Marriage Woes: The Case of Katharine Hays

They say there are two sides to every story, and I believe that Katharine Hays deserved to have her side told. Hays was convicted of petty treason for the barbaric murder of her husband, John Hays. After finding John Hay’s body cut to pieces in pond, near his home, Katharine was questioned and admitted to her role in his death. Although this may seem like a straightforward case, there are many underlying events that lead up to John Hay’s murder and reasonings behind the extreme lengths Katharine took to get away from her husband.

Early March of 1726, the murder of John Hays took place in Westminster England. His body was found dismembered in a lake nearby the Hay’s residence. John Hays was married to Katharine Hays, and together had 17 children. Despite the large household, John and Katharine’s relationship was far from ideal. After enduring years of neglect and abuse Katharine finally decided she had enough. After multiple requests to her friends, Thomas Billings and Thomas Wood, they finally agreed to end John Hay’s life. According to the Old Bailey, on April 20th Katharine Hays was convicted of petty treason and sentenced to be burnt at stake. Taking a closer look at this case, we can see that there was multiple elements that contributed to John Hay’s death. I believe that Katharine’s lack of authority in her marriage and life led to her corruption. Being an eighteenth century woman she was trapped within her domestic inferior position, and her desperation led to the treasonous death of her superior, John Hays.

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Although Katharine admits that she was responsible for the murder, I believe we must also acknowledge Katharine as a victim herself. She was trapped in an unkind marriage and wanted nothing more than to escape. Katharine claimed that from the beginning of her marriage John had treated her poorly: she was half starved and living in fear of physical abuse. Even though Katharine did not commit the crime herself, she did not deny her role in the killing. She told her friends, that visited her while she was held in prison, that “I’ll hold up my Hand and say that I am Guilty, for nothing can save me, nobody can forgive me.” Being a domestic house wife, Katharine was forced to abide by her husband’s rules. Ultimately, she had no authority in her own life. Judging from her pleas for help, and her confession of the murder it is obvious that Katharine was willing to take responsibility for her actions. She was aware of her crimes, but the malicious state of her home life proved to be too unbearable for her to stand any longer.  

One of the interesting aspects of this story is the fact that Katharine was socially drinking with the men. During this period females were typically were unable to socialize with men, in masculine activities. However, it seemed that during the 18th century everyone had an opportunity to get their hands on alcohol, some easier than others. This phenomena was known as “The Gin Craze,” and both men and women gladly took any opportunity to take part. Alcohol was both cheap and easy to find, it seemed that for pennies even the poorest members of society could access alcohol (Warner). Once Katharine’s husband was passed out drunk, Billings and Wood took him into a room and smashed his head in with a pole axe and then slit his throat. Both men and Katharine were all intoxicated the night of the killing, and had been seen purchasing 6 bottles of Mountain earlier that day. Married women normally did not have as much liberty when it came to alcohol consumption. Traditionally, they would only drink publicly with their husbands, or in the privacy of their own homes. It is evident that Katharine was willing to rebel against the restrictions of her gender role. However, it is shocking just how far she would go. I think it is fair to say that the alcohol played a role in the clouding of her judgment.

According to, The Early Eighteenth Century NewsPaper Reports, Katharine Hays and Thomas Billings were more than just friends. In fact, before Katharine was burned to death she admitted that Billings was actually her son, and the father was John Hay’s Father. Now, if this doesn’t put a twist on the story, I don’t no what would. There were also rumors that after Thomas killed John Hays, his brother, he then slept with his own mother, Katharine. This was clearly not the typical nuclear family. I think that this mixed unit calls attention to the disorder of the Hay’s home life. They certainly were not your typical family, and it is understandable that there would be some tension, to say the least, between Mr. and Mrs. Hays.

The night of the murder Billings and Wood decided to take matters into their own hands, and protect Katharine against her husband. After killing John, Katharine entered the room with Billings and Wood, where they attempted to stuff the body into an old chest; first cutting off his head, then legs, arms, and thighs. However, they soon realized the body would not fit, and tried a new approach. They bundled up the body pieces in blankets and carried him to a near by lake, where they dumped the body. The way that they barbarically dismembered John’s body was very disturbing and inhumane. Although we know Katharine was desperate to get rid of her husband, I think that she could have found a less deranged solution.

During Katharine Hay’s trail she was unable to speak for herself, instead six neighborhood friends and witnesses were questioned about the events of the murder. Although I don’t think she could have defended herself even if she had the opportunity to speak, it calls attention to the restrictions Katharine had within her life, and society.

Although murder can never be justified, I believe that we can sympathize with Katharine as a victim of abuse. A marriage during the eighteenth century was not like it is today: people could not divorce or separate in the event of marital disputes. Once two people were wed it was for life, and only thing that could undo a marriage was death. Katharine and John’s relationship was evidently not a great one. When asked why she did not warn her husband about the men’s plan to murder him, she replied  “Because I was afraid they would kill me.”  Katharine was inferior to all men in her life, and although she asked for her husband’s death, she did not have any control of the situation. But, unfortunately this was the type of relationship that Katharine and many other women during the eighteenth century had with men. Women were married off at a young age. Some even began courting as young as 15, but typically would marry in their early 20s. Once married, these women would be expected to leave their youth behind and take on the challenging role of a domestic housewife. Many of these marriages were not based on the love and commitment that we see in twenty-first century marriages, instead marriage was a way for families to keep or obtain social status. Although, the woman would have an opinion on who she accepted as her husband, her family played a large part in the choice. Once the woman entered the marriage she was her husband’s property. Women were trapped within their marriage, and had no other choice but to make the best of their situation.

Once a man and woman entered a marriage by law they were only considered to be  one person, which of course was under the husband’s name. So, as if the label of a murderer wasn’t bad enough, if a women killed her husband she was considered treasonous. This penalty was a way of reinforcing the social and economic relations within their society. In 1352, petty treason became a statutory offense under the rule of  Edward III, and was enforced up until 1790 (Gavigan). This law ensured that women understood that the male was the leader within his family. England’s society depended hierarchy, and by defining a ranking system within the family setting it reinforced the importance of the ruling class.

The murder of John Hays is truly a remarkable story. Although I do not believe that we can defend Katharine Hays, we can surely understand the harshness of her circumstances. She may not have dealt with her issues in the best way, but she felt that she had no other option. The 1700s was a time where even if women wanted to get away or find help it was impossible. They were trapped within their domestic roles and forced to abide by the ruling of their husbands. I think that if we can take anything away from this trail it would be that the 1700s was an unfair and neglecting world for women, and alcohol can make people do crazy things.

1. Gavigan, Shelley. “Petit Treason in Eighteenth Century England: Women’s Inequality Before the Law” 1985: 335-374. Print.

2. Warner, Jessica. “Gin and Gender in Early Eighteenth Century London.” Eighteenth- Century Life. 24. 1997: 85-105. Print.

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2 comments on “Marriage Woes: The Case of Katharine Hays

  1. tateferris says:

    Great post Jamie!

    What a fascinatingly bizarre story this is, glad you found it! You did an awesome job analyzing what this trial shows us about 18th century and about the role and consequences of women during this time. You show the reader how Katharine was bending those gender roles, and ultimately paid for it. And I really like how you emphasized the reader to approach this trial with understanding of Katharine’s situation. Something I found really interesting was the “Gin Craze”. This was great historical info. to add! I also like how you prolonged the plot twist, I was very, very surprised haha. Such a great rhetorical move! Your connections to the 21st century were also brilliant and easy to understand. Great use of hyperlinks and pictures as well!

    Not much to critique here, it is very well done! If I were to edit it further, I might add a small little introduction to address what you are going to talk about in your post.
    There was just one small place I paused on: “This phenomena was known as “The Gin Craze,” and both men and women gladly took any opportunity to take part: For pennies even the poorest members of society could access alcohol (2). Once Katharine’s husband was passed out drunk, Billings and Wood took him into a room and smashed his head in with a pole axe and then slit his throat.” So maybe, just add a little transition sentence there.
    I’m not sure what the trial consisted of, but it might be cool to add a quote or two from a witness.

    Overall, you did a truly great job at conveying the desperate situations women faced in the 18th century. I felt myself sympathizing with Katharine, so it’s hard to believe she was actually burned at the stake. You definitely achieved an emotional response with your post!

    Keep up the great work 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed your post Jamie ! Even at the beginning with the title, it immediately drew me in, and I was excited to read the rest of it; and indeed you picked a very interesting trial, great job! You had a great first paragraph in which it was very a very detailed and descriptive description of the trial. I enjoyed how you gave your own opinion throughout the blog post as it was nice to see what you thought of the trial, and the conclusions that you came to. This was an intriguing trail because it certainly showed the different challenges that women were facing at that time, which makes me glad I live in today’s society, rather than in the 18th century.

    It was fascinating when you would discuss sort of social norms during the 18th century such as women not being aloud to socialize with men or participate in “masculine” activities which is understandable for this time. I also loved how you made connections with The Early Eighteenth Century NewsPaper Reports, it was nice to read what was said in the newspaper during that time.

    Honestly, there is not much that I can critique your post on because you did a fantastic job analyzing the trial. As Tate stated in the previous post, an introduction would be helpful so that your reader is prepared for what they are going to read, rather than jumping right into the trial. I think even thinking of an intriguing phrase or hook would make your post even better. Another suggestion of something you could do would be to add some quotes, as that will make the post look even better, as you will have evidence to back up your post and your thoughts. And my final suggestion is to maybe include some tags at the end of your post so that other scholars who are interested in the same topic can see and read your post. Its an awesome post so who wouldn’t want to read it?

    Overall, you did a wonderful job and I am looking forward to reading your potential updated post! 🙂

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