Last execution by burning in Britain
It may come as a surprise that the last time burning at the stake was the method of execution was so late in our history, although whether it was in fact burning is a matter of definition.
On Wednesday March 18 1789 one Catherine Murphy, a counterfeiter, was dragged from the debtor’s door of Newgate Prison, and led past the hanging bodies of at least four of her male accomplices. Somewhat unjustly men found guilty of counterfeiting were hanged, while women for historical reasons were burned at the stake.
The disparity of punishment came about it seems because previously the male condemned were drawn and quartered, exposing their breast to public gaze. Naturally it would be an offence to public morality to show female breasts, so they were burned instead.
In reality Catherine Murphy was hanged before being burned, the executioner Brunskill tightening a noose around her neck and letting her dangle for a good 30 minutes before setting light to the faggots spread around her. This merciful adaptation of the method or variations on it had been practised for several decades.
Sometimes, however, the act of mercy failed. Catherine Hayes in May 1726 suffered horribly when the executioner lit the faggots too soon, and was prevented by the rapid spread of the flames from putting the strangling rope previously arranged round her neck to good use.
It was not out of mercy for the condemned that the law was changed to end burning at the stake in 1790, but because the sensitivities of JPs and Sheriffs were offended by the gruesome sight and vile smell of bodies thus treated.