Category Archives: Execution

Crime Execution Torture

Hanged alive in chains

Punishment in early modern England was famously brutal and today’s fragments form a brief outline of some of the more serious types of crimes and punishments prevalent in Elizabethan London.

Catholic priests were subjected to several different types of torture in the Tower of London:  The Pit – a dark hole 20 feet deep; Little Ease – a tiny room too small to stand upright in; The Rack which ‘by means of rollers and other machinery tears a man’s limbs asunder’; The Scavenger’s Daughter – an iron band which compressed the head and feet into a circle, while further iron gaunlets crushed the hands, arms and legs.  Needling – pushing needles under nails; a secondary torture method used at the discretion of the examiner.

Capital punishment such as murder was usually punishable with hanging. A butcher often acted as executioner. The criminal was seated in a cart with one end of a length of rope around his neck, the other tied to the gallows. The cart would then be jolted out from underfoot and he or she would be left to hang.  Often well-meaning relatives would yank on the criminals legs to speed up the process. Some murderers were ‘hanged alive in chains’ until their ‘bones consume to nothing.’ The more serious crime of treason was punishable with hanging, drawing and quartering – see Beware the Executioner.

Convicted pirates were hung at Wapping

at the low water mark, there to remain until three tides had overflown them.

Poisoners were burned at the stake, or

boiled to death in water or lead, although the party died not of the practise.

Heretics were burned alive although occasionally they were deported. Suicide was a punishable offence, but since the offender was already dead, it was left to the authorities to inflict punishment on the body alone – in 1588 a coroner ordered that a suicide’s body should be:

carried from her house to some cross way near the town’s end and have a stake driven through her breast and so be buried with the stake to be seen, for a memorial that others going by, seeing the same, might take heed.

Criminal trials were fast and not always fair. However there were certain circumstances the criminal could cite which might reduce a sentence. A woman could ‘plead her belly’ and assert she was pregnant. It was not lawful to kill her unborn child, so a sentence such as hanging might be deferred until she was no longer pregnant; the hope being she would be reprieved or released in the interim. A man might be able to claim benefit of clergy – he did not necessarily have to be a clergyman, he just needed the ability to read. This rule had survived the Reformation, when illiteracy rates were incredibly high. After proving  benefit of clergy by reading one verse of a psalm, the offender was usually branded on the thumb, as in the case of the playwright Ben Jonson.

A sentence of Peine forte et dure (crushing or pressing) did have the benefit of ensuring that the offender’s goods could not be seized by the Crown. For this reason many men who wanted to save their families from starvation after their death, chose in their trials to remain silent, neither pleading innocent or guilty. The result was an agonisingly slow and painful death beneath huge stones; allowed only a little stale bread and a few sips of foul water until death overtook them.


© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Crime Execution Witchcraft

Swimming a Witch

‘Swimming’ a suspected witch was a common practise throughout many European countries, and can be traced back to ancient Babylonia.  It was most popular and widespread in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Usually performed by a large crowd of zealous people, if could often turn violent and in some cases was nothing more than a common lynching.  A pamphlet published in 1613, entitled Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, for notable villainies by them committed both by land and water.  With a strange and most true triall how to know whether a woman be a witch or not, provides details of the swimming of Mary Sutton and her mother, who were accused by a Master Enger of causing deaths among his horses and pigs.

Master Enger was advised to take Mary and her mother ‘to his mill dam (having first shut up the mill gates that the water might be at highest), and then, binding their arms cross, stripping them into their smocks and leaving their legs at liberty, throw them into the water. Yet lest they not be witches, and that their lives might not be in danger of drowning, let there be a rope tied about their middles, so long that it may reach from one side of your dam to the other, where on each side let one of your men stand, that if she chance to sink they may draw her up and preserve her.  If she swim, take her up and cause some women to search her, upon which, if they find any extraordinary marks about her [witches were believed to have marks of the Devil and extra nipples on their bodies so they could suckle demons and animals], let her the second time be bound, and have her right thumb bound to her left toe and her left thumb bound to her right toe, and be thrown into the water when, if she swim, you may build upon it that she is a witch.’

Following this advice, Master Enger subsequently tied Mary to his horse and dragged her to his mill pond: ‘When being thrown in the first time, she sunk some two foot into the water with a fall, but rose again and floated upon the water like a plank.  Then he commanded her to be taken out, and had women ready that searched her and found under her left thigh a kind of teat which her spirits in several shapes – as cats, moles etc – used to suck her. Then she was the second time bound cross her thumbs and toes, and then she sunk not at all but sat upon the water, turned about like a wheel, notwithstanding Master Enger’s men standing on each side of the dam with a rope tossing her up and down to make her sink.’

© 2009-2012 All Rights Reserved

Crime Execution

Early Modern Waterboarding

I’ve had several requests for a blog post on early modern torture, and what follows is a gruesome snippet from an account of the torture of several Englishmen in the Netherlands, published in 1653. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, so those of a nervous disposition please look away.

Samuel Closon was examined, being brought before them, who was so appalled at the sight of Collins (whose eyes were blown out of his head with the torture of water) that he chose rather to confess than to be tortured, and so he was dismisssed, but went out weeping.

Next came John Clerk to be examined and put to the torture, so that he was heard without the hall to crye out in an extreme manner, for they tortured him with fire and water for the space of two hours. The manner of his torture was as followeth. First they twisted him up by the hands with a cord on a large door, where they made him fast to two staples of iron, fixt on both sides of the top of the door posts, stretching his hands asunder as wide as they could: and being thus made fast, his feet hung about two foot from the ground, which also they extended as far as they could, and so made them fast unto the bottom of the door.

Then they bound a cloth about his neck and face, so close, that little or no water could go by.  When they had done this, they poured the water softly upon his head, until the cloth was full-up to his mouth and nostrils, so that he could not draw his breath, but he must suck in the water; which being still continued to be poured softly, forced his intrails to come out at his eyes, ears, and nose, almost to strangling. They were so cruel to him that they tormented him till his breath was gone, so that he fainted, then they took him quickly down, and made him vomit up the water. Then they pull’d him up again, and poured him with water again. And this was exercised on this poor wretch three or four several times, till his body was swoln twice as big as ordinary, his cheeks puft up like a pair of bladders and his eyes starting and strutting out beyond his forehead.

Then they burnt him with lighted Candles in the bottom of his feet until the fat dropt out of the Candles.  They burnt him also under the elbows; likewise in the palms of his hands; they moreover burnt his arm-holes, till his entrails might be seen.

After what appears to be several days of this treatment John Clerk finally confessed to a crime he had not committed.

After they had thus mascerated his body, they sent him out to the Dungeon, and there laid him in heavy irons for five days without any Christian pity so much as to send a Surgeon to dress his putrifyied wounds, which were filled with great Maggots, which dropt and crept from him in a most loathsom manner.
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Execution Medicine

Newes from the Dead

This snippet comes from Newes from the Dead, OR A TRUE AND EXACT Narration of the miraculous deliverance of ANNE GREENE (1651) by Richard Watkins, Scoller.  He published an account of the miraculous survival of a young Oxfordshire woman, who was hanged, taken off for dissection, and then wonderously sprang to life in her coffin.

There happened lately in this Citty [Oxford] a very rare and remarkable accident, which being variously and falsely reported amongst the vulgar, I have here faithfuly recorded it. At Duns-Tew in Oxford-shire there lived a maid named Anne Greene, being about 22 years of age, of a middle stature, strong, fleshie, and of an indifferent good feature, who being (as she said) often sollicited by the faire promises and other amorous enticements of Mr Jeffrey Read [aged 16/17]… at last consented to satisfy his unlawfull pleasure. By which act she conceived, and was delivered of a Man-child, which being never made known, and the Infant found dead, caused a suspition that she being the mother had murthered it, and throwne it there on purpose to conceale both it and her shame together.

According to Anne’s biographer, Laura Gowing, she had in fact fallen ill, and gone to the privy, where she was delivered of a stillborn foetus and then, terrified, had hidden it in a corner of the privy covered with dust and ashes. However, her employers discovered the child and she was accused of infanticide and imprisoned. Under the 1624 statute (21 James I c. 27) single women who concealed their infant’s death could be presumed guilty of infanticide.

She was immediately taken into examination, and carried before severall Justices of the peace in the Countrey, and soone after, in an extreame cold and rainy day, sent unto Oxford Gaole, where having passed about three weekes more in continuall affrights and terrours, she was at a Sessions held in Oxford, arraigned, condemned, and on Saturday the 14 December last, brought forth to the place of Execution: where, after singing a Psalme & something said in justification of her self, and touching the lewednesse of the Family wherein she lately lived, she was turn’d off the Ladder, and hanging by the neck for the space of almost halfe and houre, some of her friends in the mean time thumping her on the breast, others hanging with all their weight upon her leggs, sometimes lifting her up, and then pulling her downe againe with a suddaine jerke, thereby the sooner to dispatch her out of her paine.

At length, when everyone thought she was dead, the body being taken downe and out into a Coffin, was carried thence into a private house, where some Physitians had appointed to make a Dissection. The Coffin being opened, she was observed to breath, and in breathing, obscurely to rattle: which being perceived by a lusty fellow (thinking to doe an act of charity in ridding her out of the small reliques of a painfull life) stamped severall times on her breast & stomack with all the force he could.

At this point it appears several anatomy professors arrived, and seeing Anne still breathing in the coffin, quickly attempted to revive her:

Having caused her to be held up in the Coffin, they wrenched open her teeth, which were fast set, and powred into her mouth some hot cordiall spirits; whereupon she rattled more than before. Then they ordered some to rub and chafe the extreme parts of her body, which they continued about a quarter of an houre; oft, in the mean time, powring in a spoonfull or two of the cordiall waters; and besides tickling her throat with a feather, at which she opened her eyes, but shut them againe presently.

These ministrations went on for considerable time, and the poor woman was eventually moved from her coffin to a warm bed. The doctors bled her, and fed her cordials and rubbed her extremities until by the following day she was able to sit up and complain of a sore throat.

Thus, within the space of a Moneth, was she wholly recovered: and in the same Room where her Body was to have been dissected, she became a great wonder, being revived to the satisfaction of multitudes that flocked thither daily to see her.

After her recovery Anne went to recuperate with her friends in the country, taking the coffin she had been laid in as a souvenir; her father took a collection from the many visitors, which paid her medical bills and enabled her to sue for a free pardon, which was granted.

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