On the 9th of May, 1726, Catherine Hayes’ (Newgate Spelling) ungodly screams were accompanied by her attempts at pushing away the hungry flames quickly engulfing her body as she was chained to a stake being burned alive in front of mass amounts of spectators. Being burned at the stake was her ordered punishment for Petty Treason, the act of, in this case, a wife murdering her husband. The 18th century is well known as a male dominated era where women who killed their husbands a.k.a. “masters” were not only charged of murder but of petty treason. I intend to argue below how gender influenced 18th century society in the sense that men were considered more valuable by law than women and how a wife killing her husband was considered a far worse offence than a husband killing his wife.
Weeks before the murder of John Hayes, husband of Catherine Hayes, neighbors of the couple had begun to see some irregularities in their relationship. Some may see this as irrelevant to the murder itself, but it seems as though it is the pushing factor behind the act of violence. These neighbors acknowledged that Mrs. Hayes would some days speak wonders of her loving husband, while other days she would say she would not think anything more of murdering him than she would a dog. Her attitude followed the couple to their new home that Mr. Hayes had bought, where Thomas Billings, a tailor and Mr. Hayes’ countryman, had come and resided for the six following weeks. Mrs. Hayes’ new neighbors and acquaintances had started to notice that she would invite them and other friends over while Mr. Hayes was away on business and they would party and feast at his expense, while she would still talk of him in such a demeanor. A few neighbors became sick of hearing such talk and told her husband about the matter once he returned. The result was him hitting his wife for acting in such a way… perhaps being the reason Mrs. Hayes began planning the malicious murder in her husband’s future.
Around this time, Thomas Wood, a neighbor’s son from their previous home, had been in their area and while having a lower income was given permission by Mr. Hayes to reside with them. It was not until now that the complete idea of murder and the public speaking of which had come about. A few days after Wood had moved in, Mrs. Hayes opened him up to the idea of killing her husband where of course he first declined quickly describing the loss of business that would happen between the two and the overall cruelty of the action. Mrs. Hayes had planned for this reaction and to calm his woes began to tell him how committing to the murder would be no more than killing a beast as he (Mr. Hayes) had murdered a man himself in the country, and had even killed two of their children. She stated that he had buried one under the apple tree and the other under the pear tree. In addition to these fictitious stories, she added one more that was perhaps the most influential in their decision. She explained to him that if her husband was killed, she would be the mistress of 15 hundred pounds and he, if he chose to help her out, the master of 15 hundred pounds. She finished her speech by telling him that Billings had already agreed to the act and if he also agreed it could go unnoticed and without punishment.
Mr. Hayes was called out of town for business that week once again and on his return found Billings and Mrs. Hayes quite merry together. Among conversation, Mr. Hayes insisted that there once was a time where he and a friend had drank half a dozen bottles of wine without being affected, this of course had Billings quite interested whereupon he proposed a wager that if Mr. Hayes could drink half a dozen bottles of the best wine without getting disordered it would be the cost of Mr. Billings. If not, it would of course be to the expense of Mr. Hayes. When the three went to fetch the wine, Mrs. Hayes discretely reminded Billings of their hateful plan and told him that that night, while her husband was intoxicated, would be the best time to perform the act of murder.
Now here is where the story gets interesting. It was not long before poor Mr. Hayes had danced and sang his way to a state of complete unconsciousness, as few too many drinks is known to do. He stumbled his way to his room and flailed himself on the bed… falling into a sleep where nothing could awaken him. With no fear of resistance it was now or never. Billings went in first with an axe in hand and took one blow to his victim’s head, fracturing his skull. Wood, who had been upstairs in the room all along, preceded Billings hit with two more of his own. With that over with, they needed now to decide how to dispose of the body without getting caught. They discussed many ways to do so, but it was Mrs. Hayes who thought that decapitating her husband may be the best thing to do before dumping the body in water, for if it was found it would be unrecognizable. Her partners cut off his head while she held a bucket to catch the dripping blood, taking great care to make sure no evidence would be left behind. It may first seem hard to determine exactly why Mrs. Hayes was convicted of petty treason… after all she did not actually physically kill the man herself.
Having finished off Mr. Hayes, the next step was to hide the body. While you might think this story has been grotesque enough, it gets worse. The two men had already taken the head and had thrown it into a body of water, during that time Mrs. Hayes had purchased a box in which they were prepared to rest the body in to bury it. Unfortunately, the body did not fit in the box so their plan B was to chop off the limbs to have it fit better. Meanwhile, the head had been discovered and there was no doubt around town that there had been a murder. Magistrates in the area decided to wash the head in attempts to determine who might have been murdered and had the it placed on a pole in the St. Margaret’s churchyard in Westminster in hopes that someone from the community would be able to identify it.
A few days past and friends of Mr. Hayes began to realize that they had not seen their friend in quite some time and started interrogating Mrs. Hayes on his whereabouts. As she did before when convincing her accomplices to help her out, she had anticipated such questions as well, and proceeded to tell them that he had been on a business trip to Portugal but had not yet sent her any letters. Now men of this era were always typically quite skeptical of women and never really took them seriously – another factor proving how the 18th century was filled with, who could be considered, misogynists. Unfortunately for Mrs. Hayes, the men did not believe her and decided that Mr. Longhorn (a gentleman related to Mr. Hayes) should bring Mrs. Hayes in to speak with him – of course when this had been done… her story had altered in various aspects of detail. After re-examining the head multiple times and hearing Mrs. Hayes differentiating stories, the men were sure that it was that of Mr. Hayes and went on with their plan of telling the magistrate, Mr. Lambert. Mr. Lambert, with no hesitation issued warrants against the three accomplices.
At the trial, both Woods and Billings confessed themselves guilty of the crime but Mrs. Hayes still refused. Earlier that day, two men named Richard Bromage and Leonard Myring, had gone to visit Mrs. Hayes and asked her for what reason she could have committed such a disturbing act of violence. She replied with this, insisting that she still did not take part in the murder, “the Devil put it into my Head, but however John Hays was none of the best of the Husbands, for I have been half starved ever since I was married to him. I don’t in the least repent of any Thing that I have done, but only in drawing those two poor Man into this Misfortune. I was Six Weeks in importuning ’em to do it; they deny’d it 2 or 3 Times, but at last they agreed. My Husband was made so drunk that he fell out of his Chair, and then Billings (who was a Taylor) and Wood carried him into the back Room, and laid him upon the Bed. I was not in that Room, but in the Fore Room on the same Floor when he was kill’d.” Bromage then asked what could have made the men partake in which she replied,” The Devil was in us all, and we were all got drunk. And what, says I, can you say for yourself when you come before the Judge? Why, says she, it will signify nothing to make a long Preamble, I’ll hold up my Hand and say that I am Guilty, for nothing can save me, nobody can forgive me”
May 9th, 1726, Billings, Wood and Mrs. Hayes were brought to trial at the April Sessions of the Old Bailey before the Recorder, the Lord Mayor and various other judges. Her indictment read: “Katherine Hays is indicted for Petty Treason, in being traitorously present, comforting and maintaining that said Thomas Billings in the murder of the said John Hays, her Husband.” Both men were charged with murder while Catherine was given a far worse charge: Petty Treason. As hard as it may be to believe, the punishment for petty treason was to be burned at the stake surrounded by hundreds of spectators. It had always been customary for the executioner to strangle the woman at stake before the flames reached her body, but Mrs. Catherine Hayes was not strangled, and was left alive by the mistake of the executioner who let go of the rope too soon. Like mentioned before, petty treason sheds a light on 18th century society as it really demonstrates how much gender discrimination infused their lives. In the context of criminal justice, the opinions and testimonies given by women were often viewed more skeptically than those of men. In utter dismay, the crown began to throw logs of wood to her head to rid her of her pain but unfortunately she did survive among the flames for quite some time. Catherine Hayes, of Birmingham, was the last woman in England to be burned alive at the stake.