Catherine Hayes who, with others, foully murdered her husband, was burned alive on 9th of May, 1726.
Catherine Hayes was the daughter of a poor man named Hall, who lived at Birmingham, and having remained with her parents until she was fifteen years of age, a dispute then arose, in consequence of which she set off for London. On her way she met with some officers, who, remarking that her person was engaging, persuaded her to accompany them to their quarters at Great Ombersley, in Worcestershire. Having remained with them some time, she strolled on into Warwickshire, and was there hired into the house of Mr Hayes, a respectable farmer. An intimacy soon sprang up between her and the son of her master, which ended in a private marriage taking place at Worcester; and an attempt on the part of the officers to entrap young Hayes into enlisting rendered it necessary to disclose the whole affair to the father.
He felt that it would be useless now to oppose his son, in consequence of what had taken place, and he set him up in business as a carpenter. Mrs Hayes, however, was of a restless disposition, and persuaded him to enlist, which he did; and his regiment being ordered to the Isle of Wight his wife followed him. His father bought him off, at an expense of sixty pounds, and now gave him property to the value of about twenty-six pounds per annum [about 6,299 in today's money]; but after the marriage had been solemnised about six years Mrs Hayes prevailed on her husband to come to London. On their arrival in the metropolis Mr Hayes took a house, part of which he let in lodgings, and opened a shop in the chandlery and coal trade, in which he was as successful as he could have wished; but exclusive of his profit by shopkeeping he acquired a great deal of money by lending small sums on pledges, for at this time the trade of pawnbroking was followed by anyone at pleasure, and was subjected to no regulation.
Mr Hayes soon found that the disposition of his wife was not of such a nature as to promise him much peace. The chief pleasure of her life consisted in creating and encouraging quarrels among her neighbours. Sometimes she would speak of her husband to his acquaintances in terms of great tenderness and respect, and at other times she would represent him to her female associates as a compound of everything that was contemptible in human nature. On a particular occasion she told a woman that she should think it no more sin to murder him than to kill a dog. At length her husband thought it prudent to remove to Tottenham Court Road, where he carried on his former business, but he then again removed to Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street). He soon amassed what he considered a sufficient sum to enable him to retire from business, and he accordingly took lodgings near the same spot.
A supposed son of Mrs Hayes, by her former connection, who went by the name of Billings, lived in the same house, and he and Mrs Hayes were in the habit of feasting themselves at the expense of the husband of the latter. During his temporary absence from town her proceedings were so extravagant that the neighbours deemed it right to make her husband aware of the fact; and on his return he remonstrated with her on the subject, when a quarrel took place, which ended in a fight. It is supposed that at this time the design of murdering Mr Hayes was formed by his wife, and it was not long before she obtained a seconder in her horrid project in the person of her reputed son. At this time a person named Thomas Wood came to town from Worcestershire, and seeking out Hayes persuaded him to give him a lodging, as he was afraid of being impressed. [Note 1]
After he had been in town only a few days Mrs Hayes informed him of the plot which existed, and endeavoured to persuade him to join her and her son. He was at first shocked at the notion of murdering his friend and benefactor, and rejected the proposals; but at length Mrs Hayes, alleging that her husband was an atheist, and had already been guilty of murdering two of his own children, one of whom he had buried under an apple-tree, and the other under a pear-tree, and besides urging that fifteen hundred pounds, [About 157,483 in today's money.] which would fall to her at his death, should be placed at the disposal of her accomplices, he consented. Shortly after this Wood went out of town for a few days, but on his return he found Mrs Hayes and her son and husband drinking together, and apparently in good humour. He joined them at the desire of Hayes, and the latter boasting that he was not drunk, although they had had a guinea's [About 110 in today's money] worth of liquor among them, Billings proposed that he should try whether he could drink half-a-dozen bottles of mountain wine without getting tipsy, and promised that if he did so he would pay for the wine.
The proposal was agreed to, and the three murderers went off to procure the liquor. On their way it was agreed among them that this was the proper opportunity to carry their design into execution, and having procured the wine, for which Mrs Hayes paid half-a-guinea, Mr Hayes began to drink it, while his intended assassins regaled themselves with beer. When he had taken a considerable quantity of the wine he danced about the room like a man distracted, and at length finished the whole quantity; but not being yet in a state of absolute stupefaction, his wife sent for another bottle, which he also drank, and then fell senseless on the floor. Having lain some time in this condition, he got, with much difficulty, into another room, and threw himself on a bed.
When he was asleep his wife told her associates that this was the time to execute their plan, as there was no fear of any resistance on his part, and accordingly Billings went into the room with a hatchet, with which he struck Hayes so violently that he fractured his skull. At this time Hayes's feet hung off the bed, and the torture arising from the blow made him stamp repeatedly on the floor, which being heard by Wood, he also went into the room, and taking the hatchet out of Billings's hand gave the poor man two more blows, which effectually dispatched him. A woman named Springate, who lodged in the room over that where the murder was committed, hearing the noise occasioned by Hayes's stamping, imagined that the parties might have quarrelled in consequence of their intoxication; and going downstairs she told Mrs Hayes that the noise had awakened her husband, her child and herself.
Catherine, however, had a ready answer to this: she said some company had visited them, and had grown merry, but they were on the point of taking their leave; and Mrs Springate returned to her room well satisfied. The murderers now consulted on the best manner of disposing of the body so as most effectually to prevent detection. Mrs Hayes proposed to cut off the head, because if the body were found whole it would be more likely to be known, and on the villains agreeing to this proposition she fetched a pail, lighted a candle, and all of them went into the room. The men then drew the body partly off the bed, and Billings supported the head while Wood, with his pocket-knife, cut it off, and the infamous woman held the pail to receive it, being as careful as possible that the floor might not be stained with the blood. This being done, they emptied the blood out of the pail into a sink by the window, and poured several pails of water after it. When the head was cut off, the woman recommended boiling it till the flesh should part from the bones; but the other parties thought this operation would take up too much time, and therefore advised throwing it into the Thames, in expectation that it would be carried off by the tide, and would sink.
This agreed to, the head was put into the pail, and Billings took it under his greatcoat, being accompanied by Wood; but making a noise in going downstairs, Mrs Springate called, and asked what was the matter. To this Mrs Hayes answered that her husband was going a journey; and with incredible dissimulation affected to take leave of him, pretending great concern that he was under a necessity of going at so late an hour, and Wood and Billings passed out of the house unnoticed. They first went to Whitehall, where they intended to throw in the head; but the gates being shut they went to a wharf near the Horse Ferry, Westminster. Billings putting down the pail, Wood threw the head into the dock, expecting it would be carried away by the stream; but at this time the tide was ebbing, and a lighterman, who was then in his vessel, heard something fall into the dock, but it was too dark for him to distinguish any object. The head being thus disposed of, the murderers returned home, and were admitted by Mrs Hayes without the knowledge of the other lodgers.
The body next became the object of their attention, and Mrs Hayes proposed that it should be packed up in a box and buried. The plan was determined upon immediately, and a box purchased, but being found too small, the body was dismembered so as to admit of its being enclosed in it, and was left until night should favour its being carried off. The inconvenience of carrying a box was, however, immediately discovered, and the pieces of the mangled body were therefore taken out and, being wrapped up in a blanket, were carried by Billings and Wood to a field in Marylebone, and there thrown into a pond. In the meantime the head had been discovered, and the circumstance of a murder having been committed being undoubted, every means was taken to secure the discovery of its perpetrators. The magistrates, with this view, directed that the head should be washed clean, and the hair combed; after which it was put on a pole in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster, that an opportunity might be afforded of its being viewed by the public.
Thousands went to witness this extraordinary spectacle; and there were not wanting those among the crowd who expressed their belief among themselves that the head belonged to Hayes. Their suspicions were mentioned by some of them to Billings, but he ridiculed the notion, and declared that Hayes was well, and was only gone out of town for a few days, When the head had been exhibited for four days it was deemed expedient that measures should be taken to preserve it; and Mr Westbrook, a chemist, in consequence received directions to put it into spirits. Mrs Hayes soon afterwards changed her lodgings, and took the woman Springate with her, paying the rent which she owed, Wood and Billings also accompanying her; and her chief occupation now was that of collecting the debts due to her husband, by means of which she continued to supply her diabolical assistants with money and clothes.
Amongst the incredible numbers of people who resorted to see the head was a poor woman from Kingsland, whose husband had been absent from the very time that the murder was perpetrated. After a minute survey of the head she believed it to be that of her husband, though she could not be absolutely positive; but her suspicions were so strong, that strict search was made after the body, on a presumption that the clothes might help her to ascertain it. Meanwhile, Mr Hayes not being visible for a considerable time, his friends could not help making inquiry after him; and a Mr Ashby in particular, who had been on the most friendly terms with him, called on Mrs Hayes and demanded what had become of her husband. Catherine pretended to account for his absence by communicating the following intelligence, as a matter that must be kept profoundly secret.
"Some time ago," said she, " he happened to have a dispute with a man, and from words they came to blows, so that Mr Hayes killed him. The wife of the deceased made up the affair, on Mr Hayes's promising to pay her a certain annual allowance; but he not being able to make it good, she threatened to inform against him, on which he has absconded." This story was, however, by no means satisfactory to Mr Ashby, who asked her if the head that had been exposed on the pole was that of the man who had been killed by her husband. She readily answered in the negative, adding that the party had been buried entire, and that the widow had her husband's bond for the payment of fifteen pounds a year. Ashby inquired to what part of the world Mr Hayes had gone, and she said to Portugal, in company with some gentlemen; but she had yet received no letter from him.
The whole of this detail seeming highly improbable to Mr Ashby, he went to Mr Longmore, a gentleman nearly related to Hayes; and it was agreed between them that Mr Longmore should call on Catherine and have some conversation with her upon the same subject. Her story to this gentleman differed in its details from that which she had related to Mr Ashby; and Mr Eaton, also a friend of Mr Hayes, being consulted, they determined first to examine the head, and then, if their suspicions were confirmed, to communicate their belief to the magistrates. Having accordingly minutely examined the head, and come to the conclusion that it must be that of their friend Hayes, they proceeded to Mr Lambert, a magistrate, who immediately issued warrants for the apprehension of Mrs Hayes and Mrs Springate, as well as of Wood and Billings, and proceeded to execute them personally. Going accordingly to the house in which they all lived, they informed the landlord of their business, and went immediately to the door of Mrs Hayes's room. On the magistrate's rapping, the woman asked, "Who is there?" and he commanded her to open the door directly, or it should be broken open. To this she replied that she would open it as soon as she had put on her clothes; and she did so in little more than a minute; when the justice ordered the parties present to take her into custody.
At this time Billings was sitting on the side of the bed, bare-legged. Some of the parties remaining below to secure the prisoners, Mr Longmore went upstairs with the justice and took Mrs Springate into custody; and they were all conducted together to the house of Mr Lambert. This magistrate having examined the prisoners separately for a considerable time, and all of them positively persisting in their ignorance of anything respecting the murder, they were severally committed for re-examination on the following day, before Mr Lambert and other magistrates. Mrs Springate was sent to the Gatehouse, Billings to New Prison, and Mrs Hayes to Tothill Fields Bridewell. When the peace officers, attended by Longmore, went the next day to fetch up Catherine to her examination, she earnestly desired to see the head; and it being thought prudent to grant her request, she was carried to the surgeon's; and no sooner was the head shown to her than she exclaimed:
"Oh, it is my dear husband's head! It is my dear husband's head!" She now took the glass in her arms and shed many tears while she embraced it. Mr Westbrook told her that he would take the head out of the glass that she might have a more perfect view of it and be certain that it was the same; and the surgeon doing as he had said, she seemed to be greatly affected; and having kissed it several times, she begged to be indulged with a lock of the hair; and on Mr Westbrook expressing his apprehension that she had had too much of his blood already, she fell into a fit.
On her recovery she was conducted to Mr Lambert's, to take her examination with the other parties. It is somewhat remarkable that it was on the morning of this day that the body was discovered. As a gentleman and his servant were crossing the fields at Marylebone they observed something lying in a ditch, and on going nearer to it they perceived that it was some parts of a human body. Assistance being procured, the whole of the body was found except the head; and information of the circumstance was conveyed to Mr Lambert at the very moment at which he was examining the prisoners. The suspicions which already existed were strengthened by this circumstance, and Mrs Hayes was committed to Newgate for trial; the committal of Billings and Mrs Springate, however, being deferred until the apprehension of Wood. The latter soon after coming into town, and riding up to Mrs Hayes's lodgings, was directed to go to the house of Mr Longmore, where he was told he would find Mrs Hayes; but the brother of Longmore, standing at the door, immediately seized him, and caused him to be carried before Mr Lambert. He underwent an examination; but refusing to make any confession, he was sent to Tothill Fields Bridewell.
On his arrival at the prison he was informed that the body had been found; and, not doubting but that the whole affair would come to light, he begged that he might be carried back to the justice's house. This being made known to Mr Lambert, the prisoner was brought up, and he then acknowledged the particulars of the murder, and signed his confession. This wretched man owned that since the perpetration of the crime he had been terrified at the sight of everyone he met, that he had not experienced a moment's peace, and that his mind had been distracted with the most violent agitation. His commitment to Newgate was immediately made out, and he was conducted to that prison under the escort of eight soldiers with fixed bayonets, whose whole efforts were necessary to protect him from the violence of the mob.
A Mr Mercer visiting Mrs Hayes in prison, she begged him to go to Billings and urge him to confess the whole truth, as no advantage, she said, could be expected to arise from a denial of that which was too clearly proved to admit of denial; and he being carried before justice Lambert again gave an account precisely concurring with that of Wood. Mrs Springate, whose innocence was now distinctly proved, was set at liberty. At the trial Wood and Billings confessed themselves guilty of the crime alleged against them, but Mrs Hayes, flattering herself that as she had said nothing she had a chance of escape, put herself upon her trial; but the jury found her guilty. The prisoners being afterwards brought to the bar to receive sentence, Mrs Hayes entreated that she might not be burned, according to the then law of petty treason], alleging that she was not guilty, as she did not strike the fatal blow; but she was informed by the Court that the sentence awarded by the law could not be dispensed with. [Note 2] After conviction the behaviour of Wood was uncommonly penitent and devout; but while in the condemned hold he was seized with a violent fever, and being attended by a clergyman, to assist him in his devotions, he said he was ready to suffer death, under every mark of ignominy, as some atonement for the atrocious crime he had committed. But he died in prison, and thus defeated the final execution of the law. Billings behaved with apparent sincerity, acknowledging the justice of his sentence, and saying that no punishment could be commensurate with the crime of which he had been guilty. He was executed in the usual manner, and hung in chains not far from the pond in which Mr Hayes's body was found, in Marylebone Fields.
The behaviour of Mrs Hayes was somewhat similar to her former conduct. Having an intention to destroy herself, she procured a phial of strong poison, which was casually tasted by a woman who was confined with her, and her design thereby discovered and frustrated. On the day of her death she received the Sacrament, and was drawn on a sledge to the place of execution. When the wretched woman had finished her devotions, in pursuance of her sentence an iron chain was put round her body, with which she was fixed to a stake near the gallows. On these occasions, when women were burned for petty treason, it was customary to strangle them, by means of a rope passed round the neck and pulled by the executioner, so that they were dead before the flames reached the body. But this woman was literally burned alive; for the executioner letting go the rope sooner than usual, in consequence of the flames reaching his hands, the fire burned fiercely round her, and the spectators beheld her pushing away the faggots, while she rent the air with her cries and lamentations. Other faggots were instantly thrown on her; but she survived amidst the flames for a considerable time, and her body was not perfectly reduced to ashes until three hours later. These malefactors suffered at Tyburn, 9th of May, 1726.
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1 ["Impressed:" Been taken by a press gang and forced to join the navy.] Back
2 ["Law of Petty Treason:" Until the thirtieth year of the reign of King George III. this punishment was inflicted on women convicted of murdering their husbands, which crime was denominated petit treason, It has frequently, from some accident happening in strangling the malefactor, produced the horrid effects above related. In the reign of Mary (the cruel) this death was commonly practised upon the objects of her vengeance; and many bishops, rather than deny their religious opinions, were burned even without previous strangulation. It was high time this part of the sentence, a type of barbarism, should be dispensed with. The punishment now inflicted for this most unnatural and abhorred crime is hanging.] Back
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