"for there is no rule without its exceptions;
and hardly an age without its monsters"
The 'monster' in question was a certain Catherine Hayes, born in the Birmingham area in 1690, "the daughter of a poor man named Hall". At the age of fifteen she decided to leave home and make for the bright lights of London, but was waylaid enroute by a group of army officers. She then appears to have resided with these officers at their quarters in Great Ombersley, Worcestershire before making her way into Warwickshire. Thereafter she appears to have alternated between prostitution and domestic service as a career and bore at least one illegitimate child, a boy named Thomas in 1707 (of whom more later), before being employed as a housemaid at the home of a gentleman farmer by the name of Hayes.
It was whilst in the employment of the senior Mr Hayes that she made the acquaintance of his elder son John. Catherine's charms were such that this John Hayes was soon sharing her bed and they were married in 1713. For the next few years they seem to have been happy enough but Catherine had not given up on the idea of moving to London and by 1719 she had persuaded her husband to do so. Once in London John Hayes set himself up in business as a coal-merchant, acted as a pawnbroker and money-lender on the side, and seems to have made a reasonable success of things.
Life went on for the Hayes family until the year 1725 when Catherine persuaded her husband to take in a lodger, an eighteen year old apprentice tailor by the name of Thomas Billings. Catherine was soon sharing her bed as well as her home with Master Billings, a privilege she also extended to a certain Thomas Woods, a butcher and an acquaintance of her husband. But what made all these adulterous shenanigans even more scandalous was that this Thomas Billings was certainly Catherine's illegitimate son, the aforementioned Thomas, born 1707. The identity of his father seems less certain as the contemporary newspaper reports variously report that he was "begotten by a tanner in Worcestershire", or even "got by Mr. Hayes’s father", which casts an even more Oedipal light on events.
Such goings on naturally got the neighbour's curtains twitching, as "her proceedings were so extravagant that the neighbours deemed it right to make her husband aware of the fact; and on his return he remonstrated with her on the subject, when a quarrel took place, which ended in a fight." Life in the Hayes household became a little unsettled as a result.
Last Wednesday morning at day-light, there was found in the dock before Mr. Paul’s brewhouse, near the Horse-Ferry at Westminster, the head of a man, with brown curl’d hair, the Scull broke in two places, and a large cut on each cheek; judg’d to be upwards of 30, and, by all circumstances, appearing to have been newly cut from off a living body; but by whom, or on what account, is yet a secret.
So stated the report that appeared in the Weekly Journal of the 5th March 1726, adding that the head had been "set up, and expos’d to publick view in St. Margaret’s Church-Yard" for the purposes of identification of course. The Weekly Journal had more to say on the 26th March 1726 when it reported that, "The arms, thighs, and legs of a man cut asunder, as if done with a butcher’s cleaver, were found last Wednesday in a pond by Marybone". The following the pond was dragged and the "trunk of the body wrapt up in a blanket" was found, but no head.
But even as further parts of the body were being discovered, events had been moving on. A certain Mr Ashby, a business acquaintance of John Hayes, had been making enquires regarding the unexplained absence of his good friend. He naturally called at John Hayes' home and spoke to his wife, who spun a tale of her husband having killed a man and thus fled to Portugal. Mr Ashby was unconvinced and consulted a Mr Longmore and he too went and spoke to Catherine Hayes who gave him a slightly different version of the story. Neither of the men believed the tale that they had been told so they decided to speak to a Mr Eaton, and all three then decided to pay a visit to the now notorious head in St. Margaret’s Church and "accordingly minutely examined the head, and come to the conclusion that it must be that of their friend Hayes".(This was on the same day, oddly enough, as the pond at Marylebone Fields revealed its grisly secrets.)
As a result the trio paid a visit to the local magistrate, who issued the appropriate warrants, which they proceeded to execute personally. Returning to the Hayes household with several constables in tow, they discovered Catherine Hayes in bed with Thomas Billings and promptly arrested the pair. They failed to arrest Thomas Wood as he was out of town at the time, but they did apprehend a Mrs Springate, although she was later released, once it was established that she was entirely innocent. However Wood soon returned to London whereupon he too was promptly arrested and carted off to gaol. A coroner's inquest opened on the 16th of April 1726 to investigate the death of John Hayes and brought in a verdict of murder, and naming Catherine, Wood and Billings as the likely perpetrators.
It was Thomas Wood who first spilled the beans, stating that Catherine Hayes had approached him and asked him to join with her and Billings in a plot to murder her husband. Woods claimed that he was reluctant to do so, but acquiesced when Mrs Hayes explained "that her husband was an atheist, and had already been guilty of murdering two of his own children, one of whom he had buried under an apple-tree, and the other under a pear-tree, and besides urging that fifteen hundred pounds, which would fall to her at his death, should be placed at the disposal of her accomplices." (Note that whilst John Hayes may or may not have been an atheist and probably did have £1,500, there is no evidence that he murdered any of his children.)
The means by which this trio accomplished the killing of John Hayes was quite straightforward. On the 1st of March 1725 they persuaded him to join with them in a drinking session and made sure that he got very drunk indeed, whilst they endeavoured to remain relatively sober. Thomas Billings then struck John Hayes with an axe, and when the first blow failed to accomplish the deed, Thomas Wood joined in and helped Thomas Billings finish him off with the axe.
Of course they also had to dispose of the body, and since Mr Wood was a butcher it must have a seemed a good idea to simply dismember the corpse, if only for the convenience of carriage. So after chopping up the remains of John Hayes they dumped most of him in the pond at Marylebone Fields but threw the head in the Thames believing that this would prevent identification. Unfortunately, at least as far as they were concerned, they failed to weigh the head down sufficiently and it was later washed ashore at Westminster.
All three were scheduled to appear before the April Sessions of the Old Bailey to be held between the 20th and the 23rd of that month. At their trial both Wood and Billings pleaded guilty, but Mrs Hayes protested her innocence, claiming that she had not participated in the killing itself but had merely held a candle whilst the two men had dismembered her husband's corpse. The jury was not impressed by this line of reasoning and found her guilty.
But whereas Messrs Billings and Woods stood convicted of mere murder, Catherine Hayes on the other hand stood convicted of petty treason, a far more serious offence in the eyes of the law. For the Treason Act 1351 had defined certain murders, such as that of a master by his servant, or a bishop by a priest, or a husband by his wife, as treason, for which the penalty was far more severe. Thus as a woman, the penalty was not hanging but rather to be burnt alive at the stake. According to the Weekly Journal Catherine Hayes "receiv’d her particular sentence with the utmost terror".
As it happens Thomas Wood never made it to the scaffold, dying in prison of a fever before justice could be done. Catherine also made an attempt to cheat the executioner as well and intended to poison herself, but her intentions were frustrated. Thus both Catherine Hayes and Thomas Billings were scheduled to be executed on the 9th May 1726, a busy day for the hangman as it turned out. There were also three sodomites, three highway-robbers, and a pair of house-breakers who were scheduled for execution on that day. But whilst the gentlemen in question all had the luxury of travelling by cart to Tyburn, as a convicted traitor Catherine had the painful experience of being drawn there on a hurdle. And once she'd arrived, she was forced to stand and watch all eight of her fellow prisoners, including her son of course, being hung on the gallows before it was her turn to die. After all, she was to be burnt, and was therefore top of the bill for that particular day's entertainment.
Catherine's execution seems to have been slightly bungled affair. It was the practice of the time, when a woman was being burnt, to take a length of rope and wind it around her neck and through a hole in the stake; the intention being that the executioner would pull the rope and strangle her and thus render her insensible before the flames took hold. It happened on this occasion that the executioner, a man by the name of Arnet, left it a little too late, the fire had already taken hold and the wind blew the flames towards him and burned his hands before he could accomplish the task. After which the Weekly Journal reported that "she gave three dreadful shrieks; but the flames taking her on all sides, she was heard no more". Eventually Arnet picked up a piece of wood and threw it at her head which "broke her skull, when her brains came plentifully out".
All in all it turned out to be rather an eventful day at Tyburn, two of the condemned made an unsuccessful escape attempt and a section of the spectator seating also collapsed killing a number of people and injuring a number of others. As to Catherine Hayes the flames reduced her to ashes after an hour or so.
The crime of petty treason remained on the statute books until 1791.
The leading quotation comes from a letter to Mist’s Weekly Journal 21 May 1726 by 'Philalethes'.
- The Newgate Calendar
- Early Eighteenth Century Newspaper Reports
- Catherine Hayes burnt for Petty Treason.