A Barbarous Kingdom, Populated by Savages

This tale of barbarity is almost beyond belief for the date when it took place, June 21st 1786, and the location, the so-called civilised country of England. The details come from a source that I have used quite frequently before, namely “The Date Book of Remarkable Memorable Events Connected With Nottingham and Its Neighbourhood” and one other website:

The savagery of the punishment meted out on this poor young woman would be difficult to believe were it not so well authenticated. I have translated some of ye more difficult fentencef into ye moderne Englifhe:

“The victim of it was a young woman of Nottingham extraction, her mother having been a native of the town. Her name was Phoebe Harris. She was small in stature, rather stout and of good figure, with a pale complexion, and pleasing features. Her age was 30, and she lived with her husband in London. She was caught while in the act of counterfeiting coins, to which she had been introduced by her husband, who, it appeared, was an old practitioner. For this offence she was tried at the Old Bailey, and sentenced to death.
She was conducted on a subsequent day by two constables to the open space in front of Newgate, in the presence of about 20,000 spectators, where a stake had been securely fixed in the ground, about eleven feet high, and with a curved projection of iron at the top, to which was fixed a rope. The prisoner was placed on a stool, with her back to the stake, and the rope was positioned around her neck. After the priest of the gaol had prayed with her for a short time, the stool was pulled from underneath, leaving her suspended by the neck, with her feet about a foot from the ground.”

According to V. A. C. Gatrell’s book “The Hanging Tree”, Phoebe then choked noisily to death over several minutes:

“After hanging there for half an hour, the executioner put an iron chain around her upper body and fastened it to the stake with nails.”

The Date Book takes up the tale with tasteful enthusiasm:

“Two cart loads of wooden faggots were then placed round her and set on fire:

The rope speedily snapped, and the body slipped, but was sustained by an iron chain passed round her waist and the stake. In the course of three hours the corpse was entirely consumed.

The unfortunate sufferer, Phoebe, was struck with so much horror at the idea of her body being burnt, that in the night previous to her execution she was quite frantic. When she was led to the stake, she appeared languid and terrified, and trembled excessively. The awful apparatus of death evidently struck her mind with consternation, and totally incapacitated her for her last prayer.
Until midday, while the victim was still burning, the spectators were loud in their angry denouncements of the officers of the law, but as soon as the latter had left, the people in the crowd amused themselves by kicking about her ashes.

An application had been made to the Sheriffs by the respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood, praying that the execution might take place at Tyburn, or at some small distance from them, but without avail.

The consequences were serious : several ladies were taken very unwell, and many were severely affected by the offensive smell of the burning corpse.”

The consequences were a damn sight more serious for Phoebe. The locals, NIMBYs one and all, had actually organised and sent in a petition to prevent Phoebe being executed so near to their homes. They considered such savage practices should not be carried out in areas frequented by respectable folk. Genuine world class savagery should take place in a working class area where it would be better appreciated.

Even so, 20,000 spectators isn’t a bad turn out for a respectable area. I bet somebody wished that they could have charged entrance money.

The offence of counterfeiting:

“for which Phoebe Harris suffered, was classed as High Treason. Blackstone accounts for the punishment of women for this crime being different from that of men, by stating that the natural modesty of the sex forbids the exposure and public cutting up of their bodies, and therefore they are burnt. The punishment of men for high treason was beheading, cutting the body into four parts, and burning the heart.”

Here is the ‘quartering’ bit of that terrible trio of punishments:

And executions are always an excuse for a barbecue:

Only two more women would be killed in public in this grotesque way, and the dates may well be significant. One was Margaret Sullivan on June 25th 1788 and the other was Christian Murphy on March 18th 1789.

On July 14th 1789, the French people finally grew tired of a legal system presided over by a spoilt brat of a king and driven by an arrogant and self-serving nobility. It is not without significance that they attacked the Bastille prison as their first target. Neither is it without significance that the revolutionaries were keen to use a more humane method of execution, namely the Guillotine. Here is a charming painting of the Terror in full swing, with some lovely details if you look carefully, especially the little doggie. I couldn’t find Wally but I think I might have found his head :

I believe the judges back in London may well have noticed the developments in France, because when Sophia Girton was convicted of counterfeiting in April 1790, her execution by being strangled and burnt in public was postponed, as Parliament decided that hanging would be a better way to execute women.

Sophia was not hanged though. She was exiled to Australia where she made a new life for herself, admittedly in the most appalling of conditions:


Filed under Criminology, History, Personal, Politics

27 responses to “A Barbarous Kingdom, Populated by Savages

  1. I wonder if there is a connection between the name of Sophie Girton and the women’s college at Cambridge and the same name for a girls Grammar school in Bendigo in Victoria?

  2. Chris Waller

    I had certainly never heard this story before, and thank you for bringing it to our attention. It is staggering to think that this happened when the Enlightenment was at its height. It clearly did not shed its light in some quarters.

    • No it didn’t and the establishment made damn sure that it never would. Cruelty through religion is bad enough, but cruelty to make sure you stay rich and in control is even worse, it seems.

  3. Yikes! And to think, nowadays, forgery is considered a ‘white-collar’ crime.
    In most states, a person convicted of misdemeanor must face a jail sentence of at least one year. However, a conviction for felony must face an imprisonment more than one year. In addition to jail sentence, a convict can be required to pay a fine or make restitution to victim.
    Laws certainly got softer, eh?

    • Where we have gone wrong over here is not making the punishment fit the crime but instead making it reflect the number of places available in prisons. Apparently, political parties think that it is electoral suicide to announce that they are building extra prisons. They are wildly wrong!
      Even if people go to prison they will only serve 50% of their sentence if they behave well. Yet another stupidity is that the defendant is tried for what he or she did, not the outcome of it. Hit a man very hard, knock him out, he falls over and is killed, is only manslaughter. You’d get perhaps 6-8 years but with 50% remission you won’t be inconvenienced for too long.
      We also have a system where a judge gives the sentence and the poor victim has very little say whatsoever.
      All of this adds up to a legal system where you can get some very light sentences indeed for what most people would view as serious crimes.

  4. The Middle Ages were incredibly barbaric. Thank goodness we have come along, it’s one thing to execute someone, it’s another to treat them in this appalling manner. There is a series in tv at the moment ‘the British’ it’s a fascinating history of Britain you’d enjoy it!

    • Yes, I’ve actually downloaded that but not watched it as yet. I find that there are far too many TV programmes to keep up with, but I certainly will get round to it. I’m currently watching a number of PBS programmes about the Holocaust. They are just extraordinary in their cruelty.

  5. Human beings can be so cruel. One finds it difficult to imagine how this barbaric punishment fits the crime. The crowd cries fowl yet delights in desecrating the remains. I should like to say that we have evolved and moved on, in some small way become more civilised. Yet when I see the grotesque goings on, on the multitude of ‘reality TV’ shows that plague our television screens, I realise that we have not moved forward at all.

    • I think it depends on where you are to a certain extent. There are countries where violence seems to be automatic, much of it based on skin colour or nationality. In our news we have just heard of an English tourist who took a wrong turn and drove into a favela slum area in Brazil. Their first reaction was to shoot her. Personally I am amazed at what people will post on social media. Perhaps that’s our present day equivalent of going to watch a public execution.

      • That is true John. Public spectacles of torture and execution have been prevalent throughout human history. Perhaps I should be less sensitive to it. After all, it surrounds us and as you point out, presents as a ‘normality’ in many circumstances.

  6. The hands of Justice fall heavily upon the weak. Where was Justice when the giants of finance brought down the global economy in 2008?

    • Yes, I think that that is why a good many religions tell us that the evil doers will get their comeuppance in the next life. I just hope it is right! Justice certainly seems frequently to be in short supply in our lives now.

  7. atcDave

    Wow, hard to imagine counterfitting as a capital offense. But I know that used to be far more aggressively applied.
    All things considered, a beheading or firing squad seems far more humane (!).

    • Around 1800, our country was a little on the strict side it must be said. You could be hanged for a very, very long list of offences. For other transgressions you might be transported to Australia. Nowadays, of course that’s a reward rather than a punishment!

  8. The barbarity of previous centuries increases with each century backwards. I would have hated to have lived in those days, although have had dreams that I did (and often on the wrong side of the law), which must be the product of a fertile imagination. I began reading an account of Drakes passage to the Philippines (Spice Islands) in 16th century and actually stopped reading it. The diary of events was just too gruesome!
    Poor woman in this woeful tale…she likely only did as she was told by her treasonous husband. Such an awful end beggars belief!

    Even in the Nineteenth century, awful accounts of hanging went on. One of my very very distant relatives, who was also a friend of my younger great grand uncle, was hanged at the Nottingham Gaol in August 1860 for a hineous murder that he claimed to his last breath that he didn’t commit. He said there was another man, but could not name him, but did say it was not my Great Grand Uncle (who was with him most of that day).
    The account of the March 1860 murder of Walkeringham was documented world wide at the time. I have walked the route and place of that Murder and I actually believe that although John Fenton (hanged man) was present, the other (unnamed) man did the dastardly deed of shooting and almost decapitating Charles Spencer, his cousin. It is a shame there were no forensics in those days.

    • I should add, that the convicted man, John Fenton, a blacksmith by trade and a publican (inheriting his father’s pub) was no angel. He was, by all accounts a bit of a Dandy, and squandered his father’s savings on drink and gambling. The villagers didn’t like him particularly. His cousin (by marriage, not blood), Charles Spencer was from a well to do, fine, upstanding family. It was well known in the village that Charles was a little afraid of his bullying cousin. John Fenton had approached his cousin earlier in the evening at a pub in Walkerith to demand that Charles pay him the money he owed to John. My relative separated the heated argument (along with others). Charles had done well at theatre Gainsborough Fair, selling cattle, and was flush with money.
      This heated argument, plus character witnesses and some rather sketchy circumstantial evidence (faded blood on trousers soaking in a bucket, foot prints, and John Fenton’s brace of pistols found near to the body), were enough to convict him…no knife (used to slit the poor man’s throat and end his life) was found.
      All for a few pieces of silver.
      I can’t help but think that my stupid but loud and obnoxious relative was framed.
      His poor mother, wife and three children were thrown into poverty. The pub bought by the Fox family to pay John Fenton’s huge debts.
      I contacted a descendent of the Spencer family…and while I didn’t receive any new information, she was venomous to me. She said that she wouldn’t give me any information anyway, as the ‘only good Fenton,was a dead Fenton.’
      John Fenton (there are no pictures of him) is played by an actor at the old gaol museum, in Nottingham’s ‘Halls of Justice.’ I’m not sure I’d want to see the characterisation of him. 😑

      • Interesting, but perhaps unrelated tidbit is that the pub, (The Three Horseshoes), was purchased by Mr Fox. It was one of three public houses in the village but I believe pulled down in the 1960’s…there is a photograph of it on the internet. A second pub has been closed for years and has been pulled down since.
        The only remaining pub, is on the high road that leads to the old railway station. It is called ‘The Fox and Hounds’ now but I think it was called the Fox Inn at the time of the murder investigation. Here, the police interviewed suspects, witnesses and anyone who had something to say…which seems to have been a lot of people. My Great Grand Uncle was a major suspect to begin with, but later dismissed as he had returned home at the time of the deed (late night).

        I’ll stop now….rambling. I should probably write a book around this murder. 😄

    • Thank you for such an extensive comment. It is impossible to imagine how they ever found the guilty person without forensics. I often think that they just picked whoever they thought was a bad person or whoever was not a local, especially if they were poor. Another approach seems to be that if you were near the crime scene you probably did it. Hopefully, a lot more justice will come about with the use of DNA.
      Incidentally, you might find that a local newspaper would serialise what you write. They are always very keen for material that is out of the ordinary and not the usual fare.

      • Thanks John… I don’t really have time to write for a newspaper, and right now, I only have a smartphone for writing anyway, but I appreciate your high praise. I will certainly think about writing (sleuthing) this murder. Unfortunately I believe it may have actually been a closer family member (to my line), that may have actually been the murderer. The wrong man, I believe, was tried and hanged. John Fenton spent many hours talking to the Chaplin of the gaol… He made his peace with God and wrote letters to his family saying that he was so sorry for leaving them, but that he loved them. The letters were in stark contrast to the media reports and character witnesses. John ate a substantial last meal and accepted his death stoically and with some dignity.
        A great crowd partied for three days at the hanging. The writer of the account said the site of such ribald merriness at the death of a man, sickened him. It was way over the top and so much so that it became the last public hanging in England. All subsequent hangings were conducted privately within prison walls.

  9. Ted

    It wasn’t just those convicted of minor criminal acts who were executed. In the 1500’s they burned people at the stake for believing in a higher authority than the god monarchs (divine right of kings). In one case at Amersham the executioners forced a man’s daughter to light his death fire (1506). The Amersham Martyrs Memorial reflects that.

    • I often think that religion would have a difficult time defending itself in a court of law. Literally, millions have been killed because of religious differences, whole cultures have been stamped out and nowadays virtually every refugee in the world is a result of religion. And you can add to that the unbelievable amount of child abuse, much of it sexual but perhaps just as much in good old fashioned mistreatment either of orphaned children or young women who had had babies out of wedlock. And of course, there are other reasons and motivations for all of the above crimes, but that does not justify anything. Two wrongs do not ever make a right.

  10. What I find dispiriting is that our politicians have recently been talking about capital punishment again. You’d think that after fifty years we’d have got past the need for it.

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