The Tragic Deaths Of William and Catherine Shaw

It is not uncommon for young adults to feel as though death would be preferable to following their parent’s orders. I know I have considered my options and thought that another day in my parent’s home would be unbearable. The proud behaviours that are embedded deep within our brains haven’t changed much since the eighteenth century.

In 1721, William Shaw and his daughter suffered from the typical destruction of their father-daughter relationship: young adulthood. Although the story varies from publication to publication (here, here and here), the end result is always the same. Catherine, William’s daughter, was in love with a young jeweler named John Lawson. Her father absolutely loathed John. Instead of allowing his daughter to continue seeing the jeweler until their romance fizzled out, William insisted that Catherine begin seeing Alexander, a neighbour’s son of whom William fully approved. Sadly, Catherine could not compromise with her father for a single moment. She was head over heels in love with John Lawson and had absolutely no interest in her father’s choice, Alexander.

Catherine’s obstinacy was a complete outrage to her father and he forbid John from ever entering his home ever again. Catherine continued to visit her lover in secret, completely ignoring her father’s objections. Eventually, William became wise of his daughter’s deception and sought to take action on her behaviour. He believed it was his ultimate duty to protect his daughter’s purity and he was not going to be disgraced by the wild actions of this young woman. The issue exploded wildly into loud argumentation with furious yelling, frustration and despair. Since Catherine and William shared their home with another family and the walls were very thin, their dispute was on display for anyone within the building. Catherine angrily announced her hatred for her father and spat out words such as “barbarity”, “cruelty” and eventually threatening with “death”.

In an attempt to settle his emotions and keep his daughter from running away, William locked Catherine in her bedroom and left the house to relax his mind. In the mean time, Catherine scribbled a quick suicide note and stabbed herself in the abdomen with a knife that happened to be in her room. A nosy neighbour, James Morrison, who had been sitting on the other side of the wall , paying attention to every detail, had noted the long period of silence following the fight. This silence was soon interrupted by the sound of muffled moans and groans of pain emerging from Catherine’s room along with the distinct words: “Cruel Father, thou art the cause of my death!” Out of fear for the girl, or unbearable curiosity, the neighbour called a constable who forced an entry into the Shaw apartment and through Catherine’s locked door only to find her bloodied and dying with a knife laying close by her side.

At this point, many people had made their way into the room and William returned home to find all these onlookers in his hallway. When he walked through the door of Catherine’s room to witness her bloody form, he sank with grief and horror. William’s reaction appeared to be enough evidence for the people in the room to accuse him of his daughter’s death as her note had fallen out of sight and they were still unaware of the truth. The constable asked Catherine if her father had done this to her, and although she could not speak, she seemed to nod her head “yes” and then passed on.

William Shaw was arrested on the spot and taken to the prison where he was tried shortly after for the murder of his daughter, Catherine Shaw. He maintained his innocence but his old friends and neighbours were convinced that the circumstantial evidence was enough to convict the man of an ultimately heinous crime. William was found guilty and hanged soon thereafter.

In August 1722 following the tragic deaths of William and Catherine Shaw, a man moved into their old apartment. Throughout his cleaning of the residence, he stumbled upon Catherine’s letter that had slipped into the space between the chimney and the wall. This letter read:

BARBAROUS FATHER, — Your cruelty in having put it out of my power ever to join my fate to that of the only man I could love, and tyrannically insisting upon my marrying one whom I always hated, has made me form a resolution to put an end to an existence which is become a burthen to me. I doubt not I shall find mercy in another world; for sure no benevolent being can require that I should any longer live in torment to myself in this! My death I lay to your charge: when you read this, consider yourself as the inhuman wretch that plunged the murderous knife into the bosom of the unhappy CATHERINE SHAW.

The man who found the letter showed it to Catherine’s relatives and friends who confirmed the handwriting as hers and proved everyone wrong who had been the cause of William Shaw’s hanging. As reparations for wrongful death William Shaw’s relatives were not given money, but his body was moved and some colours were waved above his grave in honour of his innocence. I like to think Mr. Shaw is up in heaven wondering how anyone could assume some flag waving could make up for his life cut short.

Perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the trial of William Shaw is that there was no crime to begin with. Often, in media, we see suicide set up to look like murder but in this case, it is the other way around. William Shaw’s daughter, Catherine, was desperate to prove her point and, as young people do, seemed to believe that she was immortal and made a leap of complete faith that ended her brief life in her father’s apartment.

The results of Shaw’s trial make it clear how important reputation was during this time. Reputation still carries massive impact on our lives; however, we tend to put more stock in solid facts than in reputation in our modern-day. One example is the case of Casey Anthony. The public was furious at her trial when she was found innocent of her daughter’s murder but if it were for nothing other than reputation and speculation she would have certainly been sent directly to death row. Poor William suffered the fate that many people believe Casey Anthony should have. Perhaps, his story is a reminder of the power we have to make incredible mistakes. When someone who is innocent has their life taken away prematurely it is a sobering thought. As much as we believe that our opinions are law, it is important to remember we are flawed beyond comprehension. We must define innocence or guilt only by facts. If the facts cannot be found, then no conviction should be made.

Another aspect to consider is the unaccountable adolescent behaviour. When we consider young people who have committed suicide in social situations, we can often see what their future may have held. The case of Amanda Todd has been in Canadian news very much lately. Although she had several difficult years since becoming a teen, she may have been able to carry on a normal life as an adult if she put aside the baggage of her teen years, The same goes for Catherine Shaw. She may not have ended up with her jeweler boyfriend, but she could have gone on to live a happy, if not, normal life and been perfectly fine without him. Perhaps this situation with increased supervision and guidelines may have dictated what happened in the case William and Catherine Shaw. While William did not believe that his daughter would kill herself, she was actually very serious about what actions she planned to take. She had every intention of proving those around her to be wrong about her potential relationship with John the jeweler.

Teen or not, everyone wants to feel in control of their own lives. Catherine did not want to live without her lover and she also did not want her father to continue living thinking that he had always been right. All that remained in her mind was that she was one hundred percent correct. This is where the usual fight between parents and teenagers happen. Parent’s believe they are right because they have lived longer and the teen believes they are right because they have a fresh outlook. Often both are right in their own way and could each be making the best decision for the future of a life that is important to them. So parents and children begin butting heads. Anything can get nasty when two people begin to fight over something they think they own. When he realized what his fate might be, William Shaw may have come to the conclusion that who his daughter copulated with was not really worth one life, let alone two.

When there is life at risk, we are able to put difficult moments into perspective. Often, who we date or marry seems to be the dictation of the end of the world or the beginning of a lifetime of perfection. This story of a father-daughter dispute gone wrong illustrates that, although our legal systems have changed significantly over time, our social behaviours have barely changed since the tragedy of Catherine and William Shaw.


2 comments on “The Tragic Deaths Of William and Catherine Shaw

  1. jjml92 says:

    I found your trial to be very interesting and sad at the same time. I know I also questioned my relationships with my parents at times, but when it comes to relationships they never really forced anything on me. I felt really bad for your victim that just to get “happiness” in a sense that she had to kill herself to end the pain. I have to agree with you when you say reputation plays a big part, in my opinion reputation is one of the most important things in most cases. I really liked your flow of your Momento Mori – it went from a daughter trying to live her life, to her father not agreeing and trying to change things, to a fight breaking out and actions being place. This tends to be the case in society today too which makes this case very interesting for the time frame it was set to the period of today. I also really liked how you linked a couple of modern day stories of the same type of problems that Catherine and William Shaw faced in the 18th century. Well Done

  2. bookworm424 says:

    This was an interesting trial, taking teenage spite to a new level. Reading of two people die because of and argument seems almost silly, but in reality it shows human weakness, which we all possess. I liked how you used information from today such as the Casey Anthony trial and Amanda Todd’s tragic story to help bring your trial into the 21st century. Also I think you presented the lesson that we can all learn from this trial nicely. One thing i wasn’t sure about was if she had pinpointed her father as her murderer to make a point, why did she direct her letter to her father and then hide it knowing that he would never read it? I got a bit lost there, but that may just be the trial story itself, and not you. Good job 🙂

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