Just after ten-thirty in the evening of 25 July 1833, Jesse Organ, a 39-year-old farmer in North Nibley, Gloucestershire, left his house in a panic. Morgan, a young weaver walking to North Nibley to see his brother and sister, had just told him that one of his haystacks in the fields known locally as the Moors had gone up in flames. Organ managed to put the fire out quickly and three-quarters of the hay was saved.
Shortly before Morgan raised the alarm, William Philpotts, a local labourer, had seen a woman walking towards the rick.
“Good night,” he said, but she mumbled a reply and turned her head away.
Morgan had also seen a woman there. She wore a black bonnet, a dark gown and a shawl wrapped around her “cloak ways,” that is with the corners tied round her neck in front, he said later. She appeared to be anxious not to be seen. Not long after that, Morgan saw something “like a firework” fly out of the haystack. That was when he ran off to alert Organ.
Organ’s was not the only haystack attacked that night. Two other North Nibley farmers, James Nicholls and Thomas Gillman, also had their hayricks set alight.
The village was soon alive with gossip and rumour and within days James Baylis, the tithing officer, and Henry Excell (or Exell), the parish officer, had arrested a local woman, Betsey Burford, and hauled her off to the local magistrate. She denied the charge of arson and pointed the finger at Charlotte Long.
Baylis and Excell then went to search Charlotte Long’s house. Henry Excell and Charlotte had brushed swords only a few months earlier, when he had been detailed to accompany her out of North Nibley to the parish of Alkington, nine miles away. It had come to the attention of the authorities that Charlotte was pregnant; her husband, John Long,1 by whom she had two children, had been transported to Australia four years earlier for theft, so this child was obviously not his.2 In order to avoid the additional burden on parishioners for the upkeep of indigents it was standard practice to remove them to another parish if at all possible. It is not clear why Alkington was deemed to be responsible for Charlotte and her children, but the most likely reason was that it was where she was born.3 She returned to North Nibley soon after the birth of her baby, a boy.
Now, as he searched her dwelling, Excell warned Charlotte that Betsey was alleging that she was responsible for the fires. “Betsey Burford has dug a ditch for me, and I shall fall into it,” she said. “She is the beginning and the end, and the mother of the fact.”
Soon she found herself in Gloucester Gaol awaiting trial. Betsey, however, quickly turned King’s Evidence. She admitted being an accomplice but blamed Charlotte.
Charlotte, her child in her arms, appeared at the Gloucester Summer Assizes in front of Mr Baron Gurney. The baby’s cries disturbed the court, so Gurney ordered that he be handed to Charlotte’s sister, who was among the observers. This may have been the last time she and her baby were together.
From the start, things did not look good for Charlotte. Betsey’s evidence was crucial to the prosecution case. She claimed that Charlotte wanted revenge on Excell because he had removed her from the parish and that she had initially planned only to set fire to his ricks. But, she went on, Charlotte was worried that she would be immediately suspected because she had publicly threatened Excell during her removal (“You have bit off my finger, so I will bite your thumb”) and, to cast attention away from herself, she decided first to light the stacks of three entirely blameless people.
Betsey recounted Charlotte’s report of the evening.
The prisoner told her that she first went to Mr Nicholl’s rick, and having put a quantity of powder in it, she struck a light with some tinder and set it on fire; she then proceeded to Mr Gilman’s rick and fired that; after that she proceeded by Richard Hooper’s shop, through Adam Porrit’s wheat field, and from thence into the Moors. In going to Mr Organ’s rick, she said she met William Philpott, who wished her good night;she turned her head from him so that he should not know her, but at the same time wished him good night, in a feigned voice. On reaching Mr Organ’s rick, she put a quantity of powder into it, and having struck a light on the remaining portion of the tinder, she put it with the powder and left the rick.
Betsey’s account conveniently included a description of what Charlotte had worn that night: “Her shawl was tied mantle-fashion.” Charlotte could not stop herself from speaking out in court: “Betsey Burford, I hope God will have mercy on your soul. I forgive you. You often told me how to do it, but I never said I would do so.”
Mr Excell told the court that he had removed Charlotte to another parish but, contrary to Betsey Burford’s account, she had not threatened him.
Finally, it was Charlotte’s turn to speak.
I never threatened anyone; but Betsey Burford said if she had the use of her limbs as I had of mine she would make Nibley smoke again; and she said with bitter oaths, not fit to mention, that if Mr Excell had served her as he had served me she would burn everything he had.
The limbs Charlotte referred to were Betsey’s legs: she suffered from rheumatism and sometimes walked with difficulty.
Then Baron Gurney recalled the witnesses who had seen “a woman” that night and asked them whether she had been lame. They all answered in the negative. He was satisfied that the woman was Charlotte and not Betsey.
Two character witnesses Charlotte called did not attend, although another member of the Organ family, John, “gave her a character of goodness of disposition”. Gurney summed up and told the jury to regard Betsey Burford’s evidence as the testimony of an accomplice and to treat it with caution, but if they nevertheless were convinced that Charlotte Long had committed the offence, whether at Betsey’s instigation or not, they should find her guilty.
This they duly did, although the foreman added, “We beg leave most strongly to recommend the prisoner to mercy, because we think she must have been set on as a tool of some other person.”
Jesse Organ and another of the prosecutors were shocked to find that Charlotte now faced the noose. “My Lord, I believe she was drawn into it by someone else, and I wish to recommend her to mercy,” said Organ.
Gurney refused to countenance a reprieve. “I cannot attend to these recommendations,” he said. “I have considered this matter very much. There were three ricks fired, all on the same night. The prisoner is not a young girl, and I find that her husband has been transported. There was a case at York, which was tried before me, where a very young girl had been set on to commit an offence of this kind by a person much older than herself, and there she was examined as a witness against the person who had instigated the commission of the crime, but this is a very different case.”
While Gurney passed sentence, Charlotte was overcome, crying and begging for mercy. “Almost every person present was in tears, and the Learned Baron himself was overcome, that at the conclusion of his address to the prisoners 4his voice faltered, and as soon as the fatal sentence had been passed, the female prisoner dropped on the floor, and was carried out of court moaning most dreadfully.”5
Gurney was referring to Mary Hunter, a 47-year-old wife of a labourer, who had hanged at York Castle on three months earlier. The case against her had hinged on the word of Hannah Gray, who claimed that Hunter had threatened to tear her liver out if she did not set fire to farmer John Marshall’s wheat stacks and give her a new frock if she did. Gray was described as “of weak mind” and Mary Hunter and her husband had a long-standing a long-standing animosity towards Marshall. Gurney did not recommend her for respite and Hunter went to her death protesting her innocence.
The Morning Herald was outraged that Charlotte Long had been convicted on the word of an accomplice with no corroborating evidence. “Now, by the law of England, as understood at the present day, no person can be convicted on the unsupported testimony of an accomplice; because the presumption that an accomplice tells the truth is not so great as the presumption that the evidence of a person of that description is fabricated for the purpose of shifting the guilt from his or her own shoulders upon those of another.” Long, in the view of the Herald, was not legally convicted.
It objected also to the identification evidence. A woman seen near a hayrick just before it was seen in flames does not mean that that woman set fire to it. Further, no one had identified Charlotte as being that woman, as none of the witnesses had seen her face. The most they could say was that she was not lame. Indeed Burford herself could have been that woman, as she admitted that she was only sometimes lame. It was never proved in court that gunpowder had been found at Charlotte’s dwelling.
The law, said the Herald, was “barbarous”: it made no distinction between the guilt of a person who sets fire to a stack of hay in a field far away from a dwelling house and that of someone who sets fire to the habitation of the owner of the stack. And it was a disgrace to a Christian country to send a woman to the scaffold with an infant at her breast “for an offence which is punished with death in no other civilized country.”6
The Herald‘s report was published the day before Charlotte was due to die. The Gloucestershire Chronicle interviewed Ann Linton, the matron of the gaol about Charlotte’s conduct in her final days. She confessed her guilt, she said.
Betsey Burford wished me to do it, and I said, if I take a fire stick in my hand I shall be detected; if I take a candle it will be seen, and I shall be caught; when Burford replied, ‘I’ll tell you how you must do [it]; take a piece of tinder, put it in a rag with some gunpowder and then blow it, and it will take fire; then come and give me the signal as my husband will be in bed. I did go and give the signal within two minutes after I had fired the ricks.
She claimed that Betsey had offered her money to do it.
One hundred and six inhabitants of North Nibley and vicinity signed a petition seeking mercy, citing as grounds that the crime was instigated by Betsey Burford, a “bad character,” and that the ricks were not near property.7
According to newspaper reports, Charlotte appears to have approached her fate in a state of serenity and resignation. When she was told that her infant son had died of an “inflammation” she expressed satisfaction. On 31 August at about 11 o’clock, after making a confession to the Chaplain to the Gaol, and in front of “an immense crowd of spectators,” she mounted the scaffold to the New Drop and suffered her fate. 8 She was buried in North Nibley churchyard.
Charlotte Long was the last woman to hang for arson. In 1837, as part of Sir Robert Peel’s reforms of the Bloody Code, the term used for the set of crimes that merited the death sentence, arson dropped off the list of capital crimes.
Charlotte Long was a victim of injustice. Not only was she undefended, but she was undefended in an arena highly prejudiced against her. In every report on the case she is described as “the wife of a felon”; in some there is mention of her youngest, illegitimate, child. She was uneducated and illiterate, and stood no chance against her chief accuser nor against a process of law determined not to dispense fair, even-handed judgements but only to hold individuals up as fearful examples of the consequences of transgression. What’s more, even if she set fire to the ricks, encouraged or not by Betsey Burford, the harm was merely to property.
What happened to Betsey Burford after her performance at Gloucester Assizes? It is not possible to be sure but on 8 July 1859 Elizabeth Burford, a pauper, was admitted to Gloucester insane asylum. She died there on 23 May the following year.
Arson was removed from the so-called Bloody Code in 1837.
With thanks Jill Evans for her invaluable research at The last woman in England hanged for arson: Charlotte Long of North Nibley, 1833.
- They were married in North Nibley on 19 March 1819. The bride and bridegroom and the two witnesses signed with crosses, indicating that they were all illiterate.
- John Long was transported on the Justicia.
- Charlotte Long was born Charlotte Bendell. Sarah Bendell had a daughter called Charlotte baptised in Alkington in 1808, which would have made Charlotte nine at the time. A father’s name was not listed in the parish record.
- Charlotte was sentenced alongside Thomas Gaskins from Deerhurst, who had been convicted of setting fire to a rick belonging to his master, John Lane at the same assizes.
- Gloucestershire Chronicle, 24 August 1833.
- Morning Herald, 30 August 1833, quoted in The Punishment of Death: A Selection of Articles from the Morning Herald, Vol 2. Hatchard & Son, London 1837.
- Gloucestershire Chronicle, 7 September 1833. Charlotte died alongside Thomas Gaskins from Deerhurst who had been convicted, in a separate case, of setting fire to a rick belonging to his master, John Lane.