning his hands so he had to let go. She reportedly gave three dreadful shrieks before she was engulfed by the fierce fire and fell silent. She was seen trying to push away the burning faggots with her free hands but to no avail. Contemporary reports claimed that Arnet, seeing her plight, threw a large piece of wood at her head which "broke her skull, when her brains came plentifully out." In any event, she would have suffered terrible burns and shock and been in great pain for some time, before the fire and/or lack of oxygen created by it, overcame her. It was over an hour before her body was reduced to ashes. (Click here to see a drawing of her execution).

This particular "hanging day" seems to have been fraught with disaster for Arnet. John Mapp and Henry Vigus attempted to escape from the carts having freed themselves from their nooses and wrist ties. One of the spectators' grandstands collapsed, killing at least two, and injuring several more and finally, Catherine's execution was botched.

Billings' body was later hanged in chains near Tyburn on the road to Paddington in pursuance of his sentence.

It would seem that Catherine, even in her mid 30’s, was a nymphomaniac who was insatiable both sexually and materially and that these tendencies were at the root of the crime. She had by the standards of the day, a good life style with John, but always wanted more of everything than he could provide. Like so many murderers, it seems she thought she could get away with the crime and probably would have, had she taken greater care to dispose of the head. At this time, even if they had been discovered, there would have been no way of linking the body parts to John Hayes. The head was therefore the crucial piece of evidence. This remained in murder cases true up till quite recent times. Now DNA samples can be taken from any piece of tissue and generally linked to some item of the victim's - even to the saliva found on the gummed area of an envelope.

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