Some Thoughts on . . .

Infamous Executions in the 18th Century


In 1726 Catherine Hayes was burned alive in 1726 for murdering her husband (he was chopped into pieces by her lover, who was also her son by another man), a crime which is termed "petit treason" in law, distinguishing it from "high treason" against the state. As in all cases in which women were sentenced to be burnt at the stake, she was supposed to have been strangled first, but the flames caught hold so quickly that the executioner lost hold of the rope designed to strangle her, and she died in great agony, to the great outrage of the crowd and the distress of the executioner who botched it. The complete and unexpurgated details are at my Grub Street Chronicles. Like the case of the regicide Damiens in France, who in 1757 was sentenced to be gruesomely tortured and then pulled apart by horses – a case which Foucault uses to illustrate the arbitrary terror exercised by the state – the Hayes case is vivid and memorable because it is atypical and definitely not the norm in 18th cent. England.

Elizabeth Wright and her daughter Mary Wright were also burned at the stake in 1733 for counterfeiting, defined as "high treason", but they were strangled first. There are many other instances of this. Barbara Spencer was burned at the stake at Tyburn on 5 July 1721 for counterfeiting the coin of the realm, which was termed "high treason"; but she was strangled first. She used to go regularly to watch the executions at Tyburn. Her mother, who ran an alehouse in Cripplegate, was executed some time previously for some other crime. The crowd threw stones and dirt at Barbara Spencer at the place of execution, which suggests that they had little sympathy for coining and counterfeiting, and that they were not especially shocked by women being sentenced to be burned at the stake.

It is worth noting that such infamous punishments were not uniformly handed down by "the law" upon an unwilling populace, but that the common people in many instances not only approved them but would even have preferred more brutal punishments (such as castration), and that they played an active role in the punishments meted out at the pillory, including killing people in the pillory.

Focusing on such cases can distort our understanding of the British experience. The important observation is really that torture was NOT an integral part of the British judicial system, either for punishment or for interrogation, in marked contrast to its frequent use in mainland Europe. Pressing (piling heavy weights on a prisoner to get a confession) was still used in England, for some men who refused to enter a plea, but this was very rare and unusual, and I think only two or three men died as a result of being pressed.

These various brutal tortures still on the books are just that: on the books, reflecting the antique phrases that remain in the statutes long after they ceased to be literally enforced. They were hardly ever actually put into practice in civil law. However, brutal punishments were regularly practiced in the army and especially the navy (martial law being more severe than civil law), where men sometimes died from being flogged, a practice much criticized by non-military commentators, and for which naval/army leaders were sometimes prosecuted and executed. Using special punishments to mark certain felons for "infamy" is notably rare in the British experience. The case of the Cato Street conspirators who were beheaded after being hanged is indeed infamous and notorious, but this was also an exception to the rule.

Male coiners were sentenced to have their bowels drawn out etc. before being hanged, but that was just a legal fiction; that part of the sentence was never carried out in England, and they were just hanged as per the usual. The sentence to be "hanged, drawn and quartered" was, however, carried out for active treason against the state, but I think there were hardly a dozen such sentences in the Old Bailey trials during the 18th century. However, hanging, disembowelling and quartering probably happened more often than we think. Not all trials resulting in that sentence were prosecuted at the Old Bailey in London. The Old Bailey of course dealt with what is now central London plus Middlesex, but there were many capital trials also in outlying areas. For example, nine Jacobite rebels were hanged, disembowelled and quartered on Kennington Common on 30 July 1746. (I don't think any offences arising from the Rebellion were tried at the Old Bailey.) Several courts in London could hold treason trials, and there were also Navy trials after which mutineers or whatever were hanged, disembowelled and quartered at Execution Dock. (For lots of interesting informlation, I recommend James Bland, The Common Hangman: English and Scottish Hangmen Before the Abolition of Public Executions, 1984, rev. 2001).

The understanding that "drawn" refers to disembowelling is a common misconception. The original meaning was to be drawn alone on a sled to the place of execution rather than be taken in the cart with ordinary criminals. At some later stage, as the phrase "hanged, drawn, and quartered" gained currency, it came to be understood (incorrectly) as referring to disembowelling (at least in English usage).

See Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, where it is pointed out that "the sentence on Sir William Wallace was that he should be drawn (detrahatur) from the Palace of Westminster to the Tower, then hanged (suspendatur), then disembowelled or drawn (devaletur), then beheaded and quartered (decolletur et decapitetur)." Brewer also cites a judgment given by Lord Ellenborough in 1803: "You are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged, but not till you are dead; for, while still living, your body is to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burnt before your face; your head is then cut off, and your body divided into four quarters." The phrase "hanged, drawn and quartered" is not actually a legal phrase, but a catchy phrase coined by writers and journalists. The legal sentences, as in the example from Ellenborough, were also quite long and detailed and precise (and sometimes in Latin).

The felon's body was cut into four parts so that it could be distributed to "the four quarters of the Kingdom" (symbolically: everywhere), where the haunch, or whatever part each region was lucky to receive, could be set up and displayed as a warning to others. The bowels (etc.) were burned before the victim's face to demonstrate that he would not be given a Christian burial. Often, his genitals were also cut off and burned, to symbolize that his seed could not generate any offspring, so that his name and memory would be wiped from the face of the earth.

The symbolism of being drawn on a sled or hurdle rather than in a wheeled cart was mainly a matter of status. People drawn in a hurdle had to face backwards (i.e. towards the direction they came from) rather than forwards (whereas people in a wheeled cart could face forwards, or sideways for that matter), so moving backwards in a hurdle was an added symbol of disgrace. Persons on a hurdle were usually unaccompanied, i.e. there usually were no ministers to tend to them and give them religious support. However, there is an illustration in The Annals of Newgate which show Dr Archibald Cameron being drawn on a sled to Newgate to be hanged for treason in 1753, accompanied by an official seated at the bottom of the sled facing him, holding a raised scimitar or surgeon's knife as a symbol of terror to remind him of his fate.

Hangings always drew very large crowds, who were boisterous and noisy. However, at the actual moment of a hanging, usually a universal silence fell over the crowd, followed by a universal intake of breath, somewhat resembling a universal moan.


Copyright © 2002, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in January 2002 and September 2005.


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