One of the strangest statistics of modern life is the vast over representation of men in the criminal justice system – something like 95% of prison places are for men. I think this is a fairly new trend, as many crimes used to be driven by poverty, though there seems to have been a fairly clear gender divide. Men tend to go for acts of violence, whereas women allegedly use their cunning more. Infanticide was a common crime amongst women, sometimes the result of ignorance, sometimes as victims of rape, or just poverty. In an earlier blog I reported the burning to death of a woman in South West England in the late 18th century for poisoning her husband – this was seen as high treason, as men were of higher rank; so if he had poisoned her, he would just have been hanged.
Anyhow, back to the wonderful book by Joel F. Harrington, ‘The Faithful Executioner’ which talks of the problems in dealing with female criminals. For starters, they were generally treated leniently as they were the weaker sex, so often let off with a some act of public humiliation and physical pain – though whipping was a problem, as this involved baring their backs, or they would be fined.
But when it was deemed necessary to execute women, there were immense problems.
They could not be hanged, because people could see up their skirts. I would have thought this would have been compensated by the fact that their legs were tied together, but that seems not to have been considered. So the commonest method in 16th century Germany was to be buried alive instead, beneath the site where the men were hanged and buried, so instead of a quick despatch, they died slowly, horrifically and their thrashing about apparently caused a lot of the witnesses distress. In some cases, death was speeded up by hammering an iron stake through their hearts as an act of mercy. But this was often sen as too slow and out of date.
“One condemned young woman ‘struggled so that she ripped off large pieces of skin on hr arms, hands and feet’ ultimately leading Nuremberg’s executioner to pardon her and ask magistrates to abolish this form of execution,which they did officially in 1515. ”
Beheading was ruled out as this was for honourable men only.
An alternative was drowning, which was a traditional punishment, mentioned by Tacitus in the first century. Drowning was generally out of site, so the thrashing about of live burial was not seen, but it was difficult to carry out and could take a very long time. “One condemned woman in 1500 survived long enough underwater to free herself from the sack and swim back to the execution platform from which she had been pushed. Her spirited explanation “[Because] I drank four [litres] of wine ahead of time… the water couldn’t come into me” – failed to impress the attending magistrates, who promptly ordered her buried alive. Shortly before Frantz’s arrival in Nuremberg, his predecessor’s assistant used a long pole to keep the struggling poor sinner from bringing her sack back to the surface, “but the staff broke and an arm came up [out of the water] with much screaming, so that she survived under the water for almost three quarters of an hour.”
Frantz showed his humanity by objecting to drowning on the basis that the river was too shallow or frozen over, and clerics claimed that the water “gave power to the ‘evil spirit”
The authorities eventually agreed to replace drowning for women with beheading.