That a woman would deign to kill was bad enough. But to kill a man was a heinous crime indeed in the 18th century.
For women were considered lesser mortals in that day and age, while men on the other hand were deemed productive and, therefore, more valuable and, as such, if one was killed then it was perceived as detrimental to the income of the country. And, anything that affected the Crown’s coffers was immediately seen as treason.
And so to the story of Catherine Hayes who was burned at the stake for murdering her husband in the early 18th century.
Of course being a weak female, she was unable to act alone. She enlisted the help of two men – Thomases Billings and Wood and together they killed Thomas Hayes. Some even say that Billings may even have been Hayes’s son.
For Hayes had a past apparently – she left home at 15 and got caught up with the militia before she eventually met her husband-to-be, while working for his dad on the family farm. They married on the quiet and she persuaded him to join the army, but Hayes’s dad bought him off the army books and set him up in a house with a modest income.
Six years of quiet living followed before Hayes became bored and had a hankering to move – she persuaded her husband to set up shop in London, where he opened a lodging house and became a pawnbroker. It was a lucrative life and all may have been fine, but for his wife’s relationship with the neighbours.
According to one source, she’d fall out with the neighbours, or she’d bad mouth her husband – either way, he felt compelled to keep moving on. The couple ironically moved to Tyburn Road (now known as Oxford Street), which was where the little minx met her fiery end.
While her husband was away on business, Hayes really lived it up, so much so, that neighbours decided to inform her husband. A row ensued between the couple and it was this event that was to seal everyone’s fate.
Of course, that’s not how Hayes painted it. By her own account, while she was banged up following the crime, Hayes pleaded that she barely ate, ‘for I have been half starved ever since I was married to him’.
As a result, she was not sorry to have killed her husband – ok, so she said that ‘devilish’ thoughts may have entered her head, but ultimately she branded Thomas Hayes a selfish, abusive man. Hayes was scared of being beaten up – and that was her main motive for murder. She remained unrepentant regarding the crime, only sorry that she’d dragged two men into it too.
Penny for the guy
The accomplices took some persuasion – they bailed two or three times before they eventually succumbed and agreed to help her. Indeed, one night Hayes’s husband got drunk and beat her up – it was that abuse that was to drive Billings to agree to kill him.
Wood chipped in that he’d help for a penny. Hayes reeled him in with other reasons too. But ultimately it was Dutch courage that led to the murder – the trio were completely wasted when they did the deed.
Hayes’s husband got bladdered one night and they pounced – Billings whacked him twice on the head with a pole axe, then Wood slit his throat. But how were they going to get shot of the body? They decided to chop him up and stash him away in a chest so they could transport him out of the house.
First Wood lopped off his head, then his legs below the knee. But he was still too large for the chest, so they cut his thighs and arms off. But they needn’t have bothered, because the chest was too small for all of Thomas’s bits so they wrapped the sum of his parts up in blankets and chucked most of him in to a pond up by Marylebone, but they couldn’t risk the head being found so they deposited it into the Thames.
Trouble is the tide was ebbing when they lobbed it into the river, so the head stayed put and was eventually discovered. All the authorities needed was to put a name to the face, so they washed it and stuck it on a pole outside St Margaret’s Church in Westminster. Word got around and the crowds grew but no-one gave a positive ID on the disembodied face. So they pickled it to preserve it in the vain hope that someone would come forward.
The news did provoke friends to begin asking awkward questions about husband Thomas’s whereabouts though. Hayes blagged that he was abroad in Portugal, but people saw through this, mainly because the stories didn’t stack up. She was eventually hauled in for questioning and the whole sorry story emerged.
Road to nowhere
Wood was found guilty, but died in prison of a fatal fever. Billings was also done for murder and the penalty for that was the Tyburn jig, followed by being strung up in chains for all to see. And in a twist of fate, Billings’s lifeless corpse was displayed on the crossroads at Marylebone, close to where he’d dumped Thomas Hayes’s body.
But Hayes’s crime carried an altogether more protracted penalty – if you were found guilty of treason you were burned at the stake. When Hayes heard this she lost it, pleading that she had not actually murdered her husband as she had not struck the blows. But it was too late. She’d been found guilty as charged and so she was put to death, just literally up the road from her house at Tyburn.
She was taken to the place of execution (Marble Arch as it is now known) and there she was chained to her post. Executioners were known to tie ropes round the condemned person’s neck and strangle them to prevent unnecessary suffering, but on this occasion, the executioner let go prematurely as the flames were too close to him. And so Catherine Hayes was burned alive on this day in 1726 and it took a full three hours for her body to finally turn to ash.
Also on this day
9 May 1947 – Willie Francis
9 May 1942 – Rattlesnake James
9 May 2007 – Philip Workman
9 May 2001 – Clay King Smith
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