Eliza Joyce – children are such troublesome things.


William Joyce was a gardener who lived in Boston in Lincolnshire with his two children, William and Emma from his first marriage.  He remarried in 1840 to 27 year old Eliza, who was to bear him another daughter, christened Ann, at the end of 1842.  The marriage appeared to be happy one and they were not living in abject poverty, as were so many at this time.  Sadly Emma had died of apparently natural causes in October 1841 and little Ann succumbed in early 1843.


Fifteen year old William had been ill for some time and was visited by Dr. Smith on the 13th of September 1842.  His treatment seemed to help and William had recovered somewhat by Friday the 16th.  Eliza went into town and purchased some arsenic that day for killing vermin, or so she told the chemist who was reluctant to supply the poison.  The chemist happened to see William Joyce senior the following day and told him that Eliza had bought arsenic from him.  William immediately returned home and collected the poison and took it back to the chemist who noted that some of it was missing.  Dr. Smith called at the house later that day and found William junior had deteriorated considerably.  His father told the doctor about the arsenic and a sample of William’s vomit was analysed and found to contain it.  He began to recover and was well enough to make a sworn statement before the mayor in which he alleged that it was his step mother who had administered the arsenic to him.  William died at Christmas time1842 and as a result Eliza was charged with his murder, coming to trial at the Lincolnshire Spring Assizes.  The indictment against her as thrown out because the name of the victim had been wrongly given as Edward William Joyce.  Indictments had to be absolutely correct.

Eliza remained in prison until the 18th of July 1843 when she returned to court to face a charge that had now been reduced to attempted murder.  Up to 1861 attempted murder still carried the death penalty so this might have been less of a relief than it seems.  However it could not be proved that William’s death could be attributed to the arsenic that Eliza had given him the previous September.  Although there was no doubt that Eliza had bought arsenic she claimed that she had dropped some of it on the floor and used a teaspoon to pick it up with.  Later she had used the same spoon to give William his medication.  The jury accepted this and quite correctly found Eliza not guilty. 

William senior who did not share the jury’s view had by now separated from Eliza over the strange deaths of his children.  She was forced to go into Boston Workhouse to support herself.  Here she made a confession to the overseer, Mr. Sturdy, that not only had she poisoned William but had also murdered both the other children, Emma and Ann.
Emma had died of apparently natural causes in October 1841 but according to the confession had actually been poisoned with Laudanum.  Laudanum in an opiate that was cheap and widely used during the 19th century as a pain killer and sleeping draught, but like all opiates it is dangerous in excess.  Eliza told Mr. Sturdy that she had given Emma two teaspoonfuls and that the girl had died very quickly afterwards.  Baby Ann was born on New Year’s Day 1842 and on
the 21st of January 1843, Eliza gave her a dose of laudanum which caused her death the following day.  Dr. Ingram, the family’s doctor, who attended both girls certified the deaths as having been due to convulsions.  Eliza was asked by Mr. Sturdy why she had killed the children and she is said to have replied “I don’t know, except I thought it was such a troublesome thing to bring a family of children into this troublesome world.”  Ann was once again arrested and committed to Lincoln Castle to await trial.  This took place on Thursday at the Assize Court within the Castle grounds the 18th of July 1844 and lasted less than an hour.  Eliza’s confessions were read to the court and she acknowledged the validity of them.  She was duly condemned and her execution set for Friday the 2nd of August 1844. 


From 1817 the New Drop pattern gallows at Lincoln was erected for each execution on the roof of Cobb Hall, a large tower forming the north east bastion of the Castle and visible from the street below.  It was accessed by the prisoner and officials via a spiral stone staircase within the tower leading up to the roof level.  When Eliza woke on her final morning she looked out of the window of her cell and was horrified to be able to see the gallows.  She was described as being in “a state of considerable self-possession” when she first woke but somewhat overcome by what she saw from the window. However she soon recovered her composure and reportedly discussed the procedure for her execution with the matrons guarding her.


Four to five thousand people came to watch the hanging at noon.  The Castle bell was tolling and at five minutes before the hour Eliza was brought out onto the roof of Cobb Hall by two gaolers, accompanied by the under sheriff of Lincolnshire, Mr. Williams, the governor, Captain Nicholson, the chaplain, the Rev W.H. Richter and William Calcraft the hangman.  Eliza was wearing the typical long black dress, as worn by most condemned women of the period and was carrying a small prayer book.  As was not unusual she was not pinioned at this stage.  It is recorded that she took a final look over the city before she climbed the last few steps up onto the platform of the gallows where Calcraft strapped her arms, wrists and legs and removed her bonnet before he applied the hood and noose.  Exactly at noon Calcraft released the trap and Eliza fell a short distance through it, dying without a struggle.  She dangled on the rope for an hour and then was taken down and buried the following morning within the Lucy Tower.  Her execution was reported by the local papers of the time.


The previous female execution at Lincoln was that of Elizabeth Warriner on Thursday the 26th of June 1817 who had also poisoned her stepson. Eliza was the last of five woman to be hanged in public at the castle during the nineteenth century, all for murder. 


It seems that Eliza’ death did not have the deterrent effect that the authorities had hoped for because three years later another woman, Mary Ann Milner, was to be hanged at Lincoln for administering arsenic to her sister in law.  It is thought that she also murdered her mother in law and her niece.  Mary Ann’s execution was scheduled for the 21st of July 1847 but she hanged herself in her cell the night before, to the great disappointment of the assembled crowd. Her suicide led to the practice of guarding condemned prisoners round the clock and never leaving them alone in their cells.


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