Philobiblon: A forgotten humanitarian

Saturday, August 20, 2005

A forgotten humanitarian

On 10 May 1790 Sir Benjamin Hammett brought a bill before the House of Commons "for altering the Sentence of burning Women", which was to finally abolish the punishment of being burnt at the stake for petty treason (killing of a husband) and high treason (almost invariably "coining" - making fake or adulterated coins). The Bill became law on 5 June.

(I might note at this point that this is not a post for those prone to nightmares.)

There's little around on the internet on the issue, beyond this draft article about the attitudes of the period that may have led to the abolition. (And an interesting case of Nimbyism, in that it suggests the moving of the site of execution from semi-rural Tyburn to heavily built-up Newgate may have played a part in the change.)

Sir Benjamin was remembered in Notes and Queries in the 19th century, but seems to have been otherwise little noted.

N&Q reports that he told parliament this was

"One of the savage remains of Norman policy, disgracing our statute book, as the practice did the common law."

The replacement punishment still meant being hung by the neck until dead, but when you read an account of the death of Eleanor Elsom in Lincoln in 1722, that does sound like a mercy. Like most women in the 18th century (except occasionally when practical arrangements went wrong, as in the famous case of Catherine Hayes in 1726, when the executioner was said to be drunk), she was, it seems, dead before the fire reached her, but what she had endured first ...
"She was clothed in a cloth 'made like a shift', saturated with tar, and her limbs were also smeared with the same inflammable substance, while a tarred bonnet had been placed on her head. She was brought out of the prison barefoot, and, being put on a hurdle, was drawn on a sledge to the place of execution near the gallows. Upon arrival, some time was passed in prayer, after which the executioner placed her in a tar barrel, a height of three feet against the stake. A rope ran through a pulley in the stake, and was placed around her neck, she herself fixing it with her hands. Three irons also held her body to the stake, and the rope being pulled tight, the tar barrel was taken aside and the fire lighted. The details in the 'Lincoln Date Book' state that she was probably quite dead before the fire reached her, as the executioner pulled upon the rope several times whilst the irons were being fixed." (From William Andrews, Bygone Punishments, 1899 quoted in "Sentence of Death By Burning For Women" in The Journal of Legal History, Vol 5, No 1, May 1984, pp. 44-59; p. 47).

As Sir Benjamin told Parliament, this was gender inequality, for men convicted of the same offenses were no longer subject to drawing and quartering and "women should not receive a more dreadful punishment than men". Plus "it had been proved by experience that the shocking punishment did not prevent the crime". (p. 55)

Interestingly there seems to have been little debate, and almost unanimous support for the Bill, in, as Sir Benjamin put it, "the cause of humanity".

There's a very brief outline of Sir Benjamin's background, from a Taunton perspective, here. But I thought he deserved a bit more recognition as the architect of a small step on the road to civilisation. It would take another two centuries (not, you'd have to say in the broad sweep of these things a bad rate of progress), to finally, definitely, end the barbarism of the death penalty in Britain.

, a Technorati tag


Blogger Martha Bridegam said...

And murder of a wife? I'm sure that was not equally "petty treason" but out of curiosity what was the charge -- vandalism?

8/20/2005 08:21:00 am  
Anonymous Sharon said...

It was plain murder. The difficulty, if you read court records on the subject (there are quite a few cases in the Old Bailey Proceedings Online), was persuading a jury to convict. I have a 17th-century Welsh case where a husband stabbed his wife in front of witnesses, and the jury still acquitted him (he claimed she had 'provoked' him by robbing him, and even if that were true it should still have been manslaughter at least...). Let alone the more common cases where the evidence is unclear because the violence had taken place in private, and even if neighbours had heard something they had not seen what happened, and the husband could claim it was an accident, or suicide... or something.

Servants (of either sex) who murdered their masters and people who killed their parents were also charged with petty treason. Funnily enough, though, while women convicted of petty treason got the same punishment as women convicted of high treason, male 'petty' traitors did not receive the full and gruesome hanging/drawing/quartering treatment. (As I understand it, there was the additional element of being 'drawn' to the gallows on a hurdle, but then they were simply hanged.)

I know of a couple of articles on the sentence of burning to death for women, which I've never quite managed to read:

Campbell, Ruth. 'Sentence of death by burning for women'. Journal of Legal History, 5 (1984).

Harvey, A D. 'Burning women at the stake in eighteenth-century England'. Criminal Justice History, 11 (1990).

The abolition is part of a wider context of growing unease with the use of savage, public punishments. (The term 'Bloody Code' itself was coined by reformers sometime in the late 18th century, which tells you something about changing attitudes.) (On that, you need to read VAC Gatrell's The hanging tree. It's a wonderful book.) And it may also connect to changing ideas about women at the time, too (shifting from earlier views of them as dangerous, oversexed, etc, to being vulnerable, weak, asexual, etc...).

8/20/2005 10:06:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

The draft article to which I point in the post has some interesting thoughts on that changing view of women.

8/20/2005 10:34:00 am  

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