Today I am delighted to offer Naomi Clifford, one of my favourite authors who writes about life (and particularly crime) in Georgian Britain, a guest post. Her chosen subject: Five husband murderers. Over to you Naomi !
At just after eight in the morning on Monday 17 September 1827, 40-year-old Mary Wittenback was taken from the condemned cell at Newgate in London where she had passed a restless night. Horace Cotton, the prison’s Anglican chaplain and Mr Baker, a Dissenting minister, had persuaded her to confess to her crime, poisoning her abusive and unfaithful husband, she had attended the condemned sermon and she had said her final goodbyes to her three daughters, but now as her death came near she became highly distressed, calling out to God, moaning and groaning.
She was half-carried by the Sheriff’s men to a chamber and here she was tied into a small black chair-like “machine” to which two long ropes were attached. This was part of her special pre-mortem punishment, being dragged to the place of execution, was additional to her hanging, and was given only to those guilty of the most heinous of crimes, treason.
She had not challenged the authority of the king, but of her husband. By murdering him she was up-ended the natural order of society. Women owed obedience to their husbands – their lords and masters – in the same way that subjects owed it to the monarch. And whereas a threat to the king was high treason, Mary’s crime was petty treason. Almost needless to say, a man could not be charged with treason against his wife; although servants of either gender could be charged for murdering an employer and clerics, always men, for murdering an ecclesiastical superior. In practice, women were the usual recipients of this special charge and its punishment and until 1790 they were also burnt at the stake, mercifully usually after they had been discreetly strangled.
Gallows, once sited outside towns as a warning to thieves and murderers, were increasingly, through the late 18th century and until public hanging was ended in 1868, moved near to the place of incarceration. Some gallows, as at Newgate, were temporary structures built right up against its walls, erected when required and taken down and stored until needed again. This close proximity of prison and gallows meant that there was no distance over which to drag the condemned prisoner. The more usual practice was to tie the prisoner to a hurdle or wicker fence and pull this behind a horse. The prisoner’s final journey, low to the ground and facing backwards, was not just ignominious, a word used often to describe the shame of execution, but abject. Those guilty of petty treason were the lowest of the low.
As Mary was placed upright in the black chair for this approximation of the act of dragging, Mr. Baker, the Dissenting minister, offered her religious consolation. She couldn’t answer, shouting only “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, oh!” while her arms were pinioned – bound to her body – at the elbow, a configuration that was designed to allow her to raise her hands in prayer but not to struggle. After this the hangman and his assistant each took a rope and pulled her, on the machine, out of the room into the lobby leading the scaffold and from there lifted her up the stairs to the platform.
A massive crowd assembled in Old Bailey, the lane by Newgate, watched as a white cap was drawn over Mary’s head. Then the rope was adjusted, the signal given, the lever pulled, and she dropped. Her violently convulsions lasted for a full two minutes, after which her body was left for the usual hour to ensure life was extinguished and cut down, stripped and delivered to the Royal College of Surgeons. This final post-mortem punishment, abolished in 1832, was also special, applied only to murderers.
Petty treason, denounced as a double standard by William Wilberforce among others, was abolished in 1828. From then on the courts, ostensibly at least, treated murder as murder.
My new book Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches includes chapters on some of the capital crimes women committed, and it also gives all the stories of women who were hanged. Here, I have chosen the cases of five husband murderers, four of whom were charged with petty treason.
Drawn on a hurdle and hanged at Norwich Castle on 31 July 1807, for the murder of her husband Samuel (petty treason).
Samuel Alden’s body was found by his neighbours in a pond on the common at Attleborough in Norfolk. One of them saw ‘the two hands of a man appear, with the arms of a shirt stained with blood… His face was dreadfully chopped and his head cut nearly off.’ Martha had taken up a billhook and attacked her husband, who was comatose after an evening in the pub, because he had threatened to beat her during an argument earlier that evening. She offered no defence at her trial. Her house was destroyed by villagers after her death.
Drawn on a hurdle and hanged in Winchester, Hampshire on 8 March 1819, for the murder of her husband Thomas (petty treason).
On the night of 23 October 1818 71-year-old Thomas Huntingford, a man of ‘remarkably quiet and inoffensive disposition’ who had worked for 60 years in the Royal dockyard at Portsmouth, and his 62-year-old wife Sarah, who ran a grocers shop, went to bed in their garret in Orange Street, Portsea as normal. In the middle of the night another resident, Samuel Bately, saw Sarah Huntingford, visibly shaking, going up to her room with a lighted candle. ‘I am murdered and robbed,’ she told him. With the landlady, Bately and Sarah opened the door to the Huntingfords’ room. Thomas Huntingford was on the bed ‘covered in clotted blood’. Blood spatters were all over the floor and the wall above his head. His skull had been caved in. Sarah claimed that two men, their faces blackened with soot, had been there and demanded money but no residents had heard them and the doors had not been forced. It was obvious that Sarah was lying. A bloody billhook was found at the foot of the stairs, her pockets and petticoats were bloodstained, and Thomas’s body showed signs of rigor mortis – he had died some hours before Bately heard the noise on the stairs. There was evidence that Sarah was an alcoholic and had pawned Thomas’s best coats. Before her hanging she refused to speak of the crime, and although she was ‘fully alive to the consolations of religion’ she declined to confess, saying that ‘she would confess to God alone – and the act of dying was only momentary’. She was reported to have displayed ‘firmness’ at her execution. A crowd of over 10,000 watched her die at Gallows Hill, where the old-fashioned horse and cart method was used, during which the victim is slowly strangled after the horse pulls the cart from under her. The unruliness of the spectators led to a decision to draw up plans for a New Drop, a stable structure that can be dismantled and stored. The couple had been married for 40 years, and Sarah had borne sixteen children, only two of whom survived.
Hanged in Berwick upon Tweed, Northumberland on 26 July 1823, for murdering her husband John.
Grace and John Griffin kept an unlicensed house in Berwick selling small beer and spirits. Their marriage was known to be unhappy and Grace had previously threatened to kill her husband. John died after a drunken night during which Grace had described him to her neighbours as a ‘beast’. The next morning he was found groaning and retching, but managed to say that his wife had murdered him before dying. An autopsy found no visible external injuries but his bladder was ruptured and there was a black mark near the sacrum. Grace was accused of assaulting him with a fire poker. After a trial lasting into the early hours, Grace was cleared of petty treason but found guilty of murder. She greeted the death sentence with no display of emotion.
Drawn on a hurdle and hanged at Newgate, London on 17 September 1827, for the poisoning murder of her husband Frederick (petty treason).
On 21 July 1827 at Brill Place, Somers Town in north London, Frederick Wittenback, a builder’s labourer, ate most of the suet pudding Mary, his wife of 20 years, had prepared for lunch and soon became very ill. Mary showed the remainder of the pudding to a neighbour and asked if she thought it had been poisoned. Despite this, shortly afterwards, she ate some of it herself and also became ill. A doctor pumped Frederick and Mary’s stomachs but Frederick was in a severe condition and died a short time later. His symptoms – sickness, pain in his legs and blindness – were consistent with arsenic but a postmortem examination did not conclusively identify this as the cause. Nevertheless, after the inquest, Mary was taken to Newgate to await trial. The Wittenbacks’ marriage had been unhappy and erratic. Frederick had often ‘misconducted’ himself and the couple had split several times, with Frederick going off to live with other women. After a period of relative stability, they had been once more on the verge of parting. When sentenced, Mary fainted and her ‘violent, hysterical screams’ could be heard throughout the sessions building after she was removed from court. The couple had had seven children, three surviving, all girls in their teens and twenties. They visited her the day before her hanging: ‘the scene of parting was affecting in the extreme.’ On 17 September she was tied into a ‘machine’ (the equivalent of a hurdle) in a passage leading to the vestibule outside which the scaffold had been erected. This was then dragged outside, where she was transferred to the gallows. A huge crowd, mainly of women, had gathered. At that moment, a temporary stand collapsed and eleven spectators fell on to the people below, although no one was seriously injured. After she dropped, Mary’s ‘convulsive struggles’ lasted for two minutes.
Hanged in Lancaster on 19 March 1834, for the poisoning murder of her husband Rodger.
Trapped in an unhappy marriage to Rodger Holden, a weaver, and possibly involved in an affair, 27-year-old Mary Holden took a reckless course. She ordered sixpence worth of ‘flea powder’ from a local shopkeeper and put it in the teapot. When Rodger came home from work and said he was thirsty, she pointed at the teapot. She may have thought that the fact that she had not given him tea or told him to drink it was a defence. At least one witness gave evidence that Rodger had treated Mary badly but the judge did not accept that as an excuse and admonished her for sending her husband ‘out of the world unprepared to meet his maker, with all his sins upon him’. After sentencing, Mary said, ‘My Lord, have mercy on me’ but walked out of court ‘with a firm step’; she later broke down and was ‘overcome with grief’. Mary, a Roman Catholic, was attended by a priest and while awaiting her hanging ‘behaved herself in a very becoming manner’. On the morning of the execution she was taken in a sedan chair to chapel to ‘prevent the rude gaze of the debtors, as she had to pass through their yard’ and then became ‘suffocated with grief, and was dreadfully agitated’. On the scaffold she was ‘calm and collected’. After the rope had been fastened to the chain around the beam, she said, ‘Lord relieve me out of my misery!’ She was praying aloud with the priest when the drop fell and thereafter ‘struggled violently for some minutes’. The Liverpool Mercury described her as a ‘decent-looking person of middle stature, rather of muscular frame, and though not of prepossessing appearance, yet there was nothing in her countenance indicating a ferocious disposition’. Mary’s body was removed for interment within the precincts of the prison. The hanging did not attract a large crowd but it was observed that many spectators were women and that there were a ‘great number of children’.
Naomi Clifford is blissfully happy rooting around in libraries and archives for human stories from the late Georgian era.
Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches is her second book for Pen & Sword. The first, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, a true crime story from the Regency era, was published in 2016. The Murder of Mary Ashford will be released in May 2018.
© Naomi Clifford