You’re probably used to us by now – giving you lurid accounts about people being hanged for coining (eg forgery). But did you know women were burned at the stake for it before 1790?
We’re not sure why they got such preferential treatment, but the crime was classed as treason and, as a result, it was punishable by death. Cue Phoebe Harris, AKA Mrs Brown (very ‘Reservoir Dogs’).
According to Richard Clarke, she took up residence in Drury Lane, under the guise of being a captain’s widow with her own income…
A close shave
She had her own income alright. Just none of it was legal. On the quiet, she’d file off shavings from kosher coins and clip bits off, melt it all down and make new coins. It was a very nice little earner, until she got busted.
Based on a tip-off, the law forced its way into her lodgings where her counterfeiting conspiracy was blown wide open.
Harris, alongside two accomplices, was taken in, but her defence was little short of desperate. She blamed the crime on the fictitious ‘John Brown’ – obviously coming up with creative names wasn’t her strong point.
Harris maintained that she had just stashed the equipment away on ‘his’ orders. She then pleaded ignorance as to the nature of the kit.
Convincing? No, the jury didn’t think so either and Harris ended up bearing the brunt of the blame. The other two got off scott-free, while she was sentenced to be burned.
To add to her infamy, she became the first person to be burned at Newgate – most of the others had taken place in Tyburn or Smithfield up to that point.
But this new venue didn’t go down to well – the neighbours didn’t take kindly to the putrid smell of frying flesh, after all, it was considered a respectable area in those days. Luckily for inhabitants the law was changed four years later, but that didn’t help Harris’ plight. She sizzled for over two hours in front of a gawping crowd of around 20,000 today in 1786.
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