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
Mary Voce – poisoner.
Mary Voce was hanged at Gallows Hill,
Mary Morgan –
Mary was a sixteen year old kitchen maid at the imposing
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
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
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
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.
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
Between and 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 –
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
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
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 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 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
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 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
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
Sarah’s was to be
She was tried at
On Thursday the 19th of April the gallows was erected and
William Calcraft, the hangman, arrived from
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
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
A further 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.