By Tim Lambert
Catherine Hayes was burned for murdering her husband in 1726. She was born Catherine Hall near Birmingham in 1690. She moved around the country working as a domestic servant. Eventually, she was employed by a farmer named Hayes in Warwickshire. In 1713 she married the farmer’s son John, who was a carpenter and merchant. In 1719 the couple moved to London, where John Hayes became a successful businessman.
But Catherine became dissatisfied with her marriage. In 1725 Catherine took in a lodger, a young man named Thomas Billings. He was a tailor. She had an affair with him. Catherine took in a second lodger, a man named Thomas Wood, who was a butcher. Catherine had affairs with both lodgers.
Catherine Hayes eventually decided to murder her husband. She persuaded her two male lovers to kill him. She told them that murder was justified because her husband physically abused her and he also blasphemed against God (which was considered shocking in a religious age).
On 1 March 1726, John went drinking with the two lodgers. When they went home John lay drunk on a bed. Billings hit John with an axe. A woman named Mrs Springate, who lived upstairs heard John cry out and knocked on their door to ask about the noise. But Catherine managed to persuade her that nothing was wrong. She claimed she and some visitors had been ‘making merry’.
Wood helped Billings to finish off John, hitting him with the axe. To make identification more difficult they cut off his head and threw it into the River Thames. They dumped the body in a pond in the countryside. But the head was washed up on the shore of the River Thames and it was found by a waterman. The head was displayed in public in the churchyard of St Margaret’s Church in Westminster and certain people recognised it as the head of John Hayes. The rest of his body was discovered on 24 March.
Catherine Hayes and her two male lovers were arrested, tried, and found guilty. The two men were sentenced to be hanged (one of them, Thomas Wood died in jail before the sentence could be carried out).
Thomas Billings was hanged on 9 May 1726, the same day Catherine was executed. His body was hung in chains in a public place as a warning to others.
However, Catherine suffered a worse fate. In the 18th century if a woman murdered her husband it was considered ‘petty treason’ and the penalty was death by burning (although the woman was usually strangled with a rope before the flames reached her). Certain types of murder were considered petty treason. If a servant murdered his master or if a clergyman killed his superior.
Catherine Hayes was burned on 9 May 1726. The executioner tried to strangle her with a rope but the flames drove him back. Some accounts claim that the executioner threw a lump of wood at her head, to knock her out and it cracked her skull open. At any rate, the unfortunate woman was burned to death.
The punishment of death by burning was abolished in Britain in 1790. The legal concept of ‘petty treason’ was abolished in 1828.