A Poisoner Burned At The Stake

Burning a woman alive is generally associated with witches, but they were more commonly hanged in England. But it was the punishment for a woman killing her husband, who as a superior creature was deemed an act of treason rather than mere murder. This is a letter from ‘Ivelchester’ [ie Ilchester] published in the Bristol press in 1765 which shows that not all crowds who witnessed executions were baying for blood. It is gruesome, so if you are of a delicate disposition, look away now:

Yesterday Mary Norwood, of Axbridge in this County, was burnt here, pursuant to her Sentence, in the Presence of above 8,000 spectators. She was brought out of the Prison about 3 of the Clock, in the Evening, bare-foot; she was cover’d with a tarr’d Cloth, made like a Shift [undergarment], a tarr’d Bonnet on her Head; and her Legs, Feet and Arms, had likewise Tar on them: The Heat of the Weather melting the Tar on the Bonnet, it ran over her Face, so that she made a shocking Appearance: She was put on a Hurdle, and drawn on a Sledge to the Place of Execution, which was very near the Gallows. After spending some time in Prayer, and singing a Hymn, the Executioner placed her on a Tar-Barrel, about 3 Feet high, and a Rope (which ran in a Pulley thro’ the Stake) was fixed about her Neck, she herself placing it properly with her Hands; this Rope being drawn extremely tight with the Pulley, the Tar Barrel was then push’d away, and three Irons were fasten’d round her Body, (to confine it to the Stake, that it might not drop when the Rope shou’d be burnt); as soon as this was done, the Fire was immediately kindled, but in all Probability she was quite dead before the Fire reached her, as the Executioner pull’d her Body several Times whilst the Irons were fixing, which was about 5 Minutes. There being a great Quantity of Tar, and the Wood in the Pile being quite dry, the Fire burn’d with amazing Fury; notwithstanding which great Part of her could be plainly discern’d for near half an Hour. Nothing could be more affecting, than to behold, after her Bowels fell out, the Fire flaming between her Ribs, and issuing out oat her Ears, Mouth, Eye-Holes &c. In short, it was so terrible a Sight, that great Numbers turned their Backs and screamed out, not being able to look at it.

This is fascinating as Mary was not burned, showing the rule of law was followed, but she was despatched quickly by hanging.

I am also intrigued that Mary seems to have been better informed on how to position the noose than was the executioner. Since executions were so rare outside the capital, executioners were often inexperienced so victims died slowly from strangling rather than by a quick break to their neck. 

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