Focus on the execution of teenage girls in the 19th century.


This article is specifically about those girls who would be legally considered juveniles today, i.e. under eighteen years old at the time of their offence and who now would be prohibited from execution by international human rights treaties, not to mention public opinion.


Six girls aged eighteen or under were to be publicly hanged in the first half of the 19th century.
The law of the 18th and early 19th centuries did not accept the concept that teenagers did not know the difference between right and wrong and punished teenage girls just as severely for the most serious crimes as their adult counterparts.  There was a strong presumption against those who committed murder for gain, murder by poisoning or brutal murders, especially of their superiors. Children, like adults, continued to be sentenced to death for a very large number of felonies up to 1836 although it was normal for the younger ones to have their sentences commuted for the less serious crimes as there was growing public disquiet about hanging children for relatively minor offences.  Executions were decreasing rapidly, both for adults and young offenders after 1836, as the number of capital crimes reduced and public attitudes began to change.


Ann Mead – poisoner.

Ann Mead, aged fifteen or sixteen was found guilty of the murder of Charles Proctor, aged sixteen months, by feeding him a spoonful of arsenic at Royston in Hertfordshire. She expiated her crime on the “New Drop” gallows outside Hertford prison on Thursday the 31st of July 1800, watched by a large crowd.  Apparently the motive for the murder was that Ann’s mistress had called Ann a slut and she wanted to get back at her.


Mary Voce – poisoner.

Mary Voce was hanged at Gallows Hill, Nottingham on Tuesday, the 16th of March 1802 for poisoning her child. In some reports she is said to have been born in 1788, which would make her only fourteen.  It is interesting that the newspapers of the day found little noteworthy in the execution of a teenage girl and gave her story very little coverage.

Mary Morgan – infanticide.
Mary was a sixteen year old kitchen maid at the imposing Maesllwch Castle near Glasbury, the home of Walter Wilkins Esq., the Member of Parliament for the county of Radnorshire (now part of Powys in Wales). She had become pregnant but had tried to conceal the pregnancy to be allowed to stay on in the servant’s quarters in the castle.  On Sunday in September 1804 she complained of feeling unwell and went up to bed.  She was visited in the evening by the cook who accused Mary of having given birth to a baby.  Mary initially denied this but later admitted that he she had indeed given birth and that she had killed it immediately, severing its head with a penknife!  The baby was found under the pillows in Mary’s bed.  An inquest was held two days later and the jury returned a verdict of murder against Mary, declaring that : "Mary Morgan, late of the Parish of Glazebury, a single woman on the 23rd day of September being big with child, afterward alone and secretly from her body did bring forth alive a female child, which by the laws and customs of this Kingdom was a bastard. Mary Morgan moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil afterwards on the same day, feloniously, willfully and of her malice aforethought did make an assault with a certain penknife made of iron and steel of the value of sixpence, and gave the child one mortal wound of the length of three inches and the depth of one inch. The child instantly died." 

Mary was arrested but was not well enough to be taken to Presteigne for trial until the 6th of October.  She thus remained in prison until the following April when she was arraigned at the Great Sessions for Radnorshire, before Judge Hardinge.  After a brief trial on the 11th of April 1805 she was convicted and received the death sentence.  She was returned to Presteigne Gaol to await her appointment with the hangman two days later.

It was quite normal at this time for executions to take place later in the day than became the custom later, so as to give local people the opportunity to get to the execution site.  Mary was hanged at Gallows Lane in Presteigne on Saturday, the 13th of April at around midday, having been conveyed from the Gaol in a horse drawn cart seated on her coffin. The terrified girl was barely conscious when she arrived at the gallows and had to be supported during the preparations.  It is probable that she was hanged from the back of the cart rather than on the “New Drop” style of gallows which was slowly coming into vogue at this time.  Her body was buried in unconsecrated ground near the church later that afternoon and was for whatever reason not sent for dissection.


Mary’s case was one that attracted the conspiracy theorists of the day. It has been claimed that a gentleman who attended Mary’s trial immediately set off to London to seek a reprieve for her, but failed to get back in time to save her.  This is at least highly unlikely, one could not ride to London and back on a single horse in two days in 1805.  It is hardly an easy journey now.
It has also been claimed that the father of Mary's daughter was Walter Wilkins the Younger, the son of her employer or alternatively one of the men on the jury that convicted her.  However there is little evidence to support either theory and the father was more probably one of her fellow servants.
Two grave stones were erected in Mary’s memory in St. Andrew’s parish churchyard in Presteigne, one by a friend of Judge Hardinge and another by an anonymous donor.
Although to kill her baby in the way she did may strike most of us horrible one has to understand both the social and economic pressures that Mary faced at the time.  Had the pregnancy been discovered she would have almost certainly lost her job and with it her place to live and meagre income.  There was no social security then and she could only hope for handouts to live on until she could find some alternative employment. Not easy with a baby to bring up and with the social stigma of being an unmarried mother which was a very real one two hundred years ago.

Only one other person was to hang at Presteigne, he was Samuel Harley for the murder of Arthur Bedward in 1822.  Presteigne Gaol closed in 1878.


Hannah Bocking - murder in the shadow of the gibbet.

On Monday the 22nd of March 1819, sixteen year old Hannah was publicly hanged at Derby for the murder, by poisoning, of Jane Grant.

Hannah came from Litton in Derbyshire and in the summer of 1818 had applied for a job as a servant but had been unsuccessful due to “her un-amiable temper and disposition". The job went to another local girl, Jane Grant, instead.  Hannah knew Jane but hid her jealousy from her and pretended to be friends with her.  She was able to procure some arsenic from a local surgeon by telling him that her grandfather wanted it for killing rats.

During the summer of 1818, Hannah and Jane went together to get some cattle in from a field at Wardlow Mires. Dangling from a gibbet nearby was the rotting corpse of Anthony Lingard who had been hanged and gibbeted in 1815 for the murder of Hannah Oliver.  Here Hannah offered Jane a spice cake which she had previously laced with poison.  Jane died in agony a little while later but before doing so was able to tell her parents about the cake she had been given by Hannah.  It seems a strange location to commit a murder and clearly Hannah was not deterred by the possibility of her own execution.

Hannah was soon arrested and charged with killing Jane. She was committed to Friar Gate Gaol in Derby to await the next Assizes that were held in March of the following year. She duly came to trial at the Derbyshire Lent Assizes nearly six months later. Initially she tried to implicate members of her family in the crime but finally confessed that she had bought the poison some ten weeks before the murder.  She was convicted and at the end of the Assize on Friday the 19th of March, sentenced to be hanged and anatomised the following Monday, in accordance with the requirements of the Murder Act of 1752.  She was sent back to Friar Gate Gaol and placed in the condemned cell which is a small dank room in the basement with little natural light that can still be visited today.  Here the enormity of her crime and sentence finally hit her and she finally burst into tears, making a full confession to a lady visitor, telling her that she and she alone committed the crime.  She was attended over the weekend by the Gaol chaplain and by the Rev. Mr. Leach.
Between 12 noon and 1pm on the Monday, she was led back up the stone steps from the prison basement, through the main gate and out onto the pavement where in front of a large number of eager spectators, she ascended the steps of the New Drop gallows erected in front of the Gaol.  After the usual preparations and time for prayer a white night cap was drawn down over her face and the trapdoor released.  It was not reported whether she died easily or not but “at the moment, when she was launched into eternity, an involuntary shuddering pervaded the assembled crowd, and although she excited little sympathy, a general feeling of horror was expressed that one so young should have been so guilty, and so insensible.”  Her body was dissected after death as required by law.  At least one broadside was printed about her case.


Catherine Foster – poisoner.
Catherine was one of two teenage girls executed in the period from 1840 - 1868.  She was just seventeen years old when she poisoned her husband, John, to whom she had been married for only three weeks, at Acton near Sudbury in Suffolk. She passed her eighteenth birthday in Bury Gaol awaiting trial.

John and Catherine had known each other since she was at the village school and had been having a relationship for two years or so, after Catherine had left school and gone into service.  John was seven years Catherine’s senior and it is probable that he was rather more keen on her than she was on him.  He also wanted to move out of his mother’s home as his sisters both had small children who got on his nerves.  The relationship with Catherine continued and he persuaded her to marry him, which she did on Wednesday the 28th of October 1846 at Acton church.  The newly weds went to live with Catherine’s mother, Maria Morley, at her cottage in the village.  Catherine stayed with John until the Saturday when she left to visit her aunt in the village of Pakenham for the next ten days. 

On Tuesday the 17th of November Catherine decided to cook dumplings for dinner.  That afternoon her mother and John were out at work so only Catherine and her younger brother, eight year old Thomas were in the house.  John was a healthy young farm labourer who had previously enjoyed good health.  He came home from work some time after six o’clock and went into the yard to wash his hands before eating.  Catherine and Thomas were eating when he came back in and she took his dumpling, wrapped in a cloth, from the stove and gave it to him.  He began to eat it but almost immediately became ill and had to go back into the yard where he threw up.  Catherine took the remains of John’s dumpling out into the yard and broke it up for the chickens.  By seven o’clock when Mrs. Morley returned John had gone up to bed, retching and experiencing severe stomach cramps.  This continued through the night and in the morning Catherine went to the nearby village of Melford to fetch the doctor, Mr. Robert Jones.  She told the doctor that John had a stomach complaint but omitted to mention the vomiting, so he suspected a case of English cholera, especially as it had recently been rife.  He prescribed some medicine which she took home with her and said he would call on John later.  Her mother returned home about three in the afternoon and John died an hour later.  Mr. Jones arrived at about five o’clock and was very surprised to find John dead. He reported the death to the coroner who ordered an inquest and a post mortem. 

Mr. Jones and another local surgeon carried out the autopsy and removed John’s stomach for analysis which was sent to Mr. E. W. Image in Bury St. Edmunds. He detected a large amount of arsenic in it and confirmed that this was the cause of death.  John was not the only victim, the chickens, who had eaten bits of the dumpling and John’s vomit which Mrs. Morley had thrown into the adjoining ditch, had also died. Their crops were found to contain arsenic and suet, an ingredient of dumplings.  The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of murder and charged Catherine with the crime.  She was therefore arrested and committed to Bury St. Edmunds gaol, charged with poisoning John.


Catherine was examined by the magistrates whilst in prison in the presence of the gaoler’s wife, Mrs. James.  Her mother was also present and took young Thomas with her.  Catherine is alleged to have said to him “You good for nothing little boy, why did you tell such stories” and refused a cake he had brought her.

The police made a search of Mrs. Morley’s house on Monday the 24th of November. The constable of Melford, George Green and Sergeant Rogers took samples of flour and also the muslin cloths that were used for cooking dumplings in and sent them to Mr. Image for analysis.  The flour did not contain any poison but one the muslin clothes tested positive for it.


Catherine was tried at the Suffolk Lent Assizes on the 27th of March 1847 before Baron Pollock on the charge of the wilful murder of John Foster.  She appeared calm in court and pleaded not guilty.  The prosecution was led by Mr. Gurney and he called a number of witnesses to give the background to the case, John’s previous robust health, the administration of the arsenic and the forensic evidence from Mr. Image who had carried out Reinsch's test and Marsh's test to be certain that what had been found in John’s stomach was indeed arsenic. Perhaps the most damning evidence against Catherine came from her brother Thomas.  On the day that Catherine made the dumplings Thomas had got home from school at three o’clock in the afternoon.  He told the court saw his sister empty the contents of a small paper packet into the mixture and then throw the paper onto the fire. Elizabeth Foster, John’s mother told the court that she had heard that her son was ill but by the time she got to Mrs. Morley’s house he had died.  When she arrived she found Catherine and Mrs. Morley there and asked Catherine why she had not been sent for earlier.  Catherine told her that John had been too ill to leave and that she had nobody to go and fetch Elizabeth. 

Catherine’s defence was presented by Mr. Power who opened by saying that in view of the handbills that had been circulated around Suffolk proclaiming his client a murderess before she was even tried it made a fair trial very difficult.  He endeavoured to destroy the alleged motive for the murder by showing that Catherine and John had actually been in love using the letters that she had written him before their marriage, which were found in his effects after he had died.  He also told the jury that when Catherine had suggested visiting her aunt John had told her to take a month but she returned after just ten days.  None of this succeeded and the jury found Catherine guilty after fifteen minutes of discussion.  As it was nearly seven o’clock in the evening sentencing was postponed until nine o’clock on the Monday morning.  Catherine displayed no emotion at the verdict and very little when she was sentenced to hang.


Little is reported of her time in the condemned cell where she received the ministrations of the chaplain, the Rev. Mr. West, the Rev. Mr. Ottley, her parish priest and the Rev. Mr. Eyre, whom she asked to be with her at the execution.  She made a confession in which she said that she deserved her punishment but did not give any reason for the killing.  She wrote a letter to her mother in which she said that she was not sorry that she would die because she would go to a better place where she would be reunited John.  She appears to not to have been hysterical as some women were in this position and to have remained composed.

The hanging was carried out at 9.00 a.m. on Saturday the 17th of April 1847 by William Calcraft on the New Drop gallows, erected in the meadow outside Bury St. Edmunds Gaol.  A crowd of some ten thousand people had turned up to see it, among them many women. Catherine walked firmly and unaided to her doom and on the platform was asked by the governor, Mr. J M’Intyre, if she had any final words and replied “No, I cannot speak.”

It was recorded by the Era newspaper that when the bolt was drawn she struggled for some two minutes and that a “thrill of horror ran through the crowd”.  The execution was described as a deeply moving spectacle by witnesses.  Catherine’s body was afterwards buried within the prison as was now the legal requirement and quicklime was added to the coffin, as it was thought to speed decomposition.   She was the last female to be hanged in public at Bury St. Edmunds.  A broadside was printed of her crime and execution. 
Future executions at this prison took place on the flat roof between the Infirmary and the entrance to the Porter's lodge as it was felt that the crowd had been able to get too close to the gallows and its teenage prisoner.

What made a seventeen year old girl poison her husband of three weeks?  We cannot know whether she was in love with him or not but there appears no reason for her to hate him or want him dead.  It has been suggested that she was pushed into marriage by her mother but this was not what Maria Morley told the court.  In fact almost the opposite, she seemed concerned that Catherine was too young at seventeen.  Was there someone else in Catherine’s life, again there is no evidence of this.  There has never been any suggestion that she stood to benefit financially from the murder.  Perhaps she felt trapped in a situation that she didn’t want and saw killing John as the easiest way out.  It has been suggested that Catherine’s father also committed a murder in July 1838, if so he was not hanged for it.


Sarah Harriet Thomas - Bristol's last public hanging.

Sarah’s was to be Bristol's final public hanging on the flat roof of the gatehouse of New Gaol in Cumberland Road. She was a house maid to sixty one year old Miss Elizabeth Jefferies, who according to Sarah, did not treat her well and had locked in the kitchen all night among other perceived abuses. There was almost certain to be conflict between a cranky, elderly spinster and a rebellious young girl and this culminated in Sarah bludgeoning Miss Jefferies to death with a large stone as she slept, on the night of Sunday the 4th of March 1849.  Sarah had also killed Miss Jefferies’ dog and thrown its body into the lavatory.  She left the house, but not without helping herself to some of her mistresses’ jewellery.  Miss Jefferies’ brother was alerted to a possible problem by a neighbour who noticed that the window shutters were still closed and called the local constable to help him investigate.  When they forced entry they made the gruesome discoveries.  Suspicion immediately fell upon Sarah and she was arrested the next day at her mother’s house in Pensford. Initially she told the police that another girl had committed the killings and that she had only been involved with ransacking the house. 


She was tried at Gloucester on the 3rd of April 1849, the public gallery being particularly crowded to hear every gruesome detail.  Sarah seemed not to treat the court proceedings seriously until she was convicted and the judge donned the black cap and sentenced her to be hanged by the neck until she was dead.  On hearing these words of doom she collapsed and had to be carried from the dock by two warders.  A petition was got up to save her but this was to no avail.  Sarah made a confession to the prison governor, Mr. J A Gardiner and two female matrons seventeen days before her execution and it was read to her every day in case she wanted to correct it.  In the confession she told of the ill treatment that she had endured from Miss Jefferies and spoke of her regret in having committed the killings.


On Thursday the 19th of April the gallows was erected and William Calcraft, the hangman, arrived from London. He was to have George Smith from Dudley to assist him.  The following morning a huge number of people had assembled in front of the prison to watch Sarah die.

She was dragged up two flights of stairs by six warders onto the gatehouse roof and then up a few more steps onto the platform.  She was held on the trap by two warders whilst Calcraft strapped her legs, placed the white hood over her head and tightened the halter style noose around her neck. As the preparations continued Sarah cried out "I wont be hanged; take me home!" Calcraft quickly operated the trap and Sarah’s body dropped about eighteen inches through it, quivering for a few moments before becoming still.  Everybody present on the gatehouse roof was upset by the distressing scene they had witnessed and the governor of the prison fainted. Sarah’s body was buried in private in an unmarked grave within the prison later in the day.

Even the by now veteran hangman, Calcraft, was greatly affected by this job and said later that Sarah Thomas was "in my opinion, one of the prettiest and most intellectual girls I have met with."

A crime reporter, one Mr. E. Austin, who attended the execution reported: "Ribald jests were bandied about and after waiting to see the corpse cut down, the crowd dispersed, and the harvest of the taverns in the neighbourhood commenced." However, some in the crowd felt pity for the poor girl.  Sadly for the majority it was probably seen much more as a free, slightly pornographic show put on by the authorities for their voyeuristic pleasure.


Sarah was the last teenage girl to be hanged in Britain. One hundred years earlier she would have suffered a far worse fate as her crime would have been deemed to be Petty Treason and she would have been burnt at the stake for it.


Constance Kent who confessed to murdering her three year old brother, Francis, at their home at Road Hill House when she was sixteen had her death sentence commuted to life in prison in 1865 due to her age at the time of her crime and changing attitudes towards the death penalty, particularly for women.  She served twenty years in prison before being released and emigrating to Australia.


A further six nineteen year old girls were hanged in the nineteenth century. They were Sarah Lloyd (23rd of April 1800) for stealing in a dwelling house, Martha Chapple (1st of August 1803) for the murder of her bastard, Mary Chandler (9th of April 1808) for stealing in a dwelling house, Sarah Fletcher for the murder of a child (5th of April 1813), Catherine Kinrade (18th of April 1823) for being an accessory to murder and Mary Ann Higgins (11th of August 1831) for the murder of her uncle.


Back to Contents Page  The execution of children and juveniles.