Month: November 2021


Today’s episode is on one of the best topics ever – the history of witchcraft!

We start this episode by looking at the first famous witchcraft trial (and pamphlet) in England, the case of Mother Waterhouse. Mother Waterhouse’s case gives us some clues as to why witches and witchcraft-accusers tended to be women. One reason is that witchcraft cases tended to revolve around neighborly disputes, household problems and children. Because of this, we’ll see the witch portrayed as the “anti-housewife” and the “anti-mother.”

Then, we’ll look at how witchcraft was prosecuted in the courts. How can you prove that someone is a witch? Many types of evidence are brought before the courts, including children having fits, some extremely doubtful testimony, and the witch’s mark. Over time, the evidence becomes too doutbful to trust and witchcraft becomes impossible to prove by the late-seventeenth century.

Finally, we’ll bring it all back to the history of murder. How does witchcraft match up against other “feminine” crimes we’ve seen so far? 

And yes, it’s true that witchcraft isn’t classically considered a type of homicide. But how could I resist?

The Mother Waterhouse Pamphlet, depicting Satan as a dog with an ape face, horns, and a whistle around his neck.



The pamphlet’s full name is The examination and confession of certaine wytches at chensforde in the countie of essex : Before the quenes maiesties judges, the xxvi daye of july, anno 1566, at the assise holden there as then, and one of them put to death for the same offence, as their examination declareth more at large, printed 1566. London, By Willyam Powell for Wyllyam Pickeringe.

Secondary sources to be posted this evening!

The Trial of Catherine Hayes


This week’s episode focuses on the trial of Catherine Hayes, convicted of murdering her husband and executed for it in 1726.

Catherine Hayes was accused, along with two men, of murdering her abusive husband. The facts are just as fascinating now as they were in 1726. Spoiler alert: we’ll see a preserved (pickled?) head, allegations of adultery and incest, and a horrifying botched execution.

Catherine Hayes and the two Thomases, decapitating Mr. Hayes. I was wrong about Catherine holding the candle – instead, she is depicted pointing to the infamous pail in which the head would go. Note also the wine on the table.


We’ll then try to avoid being historical voyeurs–only interested in cases for their scandal and dramatic value–by focusing on what this case tells us about women who killed their husbands in the history of murder. We’ll see how contemporaries thought this crime was unnatural and motivated by lust and lewdness – much like other crimes committed by women. We’ll also see once again that the common law seems to have had no way to take into account a woman’s abusive situation in determining her guilt when it comes to petty treason. 

Note: If you do check out the case on the Old Bailey Online and the Ordinary’s Accounts, Catherine’s name is spelled differently in certain places. Your best bet is to search for Thomas Billings and find her in the associated records.



Today’s episode looks at women in the history of murder.

First, we’ll see how the law of murder applied differently to women than it did to men. One big difference is the fact that women weren’t eligible to plead benefit of clergy until 1691, which meant they were (essentially) unable to be convicted of manslaughter. This is a drag for women who kill others through negligence and who are then executed for it. On the flip side, women could “plead the belly,” meaning that they could have their date of execution postponed if they were pregnant.

Then, we’ll look at early-modern ideas of female violence. While women were stereotypically associated with sneaky killing and poison, we’ll see some women were entirely willing to beat the crap out of people in the public with their bare fists.

Finally, we’ll look at the notion that it was a form of treason, and not just murder, when a wife killed her husband. This crime, called petty treason, carried with it the horrific punishment of burning women alive.

Notes on sources:

  • I encourage everyone and anyone to check out the Old Bailey Online!
  • Garthine Walker’s wonderful book is Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • I also recommend Ruth Campbell (1984) Sentence of death by burning for women, The Journal of Legal History, 5:1, 44-59. 
    • If anyone knows more about how the practice of burning women to death started, please let me know!
  • For anyone looking to learn more about Catherine Hayes, search the Old Bailey and check out this descriptively-named pamphlet:

A narrative of the barbarous and unheard of murder of Mr. John Hayes, by Catherine his wife, Thomas Billings, and Thomas Wood, on the 1st of March at night Wherein every minute Circumstance attending that Horrid Affair, and the wonderful Providence of God in the Discovery of the Actors therein, are faithfully and impartially related. Together with the Examinations and Confessions of the said Thomas Billings and Thomas Wood before several of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace. As also the Copy of a fictitious Letter that Catherine Hayes sent, as from her Husband, to his Mother in Worcestershire after his Death; and the Mother’s Answer thereto: With some Account of the wicked Life and Conversation of the said Catherine, and likewise of those of Thomas Billings and Thomas Wood. To which are prefix’d, Their true and exact Effigies, drawn from the Life, and curiously engraved on Copper. Published with the Approbation of the Relations and Friends of the said Mr. John Hayes, 1727.” •              ImprintLondon : printed for, and sold by Thomas Warner at the Black-Boy in Pater-Noster-Row, E Nutt at the Royal Exchange, A. Dod at the Peacock without Temple-Bar, and by the Booksellers of London and Westminster, [1726]: