On 27th October 1779 a woman emerged from Newgate prison, attached to a hurdle dragged behind a cart. Thus she was taken to Tyburn (near the site of today’s Marble Arch). Once there, she had a rope attached to her neck, and kindling wood and faggots were stacked around her. Just before the flaming torch was put to the wood, the executioner pulled on the rope, thus strangling the poor woman before the flames consumed her body. Her name was Isabella Condon.
I had always assumed that being burnt at the stake went out with the Tudors – not so, it remained as a punishment for women until 1790. This penalty applied to Petty Treason (eg if a woman murdered her husband) or High Treason (a term which included counterfeiting coinage). Astonishingly a man might only be hanged for the offence of counterfeiting, whereas his female counterpart suffered the gruesome and ghastly fate of being burned in public. Of course, if she was lucky she would never feel the flames, but on at least one occasion in the 18th Century the executioner let go of the rope while lighting the faggots and was himself beaten back by the flames and hence was unable to retrieve the rope and strangle the poor woman, who died hideously and extremely slowly.
As a reminder of the cruel barbarism of “Justice” just two centuries ago it may be worth looking at the crime Isabella had been convicted of: forging a shilling.
What you needed to do this was relatively simple – you required a saucer with wet sand, a few genuine coins, a file, a bit of sandpaper, a cork, some “black stuff” and a pair of tweezers. You needed a melting pot and an iron flask, together with a phial of “Aqua fortis” (nitric acid) plus a vessel for pouring the metal in the mould, a scale and white arsenic. This was the classic equipment of a counterfeiters’ workshop.
In a later case John Nicholls, then director of the Royal Mint in the Tower, appeared in person at the Old Bailey in April 1788 to explain the mechanics of forging to the Court. He explained that the iron flask was a die with which to make an impression of both sides of a coin in the sand-filled container. The first impression was made with coarse sand, which was smoothed with finer sand to avoid “small, irregular holes in the cast work piece”. Afterwards, the sand mould dried above a fire. Subsequently, copper was melted into the cast. By adding arsenic, the copper appeared a shade lighter and hence similar to silver. John Nicholls called this mixture “East Indian copper”. The nitric acid was used to make it lighter still – if there was any trace of silver in the copper mixture it would come to the surface of the counterfeit coin when doused with the acid. After the shilling cooled down it could be worked on with file, sandpaper and cork to get it to look the right colour and finish.
This then was what counterfeiting involved. Isabella’s trial took place on 15th September 1779. The indictment against her was that on 3rd August, “one piece of false, feigned, and counterfeit money, to the likeness and similitude of the current coin of this realm called a shilling, she did feloniously, traiterously, and against the duty of her allegiance, falsely make, forge, and coin”.
On the day in question Isabella was at Peartree Court, Cold Bath Fields, in London. Acting on information, three officers entered the premises at midday and found Isabella sitting in a chair, working a counterfeit coin on the apron covering her lap. On a table alongside her they found a key. One of the arresting officers takes up the story:
“We took her from thence to her dwelling-house, which is in a little court at the top of St. John’s Street. When we came to the end of the court she was asked which was her house; she showed us the door, and with that key we opened it, and went in; we went up, I think, to the two-pair-of-stairs room, where we found all these utensils; here is a cork they make use of for finishing, & scowering-paper, and melting-pots; here is the stuff they black them with to make them look old; here is the fine sand they use to make the impressions with; here is a stick with aqua fortis upon the end of it, which they use to clean the pieces with; this flask was ready set for casting”. (The flask was opened in court; it was filled with sand, in which were made impressions for coining shillings and sixpences.)
In all, seven coins were discovered to be fake, three of which had been finished. The others were still in the course of being made. Similar accounts were given by the other two officers. An officer from the Royal Mint by the name of Mr. Fletcher was called to inspect the counterfeits in Court and announced succinctly:
“I am a moneyer in the mint. These are all bad”
Isabella denied the charge, claiming that the equipment had been left at her premises by a young woman who was renting the room from her – not very convincing given that she was caught red-handed with the coins in her lap! She was permitted to ask questions, but had no defence lawyer. After a trial lasting just a few minutes the First Middlesex Jury returned a verdict of guilty. Mr. Justice Gould sentenced the prisoner to death by burning, and sentence was carried out one month later.
Burning remained the punishment for female forgers until 1790 – the last woman to be punished in this barbaric way was Catherine Murphy (also known as Christian Bowman), who was put to death on Wednesday 18th March 1789. The Times led a campaign to change the law, which was brought in originally because the equivalent punishment for men was to be hanged, drawn and quartered – and this would not have been appropriate for a woman since it would have involved public nudity. As the Times put it “The execution of a woman for coining … reflects a scandal upon the law and was not only inhuman, but shamefully indelicate and shocking. Why should the law in this species of offence inflict a severer punishment upon a woman, than a man? It is not an offence which she can perpetrate alone – in every such case the insistence of a man has been found the operating motive upon the woman; yet the man is but hanged, and the woman burned.” On another occasion (24th June 1788) The Times stated :“Must not mankind laugh at our long speeches against African slavery … [when] … we roast a female fellow creature alive, for putting a pennyworth of quicksilver on a half-penny worth of brass.”
A case of ‘The Law, her Fate Condon’d’ ?….
As it happened one Thomas Condon, husband of the late Isabella, was himself hanged a few years later – for counterfeiting coins… so much for the death penalty being a deterrent!
(The court extracts appear courtesy of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey online).