I have fewer courses this semester as I took some of my archived overload so I could finish my book, but this release has been somewhat overset by the fact that I’m teaching a brand new course for the first time in quite some time. I always update my courses with new content and readings, but a new prep is much more time-consuming, especially when it’s not quite your expertise, which is the case with this course: English Constitutional History. We have a pre-law concentration in our major and this course is one of its electives and I can’t remember the last time it was taught. I’m teaching it like a social history of the Common Law, and I’ve learned a lot so far. This past week, I’ve been reading about treason, of which there were two kinds: High Treason and Petit (Petty) Treason. Both were capital offenses: High Treason was an offense against the King or the State, and Petit Treason was a crime committed against your master. As the law was codified in the fourteenth century the latter generally referred to wives killing their husbands, servants (and later slaves) killing their masters. Under this statute, which was in effect from 1351 to 1828, a woman who murdered her husband was not indicted for homicide, but petit treason, and until 1790, if found guilty, she faced public execution by burning at the stake. A succession of English women faced this prospect in the early modern era, or I should say, a succession of wives.
Anne Wallens Lamentation, 1616: EBBA
The punishment for treason, both kinds, had to be terrible: men who were found guilty were hanged, drawn and quartered, and women burned, as their public nudity was apparently an equally horrific offense against God and society. Most accounts indicate that women were hanged and then burned, and of course their clothing was burned off. The English colonies in North America were subject to the Treason Law of 1351 as well, and consequently two women, both enslaved, were burned at the stake in Massachusetts: one Maria, a “servant” to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, who was found guilty of burning both his and an adjoining house down in 1681 (it’s not clear to me whether she was found guilty of petit treason or arson, which was also a capital offense), and Phillis, who conspired with her fellow enslaved “servants” Mark and Phebe to kill their master John Codman of Charlestown by arsenic (and “black lead” or “potters lead”) in 1755. There are many sources for this sad tale, including a Massachusetts Historical Society pamphlet from 1883 which provides testimony from the trials of the accused. According to its narrative: Mark, Phillis, and Phebe,—particularly Mark,—found the rigid discipline of their master unendurable, and, after setting fire to his workshop some six years before, hoping by the destruction of this building to so embarrass him that he would be obliged to sell them, they, in the year 1755, conspired to gain their end by poisoning him to death. I’ll let newspaper articles take it from there.
Both Mark and Phillis confessed and received their horrible sentences; Phebe was judged a less-guilty conspirator and transported to the West Indies. Mark offered up an explanation that you often hear in European cases of poisoning: that if one does not spill blood in murdering it is somehow a lesser offense before God. His body was indeed “gibbeted,” for quite some time: in his account of his “midnight ride,” Paul Revere actually wayfinds with reference to where “Mark was hung in chains” twenty years later. The rookie mistake that everyone always makes in regard to the Salem Witch Trials is that the “witches” were burned, but witchcraft was not a crime punishable by burning under the Common Law by contrast with the Continent, where the “crime” was judged manifest heresy. In England, and New England, only wives, servants and slaves were burned at the stake, and also counterfeiters. The last woman executed by burning in England was Catherine Murphy, who along with her husband Hugh, was found guilty of counterfeiting, a crime against the Crown and thus High Treason, in 1788. Her sentence was carried out in March of 1789, provoking the abolition of death by burning in the Treason Act of 1790.
The 1883 MHS pamphlet at the Library of Congress.