Phoebe Harris, burnt for coining in 1786.
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
At about in the afternoon of
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,
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.
prosecution was opened by Mr. Silvester, assisted by Mr. Wilson and Mr. Garrow
led the defence. 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
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
At 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 Christian 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
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.