On Friday, 13 April 1753, two men and a woman who had been condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes were taken from Gloucester Castle to Over, the execution site for county prisoners. The two men, Walter Crabb and William Webley, had been found guilty of theft, and were hanged. The woman, Anne Williams, had been condemned for murdering her husband. Under English Law, this offence was a form of petty treason, and the punishment for a female who committed this crime was to be burnt at the stake.
The crime of petty treason had been defined in the reign of Edward III, under the terms of the Treason Act, 1351. It applied to a wife who killed her husband, a servant who killed his or her master or mistress, or a clergyman who killed his prelate. Murder in any of these circumstances was regarded as an act of betrayal and disobedience. In the case of marriage, a wife was subordinate to her husband and must obey him, just as the king must be obeyed by his subjects.
While the punishment for men found guilty of petty treason was to be hanged, for women, the punishment was to be burnt at the stake. Females were also burnt if condemned for producing counterfeit coins, which became an act of high treason by the terms of the 1351 Act.
By the time Anne Williams was burnt at the stake, it had become common practice for the hangman to tie a rope around the prisoner’s neck and strangle her, before the flames had reached high enough to burn her alive. The following illustration of Anne’s execution in The Newgate Calendar therefore uses as a certain amount of artistic licence, as it shows her fully conscious and praying.
The first indication that something was amiss in the Williams household is recorded in the Gloucestershire Gaol Calendars, which in the mid-eighteenth century often listed prisoners held in the various houses of correction, as well as in the main county gaol. In October 1750, a certain Giles Swain was committed to Cirencester House of Correction, to await trial at the next county quarter sessions, “William Williams having taken his Corporal Oath that he Goes in Danger of his Life.” Swain presumably was released at the next Quarter Sessions, perhaps on entering recognizances to keep the peace. Then, in June 1752, Anne Williams was admitted to Cirencester House of Correction, being suspected of poisoning her husband, William Williams. Giles Swain was admitted on the same day, also on suspicion of poisoning William Williams. At the Trinity Quarter Sessions, held in July, Anne Williams was ordered to be held for trial at the next assizes, but there was no further mention of Giles Swain.
Anne had to wait until April in the following year for her trial, at the Lent Assizes. The trial was reported in the Gloucester Journal, but no details were given of where the family lived, or the reasons for the murder. The evidence against her was that she had sent the servant, Richard Painter, to buy some white mercury. After her husband died, she told Painter that she had given her husband the poison in some “pap”, and in a drink, and he was immediately seized with “violent Vomitings and Purgings.” William Williams sent for his sister and told her that Anne was a wicked woman, and that he had been very well “till after she made him eat some Pap, which (he said) had done his Business for him, and that he should die.” Indeed, he did die, the following morning, “when his body appeared as if mortified.” Anne Williams had little to say for herself and called no-one to speak for her. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was respited for a few days. The Gloucester Journal reported that she “pleaded her Belly, but, a Jury of Matrons being sworn, she was found not quick.” [Meaning she said she was pregnant but on being examined was found not to be.]
On 13 April, Anne Williams was put to death in the manner prescribed for petty treason. Her execution was recorded in the Gloucester Journal, and copied in many other newspapers, even being considered worthy of a paragraph in the Gentleman’s Magazine. It was reported that the two men hanged on the same day behaved well, acknowledging the justice of their sentences and asking for God’s forgiveness, but Anne Williams, “who was burnt at the stake, protested her Innocence of the Fact for which she suffered with a Behaviour quite unbecoming her melancholy Departure.”
Less than a month after Anne Williams died, her reputed lover, Giles Swain, appeared in the Gloucestershire Gaol Calendars again, having been committed on 4 May, for “Stealing a Dragg Chain from a Waggon, the property of the Widow Webb, and a great Coat the property of William Boulton, both which facts he on his Examination Confessed.” He was tried at the Michaelmas Quarter Sessions in September 1753 and sentenced to 7 years transportation. The Gloucester Journal commented, “This Swain is the Person who kept Company with the Woman that was burnt here, at our Lent Assizes, for poisoning her Husband.”
Anne Williams was the last woman in Gloucestershire to be burnt at the stake, but another 19 women in England and Wales endured this punishment after her. 4 of them had been condemned for coining, 2 for murdering their mistresses, and 13 had been found guilty of murdering their husbands. The last woman to be burnt at the stake was Catherine Murphy (also known as Christian Bowman), who died in London in 1789. This form of punishment was abolished in May 1790. The category of petty treason was abolished in 1828.
Gloucestershire Archives, Gaol Calendars (Q/SG1), Epiphany 1750/1, Trinity 1752, Michaelmas 1752, Epiphany 1753 and Trinity 1753.
Gloucester Journal, 10 April 1753, 17 April 1753, 4 Sept 1753.
Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume XXIII, April 1753, ‘Historical Chronicle’, p.198.
Information on petty treason can be found on www.englishlegalhistory.wordpress.com.
The punishment of burning at the stake is discussed on Richard Clark’s site, www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/burning.html.
© Jill Evans 2014