The last moments of Catherine Hayes, burnt at the stake in 1726 at Tyburn in London, were gruesome in the extreme. The wind whipped the flames over the executioner’s hands and he was forced to retreat, so he failed to strangle her to death before the flames reached her, which was the usual practice. Hayes was found guilty of murdering her husband, so her crime was petty treason and the punishment for women who committed treason was burning. She had sought to challenge the natural order of society. Her husband was her overlord. A challenge to the king, through conspiracy or counterfeiting his coin, was ‘high treason’. Hayes’s crime was a mirror image, in miniature, of that relationship and thus ‘petty’. All treasons had special punishments. For women, it was to be burnt.
Sixty-one years later, Sophia Pringle, who had fraudulently extracted £100 from the Bank of England using a forged power of attorney, went to the gallows outside Newgate. She had ‘raved incessantly’ and fainted, crying, ‘Mother, mother, what have I done!’. An eyewitness writing in The New Ladies Magazine hoped that the fate of ‘this deluded and unhappy girl will operate forcibly on the rest of her sex.’ Her greatest crime seems to have been her naivety, which allowed her to become the ‘victim of an artful and designing villain who imposed on her too easy credulity.’ And in this way she was caught on one of two prongs. Women, especially young ones, who know too much about the world are soiled goods, degraded and sinful; those who are duped into crime are more guilty than men.
Catherine Hayes and Sophia Pringle are just two of the women who feature in Geoffrey Pimm’s account of the treatment meted out to women between 1600 and 1800. His brief is both wide and narrow; wide in the range of abuse (domestic abuse, abduction and clandestine marriage, the pillory, whipping witches’ bridles, transportation to name but a few of the topics covered); narrow in that it is confined to the actions of men (or society, if you prefer) on women – there is not much to be heard from the women themselves. They have an entirely passive role. That may be a limitation of the sources available, of course, but it is an absence nevertheless.
Pimm’s voice, even and detached, is effective in describing the terrible things that have happened to women, all of it with a degree of societal approval. As the author of Women and the Gallows, I understand how difficult it is to pitch your prose in a way that describes the horrendous nature of such events without descending into the dramatic, voyeuristic or sentimental.
Pimm has done an excellent job in researching the histories of each individual form of abuse, and provides plenty of examples of their use, often quoting from original documents at length. I am not convinced that the paragraphs from secondary sources work well, especially as their provenance is given only in the endnotes. Perhaps for his next work Pimm will consider integrating his learnings from other writers into his text. He writes well so this should not be a burden.
Pimm quotes often from the diary entries of the serial sex abuser Samuel Pepys (a subject he covered in detail in his 2018 book The Dark Side of Samuel Pepys: Society’s First Sex Offender). His attacks on women, so long dismissed as a bit of naughty hanky-panky, were serious and disgusting. What would have happened to him if he had been alive today? I would like to think that he would have been called out by the #metoo campaign but am not altogether sure. His victims were poor and voiceless and we have all seen what happens when such people speak up (remember chambermaid Nafissatou Diallo, who called out IMF executive Dominique Strauss-Kahn ?). There is still much work to do to combat the same sort of misogyny and cruelty that is described in this book and we should not be under any illusion that the attitudes that led to these terrible events are in any way dead and buried. It is an appalling thought that physical punishments are still legal in some parts of the world.
Pen & Sword provided me with a review copy of this book, for which I thank them.
The Violent Abuse of Women in 17th and 18th Century Britain
Pen & Sword (2019)