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When to murder a husband was treason

Many moons ago, forty years to be precise, I wrote this article for the newspaper. It appeared June 3rd, 1972. Enjoy this gruesome tale:

We usually think of treason as a crime against the state. In Britain it would be crime against the king. But. for most of history a husband was lord and master to his wife. Any crime against HIM was considered treason.

A grim and gruesome tale of treason involving husband-murder took place just more than 200 years ago. Catherine Hall married a carpenter’s son, John Hayes. Her in-laws apparently were quite pleased when she persuaded John to leave Birmingham and seek his fortune in London.

He became a very successful merchant and businessman. His little shop was in Tyburn Road, scene of   many famous hangings. It was not long before he was able to sell his shop and rent a few rooms.

Catherine was not happy. John did not want children. Before they came to London, Catherine had given birth to two, which John had evidently strangled. She also complained that he was mean with his money.

Not long after they moved into their little home, John took in two lodgers. Thomas Billings and Thomas Wood. Catherine was 34 and tired of her marriage. She fell head over heels in love with Billings and referred to him as her “dear child.” Just to complicate matters she also took a fancy to Woods.

Obviously the situation could not last. There in one little house was a frustrated Catherine with two teenage lovers and a husband – a wealthy husband to boot. Strangely John knew all about Catherine’s lovers, but was content to let them stay.

One night there was a rip-roaring party. Johan was the first to succumb to the liquor. Catherine persuaded the two men to kill her husband. They struck him on the head several times with an axe – a macabre touch worthy of Dostoyevsky.

Catherine suggested they remove the head to make identification more difficult. Billings and Wood carried the head off in a bucket to drop in the Thames. Catherine remained to clean the room. They cut the rest of the body up, packed it in a case and dropped the pieces in a pond.

But the men had not noticed the tide was out. Instead of the head being washed out to sea, it was found on the mud flats at break of day. The police added their own touch of horror by pickling it in gin and carrying it around in a bottle for it to be identified.

Ultimately, it was recognized as John Hayes. The remainder of the body came to light shortly afterwards. Catherine was arrested in bed with Thomas Billings. Thomas Wood, arrested later, was the first to confess.

Catherine, up to this point, had played her part well. When they showed her the head of husband, she still had the presence of mind to cry, “Oh, it is my dear husband’s head” before fainting. Now of course it was hopeless. She was formally charged — but with treason not murder, for she had killed her lord and master to whom she owed allegiance as a citizen to his king.

Her punishment was to be as terrible as her crime. Treason and its punishment were laid down in the Treason Act of 1351. Men were dragged to the place of execution. There they were hanged. Before they died, they were cut down, disembowelled alive and hacked into four pieces. Women were dragged to a stake and burnt. As a matter of kindness in later years they were strangled first.

Catherine was found guilty. Wood died in prison. Billings was hanged as he was guilty of murder   only.   Catherine   was  dragged to the stake and burnt. The executioner intended to strangle her, but the leaping flames prevented him. She lingered, screaming hideously, for hours, leaving an indelible impression on her original chroniclers.

The last woman to be burnt for treason was Phoebe Harris in 1788. The punishment was converted to hanging in 1790. A new spirit was in the air It was the age of Lord Nelson, the French Revolution, Napoleon and Wellington.

The 19th century saw women like Francis Nightingale, Mrs. Bloomer and Emily Pankhurst. Queen Victoria came to the throne. The idea of murdering a husband being a treasonable act was repugnant to the new fervour. The suffragettes would have found the idea of their “lord and master” quite abhorrent. So gradually husband-murder became what it is today — simply murder and no longer treason.

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