A Horrible Crime Begets An Even More Horrible Punishment In 1726 England

Illustration for article titled A Horrible Crime Begets An Even More Horrible Punishment In 1726 England

In the 18th century England, a woman who offed her husband wouldn’t just be charged with murder. Thanks to the 1351 Treason Act, she’d also have to own up to Petty Treason for taking the life of her “superior.” And if found guilty, her punishment was specially tailored to be extremely gruesome.


In Catherine Hayes’ case, some might argue that her worse-than-murder Petty Treason conviction fit the crime. It was a pretty nasty one. Her two co-conspirators, Thomas Billings and Thomas Wood, were also her lovers (Thomas Billings was also, allegedly, her 18-year-old illegitimate son). The trio joined forces to spring the 36-year-old mother of 12 from the clutches of her husband of 20 years, John Hayes, by getting him drunk, delivering a fatal blow to the head, then dismembering his body after. The crime was revealed when Mr. Hayes’ head washed up on the banks of the Thames, after which it was put on public display until someone recognized the dead man’s face.

Though Catherine claimed she just “held a candle” while the men did the deed, she was promptly cast as a femme fatale who masterminded the entire plot. Billings and Wood were sentenced to hang and have their bodies hung in chains after (Wood died in prison before the sentence could be carried out). But Catherine’s fate was even worse:

Catharine was drawn to Tyburn on an hurdle (rather a like a wattle fence panel to which she would be tied and then dragged along behind a horse) ... [and] secured to a stake, set in the ground a few yards from the gallows, by an iron chain around her body. A cord was put round her neck and passed through a hole bored in the stake, for the purpose of strangling her, in accordance with the normal practice of the time. Two cartloads of faggots (bundles of dry brushwood) were piled around her and at the signal the fire was lit. She begged Arnet to strangle her before the fire reached her and he took the end of the cord and began to pull on it but the flames blew in his direction, burning his hands so he had to let go.

She reportedly gave three dreadful shrieks before she was engulfed by the fierce fire and fell silent. She was seen trying to push away the burning faggots with her free hands but to no avail. Contemporary reports claimed that Arnet, seeing her plight, threw a large piece of wood at her head which “broke her skull, when her brains came plentifully out.” In any event she would have suffered terrible burns and shock and been in great pain for some time, before the fire and/or lack of oxygen created by it, overcame her. It was over an hour before her body was reduced to ashes.

As a side note, the terror didn’t end there: the execution was such a red-letter event that it drew a huge, unruly crowd, and two spectators died when a grandstand collapsed.

Original Artwork: Engraving (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)



I never get the burning at the stake thing. They go to all that trouble to burn someone alive, then they go to a whole bunch more trouble to make sure they don’t burn alive.